Friday, 4 July 2014

An Open Letter to Those Who Promote and Condone Exorcism.

About a week ago I wrote at open letter to a major promoter of the concept of demonic possession on Facebook. Needless to say, the post was quickly removed and I was prevented from reposting it. I won't give this individual more publicity unless I absolutely have to so I have removed his name.

Here it is:
"Dear ...., 
Whilst you and your "team" promote this superstitious rubbish, there are scientists and researchers in the fields of neuroscience and psychology endeavouring to discover the causes of abnormal behaviours that have in the past been labelled as possession. 
Your "work" actively hampers this progress. It results the sufferers of such afflictions not seeking out the correct medical help. It also impedes the work of mental health advocates who campaign to remove the stigma of mental health conditions. It results in the families of individuals suffering from these disorders not encouraging them to openly seek out the correct help without shame and fear. 
Take a recent case in Bolivia of a six year old girl suffering from uncontrollable fits of laughter, she was labelled as "demon/devil possessed", in the world that propagation of such nonsense threatens to bring about, that "diagnosis" would have resulted in the application of brutal, damaging, ineffective and occasionally lethal procedures such as exorcism. Thankfully in our scientifically literate age, doctors were able to use MRI and CAT scans to successfully locate and remove a tiny tumour on her temporal lobe. 
The propagation of these beliefs often leads the abuse and murder of children by adults blinded by supernaturalism and often, mental illness themselves. Recent cases include: 
Amy Burney, 5, Staten Island New York, murdered in 1997 when during an attempted exorcism, her mother and grandmother tied her down and forced her to swallow a toxic potion and taped her mouth shut. They were charged with second degree murder. 
Kira Canhoto, 2, murdered in 1995 in Canada, when her parents and grandmother thought she was possessed by a demon, and attempted an exorcism. They forced her to drink huge quantities of water. The grandmother, mother and a neighbour were convicted of manslaughter. 
Amora Bain Carson, 13 months from Texas, murdered in 2008 by her mother and partner who believed she was possessed and tried to rid her of demons. They allegedly bludgeoned her and bit her more than 20 times. 
Terrance Cottrell Jr, 8, Milwaukee, murdered in 2003, Church members thought he was possessed by the devil. In an exorcism he was held down for two hours until he suffocated. The pastor was sentenced to prison, but never admitted guilt. 
Unfortunately those cases are just the tip of the iceberg, for the list I restricted myself to under tens from the last 20 years, and the US and Canada. I could of restricted myself to teenagers, or to partners murdered by spouses, or to children murdered by parents, or to the Northern hemisphere, or the Southern. and pulled just as many incidents.
Of course it would be ludicrous to say that belief in demons and possession always leads to murder but one cannot the unifying factor in these cases was the superstitious beliefs of the murderers./abusers. This is an ignorance that we should be lifting, not propagating.

Unfortunately if I was writing that today I would probably be addressing it to the largest religious organisation on the planet. An organisation that speaks to, and to some extent for, roughly 1.2 billion people. The Catholic Church.

Whilst not a Catholic myself, many of my friends are, they are reasonable rational people who often privately admit that their church's frequently backward, intolerant, and sometimes damn-right deadly doctrines, actions and positions cause them great embarrassment. That's why I am happy to see occasional minor steps forward, many of which were made under progressive pope John Paul II. Unfortunately, for every small step forward the Catholic church seems to take one massive step backwards.

On July 2nd, the Catholic church formally recognised the International Association of Exorcists, an organisation lead by Father Gabriele Amorth, known as the "Exorcist of Rome," who claims to have performed 160,000 exorcisms.

In my opinion, Amorth is quite possibly as in need of assistance from mental health professionals as the unfortunates that he performs exorcisms upon. Previous statements of his include labelling Yoga as "satanic" and warning that Harry Potter introduces children to "black magic". The fact that he describes science as "not worth a jot" strongly implies that he isn't recommending that those believing they are possessed receive psychological assessment before they undergo exorcism.  Members of the group have spoken of sitting in front of lesbians and hearing "Satan growl." Amorth himself said that the relapse of the Mexican man touched by Francis to his previous state is a signal from God that Mexico should abandon a liberalization of its abortion laws.

Is this is the kind of individual and organisation that a forward thinking church should seek to credit? It seems that the new Pope is quite happy to let fundamentalism remain in the Catholic church.

An argument frequently used to defend exorcism, is that sometimes it actually works. Believers and sceptics alike present this as almost a spiritual placebo. The sufferer believes the ritual will alleviate their affliction and the theatrics of the exorcism process actually help confirm this.  The problem is, its simply not ethical to put people through a potentially harmful process simply to alleviate the symptoms of a possible underlying mental health disorder. The ends do not justify the means. Plus this process doesn't actually address the actual cause of the disorder. What happens if it reoccurs? Another exorcism? Often these are identifiable and manageable conditions.

As the Catholic church recognises the International Association of Exorcists, seemingly adding credence to the concept of demonic possession and exorcism, a stark reminder of the possible consequences of such beliefs has emerged from Pakistan.

The Independent reports:
"Police in Pakistan have launched a murder inquiry after a young woman was reportedly beaten to death by a Muslim holy man who was trying to “exorcise demons” from her.

Reports said the 24-year-old woman from Lahore, Zeenat Bib, had been suffering from undiagnosed problems for some time and that her family had taken her to several doctors.
Her condition had not improved and so her family decided to take her to a local pir, or Sufi elder, who they believed could confront “the demons tormenting her”.
The exorcism process involved tying Zeenit with ropes and beating her with a baseball bat. Her cousin, Shahbaz attempted to intervene, but the Pir, Pir Afzal, told him the blows were not harming Zeenit. The pir then instructed Shahbaz to take Zeenit to the hospital when the exorcism was complete. Unfortunately, the hospital was unable to revive Zeenit.

The police are currently holding Shahbaz and searching for Afzal.

Such incidents are unfortunately all too common. Salma Hussain, 13, was killed during an exorcism carried out in a Cheecha Watni village in 2012. She suffocated when pir Shabbir filled her nostrils with cotton wool, and burned her with an iron rod and chilli powder in an attempt to exercise "Djinn" from the girl.

As with Zeenit, her parents allowed this because of their unquestioning faith in a pir and their lack of understanding of mental health issues and medicine in general.

As I was completing this post, this news story emerged from Japan.

As this shows, such cases are not restricted to religion or geographic location. As I mentioned at the start of this post, website What's the Harm? features hundreds of such cases, such victims, from all across the world, the common theme?

Ignorance and superstition.

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