21st century exorcism


The Exorcist movie posterThe visit to Australia of Fr Gabriele Amorth, an exorcist in Rome, aroused some comment. Most related exorcism to the wild eyed, brow furrowed, bloodstained spiritual shoot-outs portrayed in popular culture. When reflecting more soberly on the practice of exorcism within the churches, it is helpful to ask three related questions.

The first question concerns how the human predicaments that exorcists treat differ from other human predicaments, and so how exorcism differs from other ways of treating human maladies.

There are two simple responses. One response regards the phenomena as totally different. It believes that most maladies have natural causes, but that those treated by exorcism are diabolic in their origin and their manifestations. A corollary of this view is that diabolical possession and exorcism have a prominent role in Christian practice, and can be appealed to in support of Christian faith.

The other response argues that the cause of all human maladies is natural, and that exorcism is just one of many unscientific ways of addressing mental illness. They may sometimes work because of the attention given to the patient.

There is no common ground between these two positions, and little room for conversation between those who hold them. I argue for a more complex view that reserves judgment in principle about the causes and treatment of maladies, but claims that even diabolical causes will produce natural effects, so that they, as well as the exorcisms that address these effects, can be the object of scientific study.

So they can be spoken of both in scientific and in theological language. But they do not form a powerful argument for the truth of Christian faith.

The second question concerns the place given to evil, the demonic and exorcism in Christian faith. In the New Testament world human evils such as death and sickness were attributed ultimately to demonic forces. So Jesus' cures and his driving out of demons were symbols of God's victory over the evil that has mastered humanity.

The power of evil was also at work in the public world, and Jesus' death, the time when Satan came again to tempt him, demonstrated the evil in betrayal, expediency and political alliances.

Later heresy and persecution were attributed ultimately to demonic forces, but working through human causality.

The central message of the Gospel, however, is not that demons are powerful. It is that by dying and rising from the dead Jesus has conquered evil. Christians share in his victory, and so have no reason to fear evil or the demonic, still less to give them power. They are called to follow Jesus and so to allow his victory to appear in the world.

The third question concerns how to address the demonic in ways that correspond to the Gospel. In my judgment it is important to engage in conversation and symbolically with people, especially those from cultures in which belief in evil spirits is simply a given.

In some Asian cultures, for example, bad spirits are held to infect houses especially after death. So it is normal part of pastoral practice to bless the house and those who live in it, so offering assurance of God's power over evil spirits.

Simply to deny the presence of evil spirits and to refuse any symbolic engagement with them would seem to do no more than to assert the superiority of one's Western cultural assumptions.

The institution of exorcists who offer appropriate pastoral care to those acutely troubled also seems appropriate. I respect their work and do not wish to depreciate it when asserting my own belief that it is not generally helpful to give prominence in the churches to demonic possession and exorcism.

In our culture, where demonic forces are not part of the normal furniture in people's view of the world, and so lacking natural checks and balances, to emphasise the demonic, particularly through stories of exorcisms with the violent struggle they present, often encourages fear. The demonic, rather than Christ's victory over it, takes over people's imaginations and leads them to give power to demons.

The focus on possession and exorcism, too, can easily trivialise the place of the demonic in the Gospel. It imaginatively confines the Christian struggle to what takes place within the individual. It minimises the political and social dimensions of evil and of Christ's victory over it. The demonic is located in the home, and not in the meeting rooms of business, government and military leaders who place power and wealth above human dignity. This is a very thin view of faith.

To focus on the demonic and on exorcism also risks limiting the range of the conversation that might help the people who are subject to exorcism. It encourages a view in which the religious view of psychic disturbance and other views are not seen as complementary, but are opposed to one another.

Finally, the dramatic quality of exorcism encourages a dubious view of the religious minister as a single fighter in a clerical caste, the effectiveness of whose ministry depends on the quality of his own wrestling with God. Personally, I find this image of the minister as Romantic Hero attractive but open to self-delusion. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Exorcism, Fr Gabriele Amorth, demonic possession



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Existing comments

The believers' desire to pursue mystery lies at the heart of the continued belief in evil personified in the form of demons; and a dismissal of such demons through rituals and prayer. US psychologist and author Matt J. Rossano, in 'Supernatural Selection - How Religion Evolved', describes the processes whereby human beings pursued the unknown and 'goodness' (God) to better live and survive communally, and relate to an essentially hostile environment.

In perhaps his most clear passage of discussion on an internal/external pursuit of the spiritual, Rossano points to research that shows how religion can affect 'the most basic processes guiding our visual perception'. If what we 'see' is not an immutable, clear basis for belief, as is self-evidently the case (the old 'saw' applies here about the diverse accounts of traffic accident eye-witnesses), then, as Andrew points out in his discussion of exorcism, the whole notion of SuperChristian vanquishing the evil bogeyman may be based on flawed perception, fraught with hubris and ripe for maltreatment of people in pain and distress.

Rossano cites Dutch researchers as speculating that 'religious beliefs may indeed lead to different [or] incompatible interpretations of the same incident. That this can happen is a well-known empirical fact, but that it can originate in basic automatic visual operations that precede conscious representation is surprising and in some sense worrying - as it seems to work against the scientific idea that careful observation is sufficient to reach agreements about basic facts and what we consider reality'.

Australia is not untouched by bizarre, tragic attempts to 'release' people from some perceived demonic possession/oppression. In people's pursuit of faith, let's hope we focus on the Divine.

If we think about the classic pop song below, then surely 'Mr In-Between' is the priest who takes on the hoary old role of shaman: 'You've got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and latch on to the affirmative; don't mess with Mister In-Between.'

Barry G | 14 December 2010

A strange subject that most of us instinctively flinch away from.Fr andy hamilton fearlessly and sensibly tackles it. l learned much from his calmly argued and measured article. I support his main conclusion that 'it is not generally helpful to give prominence in the churches to demonic possession and exorcism'.

In many cultures, not just Christian, there have been (and very occasionally still are) pathetic and pointless human tragedies associsted with exorcism beliefs and practices carried to extremes. Some of these have involved the abuse of defenceless children. The sincerity and ignorance of the perpetrators (and, sometimes of their compliant victims) does not excuse the awfulness of such practices.
tony kevin | 14 December 2010

Fr Andrew wrote, "..and not in the meeting rooms of business, government and military leaders who place power and wealth above human dignity."

May I also suggest the meeting rooms of union officials, tertiary students, working men and women, peace activists, in short, any place where humans gather?

Or in your world view, Fr Andrew, is the demonic restricted to the three big bogey men that you name? Are all other institutions demon-free zones?
Patrick James | 14 December 2010

Mr James should read more carefully before criticising: "and not" does not mean "rather than".

Like Tony Kevin, I echo the spiritual counsel I was given on more than one occasion, that it is unwise to draw unnecessary attention to exorcism or exorcists.
Paul | 14 December 2010

Reading this article I still can't understand if the author thinks demons are real or not. Either the demons exist, or they do not. That house demons feature in Asian folklore makes them no more 'real' than Chinese dragons.

If among a remote African tribe you encounter a person who feels persecuted by demonic forces, then performing an religious ritual that fits into their cultural worldview is more likely to help them than putting them through Western style treatment like psychoanalysis (which is at bottom a modern Western mythology).

But it is not "to assert the superiority of one's Western cultural assumptions" to say that demons are not real in the sense that say, gravity is, and to be very firm about this.

That the very notion of exorcisms being carried out in Australia by a church appointed exorcist is at best an intellectual disgrace, and at worst a serious health issue if people who should receive proper medical treatment are seeing this Latin-speaking witchdoctor instead.

Alex Lewis | 14 December 2010


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