Demons Among Us: Exorcism Revival in Europe

Exorcism, in all its goofy glory, is making a comeback.

“People don’t pray anymore, they don’t go to church, they don’t go to confession. The devil has an easy time of it,” Amorth said in an interview. “There’s a lot more devil worship, people interested in satanic things and seances, and less in Jesus.”

Amorth and other priests said the resurgence in exorcisms has been encouraged by the Vatican, which in 1999 formally revised and upheld the rite for the first time in almost 400 years.

Because as we know, people that don’t go to church inevitably drift towards worshiping a demigod in the pantheon of a random theology that they don’t believe in.

Jankowski cited the case of a woman who asked for a divorce days after renewing her wedding vows as part of a marriage counseling program. What was suspicious, he said, was how the wife suddenly developed a passionate hatred for her husband.

“According to what I could perceive, the devil was present and acting in an obvious way,” he said. “How else can you explain how a wife, in the space of a couple of weeks, could come to hate her own husband, a man who is a good person?”

Well, clearly, only mystical demons waving their googly invisible fingers can explain such a thing as minor marital strife!

This sort of logic strikes me as an embarrassingly naive Satan-of-the-Gaps gambit. How does the priest know that the husband is a “good person” anyway? Can he really rule out the possibility that he’s done something awful to his wife that she resents but doesn’t want to talk about? Or that she’s just gotten annoyed by the guy, as just happens sometimes? Or that she’s just a jerk?

But, as I’m always interested in the technical details of these sort of phenomena (which often seem to get made up on the fly), this article actually does provide a bit of insight:

Exorcists said the people they help can be in the grip of evil to varying degrees. Only a small fraction, they said, are completely possessed by demons — which can cause them to display inhuman strength, speak in exotic tongues, recoil in the presence of sacred objects or overpower others with a stench.

Ah, so people can be partially possessed by demons. That makes things much more interesting.

But how do priests know this, exactly? Did they stumble upon a demonic livejournal documenting the halting progress of some illict supernatural relationship? How can they tell partial possession from just a really smart demon who knows better than to act up too much when priests are lurking around with their ghostbuster equipment? What’s going on with a “partial” possession anyway? Are demons in control of some neurons in the brain, but not others?

Or, if you want to insist that “souls” are involved, then maybe you could explain how this works, exactly. Do souls have little labeled levers that demons can tug at?  How do souls “work” such that these behorned-goatypants-ghosts can actually manipulate them?  What functional inner workings of a soul are demons subverting, exactly?  What functions are they seizing from the operator?  How does the conflict work? Come on, tell me.

Again, the thing with “reality” is that there are tangible details to true explanations, and the details matter. The thing with “stuff someone makes up as they go along” is that the details don’t matter: demons act however they need to for the belief in them to continue to fit the story being told. Or maybe there’s no grounds for any sort of explanation. It’s a “supernatural” explanation, which means, basically, no explanation at all.

And, yes, yes.  You heard it here first: demons are to blame for Smelly Body Odor. But only if their voodoo powered soul-squatting or whatever is “complete.”  

Exorcists said they are careful not to treat people suffering from mental illness, and that they regularly consult with psychologists and physicians. At the same time, they said, conventional medical therapy often neglects spiritual ailments.

Perhaps it does.  But I’d really like to know how one would diagnose a spiritual ailment.  Doctors, for instance, diagnose problems by knowing generally how the symptoms are connected to an underlying cause.  They can often even provide some sort of testable plausible model that gives reliable results. What’s the similar process here? Is there one?

By the definition of these guys, I probably have a pretty darn serious “spiritual ailment” in my atheism: how come I don’t smell like sulfur or recoil at red wine that’s been duly blessed?  How come I’m not blowing through cartons of underarm deodorant a day?  Savvy defenders might, I suppose, excuse my lack of demonic influence by the excuse that demons have no need to trifle with the already fallen.  But why is there no consistency to any of these things other than whatever the priest declares, ex posterio, is going on?

And is “spiritual ailment” just a religious gloss on the far more mundane “upset and unhappy,” perhaps with a little theological angst tossed in? It sure seems like it is.

Still, it must be nice to believe that ones bad thoughts and impulses are the work of some sort of covert act of sabotage, and that by waving a ball of incense around, you can block the transmissions of the CIA…. er I mean, Satan. But no no, seriously, these people aren’t mentally ill. No similarities there at all.

“My remedy is based on spiritual means, which cannot be replaced by any pharmaceutical remedies,” said Trojanowski, the priest who is overseeing plans for the new exorcism center. “I do not stop at the level of just treating symptoms. I’m very much interested in the soul of a person. As a priest, I keep asking questions a doctor will never ask.”

Because I know how always frustrates me when my doctor won’t consider the possibility that elf curses are making me gain weight.

Seriously though, what the priests are ultimately doing here is making upset, confused, and possibly deranged people feel better by telling them that they are using their mystical powers to cure them. For all their pretensions about curing a “soul,” what they are doing here is no different than what any psychologist tries to do: trying to make people feel better and deal with their problems by talking to them.   The priests simply toss in a bit more ceremony.

And while any medical doctor could do the same sort of thing with a physical ailment, they don’t. And why not? Because in the case of the doctor, just telling patients that they are curing them and then making some cryptic hand signals is fraud and malpractice, not medicine.

Until priests can actually describe the specific working mechanism of souls, explain how in particular they are subverted by fallen angels, and show how the priest’s interventions work to treat the condition, I think the sanctimonious scorn for the limits of western medicine is a teensy bit premature.

17 Responses to Demons Among Us: Exorcism Revival in Europe

  1. Ebonmuse says:

    In The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel interviews Dr. Gary Collins, a highly qualified clinical psychologist and president of the 15,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors. Unbelievably, Collins claims to believe that malicious demons exist and are actively possessing people in the world today, causing some forms of mental illness. He admits that he derives this belief primarily from his Christianity, rather than from any evidence known to him.

    I wonder if Christian belief in the soul and other supernatural mental phenomena is an intrinsic obstacle to taking up a career in a profession like neurology. It seems to me that that field, more than any other, grates against the religious belief in mind as an immaterial phenomenon. If I ever have need of a psychologist, I’m going to make damn sure I seek out the services of a nonbeliever – not someone who’s going to write me off as possessed by malevolent spirits if he can’t figure out what’s wrong with me. (What’s the prescribed cure? Attending church?)

  2. Bad says:

    In fact, there is a growing number of people in the US who subscribe to a sort of “warfare” theology, in that they believe that demons and angels are fighting it out right here, right now, violently all around us. WorldNetDaily columnist-via-nepotism Vox Day is a noted believer, for one.

    And part of the fantasy, I guess is that you’re an important part of this fight. Must be an exciting and self-gratifying way to see the world, I guess.

  3. My blog is about exorcism and the effets of everyday evil.

  4. N.B. says:

    This post is fantastic. I found myself laughing nearly to tears at the mention of the “Satan-of-the-gaps gambit.” The whole analysis has got to be one of the most brilliant pieces of blog writing I’ve read in weeks.

    You, sir, win twenty internets.

  5. Lone Wolf says:

    Yes, lets blame Satan, after all he was just sitting in heaven and said to God “I have an idea” and the he was cast in hell and now he’s at fault for everything. Why do you people always blame me, I mean Satan. I’m not Satan, Why would think that *Hides horns*

    Seriously, this is stupid, with all the knowledge we have today people still blame invisible monsters for there problems. Whats wrong with people.

  6. hughvic says:

    “With all the knowledge we have today,” Lone Wolf? Fine. You’re a progressive. Good for you. But you as easily could have said, “With the prevalence of nonsense thinking today,” or, “Given that Western Civilization hasn’t progressed much since the 12th Century…”

    Look at the DSM IV, please, and count the tendentious little cottage industries based on as little evidence as body odor. Alternatively, behold the history of Ritalin, or of “implant removal”—two splendid contemporary applications of scientific learning. Then, by all means refute or even ridicule other people’s perceptions of “powers and pricipalities” flitting about vying for our souls or our very bodies, but let that not be a cause for scientific preening. The Melanesians were bloody idiots to worship B-29s. Does that make science the greater?

    I happen to have known several persons, including professional scientists and technologists, who have been of the conviction that radical, multiform evil does exist and does contest our souls, our fates. Of course received religions do provide the metaphors and vocabularies with which we refer to these perceptions, but it is entirely possible that there is indeed a referent, or that there are referents. Anthropologists take this stuff seriously, and God knows rabbis do too.

    I myself never have had any experience in this dark theodical corner, though of course I, like most of my countryfolk, have observed the circus parade of pop entertainments, self-styled peckerwood quackorcists and garbled Esperanto versions of Medieval demonic taxonomies. All laughable, I agree.

    But one time…one time…[turn down the lights]…one time when I was housesitting I saw on the spine of a book an author’s name I recognized from my studies in international law and foreign affairs. The author was Malachi Martin, the book “Hostage to the Devil”. I pulled it from the shelf and was astonished to see that it was an account of the late Father Martin’s earlier career as an itinerant exorcist, the very account upon which Blatty had based his novel.

    The writing I recognized immediately as Martin’s idiosyncratic blend of Jesuitical logic, Irish lyricism and soporific repetition. Then, in his third or fourth account of one of these smelly, spitting knock-down-drag-out exorcisms, he transcribes, from his own tape recording he says, an extended dialogue he had with a demon inhabiting one of the “hosts” who came under Martin’s care, and the language and logic become shockingly, frighteningly brilliant and—here’s the point—inexplicably far beyond the literary or even mental powers of the exceedingly erudite Malachi Martin.

    Scariest shit I ever read.


  7. PalMD says:

    There is little to separate these folks from the folks who believe in the “blood libel of the Jews” and other such nonsense, given that all of it is clearly MADE UP!

    If there is nothing to support assertions about reality, then you can assert anything.

    “I didn’t file my taxes cuz teh Satan made me.” (I did file my taxes, G-man…just an example).

  8. hughvic says:

    Now that’s damned interesting. A poster with the initials of a Doctor of Medicine writes an emotive libel by association in place of an argument. Neither science nor faith in play here, then; only ridicule. Driven by what? Anger? Resentment? Fear?

    Did someone take away your favorite toy by any chance, PalMD?

  9. N.B. says:

    I’ll volunteer the suggestion that people who have not used reason to come to their conclusions will not be persuaded by more reason.

  10. PalMD says:

    Um, my embelishments were simply, er, embelishments. Remove them, if you wish, to better enjoy the argument itself. Here, I’ll help you:

    “If there is nothing (observable facts) to support assertions about reality, then you can assert anything.”

    Is that easier for you? I can use smaller words if you’d like.

  11. hughvic says:

    Dr. Pal,

    Heavens, I don’t think Bad is the sort to redact a blog. My point is the same as the one you now propound, and both are a big chunk of Bad’s point. I’m simply observing it likewise in the scientism that runs rampant in blogs airing our shared frustration with zealous know-nothings. It quite often goes beyond scientific triumphalism and self-congratulation, and trespasses upon metaphysics; specifically, cosmological speculation. That’s just got to be fascinating to you, PalMD, or you’re all wet! You’re last year’s text pager, Doctor!

    And let’s not unpack your connotative loading of the term “reality”, or the somewhat humorous insistence on observing putatively supernatural phenomena.

    Anthropology, anyone? Where’s that dewy-eyed simp Campbell when you need him? A seance for Joe is in order, I say! I

    n fact, while we’re at it, whatsay we break out the Ouiji board and summon old Gould to explain the meaning of this masterful scientific breakthrough: “No intervening spirit watches lovingly over the affairs of nature (though Newton’s clock-winding god might have set up the machinery at the beginning of time and let it run.)” Got that? Based on the “facts” observed by a master biologist, divine omnipotence out; deism, maybe.

    Oh, and since Gould possessed mastery in his field, therefore he knew historiography enough to pronounce Newton a deist? See how easy it is, when one sticks to observable facts? Wanna hear about Karl and Friedrich and the shape of history according to the One True Dialectical Materialism? It’s brilliant! It is more than brilliant. It is fact.

  12. paulc says:

    Hughvic, there’s a hole in your argument large enough to drive a coach, horses and choir of angels through; although on reflection, and given that hordes of the little devils can allegedly inhabit the point of a pin, scrub angels and substitute something suitably bulky – let’s say Anthony Gormley’s rather tedious Angel of the North. (When will he move on from his current solipsistic obsession?)

    So there is a scary improvement in the logic when Monsignor Martin gets to his ‘transcription’. Your implicit claim is that this step up can only represent the contribution of some sort of supernatural being; a claim that requires many more assumptions than the simpler alternative, which is that a better Jesuit colleague of Martin’s ghost-wrote the offending passage. There are plenty of precedents for this sort of thing; your reading of the literary transition in Martin’s book comes up against Occam, and is slashed to pieces.

    All right now. (Free, 1970)

  13. hughvic says:

    Quite so, paulc! Well done. Still, that one book of Martin’s does make for the most unnerving read, so I certainly hope his ghostly collaborator was not of the cloth.

    I’m a Fideist anyway, so I don’t know why I bother commenting on this bump-in-the-night stuff. The single most boring dinner I ever suffered through was spent listening to a newlywed friend’s true story of what happened when she hired a neighborhood spiritualist to hold a seance for the purpose of expelling what seemed to everyone concerned to be two “presences” from my friend’s new apartment. After more than an hour of this tedious ghost story, my friend asked for my impressions. I told her that I was apathetic. She was nonplussed. Finally my friend’s groom, a Swiss Catholic, broke the silence. “Well Katherine,” he explained, “all Christianity is a seance.”

    I could only think of the late Sunday Times critic Hugh Kingsmill’s very Chestertonian observation that “spiritualism is the mysticism of materialists.” I believed then and now that Katherine’s account was accurate, but I still don’t care. You might as well sell me on your discovery that dogs make good pets. Yeah, they do. So what?

  14. paulc says:

    Fie to fideistas. I hoped (given your previous postings) that you might surface for a decent scrap, but the essence of fideism, after all, is that you check your intellect at the door.

    As a fan of Karl & Friedrich, you should know that the thing is not only to understand the world, but to change it.

    Cheers – I’m off to see the wizard.

  15. paulc says:

    ps I quite like the potential for skirmishing here, but am too damn busy to keep heading back to the site to see if you or anyone else has filed anything coherent . Is there an auto-notifier which will flag up new comments to my email address?


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