TAG | Demons
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.
Televangelist Pat Robertson advised a mother on Monday that she could cure her son’s stomach pains by finding someone to cast out demons that were possibly caused by an ancestor who practiced witchcraft. In an email, a viewer named Dianne told the TV preacher that her son had “painful shock-waves thru his body” that originated in his stomach while she was praying for him and calling on “the name of JESUS.”
“My son said it felt like something hit him very hard in the stomach,” the mother wrote. “I know this is not of God. He is a Christian. Can Christians be attacked by demons?”
Instead of recommending that the mother seek medical attention, Robertson said that the boy could be “oppressed or possessed by demons.”
“You need to get somebody with you who understands the spiritual dimension and doing spiritual warfare,” he continued. “If I were you, I would look back in your family. What in your family — do you have anybody involved in the occult, somebody in witchcraft or tarot cards or psychic things?”
“Has there something been there that you don’t know about. Some grandparent, great grandparent or something. Look into the family tree, and then get some people in there and cast this stuff out. But that does not sound like normal.
Laura Helmuth, writing in Slate:
Most paranoid, grandiose, relentless conspiracy theorists can’t call a meeting with a U.S. senator. Then there’s Robert F. Kennedy Jr. A profile of Kennedy in this weekend’s Washington Post Magazine shows that Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Bernie Sanders listened politely while Kennedy told them that a vaccine preservative causes autism.
It doesn’t. It just doesn’t. Every major scientific and medical organization in the country has evaluated the evidence and concluded that the preservative thimerosal is safe. The question is settled scientifically. Thimerosal, out of an abundance of caution, was removed from childhood vaccines 13 years ago, although it is used in some flu vaccines. And yet Kennedy, perhaps more than any other anti-vaccine zealot, has confused parents into worrying that vaccines, which have saved more lives than almost any other public health practice in history, could harm their children.
Mikulski and Sanders, to their credit, both politely blew Kennedy off.
That’s a sign of great progress: Not that many years ago, Rep. Dan Burton held congressional hearings on the entirely made-up dangers of vaccines. I’m especially proud of Sanders, who represents Vermont, a state with one of the highest rates of vaccine denial and misinformation.
But the more people dismiss Kennedy, unfortunately, the more obsessive and slanderous he becomes. Keith Kloor describes some of Kennedy’s recent outrageous claims in the Post profile:
The more Kennedy talked on the subject, the more his rhetoric became hyperbolic. During one 2011 segment on his Air America radio show, he accused government scientists of being “involved in a massive fraud.” He said they skewed studies to demonstrate the safety of thimerosal. “I can see that this fraud is doing extraordinary damage to the brains of American children,” he said.
Last year, he gave the keynote speech at an anti-vaccine gathering in Chicago. There, he said of a scientist who is a vocal proponent of vaccines and already the object of much hate mail from anti-vaccine activists that this scientist and others like him, “should be in jail, and the key should be thrown away.”
I got a taste of Kennedy’s delusions last year. After Slate’s Bad Astronomy blogger, Phil Plait, criticized Kennedy for speaking at an anti-vaccine conference, Kennedy called me to complain, and I wrote about our very one-sided conversation. He told me scientists and government agencies are conspiring with the vaccine industry to cover up the evidence that thimerosal is “the most potent brain killer imaginable,” and journalists are dupes who are afraid to question authority. He claimed that several specific scientists had admitted to him that he was right. I called these scientists up. Here’s one representative answer, from a researcher who preferred I not use his name because he gets death threats from anti-vaccine activists: “Kennedy completely misrepresented everything I said.”
To recap: Kennedy accuses scientists of fraud, which is pretty much the worst thing you can say about a scientist. He distorts their statements. He says they should be thrown in jail. He uses his powerful name to besmirch theirs. That name, the reason he has power and fame, is inherited from a family dedicated to public service. He now uses the Kennedy name to accuse employees of government agencies charged with protecting human health—some of the best public servants this country has—of engaging in a massive conspiracy to cause brain damage in children.
And this nonsense has consequences:
The number of measles cases in the United States tripled last year—an entirely preventable disease whose resurgence has been made possible in part by Kennedy’s tireless efforts
Discovery Channel is teaming with the Vatican for an unprecedented new series hunting the deadliest catch of all: Demons.
The Exorcist Files will recreate stories of real-life hauntings and demonic possession, based on cases investigated by the Catholic Church. The project includes access into the Vatican’s case files, as well as interviews with the organization’s top exorcists — religious experts who are rarely seen on television.
“The Vatican is an extraordinarily hard place to get access to, but we explained we’re not going to try to tell people what to think,” says Discovery president and GM Clark Bunting.
Bunting says the investigators believe a demon can inhabit an inanimate object (like a home) or a person. The network executive says he was initially skeptical when first meeting the team but was won over after more than three hours of talks.
“The work these folks do, and their conviction in their beliefs, make for fascinating stories,” Bunting says.
If the show’s first season is successful, the network hopes its partnership with the Church will pave the way for producers GoGo Luckey to take the series to the next level — joining Catholic investigators on live demon-purging ride-alongs.
Even if exorcism appears to have a more prominent place on the Vatican’s bill of fare than in the recent past, my first reaction was to think that this story was a hoax about as believable as, well, demons. It seems that my first reaction was wrong. This story is for real.
In a way this makes sense. Today’s Vatican has taken a distinctly traditionalist turn and demons have long had a role to play in many Christian cosmologies (if not one that I associate with the splendidly mild Church of England of my youth). What’s more, they make pretty good recruiting sergeants.
I just hope it’s better viewing than Ghost Hunters.