HST 147-Magic, Religion, and Science Since 1400

relief sculpture on campus

History courses tend to take on the seismic and sweeping. Tom Robisheaux's "Magic, Religion, and Science" aims for the timeless and invisible--what he calls the three "ways of knowing." One senses, in perhaps an extra-sensory way, that magic underlies all. The syllabus warns of "the dangers of going too far." Those who seriously engage the issues "will change the way they look at the past and present...a troubling and exciting prospect." This is a course, Robisheaux writes, "about the ways we as Westerners move into and out of the visible and the invisible worlds, and what happens when those worlds cross in unexpected ways."

Beginning with the Renaissance, lectures and reading--roughly a hundred pages a week--take students from the origins of naturalism and occult sciences, witchcraft and witch hunting, through the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, rationalism, mesmerism, Spiritualism, Darwinism, and Christianity, to the "psychologizing of magic," psychical research and parapsychology, the "new religious movements" of the Sixties, the skeptical movement, occultism, and the satanic panics of the Eighties and Nineties. Course materials draw on a range of sources, from anthropology to primetime television (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

"The national debate about 'science and religion' leaves out the great 'third way' of knowing in Western culture--magic," says Robisheaux. "Our understanding of what science and religion can achieve is incomplete without it." The class is conducted in standard lecture format--until the end. Those who want to may participate, for extra credit, in "a case study of a modern 'anomalous experience,' that which lies at the border of all our faculties of comprehension."


Ian G. Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues
Ann Braude, Radical Spirits
Allen Debus, Man and Nature in the Renaissance
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part I
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Lawrence Wright, Remembering Satan


Students are graded on only the midterm and the final exam. However, throughout the semester, there are opportunities to earn extra credit either by writing a book review or participating in a class project.


Thomas Robisheaux '74 says he remembers his astonishment at learning about people who died for their religious or intellectual beliefs in the Reformation era. Ever since, he has been in awe of the passions those life commitments testify to. In a more personal sense, he says that he has always felt there were layers of himself that were fashioned out of worlds formed long ago. "One can live actively engaged in our contemporary world and, in some significant ways, not be of or from that world."

He has been on the faculty for twenty years, but says, "This is by far the most challenging class I have ever taught." His style? "Reach right into a student's mind and spirit and engage that curiosity. I'm one of the few faculty members who openly acknowledges that students bring to the class their own spiritual or religious quests." He speaks German fluently, Luxembourgish passably, and reads in French, Latin, and Italian. He also wears a bow tie: "It's the one thing that a man can wear that gives him that personal touch of distinction."

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