*** DEBUG END ***

Angela Tilby: Magic degree is not quite what it seems    

13 October 2023


I WAS intrigued to learn that, from next year, the University of Exeter is to run an MA degree course in Magic and Occult Science. It is being offered to meet an apparent recent rise of interest in the occult, and should give students an opportunity to explore such topics as the Arthurian legends, witches and witchcraft, astrology, dragons in art and literature, and magical symbolism.

All fascinating stuff. Although some Christians might be moved to object, it would be good to explore how belief in spells, ghosts, and the occult continued to flourish, in spite of — and, indeed, sometimes alongside — church teaching.

From the signs of the zodiac to imps and gargoyles, there is occult symbolism in many cathedrals and churches. In literature and the arts, from Shakespeare to fairy tales, there are wicked witches, and innocent maidens, giants, spells, and incantations. C. S. Lewis set his Christian allegory of Narnia in a fantasy world of talking animals, ruled by a wicked witch. His friend and fellow novelist Charles Williams drew on occult and magical themes for what Lewis called his “supernatural thrillers”. In our own time, the Harry Potter novels and films enchant the children of the first generation of fans.

It is important to remember that even some of the sciences evolved from magic: there was alchemy before chemistry, astrology before astronomy. Many figures of the age of Enlightenment had interests in the occult; freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, and a host of other esoteric philosophies attracted people who, in the rest if their lives, assumed the primacy of reason.

Having acknowledged all that, it is worth realising that this new degree is not quite what it seems. To start with, it is apparently to be located in the Institute of Arab and Islamic studies rather than that of literature or even religion (Exeter has a renowned Theology Department).

The course director, Dr Emily Selove, says that the degree will explore “alternative epistemologies”, which include “decolonisation, feminism, and anti-racism”. All of this suggests that the new degree is getting into the territory of “grievance studies”, in which academics are prepared to propose that traditional Western preoccupations with maths, science, and other subjects based on empiricism, logic, and reason are really no more than male, white, and colonialist attacks on other cultures.

Dr Selove suggests that the MA will “allow people to re-examine the assumption that the West is the place of rationalism and science, while the rest of the world is a place of magic and superstition”. I find this highly questionable: surely everyone knows how dependent the emergence of Western science was on Arab mathematics, medicine, and astronomy.

It is suggested that the new degree will equip students for jobs in counselling, museums, heritage and library work, the arts, and publishing — but not, alas, for teaching at Hogwarts, or membership of the Magic Circle.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)