Understanding Unbelief – understanding what?

By Richard Irvine and Theodoros Kyriakides

[fig. 1: A place beyond belief by Nathan Coley. Photo Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney.]

In 2013, Nathan Coley’s art installation “A place beyond belief” was brought to Orkney’s shore. The words provoke: what does it mean to be a place beyond belief? One interpretation, enhanced by the juxtaposition of the sign with spire of the redundant church behind it (now Stromness’ Town Hall), is that here is place where church membership, and apparently the relevance of religious belief itself, has declined dramatically. As Steve Bruce has outlined in his book Scottish Gods, the story of the Scottish islands, in keeping with the rest of the UK, has been one of increasing disengagement from organised religion; non-belief emerging as the norm. In this sense, it is becoming a place beyond belief. Yet for those who described the sculpture in its Orkney setting, another interpretation presented itself: here was a place of wonder, a place beyond our limited capacity for belief. A magical place, even.

Crucially, the two readings don’t rule one another out. Even as religious belief declines, wonder does not disappear.

This question of what it means to be ‘beyond belief’ is at the heart of the new project we’re starting in OU Religious Studies entitled “Magical thinking in contexts and situations of unbelief”. Our research is part of a bigger, inter-disciplinary project hosted by the University of Kent entitled Understanding Unbelief, and will draw on experiences from our fieldwork in Nicosia, Cyprus (Theodoros Kyriakides) and Orkney (Richard Irvine).

So, what do we mean by unbelief? Our colleagues at Kent have put together a neat glossary of the core concepts for the project of “Understanding Unbelief”, which also provides a definition of the given word. Our objective as anthropologists and ethnographers is, of course, to go beyond definitions. One would be right to exclaim that “unbelief” is a quite vague term and, in such sense, our research does not seek to pinpoint or validate what unbelief is, or where it takes place. Rather, our aim is to use the given term as a springboard, in order to reach a more ethnographically grounded, nuanced understanding of the spectrum of social phenomena which take place in the in-between of large, yet analytically rudimentary, terms such as “unbelief”, “religion”, “belief”, “atheism”, and so on. To try and glimpse what unbelief actually looks like in the messiness of everyday life.

More specifically, our research – *plugplug* – seeks to combine ethnographic literature on magic with emerging studies of atheism and non-religion to explore in what ways magical thinking emerges in the everyday lives of people who, in one way or another, are considered to be unbelievers. Magic is of course a foundational anthropological topic, and the relationship between humanity and magic as whole cannot be understated. For example, anthropologist Lévy-Bruhl used the (problematic) term “primitive mentality” to denote modes of reasoning of ‘tribal’ societies which do not make the distinction between natural and supernatural causality.

[fig. 2: Collection of evil eyes and lucky charms on coffee shop wall in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Photo taken by Allyson McAbee.]

Later commentators – such as Stanley Tambiah – point out that the term “primitive mentality” was not intended to describe aspects of thinking specific to non-Western societies but rather a mode of thinking which, under the right social circumstances, can manifest in human consciousness and human action irrespectively of spatiotemporal and historical parameters. Similarly, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre used the term “magicality” to denote the ability of the human mind to adopt modes of thinking and reasoning which evade the normative social order.

One important theme here is the inadequacy of casual explanations about the world. This problem was very well illustrated by Evans-Pritchard in his 1937 study of witchcraft among the Azande, when he makes clear that the explanation that an event was caused by witchcraft is not a result of ignorance about the physical causes of the event. If a man is crushed under a granary while sleeping in the shade, the Azande know full well that this is because termites ate through the legs of the granary. But while this answers the ‘how’ question, it doesn’t adequately address the ‘why’ questions: why did termites eat through the legs of that granary at that precise time when that man had chosen to lie in the shade underneath it? It is in this space of unknowing that magical explanations flourish. And importantly, Evans-Pritchard points out that this problem – the fact that causal explanations can address the ‘how’ of an event but not the ‘why’ – is just as real for us as it was for the Azande.

For this reason, we believe anthropological theories of magic have a continuing relevance in contemporary ‘secular’ societies. In Cyprus, the evil eye is so univocally accepted that it is even incorporated into jewellery design, or house decoration: such play conveys a certain mix of irreverence but also devoutness to the mystical. Does this mean people believe or don’t believe in the evil eye? The anthropologist Jeanne Favret-Saada has written extensively of the work of ‘dewitchers’ who help people fight malevolent magic carried out against them in rural France, and draws on psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni’s dictum “I know … but still” to explain people’s ‘unbelieving’ position in relation to magic. In other words, one is aware of the impossibility of the existence of spells and maintains an acute stance of disbelief toward them, yet still one cannot help but wonder: “I know that spells are a joke, but still”. For Favret-Saada, the subjective doubt and tension that emerge due to alternating yet connected states of certainty (“I know”) and uncertainty (“but still”) are essential to magical beliefs.

Here, we can say that Favret-Saada’s treatment differs from Evans-Pritchard’s in that she understands belief and unbelief as going hand in hand. The relation between belief and unbelief is not akin to that of a switch, flipping on and off between interchangeable conditions. Instead, it is more like a stretched string, whereby the two ends are always in communication and, at the same time, tension.

Through an ethnographically oriented methodology, focused on interviewing and observation, we aim to explore these ambivalent social dynamics and tensions through which magical thinking is potentially incited in the minds of those who adopt a religious stance which might be labelled as non-religious or, to use a term popularised by Max Weber’s work, “disenchanted”. The fabric of religion of course differs in Cyprus and Orkney, the two societies where we will be working, and we aim to use this comparative and cross-cultural element to further explore similarities and divergences on the importance of magical thinking in the everyday lives of unbelievers. We also feel it is important to note that our treatment of magic extends beyond an ideological or personal stance people might adopt (for example, as part of their personal or political identity). Rather, we aim to situate magical thinking in everyday and interactions between people, objects, spaces and moods.

Suggested readings

Berliner, David, Michael Lambek, Albert Piette, Richard Irvine, and Richard Schweder. 2016. “Anthropology and the study of contradictions”, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (1): 1-27.

Blanes, Ruy Llera, and Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic. 2015. “Introduction: godless people, doubt, and atheism.” Social Analysis 59 (2): 1–19.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1937. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Favret-Saada, Jeanne. 1980. Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage. Translated by Catherine Cullen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kyriakides, Theodoros. 2016. “Jeanne Favret-Saada’s minimal ontology: belief and disbelief of mystical forces, perilous conditions and the opacity of being.” Religion and Society: Advances in Research 7: 68-82.

Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien. 1923. Primitive Mentality. Translated by Lilian Clare. London and New York: MacMillan.

Pels. Peter. 2010. “Magical things: on fetishes, commodities and computers.” In The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture, edited by Dan Hicks, Mary C. Beaudry, pp.613-633. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. 1990. Magic, science, religion, and the scope of rationality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.