The rise of exorcism to Catholic and evangelical churches is like a new Inquisition, says Deborah Hyde, editor of the Skeptic magazine
Exorcism is intrinsic to Christianity. From driving possessed swine into a lake to expelling a spirit from a boy who foamed at the mouth, Jesus was reasonable to be considered a therapeutic exorcist. So it’s hard to tell some churches to get real and rational- although, regrettably, that message is as relevant as ever.
The Vatican has just set up a new exorcism training course, following an alleged increase in demonic possession. According to the Sicilian clergyman and exorcist Benigno Palilla, be talking about Vatican Radio, there are half a million instances reported in Italy yearly, and demand for assistance has tripled. To claim that such a great number of Italians have been inadvertently contaminated by Satan, like some paranormal STD, is a significant aspersion on a nation of 60 million people. Palilla lays the blame on people who visit fortune-tellers and tarot-readers. These practises” open the door to the demon and to possession “.
So what’s the problem? The first is that people get hurt. Really hurt. Recent UK government statistics suggest that almost 1,500 child-abuse instances a year are linked to the idea of witchcraft and demonic possession. The Metropolitan police’s Project Violet was set up to explore child abuse connected to spiritual belief. I have written about Nigeria’s ” witch children “. And there was the recent horrific lawsuit in Nicaragua of Vilma Trujillo, who died after being burned alive. This all demonstrates that the hazard is neither localised nor irrelevantly ancient.
Second, those diagnosed as “demoniacs” often get spiritual rather than medical attention. The 2015 suit of a GP struck off for taking a mental health patient to church for an exorcism is probably unusual in this country. But it should go without saying that distressed people benefit more from an evidence-based intervention than a belief that the Dark One is tormenting them.
Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are the traditional nominees for a false diagnosis of demonic infestation. The Catholic church includes psychiatric experts on its exorcism panels for balance and information. But there are other confusing conditions. Mental health charities estimate that between 5% and 28% of the adult population hear voices, and that most are not mentally unwell. Sleep paralysis is another common experience that can alarm the individuals who don’t know about it. In both cases, the subject will probably be absolutely fine on finding out that they are neither at the beginning of a personal disintegration nor the target of demons. Superstition is simply not the most constructive therapy.
But another thing bothers me: the class of specialists produced by exorcism courses and professional bodies. These specialists derive status from the practice of their “skills”, in the manner of Maslow’s hammer: when you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. An investment in the intellectual models of demonic possession and exorcism can bring catastrophic momentum.
A quick look at history demonstrates how only one trained yet gullible buffoon can wreak havoc: in the witch-hunts of Labourd, in France, in 1609, Pierre de Lancre brought at the least 70 people to the stake. There are many more career witch-hunters of whom similar stories can be told.
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