Magic, Morals and Health

By Johnson, Warren R. | American Journal of Health Education, January-February 2010 | Go to article overview

Magic, Morals and Health


Johnson, Warren R., American Journal of Health Education


This paper is reformatted and reprinted as part of the 40th Anniversary of the American Journal of Health Education (originally School Health Review) Health Education--Our Heritage. The original article appeared in Volume 1, School Health Review (November 1969, pp. 5-9). At the time, Warren R. Johnson was professor of health education and physical education at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD. A commentary on the 2010 relevance to health education of Dr. Johnson's paper immediately follows this reprinted version.

My original plan for this article was to discuss a matter over which Plato fought with the rhetoricians, namely: Is (health) education concerned primarily with influencing people to think and act, or is it concerned with teaching them how to think and act? However, it seemed to me desirable to deal first with what is, perhaps, a still more fundamental matter. Therefore, this discussion is concerned with pointing out (1) that the ancient magic-morals-health complex is still very much with us and (2) that if modern health education is to become a respected academic discipline and significant contributor to human health and survival, it must actively disavow the reality of this complex and commit itself objectively to is available data.

Magic has to do with the supernatural and the unnatural. It is indifferent to natural law and science and is aloof from scientific inquiry. Its existence depends upon unquestioning faith. Granted such faith, it is extraordinarily potent. If it does not move mountains, it convinces the faithful that it can. It can damage health (1,2) and perhaps, restore it (e.g., Lourdes and Oral Roberts). It has, historically and cross-culturally, been closely tied in with and supportive of morals and religion. ("Even in ... religions like Judaism and Protestantism, the conservatism of the religious mentality has preserved the magical-sacramental attitude toward reality." (3,4) Deviant behavior tends to contain within itself the threat of magical retribution, if not to oneself, to one's loved ones ("What did I do to deserve this?").

Morals have to do with right and wrong, with good and bad, as defined by a particular society. The word derives from "customs." By definition, morals as well as customs may differ tremendously from society to society, right being wrong or more or less right or wrong, depending on where one happens to grow up. (5,6) Morals sometimes have the support and backing of laws, as in the case of our sex morals, but nearly always they are protected by magical forces via the superego and conscience.

Health may be defined narrowly as freedom from symptoms, or more broadly even than WHO's famous definition, as for example "high level wellness" in all respects. (7) In modern times, health has been striving for a scientific base, as has also, sluggishly, education associated with it. Still, to a remarkable extent, and in many ways, health persists in being an issue of morals and thereby subject to magical influence. (8)

It is doubtless unfortunate, but not surprising, that this should be so. For we are at the flowing end point of a very long tradition in which the tie-in of magic, morals and health has simply been taken for granted, like the male-female double standard, befouling the environment, having wars, taking pride in irrationality, etc. Of course, we do not tend to take very literally the magical physical or mental punishments of, for example, Prometheus or Orestes. But the ills of Job and Lot's temptors and the magical curing of ailments by Jesus and the saints have been and still are taken quite literally. All of this contributes to the formation of a societal magic-mindedness concerning health.

The subject of sex provides a dramatic example of the viability of magic-morals in our perception of health. To take one of many possible examples, masturbation has an especially interesting history. (9-11) In our tradition, this story began with the Onan mythology (Leviticus) in which, for whatever reason, God smote Onan dead for spilling his seed upon the ground. …

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