By Zenko Takayama[1]

Phenomena that religious scholars of the past could unreservedly describe as “magical” are still occurring all the time, even now. For example, under the influence of COVID-19, some people destroyed the 5G antennas by believing that this would curb its infection. They have also begun to sell amulets or stones that supposedly prevent COVID-19. These would have been pointed out in the past as being based on “magical thinking” without a doubt. But the problem with the conceptualization of magic must be dealt with first before we consider “magical thinking”. The main focus of this article is this magical thinking rather than the concept of magic itself, but let’s first briefly look at the the concept “magic”.

It is well known that the concept of magic, little late to the debate about the concept of religion, has also been considered as problematic since about 1990. Some have suggested replacing it with “ritual” or “healing, divining, execrative” in order to avoid pejorative connotations. However, nearly three decades after 1990 the word “magic” still remains in the public discourse. More recently, there have been cases of describing what would be seen as unscientific reactions to COVID-19 as “magical,” which seems to have strongly imprinted society with the impression that “magic” is indeed unscientific, something researchers have been trying to avoid. For example, The Magical Thinking of the White House’s New Covid-19 Plan (WIRED: America), COVID-19 isn’t through with us: Our summer of magical thinking comes to its inevitable end (NationalPost: Canada) use the phrase “magical thinking” to give the impression that this was an unscientific measure.

One might argue that we should use a different word for our daily lives than for our research. We could also do a historical and cultural study, arguing that “magic” should be considered as an object rather than as an analytical concept. However, before I go deeper into this issue, I would like to suggest that the concept of “magic” must be considered differently from the concept of “religion”. This is because scholars have argued that “magic” is a concept, characterized by a logical aspect, that is different from “religion”.

Logic of magic?

From the perspective of scholars of religion and anthropologists of religion, “magic” is still a field that is placed under the umbrella of “religious studies”. From the perspective of the historians of science, however, it is a part of the “history of science”. This swing in perspective can be seen in the time of Edward Burnett Tylor and James George Frazer. According to Frazer’s theory, which continues to be influential today, magic, unlike “religion”,  is “pre-scientific” due to the   “elementary processes of reasoning”(Frazer 1900, p. 70). This logic can be simply called “analogy” (it can be understood as a form of resemblance or similarity, but I will use the word analogy as a representative of these here).Although the use of the words logic and reasoning here may seem strange, since we are usually aware of them as explicit thought activities that we explicitly perform. However, they are used here not only in the explicit realm, but also to include the flow of thought and connections that we implicitly and unconsciously think about.In this sense, the logic of this post is close to the meaning of cognition.

Now, as mentioned above, we are left with the problem of how to deal with this analogy even if we were to stop using the concept of “magic”. What is the nature of this logic and why has this been thought to be a form of “magical thinking” are the problems  we now face. Even if we say that “magic is an ideological term,” insofar as it involves a logical problem, it also involves the question of what part of this logic is ideological because it is impossible to separate magic from this logic.

It is for this reason that I am going to consider the logic of magic next, but there is a new issue lurking here. It is the issue called cognitive science. This is because cognitive science has led to a general understanding that analogy is not limited to “magic,” but a universal human cognitive function that is also used by scientists especially when they create a new idea of research and teaching theories (to begin with, there are a lot of words analogically constructed in science such as “cell”or “wave”― they are originally to mean small room or billow). We can no longer simply look to analogy for the logical features of magic.

Here “magic” has seemingly been trapped in an impasse. First of all, this problem of logic gets in the way of studying the concept of magic, and also the achievements in the field of cognitive science has problematized this logic of analogy, or traditonally put, of “imitation.” But here, I am proposing a newer perspective.  I do hope that they will somehow serve as a starting point for our understanding of the logic of magic. The perspective that I proposed is that magic is characterized not by analogy, which is also used by scientists, but by a cognitive function that takes the analogy as real, for example, not only thinking that the flow of blood is similar to the flow of a river, but also thinking the blood and the river are one and the same, and believing that we are the earth itself. When we become aware of this cognitive function, we name it magic.

My research has showed that ancient Indian philosophers believed the individual and the universe were analogous because the individual and the universe were similar (i.e. they saw the analogy as a real linkage); therefore, they believed that immortality, i.e. the state that one escapes death, was possible for humans.  Thus, I argue that examples of magic such as attacking a puppet that resembles a particular person with the belief that person would suffer in reality (found in Japanese magical practices, Haitian Voodoo, and other practices around the world) are examples of how analogy is thought to have a connection with the real. We can also understand that there is an analogy between the puppet and human body (puppets are made to mimic a person in the first place), however, there is a wide gap between whether the analogy is seen as a real connection or not. Moreover, if we believe that in cells of our body little humans live (so that we need to eat foods to full their stomachs) or drinking liquid made from the wave of sunlight makes our body healthy, we may want to call it magical thinking. The keywords for understanding these thinkings are not analogy itself, but actualization of analogy and its cognitive function. So, I put forward that we should focus on a cognitive function that takes the analogy as real rather than analogy itself to think “magic.”

From this, I think it may be possible to explain the normative understanding of the relationship between  “religion – magic – science”. Depending on which point of magic we focus on, it may be called religion or science (e.g., focussing on its aspect of logic get us call it rather science and on its aspect of actualization of logic get us want to say rather religion). However, as we know, “religion” has conceptual problems. While I can also understand the opinion that “religion” should not be an analytical concept, but an ontological one… my current argument is that the study of the concept of religion and recent cognitive science of religion/cognitive science may be closer than one might think. It seems to me that these two major fields that have been influencing the study of religion in recent years are actually internally related.. And if the concepts of magic and religion are deeply related to the (universal) cognitive functions of human beings, then the phenomena we like to call magic and religion will not disappear as long as we exist, and the theory that these concepts themselves are strongly responsible for the prejudicial values of certain regions/traditions will be open to reconsideration. I now imagine that by addressing this problem of logic, we may be able to provide new insights into the study of the concept of religion, perhaps in the future.

[1] The new idea put above is mainly argued in my paper written in Japanese 呪術とは何か—近代呪術概念の定義と宗教的認識 (Trans: What Is Magic?:The Definition of the Modern Concept of Magic and Religious Cognition), Japanese journal of cultural anthropology, 83(3), 358-376, 2018. However, the base of idea is also written in English here

Frazer, James George, 1990, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Second edition. Vol. 1 of 3. London: Macmillan.


Takayama Zenko was born in Fukushima, Japan and currently based in Tokyo, is the president of an academic venture company Nihon Kenkyusya Publishing. His research focuses on the conceptualization of religion, and human cognitive functions that enables the constructions of believe systems around the concepts such as God, soul, and spirit. Some of his publications are “How are religious concepts created? A form of cognition and its effects,” Cognitive Systems Research 41, 2017, “How does knowledge bring one to the state of immortality in early Upaniṣadic philosophy?” Religion, 48, 2018. He has also written articles in Japanese publications. 呪術とは何か—近代呪術概念の定義と宗教的認識 (Trans: What Is Magic?:The Definition of the Modern Concept of Magic and Religious Cognition), Japanese journal of cultural anthropology 83(3), 2018, 宗教的な宗教現象と世俗的な宗教現象のあいだ (Trans: ‘Between “Religious” Religious Phenomena and “Secular” Religious Phenomena: What Sort of Element Can Be the Norm of Religion?’), Shukyo Kenkyu 92(1), 2018.



宗教概念への疑義にやや遅れて、呪術概念も1990年頃から問題にされてきたのは、もはや周知の事実です。差別的な意味合いを避けるために、「ritual」や「healing、diviningやexecrative」に置き換えようという発言をする者もいました。しかし、その後約30年たった今でも、「呪術」という語は残っています。むしろ最近では、新型コロナ下で非科学的な対応を「呪術」と形容する事例が出てきており、「呪術」は非科学的なものだという、研究者が避けるべきだとしてきた一面的な印象を強く社会に植え付けているようです。The Magical Thinking of the White House’s New Covid-19 Plan(WIRED:America)やCOVID-19 isn’t through with us: Our summer of magical thinking comes to its inevitable end(NationalPost:Canada)などの記事では、非科学的な方策だったことを印象づけるために「magical thinking」という言葉が用いられています。



宗教学者・宗教人類学者の視点から見れば、「呪術」は現在も「宗教学」の傘下に位置づけられる一分野です。しかし、科学史研究者の視点から見れば、「科学史」の一部分です。このような視点の揺れは、Edward Burnett TylorやJames George Frazerの時代にすでに見ることができますが、今なお影響を与え続けているFrazerの理論によれば、呪術はその論理性によって宗教的というよりも、前科学的な性質をもっています。この論理性について、フレーザーは「elementary processes of reasoning」と形容していますが、これはあるものがあるものに似ているという感覚にもとづく論理的思考、つまり「類似」のことを意味しています。