BELIEVING IN MAGIC, THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SUPERSTITION by Stewart A. Vyse. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997. 220 pages, Index and notes.
If one had the assignment to produce a 220 page article for an Encyclopedia, this is the document he might well produce. Chock full of facts, citations, reports of researchers in the field, it none-the-less falls short of recommendation, for it has no "soul." There is much of worth in the book, and it has, I believe, a valued place on library shelves, But, unless one has "psychology" in his or her job description, and perhaps even then, I don't see it as a "keeper" for a private library.
The author does address all the usual questions surrounding the issue, why superstitions are so common, how "rational" people come to put their faith in them, and how is such behavior established and maintained. But every time he draws close to an issue of real interest, for instance, what the difference might be between magic and religion, he pulls back, becomes passive, talks about the views of others without making observations of his own. The author's own metaphysical assumptions are revealed, I think, by this passage from page 21:
"Religious faith exists without need of proof, while science is built upon proof...a number of ... religious groups hold beliefs that fall within our definition of superstition."
His chapter on "The Superstitious Person," (Chapter 2) is perhaps the best. Keying on Mrs. Ronald Reagan, neither condemning or approving of her particular behavior, he does a good job of explanation of how superstitious behavior comes about -- and continues -- even in the lives of some highly intelligent and educated people.
The book concludes with this statement, which is as close as the author gets to expressing his own view:
(page 220). "When we recognize the power of human understanding, it is easy to choose science over magic, and the natural over the supernatural."
Blurbs on the cover contain endorsements by James Randi and Martin Gardner. There is, apparently, no comparable work to this one from a Christian perspective. There needs to be.
John W. Burgeson
Durango, Colorado, August 1998
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