In social science, disenchantment (German: Entzauberung) is the cultural rationalization and devaluation of religion apparent in modern society. The term was borrowed from Friedrich Schiller by Max Weber to describe the character of modernized, bureaucratic, secularized Western society, where scientific understanding is more highly valued than belief, and where processes are oriented toward rational goals, as opposed to traditional society, where for Weber, "the world remains a great enchanted garden".
Weber's ambivalent appraisal of the process of disenchantment as both positive and negative was taken up by the Frankfurt school in their examination of the self-destructive elements in Enlightenment rationalism.
Habermas has subsequently striven to find a positive foundation for modernity in the face of disenchantment, even while appreciating Weber's recognition of how far secular society was created from, and is still "haunted by the ghosts of dead religious beliefs".
Disenchantment is related to the notion of desacralization, whereby the structures and institutions that previously channeled spiritual belief into rituals that promoted collective identities came under attack and waned in popularity. According to Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, the ritual of sacrifice involved two processes: sacralization and desacralization. The first process endows a profane offering with sacred properties—consecration—which provides a bridge of communication between the worlds of the sacred and profane. Once the sacrifice has been made, the ritual must be desacralized in order to return the worlds of the sacred and profane to their proper places.
Disenchantment operates on a macro-level, rather than the micro-level described above. It also destroys part of the process whereby the chaotic social elements that require sacralization in the first place continue with mere knowledge as their antidote. Thereby disenchantment can be related to Durkheim's concept of anomie: an un-mooring of the individual from the ties that bind in society.
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In recent years, Weber's paradigm has been challenged by thinkers who see a process of "reenchantment" operating alongside that of disenchantment. Thus, enchantment is used to fundamentally change how even low paid service work is experienced.
Jung considered symbols to provide a means for the numinous to return from the unconscious to the desacralized world - a means for the recovery of myth, and the sense of wholeness it once provided, by a disenchanted modernity.
Ernest Gellner argued that though disenchantment was the inevitable product of modernity, many people just could not stand a disenchanted world, and therefore opted for various "re-enchantment creeds" (as he called them) such as psychoanalysis, Marxism, Wittgensteinianism, phenomenology and ethnomethodology. A noticeable feature of these re-enchantment creeds is that they all tried to make themselves compatible with naturalism: i.e., they did not refer to supernatural forces.
Leo Ruickbie showed on the basis of research in the Neopagan community that modern magical practitioners demonstrated re-enchantment. Using both qualitative participant research and quantitative survey analysis he was able to demonstrate a range of re-enchanted characteristics conforming to those extrapolated from Weber's theories.
Disenchantment as Myth
American historian of religion Jason Josesphson-Storm has challenged mainstream sociological and historical interpretations of the ideas of both disenchantment and reenchantment, labeling disenchantment as a "myth." Josephson-Storm argues that there has not been a decline in belief in magic or mysticism in Western Europe or the United States, even after adjusting for religious belief, education, and class. Josephson-Storm has further argued that many influential theorists of disenchantment, including Weber and some members of the Frankfurt School, were not only aware of modern European magical and occult movements but consciously engaged with them. Foundational theorists of disenchantment such as Weber and James George Frazer did not envision a rigid binary between rationality or rationalization and magical thinking and did not describe a process of "reenchantment" to reverse or compensate for disenchantment. According to Josephson-Storm, this information necessitates a re-interpretation of Weber's idea of disenchantment as referring more to the sequestering and professionalization of magic.
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- Leo Ruickbie, 'The Re-Enchanters: Theorising Re-Enchantment and Testing for its Presence in Modern Witchcraft', unpublished PhD thesis, King's College, London, 2005.
- Leo Ruickbie, 'Weber and the Witches: Sociological Theory and Modern Witchcraft', Journal of Alternative Spiritualities and New Age Studies, 2006, 116-130.
- Josephson-Storm, Myth of Disenchantment (2017), Chapter 1.
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