33. Disenchantment and Re-Enchantment

In sociology, the concept of disenchantment is akin to that of the devaluation of the pervasive mysticism apparent in modern society. Borrowing this concept from Friedrich Schiller, Max Weber describes the process by which the West’s society has gradually shifted from considering belief of paramount importance to making rationality its highest priority.

Before disenchantment however, the world must be enchanted. This, according to Weber, occurs over the centuries with the absorption of religious values into society. From the inception of more complex human societal groups, explanations for the workings of the universe have been offered by a religious standpoint, a habit of description that had, until barely a few centuries ago, become engrained in the West’s collective consciousness. Central to the colossal role of religion in human development are two of enchantment’s primary aspects: the divine and the sense of mystery in which the world is highly rich.

The reason for which religion has established itself as pervasive in modern society is thus its ability to unify these aspects of enchantment. In the case of the divine, religion proposes an organisation of the world which is intentional and purposive, a result of action by a powerful intelligence. Religion further establishes our relationship to this powerful and intelligent being as personal and psychologically intended, thus offering us security and stability. Concerning mystery, its existence is compatible with the purposive order established by religion: it is defined as a reassuring sign from the divine. Thus, religion provides both individuals and communities with a sense of psychological satisfaction and reassurance.

However, once the widespread influence of religion as a cultural force wanes and it acquires its nature as a system offering us moral and spiritual guidance rather than defining the way that the world operates, the process of disenchantment commences. Weber’s thesis has fairly recently been contested by other thinkers, however, who offer us another perspective: modern re-enchantment. For instance Jung considers symbols as a means for the recovery of myth and the sense of security and psychological wholeness that it provided. Thus, the god-shaped hole in the world created by the lack of religious influence is considered by these thinkers to be filled by secular variations on the mystical and the divine.

The question remains, though: have we lost the essence of this reassurance, this fundamental connection to our surroundings through this replacement of belief by its rational and secular counterparts?

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2 thoughts on “33. Disenchantment and Re-Enchantment

  1. How about this: material comfort, independence and stability remove the need for social structures of support as well as the need for seeking help by a divine entity simply because we don’t need help; modern science portraying itself as a framework that can provide the answers to all the question we may have has removed the need to seeking and finding explanations in religion because indeed most questions and explanations that people tend to have can be answered from a scientific standpoint. But as our material wealth, independence and security continues to grow, the frequency with which questions of a nature that is not purely pragmatic decreases.

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  2. Although you’re right with respect to these factors removing the need for seeking help and reassurance from God, I think there is more to it. This social change is not necessarily allegorically described by a paradigm shift, as you explain, but rather, by an improvement. By this I mean that as a society we have drawn what is useful from religion – morality, primarily – and abandoned its other aspects. We have undoubtedly found worth in certain values, which we assume to be intrinsically human (and thus innate) but that, in fact, were drawn from religion and from the ‘rules’ it imposes upon its followers. Having absorbed these values into our common cultural consciousness, we have realised that they have no need to be religiously tainted, and have ridden ourselves of rite and ritual. In this sense, the replacement of religion and belief by secular alternatives is not as sudden and total as you suggest, but more subtle.

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