Keith Thomas - Religion and the Decline of Magic

The following review was sent in by Terry M.:

First published in 1971, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Penguin Books, 1982) remains a benchmark in scholarship and research. I found the book interesting to start due to my own struggles with the magical past of my native religion -- Mormonism. The traditional roots of many of today's religious practises are discussed. Thomas's powerful and intelligent organisation of the book kept me reading.

Indeed, the book with all of it's 800 pages is not for the faint hearted and geared toward the serious reader or historian.

The evolution of religion into the "orthodox" practise of today is shown to be far from traditional. The tremendous shift from magical practise to religious devotion often hard to distinguish, and evidently, far from complete.

The frontleaf proclaims:

Witchcraft, astrology, and every kind of popular magic flourished in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. At the same time men began to reach out for a scientific explanation of the universe, and the Protestant Reformation attempted to take the magic out of religion.
The book added insite and appreciation for the popular religion that influenced the founder of my primary religion - Mormonism and Joseph Smith. Thomas's book compares favourably with D. Michael Quinn's Mormonism and the Magic World View, and lays the foundation in psychological terms the magical response to intense social and scientific change. Indeed, Thomas delves into fundamental drives of all people and what shapes our lives in terms of security, consistency and wishful thinking.

The book uncovers strange stories about the origin of Insurance underwriters due to Quaker efforts to rid England of superstitious reliance on Catholic saints and medals. The Strata of witchcraft and witch associations, including the methodology of divining for both the 'white witch' and astrologer, both whom often had powerful positions of respect in community and government are discussed in interesting detail.

The sections on religion, magic, astrology, and witchcraft are all brilliantly recorded, but the book's greatest virtue is the ability, as was said of R. H. Tawney, to 'steer great sentences of words' into a sweeping and powerful conclusion.

'If magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free from it.' (p. 800)
This book is the most compelling textbook that I have ever read and one I wish I could read again for the first time.