Clerics, Commentators, Demons, and Their Prey
Something spooky is going on around the United States. The December 2018 issue of The Atlantic includes a story on rising requests for exorcism in the Catholic U.S., examined through the lens of one particular victim of possession, a woman named Louisa. Louisa is plagued, the article says, by night terrors, blackouts and states in which she mutters seemingly uncontrollably about being unsavable, ranting as if she were under the control of some unknown force. Her therapists claim to be unable to help her, as she finds herself unable at times to speak Bible verses aloud and convulses into and out of emergent personalities, each more sinister than the last. Louisa is not an isolated case. The Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis reports that their official exorcist fielded as many as 1,700 requests for exorcism last year alone. The number of vocational Catholic exorcists is increasing to meet the demand, as the number of Americans professing to believe in a literal devil increases (from 55% in 1990 to 70% in 2007). And it isn’t just here. The Guardian reports a similar rise in Europe: “According to a priest from Sicily, the number of people in Italy claiming to be possessed had tripled to 500,000 a year, and an Irish priest has said demand for exorcisms has ‘risen exponentially’. Last year, the Christian thinktank Theos reported that exorcisms were a ‘booming industry’ in the UK, particularly among Pentecostal churches.” It seems to some that a kind of siege is being waged in the early decades of the twenty first century, one against the souls of humankind.
And yet, Christians, secularists, and people of all walks of life would do themselves well to remain skeptical of this rise in supposed possessions and exorcisms, and to keep a critical eye on the forces that seek to keep them in fear.
It should be noted at the outset that I am a clergyperson in the United Church of Christ, a Protestant denomination so thoroughly entrenched in liberalism that an Anglican once spat at me that I was a “Unitarian Considering Christianity.” I am, perhaps, closer to secularism in my day-to-day understanding of the world than I am to many of my siblings in Christ. This is not a problem, and I seek not to claim a kind of doctrinal or rational superiority in this article. This piece is not intended to be an attack on magical belief or cultural forms of paganism, animism, or even belief in demons as such. It is intended to be a consideration of how they are appropriated and weaponized by very powerful people, and how white, Western culture claps along with this metaphysical bludgeoning to disturbing effect. More specifically, I seek to explore how distinctly Christian beliefs about supernatural evil join with the fascination of the media to produce unjust consequences.
No consideration of the West’s contemporary understanding of exorcism can be justly undertaken outside of context. The belief in evil spirits who afflict the living with everything from the common cold to obesity to schizophrenia goes back thousands of years and is represented across the globe. It is fundamental to many spiritual and cultural traditions—throughout the Americas, Africa, Southeast Asia, and also in European magical traditions—and was part of Christianity from the very beginning. There is some variety concerning the Christian treatment of demons, of course, as New Testament documents are just as eager to use demonic vocabulary to describe earthly empires as ailments (Enrique Dussel's reading of the "Babylon Principle" into Christian scripture in his book Ethics and Community illustrates well how this takes shape), but scholars are generally in agreement that the world of the Apostolic era church was a bit more magical than this one. It did not remain primary to dominant forms of the faith forever, though. Writing for Patheos Kate Kingsbury traces the simultaneous movement of exorcism out of the daily life of the Western Christian and up the organizational structure of the Catholic church. “As the Middle Ages rolled on exorcism became a marginal activity and morphed from a charismatic, ecstatic practice to a liturgical rite invoking priestly authoritas.” Exorcism was used throughout the Reformation as a rhetorical sword with which to morally execute the opposition. Then, in the Enlightenment period, it predictably went somewhat dormant in official Church spaces as Christian leaders proceeded to remove every bit of the human body besides the brain from Christian worship (it should be noted that Christians all over the world continued to practice cultural magic like divination and spirit purification, either under the approval of the church or against it, the latter being vilified as witchcraft).
In the late 1960’s, however, a charismatic wave (here meaning a spirituality rooted in the "charisms" or the gifts of the spirit identified in Paul's writings which include, among other things, miracles, healing abilities, and speaking in tongues) crashed over Western Catholicism. Many sources rightly parallel this movement with the emerging global prominence of so-called Third World cultures and their encounters with Christianity—especially in Latin America and Africa. “A successor in some ways to the old mission revivalism, it also went further. The movement stressed the pentecostal baptism of the Holy Spirit and featured tongues speaking, ecstatic behavior, exorcism, prophecy, and faith healing,” writes Catherine L. Albanese in America: Religions & Religion (79). This revival of interaction with a literal spiritual world of literally spiritual warfare found its way into mainstream and secular culture through film (1973’s smash hit The Exorcist comes to mind, as well as the horror subgenre it spawned), storytelling, superstition, and fascination. As the world has globalized and we have entered a purportedly secular age, belief in this particular kind of supernaturalism has actually increased, not decreased. In the realm of Christianity, Kingsbury (I think correctly) paints the uptick of exorcism in the Catholic church’s practice and rhetoric as a kind of ecstatic arms race with the rapidly rising tide of Pentecostalism—with the hearts and dollars of millions of members at stake. There are other factors, though, and other fields in which this discussion is relevant, and it is other kinds of power particularly that should be interrogated.
One cannot honestly approach postcolonial Christian demonology of any ilk divorced from the backdrop of brutal ethnic and cultural cleansing it helped to prop up. While a generous reading of Pentecostal and Catholic practices of exorcism could see their assimilation of more ancient divine encounters like being possessed by a God in Yoruba-descended traditions or communing with spirits in indigenous faiths as accepting of the many expressive pathways to God, but a more skeptical eye might interpret them as appropriating the form of these cultural inheritances while concurrently declaring them to be satanic. A kind of Jekyll and Hyde dynamic takes hold of the church in such cases—one is free to engage a world teeming with spirits if it is done with official church approval and in intelligible Christian forms, but one is subject to demonization if nearly identical practices are performed under different circumstances. In this space, the church usurps ordinary, culture-preserving religion, and uses a people’s own physio-liturgical vocabulary to annihilate their faith (let us not forget that this assault was waged by the Church imperial against European peoples, too, as forms of paganism, folk magic, witchcraft, and goddess worship still carry a sinister taboo thanks to the church’s battle against them). The Mark Mariani Atlantic article cited above lists encounter with the “occult” as one of two major “doorways” into the world that demons are using to ensnare the millennial generation. This is, of course, a not particularly subtle holdover from the culture-erasing efforts of colonial Christianity, and it should be kept at appropriate distance in a world where Christians are actively trying to heal the wounds of our imperial collusion, not exacerbate them.
The other “doorway” Mariani cites is sexual abuse.
"Nearly every Catholic exorcist I spoke with cited a history of abuse—in particular, sexual abuse—as a major doorway for demons. Thomas said that as many as 80 percent of the people who come to him seeking an exorcism are sexual-abuse survivors. According to these priests, sexual abuse is so traumatic that it creates a kind of ‘soul wound,’ as Thomas put it, that makes a person more vulnerable to demons."
Mariani, to his credit, follows this passage up with his justified uneasiness considering the Catholic Church’s own history of sexual crimes. Of course, the despicable culture of priests assaulting and covering up assaults against young boys is directly relevant here, but Christianity’s role in crafting and utilizing institutional dehumanization of women and children goes unmentioned, as it has in most recent articles about exorcism’s present popularity. We must not forget that Christianity’s long-standing conception of gender saw it as a series of ascending strata, placing women beneath men as deformed, animalistic, and impressionable to spiritual forces, Godly or otherwise (check out Dale B. Martin's reading of Galatians 3:28 in Sex and the Single Savior for a great consideration of this problem). This systemic dehumanization contributed to their systemic bodily vulnerability to men, and men are still trying to free themselves of such sinister conditioning. This unjust arrangement has produced a cyclical, abusive dynamic, as women’s supposed inhumanity justifies their being assaulted just as it displaces the blame for their subsequent dissociation and trauma from their abusers to otherworldly beings. Further, the propaganda campaign to keep demons alive in public imagination discourages survivors from seeking more proven and effective avenues of spiritual, emotional, and physical care, turning them back toward these men who helped to engineer their abuse in the first place.
Secular America is not without blame in this problematic moment, either. While many skeptics and atheists are willing to sneer at belief in the Christian articulation of evil spirits and forces, they have done little to combat its harmful impact and even exacerbated it. This is likely because free thinking secular liberals are just as superstitious as anyone else. In his book Why We Need Religion, philosopher Stephen T. Asma recounts unofficially polling his students at Chicago’s Columbia College for a number of years and finding that nearly 80% of them believe in ghosts (23). More than just ghosts, they are also willing to entertain all but unbelievable conspiracy theories and, although claiming to value reason above all else, are devout pseudoscientists (anecdotally, when I attended a lecture Asma gave in Chicago, he deadpanned that millennials had kept all the bad parts of religion and thrown out everything good about it). Consequently, when many secular types encounter accounts of supposed demon possession, it is with a weak “but that can’t be right...” and a much more passionate “...but what if?”. Mariani’s Atlantic article carries with it that same dramatic tension, and to be fair, it makes for great reading. People are enamored with the danger and the thrill of something sp00ky out there, something without but within which is often tied to something deeply personal and sexual (go watch The Exorcist again or any other movie about Satan or witches that has at least one female character), but the real-world consequence of such voyeurism is the increased cultural power of individuals who claim to be the sole solvents to demonic irritation. We contribute to their mystique and subsequently their power over those they seek to bind to themselves through spiritual dependency merely for our own entertainment.
Secularists and religionists of all kinds have a responsibility to the fruits that our beliefs bear in the world. Dialogue and understanding are vital to our building of a peaceful multireligious community throughout the world, but when our curiosity or selfishness or lack of discipline allow us to ignore a ubiquitous system of ritual deceit that results primarily in cultural erasure and gender oppression, we must have the courage to snuff out the shared heritages that hold all of us back.