Writing in the Washington Post, a psychiatrist (Richard Gallagher) essentially gives up on the ability of his profession to understand the complexity of the human mind. Some cases of ‘demonic possession’ are, he has come to believe, real.
For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness — which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions….
The Vatican does not track global or countrywide exorcism, but in my experience and according to the priests I meet, demand is rising. The United States is home to about 50 “stable” exorcists — those who have been designated by bishops to combat demonic activity on a semi-regular basis — up from just 12 a decade ago, according to the Rev. Vincent Lampert, an Indianapolis-based priest-exorcist who is active in the International Association of Exorcists. (He receives about 20 inquiries per week, double the number from when his bishop appointed him in 2005.) The Catholic Church has responded by offering greater resources for clergy members who wish to address the problem. In 2010, for instance, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops organized a meeting in Baltimore for interested clergy. In 2014, Pope Francis formally recognized the IAE, 400 members of which are to convene in Rome this October. Members believe in such strange cases because they are constantly called upon to help. (I served for a time as a scientific adviser on the group’s governing board.)
… But I believe I’ve seen the real thing. Assaults upon individuals are classified either as “demonic possessions” or as the slightly more common but less intense attacks usually called “oppressions.” A possessed individual may suddenly, in a type of trance, voice statements of astonishing venom and contempt for religion, while understanding and speaking various foreign languages previously unknown to them. The subject might also exhibit enormous strength or even the extraordinarily rare phenomenon of levitation. (I have not witnessed a levitation myself, but half a dozen people I work with vow that they’ve seen it in the course of their exorcisms.)
I have not witnessed a levitation myself.
Back to Gallagher:
We are not dealing here with purely material reality, but with the spiritual realm. One cannot force these creatures to undergo lab studies or submit to scientific manipulation; they will also hardly allow themselves to be easily recorded by video equipment, as skeptics sometimes demand.
This is very reminiscent of the arguments used by the Harvard psychiatrist John Mack (I wrote something about him in National Review back in the day) who, at the height of America’s obsession with ‘alien abductions’, began to see such stories as, to a greater or lesser degree, a spiritual phenomenon. That allowed him to dispense with normal scientific discipline and even to caricature it as somehow retrograde, evidence of a narrowly ‘western’ mindset.
Gallagher’s comment about video equipment also reminds me of a joke from that era.
Q: What’s the best way to stop yourself being abducted by an alien?
A: Install video cameras at home and set them to record.
But anthropologists agree that nearly all cultures have believed in spirits, and the vast majority of societies (including our own) have recorded dramatic stories of spirit possession. Despite varying interpretations, multiple depictions of the same phenomena in astonishingly consistent ways offer cumulative evidence of their credibility.
Not so much. Demons, like gods, are a product of the human mind, an evolutionary by-product, an end in themselves, or a bit of both: It would be astonishing if they did not recur in society after society. We are all human.
In the end, however, it was not an academic or dogmatic view that propelled me into this line of work. I was asked to consult about people in pain. I have always thought that, if requested to help a tortured person, a physician should not arbitrarily refuse to get involved. Those who dismiss these cases unwittingly prevent patients from receiving the help they desperately require, either by failing to recommend them for psychiatric treatment (which most clearly need) or by not informing their spiritual ministers that something beyond a mental or other illness seems to be the issue. For any person of science or faith, it should be impossible to turn one’s back on a tormented soul.
Yes, delusion can be used combat delusion (think of exorcisms as a kind of placebo), but the psychiatrist who takes the reality of demonic possession seriously is taking on a heavy responsibility, not only with respect to his patient but, by promoting a belief in this phenomenon, to the vulnerable elsewhere.
Jung talked a great deal of nonsense, but, he was right when he wrote this:
The Middle Ages, antiquity and, prehistory have not died out, as the “enlightened” suppose, but live on merrily in large sections of the population. Mythology and magic flourish as ever in our midst and are unknown only to those whose rationalistic education has alienated them from their roots.
Well, he was not so right about that last bit. A rationalistic education will not, of itself, lead to enlightenment.
Human nature is stronger than that. As Richard Gallagher reminds us.