Disenchantment can mean many things: a resigned sigh, a thickly scabbed wound, a heartbreaking glimpse of Dad playing Santa, a marriage that replaces dinner dates and moonlight with Hamburger Helper and a toddler throwing up all night. But in sociology, disenchantment means something very specific: a cultural rationalization and devaluation of religion in favor of science.
More than a century ago, sociologist Max Weber talked about the “disenchantment” of a modernized, bureaucratic society. Science matters more than belief, because society is now convinced that in time, science can explain all of nature. “There are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play,” Weber wrote, “but rather … one can in principle, master all things by calculation.”
Such a society compartmentalizes and rationalizes, chopping apart the tight bonds of traditional societies in which “the world remains a great enchanted garden.” And that is fine, as long as the shiny new world remains navigable.
But the minute people start to feel lost, they need breadcrumbs and a little magic to keep going.
I say “they,” but I need some sort of enchantment, too. I can feel myself groping for it, especially on days when the news moves from a dried-up river to a mass shooting to an upsurge in COVID and a massacre in Ukraine. Growing up Catholic, I had a sense of purpose and a promise of solace handed to me from a gold plate. Transferring the old reverence to the wonders of the universe was easy for me; so was turning piety into a tenderness toward humanity. But figuring out why we are here, why we are broken—those answers, I have lost. I try to reason backwards, pulling meaning from what I see, learn, and feel. Still, a rationalist’s cool shrug cannot promise that it all makes sense. It might all have an explanation, but questions of meaning and purpose float unanswered.
Officially dismantling the religious worldview has been a long slow process; its roots stretch back to the Enlightenment. But only now, after centuries of scientific reason, are we beginning to feel the weight of that disenchantment. Until 1940, the word was barely ever used, Google’s Ngram Viewer tells us. “Disenchantment” peaked in the early 1970s (Watergate, Vietnam), and now the word pops up everywhere you look. (I doubt it was an accident that Matt Groening chose Disenchantment to name a show about “how to keep laughing in a world full of suffering and idiots, despite what the elders and wizards and other jerks tell you.”)
We are all feeling, sometimes for contradictory reasons, “a state of disappointment or disillusionment.” We have been freed from one illusion after another, and while we are glad to dissolve some of them, there are others we cherished and cannot quite live without.
Yet there is no going back. We are too diverse to become the theocracy some crave, too cynical to be made great again, too diverse to trust that common values even exist. Even the old songs that moon about “some enchanted evening” ring false in today’s unromantic landscape.
Human beings need a little enchantment. It cuts us free of logic’s constraints, and suddenly the world swirls with mist and magic and whispered spells. Everything feels alive again, full of possibility. We need heroes to inspire us, rituals to bind us, stories and myths that lend us bits of wisdom and wonder.
Enchantment works even when it is only make-believe. The danger comes when we forget that. When spells are cast for darker purposes—and cannot be lifted.
Yale sociologist Philip Gorski wrote an amazing piece for The Hedgehog Review a while back. Titled “The Return of the King,” it described “the enchantments of a rising illiberalism.” Among them is Donald Trump, who set himself up as almost godlike, the sort of divinely mandated warrior-king who let his people relax into “premodern magical thinking.”
They stepped into a forest filled with miracles and hurried toward a glowing light, stopping often to look over their shoulder, sure that evil conspiracies were menacing them from the shadows. All the while, everybody else was wailing, “They don’t even believe in science!” Well, of course not. The Western world draws uncrossable lines between science and art, reason and intuition, logic and magic. To hang on to irrational or supernatural consolation, we are told, you have to let go of science.
In Divining Nature: Aesthetics of Enchantment in Enlightenment France, Tili Boon Cuillé, associate professor of French and comparative literature at Washington University, points out that in reality, the division was never that sharp. To observe nature scientifically, you use your senses, which are connected to your imagination and emotion and intuition, and it takes all of that to make an intuitive leap—a leap of faith—to a hypothesis. Both the arts and the sciences require creativity; both set up experiments.
Similarly, philosophy and theology—the meaning-makers of the humanities—once coexisted easily with science and medicine. Compartmentalizing them was our own, inaccurate invention, one that left us too divided to knit a changing world together. Now we have tech inventions and biomedical advances popping faster than the ethicists can keep up, because the two live in such separate realms.
Carl Jung tried to warn us. He wrote about the spiritual confusion that came with disenchantment, the sense of uprootedness, disorientation, meaninglessness, and profound uncertainty. He talked about our need for “myth, and the sense of wholeness it once provided”; he suggested that symbols could keep the spirit alive in a secular world.
I doubt he envisioned QAnon, or neo-Nazi tattoos, or the mythic powers accorded to authoritarian rulers. But those are all desperate bids to explain the inexplicable and make your life matter. Science was supposed to do that. But science never pretended to be a substitute for religion, art, or story; nor did it ask to be worshipped, a stance any rational scientist would automatically distrust. We decided to worship science and technology, because they were helping us control and rule the world. We cast aside other sources of meaning, and we wound up disenchanted, and now a lot of people are disenchanted with disenchantment.
Across the globe, the world views that are rising are what Gorski calls neoimmanentist. Rather than cleanly (and perhaps artificially) dividing the sacred from the secular, church from state, religion from politics, they make them synonymous, which is even more problematic. Politics takes its cue from religion, and it is the sort of religion that is blindly reassuring and prescriptive, happy to tell the whole world how to live.
Intellectuals flee such religions as soon as they can, turning to atheism or agnosticism or, for tradition’s sake, a mainline faith comfortable with science, with difference, with individual conscience. When people feel that those in power, whether it is ivory tower power or government or professional expertise of any sort, are hostile to what they hold most dear—there is truth in that. But when what is held dear is not only a defiantly enchanted worldview but also one that ceases to make any kind of rational sense, we are in trouble. Case in point: in The Atlantic, Charlie Warzel writes that finance has been weird since GameStop in January 2021. He says we could be witnessing “an authority crisis, in which disenchanted people try to destroy institutions.”
There was a time that would have sounded like hyperbole.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.