The demons who never left are back

That’s a happy headline isn’t it? I wrote this before Christmas but it’s a bit of a mood killer and much more suited to January!

Mike Bird reflecting on a new book about the death of Satan in modern thought says

However, as belief in Satan diminished, it coincided with belief in moral relativism, evil became ephemeral, and we lost any yardstick to measure evil…

In other words, unless you believe in demons, you will begin to demonize whatever political apparatus you find yourself opposing. You will treat your political and cultural opponents not as compatriots with wrong opinions, but as the ultimate enemy of the human race, and imagine that you are involved in a life or death struggle against them. And that, in turn, justifies whatever you think you need to say about them or do to them in order to stop them. 

As it turns out while belief in God is falling belief in the devil is rising and that for once has nothing much to do with Donald Trump. 

But far from being confined to a past of Demiurges and evil eyes, belief in demonic possession is widespread in the United States today. Polls conducted in recent decades by Gallup and the data firm YouGov suggest that roughly half of Americans believe demonic possession is real. The percentage who believe in the devil is even higher, and in fact has been growing: Gallup polls show that the number rose from 55 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2007.

It seems that Americans really do believe in Satan but are also more tribal than ever before.

I would guess that at this point many Europeans would react again cultural superiority when they read this in Mike Mariani ‘s excellent article American Exorcism in The Atlantic. Typical religious nutty Americans.

But it’s not just America. Earlier this year as I wrote on this I linked to articles in both The Guardian and The Economist who reported on the rise of exorcisms in Europe too (although they lay the blame mostly at the feet of African migrants to Europe). I think European secularists can too often fall back into some lazy form of cultural superiority if they hear of evil spirits from people who are let’s say from Haiti or Africa. Well of course they think that….no education blah blah blah. Their own belief in personal guardian angels will on the other hand slip by. That will for some reason be different.

This, as Chris Pappalardo says, only proves how prophetic CS Lewis was:

As C. S. Lewis pointed out in Screwtape Letters, most Westerners are so spiritually deadened that a direct attack would only serve to wake them up. The forces of darkness don’t care whether we know they’re at work or not; they only care that we’re on the broad road to perdition.

Interestingly though Pappalardo also steers away from talk about personal demonic:

At this point, you may be worried that I’m going to start talking exorcism techniques. Not exactly. Living with the reality that our world is shot through with active spirits and demons doesn’t automatically mean that they prefer “possessing” people as we read in the Gospels. 

Instead he,as I guess many Christians would, locates the demonic in systems of oppression and malevolent cultural forces. 

JD Greear by contrast sees the spiritual battle in very personal terms but not in such a way that would involve say exorcism (or at least he’s definitely discouraging your average believer to see themselves as an exorcist).

Jesus consistently directs people away from pre-occupation with the demonic. He took on his fair share of demons, but he never tells us to go out demon hunting. 

(emphasis his)

Greear’s advice is very wise and it seems he’s dealing with an unhealthy interest in the demonic, cautioning against the two errors that Lewis again so sharply pointed out: “Humanity falls into two equal and opposite errors concerning the devil. Either they take him altogether too seriously or they do not take him seriously enough.”

Both Pappalardo and Greear point to the true and sure hope that we have in the Gospel and that Jesus Christ has really defeated the powers of darkness but both seem to shy away from the confrontational side to spiritual warfare. 

So why has there been this resurgent interest in the demonic? Mariani writes

Adam Jortner, an expert on American religious history at Auburn University, agreed. “When the influence of the major institutional Churches is curbed,” he said, people “begin to look for their own answers.” And at the same time that there has been a rebirth in magical thinking, Jortner added, American culture has become steeped in movies, TV shows, and other media about demons and demonic possession.

Today’s increased willingness to believe in the paranormal, then, seems to have begun as a response to secularization before spreading through the culture and landing back on the Church’s doorstep—in the form of people seeking salvation from demons through the Catholic faith’s most mystical ritual.

Back in April I speculated that abuse linked to exorcisms would likely result in some form of government regulation, which is a very European response to most things. I argued that:

It’s going to cause the church a headache because, once again their belief in the supernatural is going to make them look ridiculous in the court of public opinion. They will say how rare it is and guidelines for the involvement of professionals will be issued, and professionals who believe in the reality of mental disorders but not supernatural causes will be appointed.

But now I think those mental health professionals would get themselves caught up in a psychological knot if they tried because this sort of thing is going to skewer the modern western mind. Here’s Mariani again on

Pore over these spiritual and psychiatric frameworks long enough, and the lines begin to blur. If someone lapses into an alternate identity that announces itself as a demon bent on wresting away that person’s soul, how can anyone prove otherwise? Psychiatry has only given us models through which to understand these symptoms, new cultural contexts to replace the old ones. No lab test can pinpoint the medical source of these types of mental fractures. In one sense, the blurry shadow-selves that surface in what we call dissociative states and the demons that Catholic exorcists believe they are casting out are not so different: Both are incorporeal forces of ambiguous agency and intent, rupturing a continuous personality and forever eluding proof.

Western society is, right now, very happy to accept someone’s personal (and unverifiable) conviction that they have a different gender to their physical body. They will allow and pay for this or that person to have surgery, they will even advocate this for children. Who are they then at the same time to turn around and say ‘this is not real’ to those who claim that inside is not a different gender but a demon? One will be called an illness (dissociative identity disorder) but the other will be approved of. One is supernatural and backwards and the other is progressive.

The inadequacy of their attempts should ring hollow. I’m sure they will try to have their cake and eat it they’ll just be wrong when they do.

See also Where did all the demons go?

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