Thursday, 26 January 2017

Devils And Monsters.

The past few weeks have seen a glut of demon/possession related articles in the tabloid press and on social media. Most feature common themes and lack any substance. Others show a worrying trend of the use of the concept to facilitate dehumanisation of those with opposing ideologies.

On December 28th, 2016, the New York Post published an article with the headline "The World Desperately Needs More Exorcists". The title struck a particular cord with me as I've written many times on this blog regarding the dangers associated with the popularisation of ideas of demon possession and exorcism, pointing out that I'm yet to be directed to any solid way "demon possession" can be differentiated from mental illness. Unsurprisingly, these factors are missing in the post article too.


The article begins:
"A New York woman who levitated six inches off the ground, mysteriously spoke in foreign languages and demonstrated paranormal powers made medical history in 2008 because a panel of doctors from New York Medical College agreed she was possessed by the devil."
Once again as is common with reports of this nature, we are told of supernatural feats surrounding an individual presumed to be possessed. Despite hundreds of thousands of documented and recorded cases, these feats have never been demonstrated. Funny that. We always get the growling, shaking and contorting but the extraordinary evidence always manifests when the cameras are switched off leaving us with only anecdote as evidence. What isn't common here is the allegation that a panel of doctors concluded this woman was possessed.


It continues:
"In presenting the case of “Julia” in the New Oxford Review, board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Richard Gallagher cautioned that religious practitioners should be on alert for what he called a “rapidly growing worldwide phenomenon.”.."
Dr Gallagher (above) is indeed a Yale-educated psychologist, well respected in his field, He writes that the Julia case as a genuine case of demonic possession among a wealth of fraud and misattribution. When Gallagher tells us about the case he gives no details of the medical review panel, which the New York Post piece alludes to. We can likely dismiss this as a flourish added to that piece. What Gallagher does give use is a collection of the usual tropes associated with the "possessed" and as a result of this he never quite manages to highlight what exactly sets this case apart from others which he dismisses as "counterfeit". Dr Steven Novella examined Gallagher's claims and the Julia case on his NeuroLogica blog and concluded:
"Richard Gallagher is now a classic example of how even a highly trained professional can fall prey to bad logic and the desire to believe. He nicely demonstrates why basic skeptical knowledge is necessary, even for scientists and professionals..... like every snake oil salesman who says they are too busy treating patients to do proper research. This is not an excuse for lack of skepticism, but all the more reason for it. I can easily turn the tables on his logic – what if these are all just mentally ill patients with firm delusions, who happen to be smart and clever enough to do a decent cold reading? By accepting their delusion, you are reinforcing it, making it even harder to treat. You are victimizing the people you are supposed to be helping, by failing in your primary duty as a professional to be detached and evidence-based."
In Gallagher's own biography he describes his close associations with an organisation of exorcists "...Dr. Gallagher is the only American psychiatrist to have been a consistent U.S. delegate to the International Association of Exorcists, and has addressed its plenary session."  When "Julia" needed a doctor, a psychologist, what she got was an exorcist. The NYP implies this was revolutionary as a medical practitioner concluded she was possessed, but Gallagher approached the case not as a medical practitioner but as a believer in possession.

The NYP article continues:
"exorcists... claim there are now so many devils out there, the Vatican can’t recruit enough exorcists to chase them away. The Rev. Vincent Lampert, the head priest at St. Malachy’s in Indianapolis, Indiana, reports... the situation is dire, he said, because rampant pornography, illegal narcotic use and the occult have made it easier for Satan to cast his net."
Maybe the situation is dire because priests such as Lampert are working overtime to scare the public into believing the devil exists and possesses people. At a time when the Catholic church seems to be working harder to be more progressive, these archaic ideas work in direct opposition to that ideal. Clearly, some in the Church believe that the way to get people back into church is by scaring them there, perhaps recalling the claim that there was a surge in church attendance after the release of the Exorcist, something that has never actually been verified, although requests for the ritual of exorcism did rise at the time.

Don't worry though, the scientific advisor to the exorcists' association, Victor Cascioli is on hand to offer a much-needed dose of logic and critical thinking.

“... demons across the world have multiplied and there aren’t enough priests to fight them.The lack of exorcists is a real emergency,” 

Really? In the spirit of you allegedly being a scientific advisor, how about proving that? Or attempting to prove that demons exist at all. As with Dr Gallagher above, it's clear that when approaching topics of faith Cascioli's role as a scientist takes a backseat, relegated to a title alone, and that title is a ruse to gain unwarranted credibility.

Whilst these Priests seem to essentially blame the internet for the rise in possession, a New York chaplain Marcos Quinones, who also works as an "occult investigator", feels there is another culprit:  
“Many drug traffickers practice forms of the occult. They incorporate voodoo or black magic that gives them the power to succeed. It makes the product more powerful and creates a stronger addict. In essence, they’re doubling the curse the drugs cause anyway.... The original word ‘pharmacy’ is derived from the Greek ‘pharma,’ which literally means sorcery.” ”
Yep. Completely nuts.

The whole article is completely nuts.


And this topic is one the New York Post returns to frequently. On January 13th they reported that the priest on which the lead character in the Exorcist was allegedly based, Malachi Martin (seen above somberly not revelling in his fame as his calling requires) also the subject of the aforementioned Netflix documentary series, died "after a possessed child spoke to him..."Malachi Martin went to perform an exorcism on a 4-year-old girl in Connecticut in 1999 – but mysteriously died soon after when he was pushed by an invisible force." The only thing that truly stands out about this story is how unextraordinary it is. Martin died sometime after the child spoke to, and in the meantime, I imagine he spoke to many people. Also, Malachi was 78, sadly elderly people fall sometimes, rarely that fall proves fatal. Why are we to suspect an invisible force? Because Martin allegedly "told a friend" who isn't named or quoted.

The Post was banging the demon drum on 23rd January, reporting on a priest who has allegedly exorcised 6000 demons. Something which scares me for completely different reasons than the Post probably intends. As with the articles above the story quotes heavily from a report in Catholic News Agency and gives us lurid details of supernatural strength and occurrences without a jot of evidence.

I've tried time and time again to elucidate just how harmful I believe the propagation of this medieval superstitious rubbish is, and I will continue to do so. I'll never be short of examples of this belief, this backwards religious practice, being used to hurt the innocence and the ill often by the misguided, but too frequently by malicious abusers.

The following story wasn't featured in the New York Post, but the Daily Post in Nigeria. It's not lurid clickbait. It doesn't feature an elderly Priest warning of the diabolical dangers of weed or porn. Instead, it documents another way the spread of these ideas can be used to hurt innocent people.
"A Kenyan head teacher identified as Willy Kiprop, has been disgraced openly for allegedly defiling three school girls under his care in Kapsaos, Uasin Gishu area of Kenya."
Kiprop, uses as his defence that at the time of the abuse he was possessed by the devil. Would a lack of belief in the supernatural in the area have prevented the abuse suffered by these girls? Likely not, but we can't rule out the idea that Kilprop self-justified his actions being a result of possession.

Only days before various news agencies featured a disturbing video of a young couple in Peru being dragged through the streets by their families to attend an exorcism. The youngsters aged 18 and 16, are crying and growling, and I strongly suspect they are under the influence of Brugmansia. The couple's family indeed seem to acknowledge this when they tell the press the incident was a result of some kind of "pollution". This was after an exorcism was forcefully conducted of course.

Closer to home, ideas demons and allegations of possession were recently used by televangelist Jim Bakker (left) used to condemn participants in the Women's March and protests against Donald Trump. Bakker describes critics of Trump on both the left and the right as literally possessed by the devil:
“I’m telling you, there are some people that I’m concerned are demon-possessed. They’re just going crazy. Their eyes look like demons [are] coming out of them. I’m scared.”


It's a disturbing use of religious rhetoric used by Bakker to dehumanise people he is politically opposed to, in a similar vein to the rhetoric spouted by Alex Jones (above) during the election campaign. Jones frequently referred to both Hilary Clinton and Barrack Obama as being literally demon possessed. Even going as far, in the bizarre rant I've posted above, as to describe the foul stench of sulphur allegedly emitted by Clinton, and to cite footage of flies landing on President Obama proves his demonic nature.

It's easy to write Jones and Bakker off as complete lunatics or accuse them of cynically holding positions that appeal to their audience for financial gain. But, when public figures engage in the dehumanisation of their opponents it concerns me greatly.

Every time I speak or write about this topic I link to the What's the Harm page which details an uncomfortable and tragic number of cases of children and young adults killed and injured during exorcism attempts. But, it seems clear that the dangers presented by these ideas extend beyond immediate physical harm or mental abuse.

In my opinion, the World desperately needs less superstition, fear and bullshit right now. The World needs more critical thinking, skepticism and education.

In other words: More exorcists are the opposite of what the World needs.