HPSC1015 Magic, Science and Religion

Reading List
  • Taught: Semester 2 View timetable
  • Credits: 10
  • Class Size: 134
  • Module Manager: Dr Jonathan Topham
  • Email: j.r.topham@leeds.ac.uk
  • This Module is approved as a Discovery Module
  • This module is mutually exclusive with:
    • PHIL2611 How Biology Works
    • PHIL3320 Philosophy of Biology

Discovery module overview

Module Summary

Module Summary

The module explores interactions among science, magic and religion concentrating on debates over the natural and the supernatural. Many of the most creative and exceptionally brilliant thinkers have pondered the interaction between nature and the supernatural. Their views differ as do responses to their work: some tried to accommodate nature with the supernatural but others tried to eliminate entirely one or the other. The wide diversity of ideas and contexts encourages us to think in interdisciplinary terms. There will be ample scope to analyse a range of magical, philosophical, theological and scientific ideas. Students will be encouraged to think about how certain themes recur in spite of radically different contexts. Issues raised in ancient Greece continued to preoccupy the Renaissance magician, the nineteenth-century naturalist, the radical in the 1960s and the 21st century microbiologist seeking 'intelligent design' in the universe. We will encounter ideas drawn from Plato, St Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon, Newton, Voltaire, Alistair Crowley, Timothy Leary and others. The 11 lectures traverse rich historical and intellectual ground, and in the final lecture we explore general conclusions on the natural-supernatural debates.
By the end of the module the student will have considered traditional religious and scientific ideas as well as 'occult' subjects such as astrology, alchemy, and natural magic in order to illustrate the rich interplay between ideas of nature and the supernatural.
No prior knowledge of science, religion or magic is necessary or assumed. Rather, this module provides an opportunity to explore the development of ideas and intellectual issues.


  • 1. To develop students' knowledge of the changing historical relations between magic, science and religion from antiquity to the present.
  • 2. To cultivate students' capacities to critically evaluate claims about 'occult' and scientific and religious knowledge and practices.
  • 3. To nurture students' self-critical skills in handling primary evidence in relation to the history of ideas.


This module looks at how changing relationships among the three major categories of science, magic and religion. Topics typically included are: the emergence of ancient Greek science; medieval discussions of the relationship between nature and the supernatural; the contrast between renaissance humanism and the occult; Enlightenment attitudes to religion; nineteenth-century naturalism and the re-emergence of occult studies; magic, science and religion in the 1960s; and the Intelligent Design movement.

Learning Outcomes

Students will be able to:

  • 1. Understand how in particular historical contexts different views of the world compete and why certain views are adopted over others.
  • 2. Critically assess typical unthinking approaches that contrast irrational magic to either traditional religious piety or enlightened science.
  • 3. Use primary evidence from the works of a wide range of significant figures in critical discussion.

Assessment and teaching

Assessment and teaching


Assesment type Notes % of formal assesment
Essay 2000 words 70
In-course Assessment Class Test 30
Total percentages (Assessment Coursework) 100

Private Study

Reading over and supplementing lecture notes: 11x1hr = 11hrs
Required reading and preparing for/writing up tutorials: 5x5hrs = 25hrs
Reading for and writing essay: 1x24hrs = 24hrs
Revising for examination and practicing past papers: 1x24hrs = 24hrs

Progress Monitoring

Mid-term essay will be marked promptly and returned with written feedback.

Teaching methods

Delivery type Number Length hours Student hours
Lecture 11 1 11
Tutorial 5 1 5
Private Study Hours 84
Total Contact Hours 16
Total hours (100hr per 10 credits) 100

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