Exorcism is a crime

10 Mar 2011

The Vatican's Father Gabriele Amorth thinks The Exorcist faithfully represents his job as the Pope's right-hand dispeller of demons (both the serpent kind and the scorpion kind!). In the US, where an astounding 40% of the population is said to firmly believe in angels and devils, Father Gary Thomas would steer you to The Rite to learn more of his 9-to-5. 

Both men are exorcists, a surprising number of which still ply the medieval trade of casting out evil spirits. Both are convinced that demons are real, that possession is real, and that the need for an army of exorcists is both real and growing (even extending to appeals for holy help from non-Catholics, says Thomas). And both share interesting (as in, can't-look-away bizarre) revelations of the workings of their craft: types and symptoms of possession, steps employed in the de-spiriting, and the importance of distinguishing genuine possession from mental illness.

Ahem. About that last item... If, in fact, demons aren't real, then just what are these men doing when they engage in their "healing ministry", as Thomas describes his hour-or-two bouts of Satanic battle? If there is no real possession, then aren't exorcists peddling witch-doctor hocus-pocus of the most gullible sort? Aren't they putting on a show that's indescribably silly

Much worse, says Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid podcast. Their actions are criminal

Brian's excellent Skeptoid episodes do their darnedest to carefully weigh claims of the bizarre and supernatural, based on even-handed examination of evidence. But in the episode The Exorcism of Anneliese, Brian wastes no words in slamming the medieval idiocy of exorcism and its tragic effects on people needing actual medical care for mental disorders. 

Today doctors can look at cases like Anneliese, and though we cannot make a reliable diagnosis without an examination, it seems clear that she suffered from a variety of conditions including dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personality disorder)... 

Thus, the Catholic exorcism rite remains contemptuous of basic ethics and any pretense of considering the patient's welfare to be important...

Hundreds of professional exorcists walk among us, today, seeking critically ill psychiatric patients upon whom they can shout charms and sprinkle water. Many of these cases recount shocking tortures. Drownings, crucifixions, burnings, stabbings, all in the name of exorcism, and most to innocent children or the mentally ill.

Brian also points an accusing finger at the Hollywoodization of exorcism, and our own complicity in anointing a new canonical film monster to keep us entertained for a couple of hours at a time.

Filmmakers have exploited these victims to make not just The Exorcist, but a slew of other copycat films based on specific individuals, including Anneliese. Every time Linda Blair's head spun around, or she spat green vomit, we laughed and had a riotous old time at the theater. Would the same movies have been made exploiting the victims of other true-life crimes, and would we have laughed at the depictions of those actual victims in their dramatized death throes? 

Yikes. That one strikes a bit close to home; there is a certain attraction to the movie depiction of holy action-hero priests battling invisible monsters, even for those of us who find the supernatural bit pure fiction. It's fun until someone more thoughtful reminds us that, away from the big screen and the popcorn, real people are being hurt:

Exorcism is a brutal, heinous, medieval torture ritual justified only by ignorance. Its roots as a religious rite are irrelevant; a crime is still a crime.

Amen. Let's do what we can to banish exorcisms (and all harmful juju) to the realm of escapist fiction only. Thanks for the wake-up call, Brian.

PS: If you're not a subscriber to Skeptoid, remedy that now!

Comments

Sadly thegreat Linda Bllair film cannot be denied for having an effect on the rise of exorcisims however, I do not believe the film or its patrons should be held at fault. That would be the same as me blaming vampire movies on someone biting me. The blame must be held to the delusional religious zealots just as I hold the biting blame squarely on that mullet haired freak outside club masquerade.

defaithed's picture

Actually, you'd be right to say that the film's fictional exorcists aren't guilty of the crime (mistreatment of the mentally ill) charged by Brian Dunning. The huge difference in the film was, of course, this: Linda Blair's character wasn't simply ill, she actually was possessed by an evil something. Which, of course, is pure bunkum on the part of the film – but evil Sith lords, ghost-busting comedians, and dinosaur theme parks are all equally "bunkum"; it's called fiction, and there's nothing wrong with storytelling! 

Still, whether The Exorcist can be faulted for inciting people to perform "real" exorcisms is somewhat tricky. I mostly agree with you: No one would watch King Kong, conclude that giant apes can be found on Skull Island, and subsequently risk lives in a dangerous ocean search. No one sane would see a vampire movie and be compelled to bite others, or to hunt down suspected "real" vampires in the neighborhood. But someone insane might react that way to the vampire movie. And given the tremendous power of religious belief to crank up the insanity in otherwise safe people, the film makers shouldn't feign surprise if some nuts take demonic possession fiction far too seriously.

I know, the film makers don't intend for anyone to do such things. We really can't expect that they'd withhold the film because of the risk of crazy people; none of us could do anything if we had to make certain we didn't trigger some lunatic somewhere. Your point is correct.

At the same time, though, if Brian Dunning wants to point out that fiction based on strongly-held religious beliefs carries a particularly high risk of inciting crazy reactions, he's got a good point too. 

This isn't argumentation. It's polemic. Besides, you're being a bit disingenuous about the consequences. If exorcism isn't real because demons aren't real, and demons aren't real because God isn't real, then what's with this stupid absolute conviction about the existence of mental disorders or better yet the absolute conviction of the criminality of exorcism? What absolute ground can you possibly preach from? I mean, who cares if I cut your face off. You might, and other might dislike it, partly no doubt because it establishes precedent for more face cutting including theirs, but so what? Liking or not liking something, joy or suffering. are just another arbitrary natural phenomenon in yet another arbitrary fluke of nature (homo sapiens). Behind your self-righteouness is an insecure and thinly masked void. At least the religious posit a being that is the absolute good, one which embues actions with moral quality. It forms a logical whole resting on the premise of the existence of a benevolent god. You're left with cultural arbitrariness rooted in biological arbitrariness. Who cares if you survive or suffer or sing? There is no moral imperative to surviving. If you're going to boast about being more rational than those crazy religious nuts (nyuk nyuk nyuk, ahhh those nutty nuts!), then at least make an effort to actually, you know, hold beliefs that have logical merit and act in ways that demonstrate that you actually believe in what you spout.

Now that I've pointed out the nonsense of existing, the arbitrariness of every action, the irrelevance of everything, that there is no escape or exit from the universe, how do you feel? What myth has replaced your rather cultish original faith? What fairy tale have you concocted to give yourself a sense of direction, meaning, certitude, or ground? Is it the game where we democratically decide on one? Is the case where a certain group of people -- ideologues -- claiming to be in possession of a way or method to the truth? Is it the loudest mouth that defines the truth? Perhaps what others think and thus small idols, minuature replacement gods, that become the Other onto which we project our hopes and our fears? 

And to top it off, thought: what an arbitrary process. I could question any line of reasoning, can't I, without ever coming to a genuine sense that what I've thought has any bearing on reality. At least the Christians have creatio ex nihilo, a wondrous thing that renders the universe intelligible and our minds capable of knowing. But we agnostics aren't ever sure of what we're looking at, and we atheists are just SOL in arriving at anything convincing, so we pick one and make it our resting place, our new Absolute.

It's one thing to doubt (agnosticism) and another thing to make a positive and absolute assertion that is more emotionalism than anything closely resembling reasoned argumentation. 

This isn't argumentation. It's polemic. Besides, you're being a bit disingenuous about the consequences. If exorcism isn't real because demons aren't real, and demons aren't real because God isn't real, then what's with this stupid absolute conviction about the existence of mental disorders or better yet the absolute conviction of the criminality of exorcism? What absolute ground can you possibly preach from? I mean, who cares if I cut your face off. You might, and other might dislike it, partly no doubt because it establishes precedent for more face cutting including theirs, but so what? Liking or not liking something, joy or suffering. are just another arbitrary natural phenomenon in yet another arbitrary fluke of nature (homo sapiens). Behind your self-righteouness is an insecure and thinly masked void. At least the religious posit a being that is the absolute good, one which embues actions with moral quality. It forms a logical whole resting on the premise of the existence of a benevolent god. You're left with cultural arbitrariness rooted in biological arbitrariness. Who cares if you survive or suffer or sing? There is no moral imperative to surviving. If you're going to boast about being more rational than those crazy religious nuts (nyuk nyuk nyuk, ahhh those nutty nuts!), then at least make an effort to actually, you know, hold beliefs that have logical merit and act in ways that demonstrate that you actually believe in what you spout.

Now that I've pointed out the nonsense of existing, the arbitrariness of every action, the irrelevance of everything, that there is no escape or exit from the universe, how do you feel? What myth has replaced your rather cultish original faith? What fairy tale have you concocted to give yourself a sense of direction, meaning, certitude, or ground? Is it the game where we democratically decide on one? Is the case where a certain group of people -- ideologues -- claiming to be in possession of a way or method to the truth? Is it the loudest mouth that defines the truth? Perhaps what others think and thus small idols, minuature replacement gods, that become the Other onto which we project our hopes and our fears? 

And to top it off, thought: what an arbitrary process. I could question any line of reasoning, can't I, without ever coming to a genuine sense that what I've thought has any bearing on reality. At least the Christians have creatio ex nihilo, a wondrous thing that renders the universe intelligible and our minds capable of knowing. But we agnostics aren't ever sure of what we're looking at, and we atheists are just SOL in arriving at anything convincing, so we pick one and make it our resting place, our new Absolute.

It's one thing to doubt (agnosticism) and another thing to make a positive and absolute assertion that is more emotionalism than anything closely resembling reasoned argumentation. 

defaithed's picture

It's been a busy few weeks, and I apologize for not responding quickly.

If exorcism isn't real because demons aren't real, and demons aren't real because God isn't real, then what's with this stupid absolute conviction about the existence of mental disorders or better yet the absolute conviction of the criminality of exorcism?

What is that supposed to mean? Are you saying that mental disorders don't exist? They do. (Even the exorcists, like Amorth, agree that mental disorders exist. Not that their testimony on medical issues matters...)

So if a person exhibits strange behavior due to a mental disorder... and instead of seeing that the person gets medical help, a "priest" offers magical juju rituals instead... how is that not criminal? How have you managed to miss the sad news reports of people dying from tortuous "exorcisms" when what was needed was medical care?

What absolute ground can you possibly preach from? I mean, who cares if I cut your face off. You might, and other might dislike it, partly no doubt because it establishes precedent for more face cutting including theirs, but so what?

??? Was this comment directed at some other post? You've lost me...

Liking or not liking something, joy or suffering. are just another arbitrary natural phenomenon in yet another arbitrary fluke of nature (homo sapiens). Behind your self-righteouness is an insecure and thinly masked void. At least the religious posit a being that is the absolute good, one which embues actions with moral quality. It forms a logical whole resting on the premise of the existence of a benevolent god. You're left with cultural arbitrariness rooted in biological arbitrariness. Who cares if you survive or suffer or sing? There is no moral imperative to surviving. If you're going to boast about being more rational than those crazy religious nuts (nyuk nyuk nyuk, ahhh those nutty nuts!), then at least make an effort to actually, you know, hold beliefs that have logical merit and act in ways that demonstrate that you actually believe in what you spout.

Seriously. Was this intended for some other post? Some other site?

The topic here is that of "priests" (or shamans, witch doctors, whatever title is used by the fraudulent "exorcists" involved) forcibly subjecting people with mental disorders to magical "rituals" to drive out "evil spirits". Instead of directing the patient to medical care.

Your response... is some generic pap about the "logical whole" of what "the religious posit", and the "biological arbitrariness" (??) of the non-religious? I should "hold beliefs that have logical merit"? Like what, tying down disturbed people to shout "Get out, Satan!" at them?? 

Hm. I thought I'd reply point by point to the long comment, but I see now there aren't any points. I assume this is a silly bit of Internet trolling (or possibly Poe-ing), pasting in a long piece of vague faith-y blather that doesn't address the article (or anything). If your goal was to be taken seriously for a moment, then congratulations; for the two minutes it took me to write the above, I was snookered.

If, on the other hand, your intent was to render an actual comment on the article, then I suspect there was alcohol involved. Lots of alcohol. I hope it was the good stuff.

But in any case, thanks for dropping by. Do please keep reading.

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