Demons Among Us: Exorcism Revival in Europe

February 11, 2008

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.

Busy. M’kay?

February 5, 2008

Sorry I’ve been so quiet lately.  It turns out that everything has been perfect and reasonable and nothing has been deserving of criticism the last few days, which really, comes as quite a relief to all of us.

Unfortunately, with everything from the Florida creationism fight to the release of Expelled! to NewsTarget’s (now “Natural News”) continued existence, this spell of sense and sanity surely cannot last.

More Expelled! Reviews: Intelligent Design Film Chock Full of Hitler

February 2, 2008

The producers of Expelled! apparently invited a member of the New Orlando Sentinel to an early screening by accident. The result is another early glimpse at Ben Stein’s Intelligent Design flick that didn’t exactly impress so much as enrage the reviewer with its duplicity.

I lost track of the number of times Stalin’s image hit the screen, and in the ways the movie equated science with Darwinism with atheism with Hitler or Stalin. Subtle, it’s not.

The guy from the Sentinel did seem to think there was something to the “academic freedom” message of the film, however. Which means that it was effective enough to at least partially hoodwink even a hostile reviewer into thinking that ID proponents have been merely “shouted down” or even discriminated against on the basis of their beliefs. Educating viewers on this scam is going to have to be a major focus of efforts to counter this propaganda when it reaches a wider audience.

The reviewer also mentioned something I’d been previously unaware of: Stein was apparently involved in the utterly crackpot right-wing movement alleging that Bill Clinton was part of a huge murder conspiracy in Arkansas. He even wrote a forward to one of the books.

Stein wanted to call Expelled! “From Darwin to Hitler.” Perhaps a better title for this latest outing would have been “From One Loony Conspiracy Theory to Another.”

Addendum: More posts about more recent reviews: from Josh Timonen (his is nice and detailed), Richard Dawkins, & Greg Laden’s nearly endless linkfest about the infamous “Myers/Dawkins” showing in which Myers, a thanked interviewee, was refused entry to a showing.