Treating Demon Possession with Antipsychotics

As I've written in the past, modern Christianity has never outgrown the demoniac fixation of its founders, who believed that evil spirits were constantly on the prowl and assaulting them. People like Gary Collins - an evangelical, a clinical psychologist, and the head of a 15,000-member association of Christian counselors - still believes, based not on evidence but on his "theological beliefs", that demons exist and are the cause of at least some cases of mental illness. Although this post from Boing Boing is a little old, it sheds a powerful illumination on these stories.

The case was that of a 22-year-old Hindu man, whose story came to light when he was arrested for stealing a taxi and robbing the driver. In prison interviews, he claimed that he had been cursed by a spiteful relative, allowing the ghost of an old woman to possess him. He could hear the ghost speaking to him, and sometimes it would take control of his body and force him to commit criminal and self-destructive acts against his will. He could see the ghost when it invaded him, settling upon his body like a fog and entering his nose and mouth, and while it was possessing him he was conscious of his actions but helpless to stop himself. The doctors noted:

The patient was an intelligent, well educated and insightful young man, westernised in his appearance and apparent outlook. He said he gained nothing from his behaviour, deriving no excitement from his adventures while possessed and did not need the things he stole... He recognised the effects of his behaviour on [his] family...

But most incredible of all, the young man's story was corroborated by his cellmates and even the prison chaplain:

We were disturbed by a telephone call from the prison chaplain who described seeing the ghost possess the patient in prison, seeing a descending cloud and an impression of a face alarmingly like a description of the dead woman given to us by the patient, of which the chaplain denied prior knowledge. Similar reports came from frightened cellmates.

So far, this story sounds just like the accounts of demonic possession in apologetic literature: the seeming rationality of the patient in the face of his condition, the lack of evidence for a disconnect with reality, even external evidence that seems to indicate the truth of his story to outside observers. If that was where this story ended, we'd probably be hearing about it on Christian apologetic websites, and it would be quoted in the next Lee Strobel or Josh McDowell book. But the paper ends with this laconic comment:

Treatment commenced using trifluoperazine and clopenthixol... The patient underwent remission during neuroleptic treatment, despite previous evidence of genuine possession.

As a commenter on the BB thread noted, a psychotic person is "the world's best method actor". The impairment of their brain's ability for rational thought gives them an unshakable confidence in the truth of their delusions that could never be achieved by relying on mere evidence. If it was part of this patient's delusions that he was being possessed by a ghost that was forcing him to act against his will, it's not surprising that he "played the part" so well as to convince the more suggestible people around him.

The Christian apologist's "lord/liar/lunatic" trilemma assumes that when a person is suffering from mental illness, this fact should be obvious to everyone around them. In reality, such people can be seemingly calm, rational and in all other respects capable of leading a normal life, except in areas that touch upon their delusional fixation. And if this is true of our society, how much more true must it have been in more superstitious past societies, which readily accepted mental illness as a sign of divine favor or demonic attack?

The human brain is a marvelous belief-forming engine, and when guided by reason and informed by the proper functioning of the senses, it's adept at grasping the true nature of reality. But when it malfunctions, it can produce an endless variety of strange delusions, fantasies and hallucinations, all of which seem utterly real and convincing to the people experiencing them. By following the dictates of reason, we can help many of them. But when the mentally ill are immersed in a culture that accepts such delusions as real, their suffering is needlessly prolonged. How many people have been denied needed medical treatment because their culture leads others to believe their disturbed state must be supernatural?

March 30, 2011, 5:56 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink19 comments

Jehovah's Witnesses Hate the Smurfs

By Sarah Braasch

In the early 80's, the primary preoccupations of the Jehovah's Witnesses were Armageddon, Smurfs, Michael Jackson and demonic attack, but not necessarily in that order. As a young Jehovah's Witness girl, my worldview was what you might describe as surreal. Smurfs were little blue imps disguised as Saturday morning cartoon characters. They were capable of murder, rape, violence and general mayhem, and, as such, all Smurf paraphernalia had to be either banished or burned or both from any respectable Jehovah's Witness home. Armageddon was regarded with frenzied anticipation. We couldn't wait for the bloodletting of the wicked to begin. Demons roamed the earth, along with Satan the Devil. They lurked behind every corner, literally, just waiting for an invitation to wreak havoc on one's mind and body. And Michael Jackson was the subject of many rancorous sermons at the Kingdom Hall. Michael Jackson and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom replaced the Smurfs as the most blatant signs of the end times, the last days of this system of things.

I didn't know whom Michael Jackson was when I began to hear his name breathlessly bandied about with great agitation and interspersed amongst the cautionary tales of Smurfs and demon-possessed antiques. I knew I didn't have any of his tapes or records. I felt much relieved. When news of the Smurfs' demonic nature had come to light, I had to rid my bedroom of Smurfs, and I wasn't able to sleep for months thereafter. I was convinced I had inadvertently invited demons into my life.

Apparently there was something quite different about this Michael Jackson. He had been one of us. He had been a Jehovah's Witness. This information blew my little mind. What?!? How could a Jehovah's Witness do the horrible things the elders accused Michael Jackson of having done? How could someone abandon Jehovah God after having learned the truth? Was he demon possessed?

We were given explicit instructions in how to handle the Michael Jackson situation. He was definitely NOT a Jehovah's Witness. We were told to deny him. A Jehovah's Witness would not do the things he did. A Jehovah's Witness is not merely someone who claims the identity. A Jehovah's Witness must walk the walk, not just talk the talk. A Jehovah's Witness demonstrates his identity via his behavior. Michael Jackson might have attended a few meetings. His mother might be a Jehovah's Witness, but that did not make Michael Jackson a Jehovah's Witness. Deny, deny, deny. We were read an official letter from the governing body of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society in New York.

All of this commotion was very exciting and titillating. We had a betrayer in our midst. He was the purveyor of worldly sex and sin and demonic imagery. We secretly relished the notoriety and the attention his fame brought us. What good was it to be God's chosen people, the only ones with the truth, to be better than everyone else, unless everyone else knew of our superiority? Battle lines were drawn. There was a fight to be had, in the public eye, in the center of a scandalous controversy. It was so delicious.

It was also a matter of life and death and demons. JWs love to whip themselves up into a veritable frenzy. They love to terrorize themselves and their children. Everything is a cosmic battle to the death between the forces of good and evil. Even Smurfs and Michael Jackson and Indiana Jones.

One day I was the odd but accepted fixture of Lincoln Elementary School in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and the next day I was the cool kid. Everyone was jealous of me. Not despite the fact that I was a Jehovah's Witness, but, miraculously, because I was a Jehovah's Witness. That was something new. I was supposed to denounce and disown Michael Jackson, but, suddenly, everyone wanted to know me and be near me, because Michael Jackson was also a Jehovah's Witness. I remember little girls telling me, “You're so lucky, because you're a Jehovah's Witness just like Michael Jackson.” All of the little girls in my grade had huge crushes on him.

I felt torn. I loved the attention and the admiration, but I was terrified of being attacked by demons if I strayed from the organization's instructions. I strived to achieve both aims. I milked the association for all it was worth and denounced his worldly ways at the same time. I convinced myself that I was doing this in order to proselytize to as many of my classmates as possible. That was the other thing. We were told to take advantage of this situation to spread the good news to people who were now open to hearing it.

While I was able to withstand the siren charms of MJ, I knew another little JW girl who was not. My sister and I often played with a little Jehovah's Witness girl named Sandy whose mother was also named Sandy. I found that so strange. I found that to be the height of arrogance for a mother to name her daughter after herself. It seemed almost like self-idolatry. I was both intrigued and aghast.

Their family was particularly devout. They sold their home. They moved into a mobile home to simplify their lives, so that they could devote more of their time to the preaching effort. They gave us their dog, Yickey (some kind of weird Swedish name – only in Minnesota). They didn't want to spend time taking care of a pet that they could spend out witnessing the good news. Sandy and her little brother were not allowed to watch television or listen to the radio without adult supervision. Their every move was monitored.

But, Sandy's and her little brother's parents had both previously been married and divorced. To other people. I was scandalized by this information. Sandy had led a pre-Jehovah's Witness life. Her family's righteousness was newfound. Sandy had a hard time conforming to her newly strict and ascetic lifestyle. She had a secret life in which she indulged in wicked worldliness. But, just a little bit. I was both repelled with fear and disgust and wholly enthralled by more than a little fear and disgust.

Sandy and I bonded over this shared attraction to the dark side. My mother had not been a JW until she married my father. As such, she was far more lenient than most Jehovah's Witness mothers regarding our daily activities. I was probably worse the wear for it. It almost made me Catholic, the extreme guilt that I felt. But, it was even worse, because my guilt was coupled with sheer terror, because I was certain that I was deserving of demonic attack.

One day at Sandy's house, she led my sister and I into her bedroom to exchange confidences and demon attack horror stories. Then, she revealed her deep and abiding love for, of all things, Michael Jackson. I think I might have shrieked. Then, she opened up the top drawer of her dresser and flung her undergarments onto her bed, revealing a huge stash of Michael Jackson pictures that she had cut from the pages of magazines and whatnot. How she had escaped her mother's watchful eye long enough to do so was beyond me. Pictures of Michael Jackson in concert. Pictures of Michael Jackson in his videos. Pictures of Michael Jackson posing for photo shoots. She handed some of the images to my sister and I.

I didn't want to touch the photos. I was literally terrified. It was as if she had pulled voodoo dolls or a Ouija board out from her dresser. Nothing is more terrifying to Jehovah's Witnesses than the Satanic Ouija board. I thought demons were going to appear at any moment. I thought I was being possessed at that moment. I almost fainted. I started to cry. My sister looked scared too. I begged her to put the pictures away. Scaring one another with tales of bad Jehovah's Witnesses who had been rightfully tormented by demons was one thing. But, actually inviting demons into our lives was something else entirely. And that's what those pictures were. They were portals to the spiritual world, the evil spiritual world. They were doorways, and demons were waiting on the other side, itching to get in through my fingertips.

It's truly amazing and horrifying how brainwashing and inculcation as a child stays with you throughout your life. I am an adult. I am well educated. I have not been a Jehovah's Witness for many, many years. I am an atheist. Most of the time. But, sometimes, especially when I'm stressed out and tired, I'll start to feel that old sense of panic and anxiety. I'm sure I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I will still call out to Jehovah to protect me from demons, but only every once in a blue moon. And, I feel the need less and less. These moments of psychosis become more and more rare. I'm really looking forward to the time when they will cease altogether, if that ever happens.

I became addicted to the drama. It was such a rush, such a high. A constant battle with demons. The ever-incipient apocalypse. The community wide martyr complex. I sometimes wonder if maybe it permanently damaged my brain. I was constantly pumped full of adrenaline, high on terror, living on a knife's edge, waiting for the next demonic attack.

That lifestyle has maintained its grasp on me in myriad ways. I overreact. I am hyper-emotional. Everything's a matter of life and death. The problem is two-fold. I'm addicted to the rush of chemicals in my body, and I never learned how to distinguish between the real emergency and the fake one. When pictures of Michael Jackson might contain demons, something about your life is slightly skewed.

I fell into something of a depression when Michael Jackson died. I was unbelievably sad. I was embarrassed to tell anyone. I had enjoyed his music, but I had never been a huge fan. I had never purchased any of his albums. I had never seen him in concert. I had never met him, of course. But, his death opened up a lot of childhood wounds. I felt like I knew a part of him. Like I understood in a way that few others would.

I knew the pain of growing up in an abusive Jehovah's Witness home with a subservient and submissive mother and a domineering father. I knew the pain of loving a mother who will not protect you, because she believes that God will condemn her for doing so. The pain of loving a mother who will not leave the man who believes it is within his God-given authority to beat you. The pain of loving a mother who would rather watch you suffer in misery than expose Jehovah God or his organization to public scorn and shame.

Growing up, I loved my mother more than anything, but she didn't love me more than anything. She loved her religion more. It still makes me cry. So when Michael Jackson died, I cried. I cried for the little girl who was terrified that demons were going to rape her in the middle of the night. I cried for the little girl who begged her mother to leave her father. I cried for the little girl who begged Jehovah God to kill her, so that the pain would stop. And, I cried for the little Jehovah's Witness boy that Michael Jackson had been.

I worry about Michael's kids. I know that sounds silly, but I think about them. I hope they are safe and well. I worry that they are being inculcated in that apocalyptic cult of demonology and terror that is the Jehovah's Witnesses. It is not a healthy environment for children. Not to mention the fact that that cult once denounced and disowned their father as wicked and sinful.

I worry about Paris. The Jehovah's Witnesses espouse the subjugation of women and girls as part of Jehovah's divinely ordained plan. Raising children as Jehovah's Witnesses is abusive, especially for girl children. It is also dangerous. The Jehovah's Witnesses provide a safe haven for pedophiles, abusers and molesters. I imagine that Michael Jackson suffered greatly as a result of having been raised as a Jehovah's Witness.

I worry about Katherine Jackson raising those kids as Jehovah's Witnesses. I don't know her. I've never met her. But, I am tired of hearing her spoken of as if she were some kind of saint for remaining with her tyrannical husband all of these years. I am tired of hearing her spoken of as if she were some kind of saint because she's religious, because she's a woman of faith, because she's spiritual.

My mother was spiritual. My mother was a woman of faith. My mother was religious. My mother is still married to my father. They still live together. I haven't spoken to either of them in nearly twenty years.

My mother chose her husband and her religion and her God over her children. She stood by and did nothing as her children suffered at the hands of her husband. She stood by and did nothing as her cult terrorized and tortured her children. She sacrificed us for her faith. She sacrificed us for her loveless marriage.

I got down on my hands and knees and begged my mother to protect me. I begged her to choose me. I begged her to love me. And she said no.

So, you'll have to excuse me if I don't think women should be canonized for holding their faith in higher regard than the protection of their own children. And, I'm not sure they should be rewarded with even more children to neglect in this way.

I don't want Michael's kids to have to beg.

November 11, 2009, 1:41 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink128 comments

The Witch Children of Nigeria

I've written on several past occasions about how belief in malignant supernatural forces causes real harm to real people. There are examples of this from every region of the world, but some of the most wrenching are from Africa, where Biblical beliefs about demons and evil spirits still run rampant.

In January, I wrote about the witch camps of Ghana, where people suspected of using black magic to harm their neighbors are exiled as if they were lepers. In April, there were the Pentecostals of the Congo, who seek to cure mental illness by chaining sufferers to their beds and beating them to drive the demons out. Now, via the Guardian, there's a story out of Nigeria that is far more heart-breaking and horrible than either of those.

Driving through the town of Esit Eket, the rust-streaked signs, tarpaulins hung between trees and posters on boulders, advertise a church for every third or fourth house along the road. Such names as New Testament Assembly, Church of God Mission, Mount Zion Gospel, Glory of God, Brotherhood of the Cross, Redeemed, Apostalistic. Behind the smartly painted doors pastors make a living by 'deliverances' - exorcisms - for people beset by witchcraft, something seen to cause anything from divorce, disease, accidents or job losses. With so many churches it's a competitive market, but by local standards a lucrative one.

If this were merely a case of parasitic clergy making money by preying on superstitious people, exploiting the poor by charging exorbitant sums to chase away imaginary dangers, that would be bad enough. But this atmosphere of fanaticism has taken a far uglier turn.

But an exploitative situation has now grown into something much more sinister as preachers are turning their attentions to children - naming them as witches. In a maddened state of terror, parents and whole villages turn on the child. They are burnt, poisoned, slashed, chained to trees, buried alive or simply beaten and chased off into the bush.

This bold statement would be unbelievable if the story itself didn't provide so many first-hand examples. There are numerous children quoted whose own parents, inflamed to frenzy by Christian preachers, have thrown boiling water and acid at them, who have left them tied to trees for days, who have forced them to drink poison. The children who are not killed by this torture are invariably driven out of their homes to live as homeless orphans in communities that despise and fear them and often attempt to kill them on sight.

As the Guardian article notes prominently, the fervent Christian beliefs of these communities have created the problem, not mitigated it. As with the similar cases from Ghana and the Congo, the spread of fanatic Pentecostal and evangelical sects who interpret the Bible's verses about witches and exorcisms literally have given rise to this outrage. is American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries of the past 50 years who have shaped these fanatical beliefs. Evil spirits, satanic possessions and miracles can be found aplenty in the Bible, references to killing witches turn up in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Galatians, and literal interpretation of scriptures is a popular crowd-pleaser.

And the local preachers who are enriching themselves by shattering families and killing children are not in the least bit apologetic:

Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. 'We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery.' Soft of voice and in his smart suit and tie, his church is being painted and he apologises for having to sit outside near his shiny new Audi to talk.

...'To give more than you can afford is blessed. We are the only ones who really know the secrets of witches. Parents don't come here with the intention of abandoning their children, but when a child is a witch then you have to say "what is that there? Not your child."

This is a dramatic illustration of the "megaphone" hypothesis of religion amplifying both the good and the bad in human nature in equal measure. At one extreme, it can produce astounding acts of courage and self-sacrificing love. At the other extreme, it can produce hatred, xenophobia and superstitious fear so poisonous that parents can be turned against their own minor children. The flip side of charity and love toward those declared to be in the religious in-group is this savage treatment toward those declared to be in the out-group, and religion is all too effective at placing people outside that charmed circle, declaring them to be less than human.

The hatred and horror visited on these children by their faithful parents underscores the immorality of believing in a book like the Bible that contains such evil superstitions. Even if enlightened believers understand the verses about devils and witches for the savage and primitive falsehoods they are, so long as we promote this book as the word of God, those verses will always be there to be rediscovered by fanatics, with the results we have seen.

This tragic story is one more example of why atheists must work to spread reason and oppose faith in all its guises. Until the day when we can empty the haunted air and banish these pernicious beliefs once and for all, human beings will continue to suffer from the irrational ideologies that teach us to view others as agents of Satan and therefore undeserving of moral consideration.

December 17, 2007, 8:38 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink70 comments

Emptying the Haunted Air

Almost two hundred years ago, the English Romantic poet John Keats wrote a poem, "Lamia", in which he lamented that the advance of scientific understanding would rob the world of its beauty and wonder. Keats' chief villain, though not named in the poem, was Isaac Newton, whose use of the prism to split white light into its component colors was viewed by Keats as akin to desecration:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine -
Unweave a rainbow...

(It helps if you read "awful" as "awe-inspiring". Like species, languages evolve over time.)

Keats' charge of "unweaving the rainbow" was answered by Richard Dawkins, whose book of the same name argued persuasively that understanding how the world truly works enhances, rather than diminishes, its beauty and our awe. This strikes me as a more than adequate reply. But as far as I know, Keats' other point hasn't been answered in detail, and I'd like to do so.

To this charge, I answer as follows: Yes, science will empty the haunted air. And the sooner, the better. That is not a thing to be lamented, but a long-awaited liberation from an especially harmful set of lingering and poisonous superstitions.

Throughout history, religious believers have been obsessed with the idea that human beings are constantly under assault by devilish powers. Christianity's most famous evangelist, Paul of Tarsus, was one of the chief proponents of this demonic paranoia:

"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."

—Ephesians 6:12

And likewise the pseudonymous author of 1 Peter, who compared the Devil to a predator forever waiting his chance to strike:

"Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour."

—1 Peter 5:8

These believers, and many others, had demons on the brain. In everything they did, they saw evil spirits swarming invisibly around them, always seeking to bring about the downfall of the faithful, always plotting how best to tempt them into eternal damnation, and always ready to strike at any believer who let down his guard for even an instant. This superstitious phobia, which survives to the present day, has produced incalculable fear, suffering and misery.

For just one example, I wrote earlier this year, in "Rebuking the Devil", of a Pentecostal church in the Congo that still thinks mental illness is a sign of demon possession. Rather than effective psychiatric intervention to help its sick patients, this church's "treatment" consists of chaining them down and beating them, interspersed with faith healing and prayer. Whole sites also exist that are devoted to the idea of "deliverance" from demonic attack and curses in every aspect of life.

But it's not just small fringe sects or Third World countries where demonic superstitions persist. These beliefs are still defended by large, established churches and respected religious spokespeople, and they are still causing harm to real people in the world today.

Consider this comment from a column on Catholic Online:

Those Catholics involved in deliverance ministry who are versed in the aspects of the occult inform me that curses of this type are very hard to complete.

Note - hard, not impossible. Evidently, this Catholic writer really believes that it is possible to cause harm to another by invoking occult aid. And he's not some random nobody, representing only himself, but an ordained priest and a featured contributor on a large and popular Catholic news and opinion site.

Likewise, consider the evangelical Dr. Gary Collins, a highly qualified clinical psychologist and president of the 15,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors, who was handpicked by apologist Lee Strobel for his book The Case for Christ. In a stunning interview with Strobel, Collins reveals his belief that malicious demons exist and are actively possessing people in the world today. Even more amazingly, he implies - like the Pentecostals of the Congo - that he thinks this should be the basis for treatment of at least some of the mentally ill:

"From my theological beliefs, I accept that demons exist... there are spiritual forces out there, and it's not too hard to conclude that some might be malevolent."

"I haven't personally [seen evidence of demon possession], but then I haven't spent my whole career in clinical settings... My friends in clinical work have said that sometimes they have seen this, and these are not people who are inclined to see a demon behind every problem."

"People who deny the existence of the supernatural will find some way, no matter how far-fetched, to explain a situation apart from the demonic. They'll keep giving medication, keep drugging the person, but he or she doesn't get better. There are cases that don't respond to normal medical or psychiatric treatment." (p. 204)

Vast suffering has been inflicted on people as a result of these irrational beliefs. Vjack of Atheist Revolution tells us about his friend Tony, who was kidnapped by his parents' conservative evangelical church and "exorcised" against his will until he was emotionally broken. Another anonymous story, even more horrifying, adds the element of carving a cross into the unwilling exorcism recipient's skin. Children and others have died during abusive exorcisms.

No good has ever been brought about by demon beliefs. They have only ever caused fear, suffering and misery, both for the people who are imprisoned, abused and tortured and for the genuinely mentally ill who are discouraged from getting the real treatment they need.

Thankfully, after millennia in darkness, we finally have an opportunity to recognize these falsehoods for what they are. As the light of true understanding spreads, the supernatural is retreating. We have learned that our world is not a demon-haunted place, with malicious spirits lurking in every corner, but is governed by stable, orderly natural laws, as majestic and impersonal as clockwork. There are no leering demons waiting to menace us; those creatures are nothing but the fevered dreams of a superstitious and ignorant age. In the daylight, they have no more substance than shadows, and melt away just as quickly.

So, Keats was correct: philosophy and science will empty the haunted air. He saw this as a lament, but we should view it as a blessing. Once we have finished clearing out the grotesque supernatural visions that have threatened and terrified so many people, we will be free to turn our attention fully to the needs and concerns of this world, which are the only real or important things.

October 27, 2007, 11:47 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink34 comments

Why Does God Let Satan Roam Free?

"Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour."

—1 Peter 5:8

"Only-begotten Son, seest thou what rage
Transports our Adversary? whom no bounds
Prescribed, no bars of Hell, nor all the chains
Heaped on him there, nor yet the main Abyss
Wide interrupt, can hold..."

—John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book III

One of the aspects of Christian theology that has always made the least sense to me is why God, having defeated Satan, now permits him to roam freely across the Earth tempting people to do evil. Why wouldn't an all-powerful creator have imprisoned the Devil and all his demons permanently so that they could not exert any influence on human beings or earthly affairs? Surely, his doing so would have saved the souls of at least some people who, in the current scheme, fell prey to temptation and ended up eternally damned. Christianity says that eternal damnation is Satan's sentence anyway, so why would God delay that sentence and permit him to roam free so that he could drag as many people as possible down with him?

The first possible explanation is that Satan escaped because God was not powerful enough to restrain him. John Milton gives this explanation in the verse above, yet even he must have recognized the illogic of it. According to Christianity, God is omnipotent and Satan is not. In Milton's own story, the only reason Satan was able to escape Hell is because God, quite literally, gave the keys to one of the prisoners.

A second possibility: God lets Satan roam free merely as a way of twisting the knife further on his own punishment. A different chapter of Paradise Lost proposes this explanation:

So stretched out huge in length the Arch-Fiend lay,
Chained on the burning lake; nor ever thence
Had risen, or heaved his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enraged might see
How all his malice served but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace, and mercy, shewn
On Man by him seduced, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath, and vengeance poured.

This, too, cannot be correct. Satan's malice did not only produce grace and mercy for humankind, as Milton claims. Instead, according to Christianity's own theology, it will result in a huge majority of human beings suffering the wrath of God and being cast down into the fiery abyss along with him. This explanation does not accord with even basic Christian beliefs, so it must be thrown out.

A third explanation holds that God permits freedom for the Devil so as to give human beings the ability to choose freely between right and wrong, and to teach them that disaster always results when they turn away from God's commands:

God allowed Satan, the epitome of evil, to enter the Garden of Eden and discuss his view of life with Adam and Eve. They then had to make a choice. They chose to follow Satan rather than God. Satan's tragic delusion of mankind has been the result.

This is the first explanation that is even vaguely plausible. If Satan's role were merely to act as a devil's advocate, so to speak, it might even work. But the problem with it is that, by Christian teaching, Satan is the "great deceiver". He does not present his position honestly, but instead tries to trick humanity into sin through lies and treachery. A choice made in ignorance, because the chooser was deceived about the likely result, is not free at all. Thus, God's permitting Satan to roam free does not further his goal of giving humans a free choice between good and evil - instead, it actually decreases their freedom, by making it possible for them to fall through misstep or mistake rather than as a conscious, willed choice.

Surely, we do not need the temptation of Satan in order to be free. If we have free will, then a person still has the ability to choose evil, regardless of whether there is outside temptation urging them that way. (In the last of the Left Behind books, set in Christ's millennial kingdom, vast numbers of people still turn to evil even though Satan is locked away from the world at that point.) And, presumably, God does not want us to choose evil, even if he does leave that option open. Why, then, would he not remove as many enticements to evil as possible, to ensure that the greatest number of people make the right choice? God's decision to let Satan roam free, in the Christian worldview, can only be seen as an act of incompetence or malice. It ensures that more people end up damned than otherwise would have been. If there was any evidence that any of this was true, such a plan of action would cast serious doubt on the goodness of the planner, and raise the question of whether a deity who unleashed a being as evil as Satan on the world would be truly deserving of our devotion or our worship.

August 7, 2007, 8:38 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink133 comments

Rebuking the Devil

I have written several times in the past about how religious superstition, when it is taken seriously, causes harm and suffering to real people by dissuading them from seeking the evidence-based treatments they need. But a new story from the March 31 edition of Newsday, Trying to change minds in the Congo, is one of the most horrifying illustrations of this principle I have yet seen.

The African Republic of the Congo, a country of 3.7 million people, has only one clinical psychiatrist. Dr. Alain Mouanga works against heroic odds, in desperately poor and dilapidated conditions, to treat people suffering from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression. The Congolese government provides him buildings - albeit run-down and unsanitary buildings, still damaged from a 10-year-old civil war - to work out of, and pays the salaries for him and his staff. But everything else, including medications, patient meals and even sheets for the patients' beds, must be paid for by patients' families or by funds that Dr. Mouanga raises himself from individuals or aid groups.

All this would offer a tremendous challenge for a doctor in any country, and for his tireless, dedicated efforts on behalf of his patients, Dr. Mouanga deserves to be recognized as a true humanist hero and an inspiration to everyone who works to reduce human suffering. But this is not the end of the story. There is one other major obstacle that he must face:

Mouanga knows that if patients don't believe in him, they will leave, instead seeking help from the hundreds of spiritual leaders, herbalists and other traditional healers who claim to cure the mentally ill in this poor country.

Less than a mile from Mouanga's hospital clinic is his chief local competitor - a Pentecostal church that claims to heal the mentally ill through faith in God.

...The church's treatment program is founded in the belief that mental illness is caused by evil spirits and sorcery.

"Evil spirits and demons can't be seen or interpreted by a microscope," said Galouo, head of the church's mental-illness program.

Yes, you guessed it. In this poor, predominantly Christian nation, primitive superstitions are still dominant - including the superstition that mental illness is caused by demonic possession. As the article explains, Dr. Mouanga's greatest struggle is to convince potential patients that he actually can help them. And many only come to him after "traditional" magical treatments fail:

Very few patients walk through Mouanga's gate without having visited a traditional healer first. Their treatments range from fasting to more extreme methods such as scarring and burning of the flesh.

But let's take a closer look at that Pentecostal Christian church that competes with Dr. Mouanga. How do they attempt to treat the mentally ill people who come to them seeking help?

There, patients can be seen chained to their beds nearly 24 hours a day. The men sleep under ratty plastic tarps, which offer little protection from Congo's tropical rain and sun.

If patients complain or try to leave, they are beaten. "We hit them to discipline them," said Pastor Pierre-Clotaire Galouo, head of the church's mental-illness program. "Those who menace us have lost all reason. They no longer understand anything."

...Less than a mile from Mouanga's psychiatric ward, patients are limited by the length of their chains at the Assemblées de Dieu de Pentecôte. Men and women are tethered to their beds like bicycles to a lamppost.

Some of the patients clearly chafe at the chains. One young man bore a large gauze bandage around his ankle during a visit in November. Others make them into a joke. A woman coquettishly dangled her ankle for a reporter, showing off her shackles as if they were jewelry.

...The patients stay for as little as a few weeks and as long as several years, waiting for church leaders to announce that God has healed them.

They are unlocked only to wash and to relieve themselves. They are not unlocked to pray.

You read that right, readers. The Assemblées de Dieu de Pentecôte does not rely solely on prayer and exorcism to treat their mentally ill supplicants - that would be bad enough, but no. Instead, their method involves chaining patients to their beds and beating them, doubtless to "drive the demons out". Sick people are kept in this cruel and degrading imprisonment until the church officials decide that they are permitted to leave. The article does not say if everyone at this church came voluntarily or if some were coerced or abducted by relatives or friends, but it seems very likely, if not inevitable, that some were.

There is one correction to the Newsday article I must make. The article says that Congoloese churches are "seasoned with African beliefs" about demon possession. This errs by calling demon possession an "African" addition, as if this were some superstitious add-on not present in Christianity originally. In fact, the idea of demon possession as the cause of both mental and physical illness is a prominent and obvious theme in the New Testament itself, as shown by verses like this:

"Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils."

—Mark 16:9

"Then was brought unto him one possessed with a devil, blind, and dumb: and he healed him, insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw."

—Matthew 12:22

"And in the synagogue there was a man, which had a spirit of an unclean devil, and cried out with a loud voice, saying, Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art; the Holy One of God. And Jesus rebuked him, saying, Hold thy peace, and come out of him. And when the devil had thrown him in the midst, he came out of him, and hurt him not."

—Luke 4:33-35

"And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying, Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water.... And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour."

—Matthew 17:18

"And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils."

—Mark 3:14-15

If anything, it is the African churches who are following what the text says. Meanwhile, Western denominations who recognize this for the embarrassing anachronism it is have added these passages to the vast category of Biblical verses that modern churchgoers do their best to quietly sweep under the rug and disregard.

Beliefs in demon possession are a legacy of humanity's superstitious past, when people ignorantly imagined that any phenomenon they did not understand was caused by supernatural agents. But there is no longer any excuse for holding such beliefs, now that we know so much about the natural origins of the mind. Especially, there is no excuse for using these superstitions as an excuse to degrade and abuse our fellow human beings and treat them like animals, as these despicable Pentecostals are doing. This whole sorry episode just goes to show that when we abandon reason as a means of understanding the world, evils and cruelties visited on our fellow human beings are sure to follow. That is why we as atheists should oppose faith, superstition, and irrationality of all kinds - not just because it is false, but because of the immeasurable harm it has wreaked on the lives of human beings.

April 6, 2007, 10:33 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink34 comments

Witch Hysteria Is Alive and Well

One of the great tragedies of the human species is the violence and turmoil still happening in Africa. Africa is the continent of our origins, the place of our species' birth, and the one place on Earth to which everyone now living can trace their ultimate ancestry. It should be a place of peace and human togetherness, an enduring and living monument to our past. Instead, the continent is still struggling to overcome the shameful legacy of colonialism and its own ethnic divisions, and much of it is mired in poverty, corruption, bloody warfare and rank superstition.

From the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Darfur to the scourge of AIDS which has decimated an entire generation, Africa faces many terrible problems that justly demand the compassion and assistance of the world community. Unfortunately, many of these problems continue to be exacerbated by harmful local superstitions. Whether it is the deadly rumor that sex with a virgin can cure AIDS, the ancestor-worship religions that oppose effective measures to treat preventable diseases, or the Christian churches that encourage HIV-positive people to forsake antiviral medicine in favor of holy water, Africa is all too persuasive an example (although by no means the only example) of how irrational religious beliefs cause harm to real people.

I now have another example to report: an article, Alleged African witches still outcast to camps, about "witch camps" in the nation of Ghana where people suspected of using sorcery are exiled from their friends and family to live lives of poverty. Most are women, but some are men as well. As is always the case in witchcraft accusations, the standard of proof is low to nonexistent: mere accusation is taken as the equal of guilt, and anything from bad dreams to rashes of disease to family quarrels to success that makes others jealous can bring on accusations. And it is not just native religions that cling to these superstitions, as reported by a professor at the University of Ghana:

Ironically, the rise in Ghana of charismatic Christian churches, with their focus on the fight against evil, has intensified fear and belief in witchcraft, even among educated people, Akrong said.

From the article, it seems that these people are merely being exiled, rather than killed as was the custom of past ages. This may be a marginal improvement at best, but at least it offers the hope that this injustice can be corrected and these innocent people returned to their families. Unfortunately, despite some citizens of the country speaking out against these harmful superstitions, there seems to be no reason to expect that such a thing will happen any time soon.

I do wonder if even the people who make these accusations truly believe them. After all, if a person really was a witch, able to invoke black magic to do harm to others, what good would it do to exile them to a different village? Couldn't they continue to call misfortune down on their enemies from there, or are witches' powers limited by distance?

The Ghanaian witch hysteria is an instructive reply to the often-repeated that it is presumptuous and arrogant to be an atheist since no one can really know that God doesn't exist. If we follow that logic consistently, we should also believe that it would be arrogant to declare there is no such thing as witchcraft, and so maybe some of the people exiled to witch camps or burned at the stake, as was done in past eras, really did deserve such a punishment. This line of reasoning would require "keeping an open mind" about witchcraft and being open to the possibility that a lack of rainfall or a child's illness really should be blamed on some outcast elderly woman using black magic to cause misfortune for others.

An atheist, however, has a clear and consistent reply to all these cases. The burden of proof always rests with the positive claimant, and unless the person who makes a supernatural claim can offer clear and convincing evidence of its truth - which no person throughout history has ever been able to do for any supernatural claim - then we are fully justified in treating all these claims as false. And as with many supernatural claims, the self-serving nature of these accusations suggests the real motivation behind them, with those who make them using the unprovability of the supernatural as a convenient excuse to avoid having to present evidence.

January 27, 2007, 2:50 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink10 comments

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