The Myth of Modern Disenchantment

The disenchantment of the world with modernity may be on the order of Jesus’ depiction of the emptying out of one unclean spirit, leaving a vacuum then occupied by a multiple of seven. Like the idol maker in the book of Isaiah, the (dis)enchantments of modernity are a force so potent as to blind its adherents to their enchanting role, in animating and calling into existence what has no existence of its own. The secular or modern, are propped up by blindness to the animating force of human perception. It is easy enough to demonstrate the factual error (that modernity has dispelled the occult), what is more difficult is to reveal this trick of reifying from out of nothing an entity with God-like powers of determination. But the myth of modernity might be approached from these two directions: the factual error equating secularity with the occlusion of the spiritual, and the oxymoronic manner in which animating spirits are traded for an animate culture.

This latter is hard to see as it is hidden in plain sight, as the language of “secular” and “modern” fall into cultural reification picturing something like a sui generis animate force. This cultural reification tends to empty the world of human agency, historical causality, and ideological genealogy, to suggest the modern “arose” as a unique epoch unlike any other.[1] The story can be told in any number of ways: Descartes discovered the foundation of reason; Newton dispelled the occult with a mechanical understanding; the laws of nature explain, determine and create everything; and modern science has eliminated the need for God. As a result, we moderns now know there are no ghosts in the machine and we can trust in reason, science, and progress. In this modern age people no longer believe in magic and spirits as the myths have been dispelled, the gods have died, nature is subjugated, and instrumental reason, mechanistic materialism, modern science and medicine now rule. While there are still backward people in certain parts of the world and society, gripped by myth, animism and superstition, for moderns the world has been de-animated, myth has ended, and superstition is no more. A new form of human individual has arisen, as the old foundations have been erased, and a new form of thought and reason have been set in place. The world is forever changed and we moderns can march boldly forward, knowing that progress is an inevitable force unleashed by modern reason and science. There is a clean break with the past as a new age, unlike any that preceded it, has arisen.

What may not occur to the adherent of the modern myth, is that the work of religious myth is now performed by the secular myth. The world may have been emptied of one form of animate power, but now law, culture, and progress are the “new” animating forces (not so new but the force of law that has always been at work). To imagine a rupture has occurred, and a new age has dawned, is to be blind to history and how culture takes flight from its social moorings, in the projections of human agents. This blindness is illustrated in both Orientalism and capitalism.

The myth of the modern animates notions of the progressive West and the backward East. Orientals are stuck in the past, subject to nature, having not yet thrown off superstition, while the Occident is progressive, enlightened, and driven by reason rather than passion. The Easterner and African are still in early developmental stages (the premodern), while the West is modern, mature, a light set on a hill. Progress moves from East to West, so that Westward movement is advancement, while a visit to the East is a return to the past. The Easterner is driven by religion, and superstition undergirds Eastern political structures, while in Western secularism, the state is driven by humanitarian, democratic, principles and not religion.  

Eugene McCarraher in, The Enchantments of Mammon describes as his subtitle describes it, “How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity.” McCarraher suggests that, rather than disenchantment, modernity is simply one more “misenchantment” (as I have explored here). “Far from being an agent of ‘disenchantment,’ capitalism, I contend, has been a regime of enchantment, a repression, displacement, and renaming of our intrinsic and inveterate longing for divinity.”[2] McCarraher is refuting the story of Max Weber, in his supposition that capitalism is a disenchanting force, and he appeals to a series of counter descriptions.[3] According to David Brooks, acquisitiveness stems from a “sacramental longing,” a desire to enter “a magical realm in which all is harmony, happiness, and contentment.” Or as historian Steve Fraser puts it, in the stampede for consumer goods slumbers “a sacramental quest for transcendence, reveries of what might be.” Thomas Carlyle, speaking of 1840’s industrial England, perceived “invisible Enchantments” which left owners and workers alike, “spell-bound” by “the Gospel of Mammonism” in which money possessed and bestowed its “miraculous facilities.” Marx and Engels wrote of the capitalist, in The Communist Manifesto, as “like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world he has called up by his spells.” In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes of “the fetishism of commodities,” and of the attribution of human or supernatural qualities to manufactured goods. Even Weber, after tracing the supposed disenchantment which arises with the Protestant Reformation, writes that “many old gods ascend from their graves” avatars of the “laws” of the market animated by the spirits of “the gospel of Mammonism.” Capitalism, Walter Benjamin informs us, is a “cult” with its own ontology, morals, and ritual practices whose “spirit . . . speaks from the ornamentation of banknotes.”[4]

McCarraher maintains this is not hyperbole or metaphor but that capital bears similar enchantments to a world animated by spirits and deities. As he explains, capitalism is its own sort of cult with its own liturgical codes and high priests, or those who have mastered the arcane art of the deal.

 Its sacramentals consist of fetishized commodities and technologies— the material culture of production and consumption. Its moral and liturgical codes are contained in management theory and business journalism. Its clerisy is a corporate intelligentsia of economists, executives, managers, and business writers, a stratum akin to Aztec priests, medieval scholastics, and Chinese mandarins. Its iconography consists of advertising, public relations, marketing, and product design.” Capital is “the mana or pneuma or soul or elan vital of the world, replacing the older enlivening spirits with one that is more real, energetic, and productive.[5]

The evidence suggests there has not been disenchantment, or an occlusion of the occult, but its reinforcement. As pointed out by Jason A. Josephson-Storm, not only the enchantments of mammon, but the new age has also ushered in crystal healing, energy balancing, chakra yoga, tarot readings, wicca covens, witches and warlocks, ghosts, near death experiences, psychics, extraterrestrials, miracles, etc. A 2005 Gallup poll found that a third of Americans believe in ghosts, while a YouGov survey in 2015 found that 48 percent of Americans believe people can possess one or more types of psychic ability (e.g., precognition, telepathy, etc.) while 43 percent agreed with the statement “Ghosts exist.” As Josephson-Storm concludes, “taken together it appears the majority of Americans are at least open to the idea of ghosts and psychic powers, while a not-insignificant number believe in necromancy.”[6] This then supports his larger point “that the human sciences have internalized the modern project” in “the notion of ‘modernity’ itself as the sign of a pure rupture or difference. In this way modernity has functioned as a master paradigm or episteme—what I have been calling a myth.”[7]

I presume that all that falls short of Paul’s exposure of the animating, enchantments of the law, will displace God with subordinate mythical powers. The reification of idols, the letter of the law, Jew/Gentile, male/female, slave/free, are all of one piece with the enslaving elementary principles, thrones and political powers. The human tendency is to construct a counter reality, in which the human artisans are blind to their role of manufacture – whether a piece of metal, a principle, an ideology, culture, or the ego. Like Aaron’s explanation to Moses, the golden calf was not shaped by human hands, it miraculously emerged from the fire and all were forced to worship with its “natural” appearing. Modernity as a final explanation is made of the same stuff as Aaron’s idol, and the deconstruction and exposure of this means of manufacture is an apocalyptic reordering of human understanding of reality.

[1] See Jason A. Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[2] Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (p. 4). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] McCarraher, 3.

[4]McCarraher, 3-5.

[5] McCarraher, 5-6.

[6] Josephson-Storm, 24.

[7] Josephson-Storm, 309.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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