Magical thinking in contexts and situations of unbelief

PIs: Dr Theodoros Kyriakides and Dr Richard Irvine, Religious Studies, Open University, UK

Theodoros Kyriakides

Richard Irvine






Project Team:

Dr Theodoros Kyriakides, Open University, UK (Co-Principal Investigator)
Dr Richard Irvine, Open University, UK (Co-Principal Investigator)

Dates: 1 September 2017- 31 August 2018
Award: £118,180

Our project will research the importance of magical thinking in the everyday lives of people who identify as non-believers. Our aim is to understand cognitive and subjective tensions surrounding unbelief as an explicit religious attitude, and its relationship to magical thinking as an element of the inter-subjective dynamic of social life. Here, we wish to examine whether magical thinking and unbelief are necessarily contradictory phenomena, exploring whether instances of their co-existence are best explained as evidence of compartmentalisation, or if magical practices might play a generative role as a constituent element of unbelief.

Through ethnographic research methods of interviewing, life histories, focus groups and participant-observation, we will investigate whether magical thinking constitutes a core element of human sociality and subjectivity in the everyday context of the mundane and the habitual, even within contexts generally understood as non-religious. Bridging existing research on non-religion with anthropological research on magic, we will explore magical thinking as a reactive dimension of contemporary, secularised societies, focussing on everyday practices through which self-defined unbelievers adopt a stance which can be understood as enchanted, and adopt perspectives of causality which can be understood as magical. More specifically, we will pay emphasis on how people attribute agency and luck to everyday objects, and how magic as a way of thinking and acting in the world manifests in human consciousness under conditions of doubt and uncertainty. We believe this will allow us to reach a more grounded understanding in the importance of magical belief in the everyday lives of unbelievers. Our project will compare two field sites: the UK and Cyprus.


Follow the progress of Teo and Richard’s project on their Open University blog