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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Angie

    It is absolutely insane that belief in demons and exorcisms still persist in 2007.

    I think the most insidious things are 1) people refusing to take responsibility for their own problems/actions/desires, and 2) people who really need help don’t get it. They just get tortured.

    There’s such a thing as criminal negligence. Shouldn’t there be such a thing as criminal ignorance?

  • anonymous

    If science doesn’t replace the haunted air with liberty, fools will buy into it but a psychopath might take it to heart. Do not mistake eugenics (general) for philanthropy.

  • OhioAtheist

    This post reminds of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. I wonder, since it’s nowhere in your “What I’m Reading” list or in the “Resources” page at Ebon Musings, whether you’ve read it. If not I highly recommend you do so when you get a chance.

  • Entomologista

    The world becomes more beautiful when you understand how it works. That’s why I’m a biologist :)

  • Mrnaglfar

    I’m reminded of the Douglas adams quote “Can’t the Garden just be beautiful without believing there are faries in it”, or something to that effect.

  • http://mindstalk.net Damien

    The garden quote might be Feynman.

    A different possibility is that technology could fill the air with things which are really there. I just read Karl Schroeder’s _Ventus_, about a world with (potentially) helpful nanotech interspersed in the rocks and the plants and the animals.

    *What are you?*
    *I am rock. I am pebble. I am granite.*
    *Can you become a knife?*
    *If you provide iron and carbon and heat, yes.*

    Or

    *I am wood.*
    *Now you are kindling.*
    *Okay.* (bursts into flames)

    There’s also Orion’s Arm take on things, and more generally the hypothesized application of augmented reality. If a garden would be more beautiful with fairies, then at some point we can probably make some.

  • Brock

    All fundamentalist christians are possessed by a demon. They call it the Holy Spirit.

  • Robert Madewell

    I heard a pentacostal preacher tell her congregation that there was no such thing as depression and that if the depressed were only to “get right with the lord”, then the demons would leave. She also told the congregation to flush their anti-depressants down the toilet. This happened in the USA by the way. I wonder how many people have committed suicide after following advice like this.

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    Another good post. Of course, I expect nothing less every time I visit, which is why I keep visiting. It really is amazing that anyone living in 2007, surrounded by the benefits of science and technology, could still believe in ancient superstitions. Then again, I suppose one could argue that it is precisely because of our modern world that such beliefs persist. After all, fundamentalism is widely regarded to be a reaction against modernity as much as anything else.

  • Alex Weaver

    Heh. They’re a bit confused, too. When they talk about “rebuking” devils I think they mean “turning” them, since they’re trying to drive them away, not gain control of them. See here.

    And why not? Their beliefs have about as much support as the D&D Divine Spellcaster rules. :P

  • OMGF

    I heard a pentacostal preacher tell her congregation that there was no such thing as depression and that if the depressed were only to “get right with the lord”, then the demons would leave. She also told the congregation to flush their anti-depressants down the toilet. This happened in the USA by the way. I wonder how many people have committed suicide after following advice like this.

    I just had a flashback to Tom Cruise going bonkers with Matt Lauer over anti-depressives. I guess Scientology isn’t that different from Xianity afterall.

  • vesperstar

    One thing to consider: you assume Keats meant “haunted” in terms of devils. Haunted here, in keeping with Keats’ larger message, can simply mean mysterious. Romantics in general were reacting against the empiricism and materialism of the 18th century, but they were not necessarily advocates of real demons or angels. When he writes “Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,” he’s utilizing metaphor, and I would argue the same applies with “haunted air.”

  • Alex Weaver

    One thing to consider: you assume Keats meant “haunted” in terms of devils. Haunted here, in keeping with Keats’ larger message, can simply mean mysterious. Romantics in general were reacting against the empiricism and materialism of the 18th century, but they were not necessarily advocates of real demons or angels. When he writes “Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,” he’s utilizing metaphor, and I would argue the same applies with “haunted air.”

    Given that, as Lovecraft observed, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” I think the evaluation still fits.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    The garden quote is definitely Douglas Adams: Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

    The “flush your antidepressants” story reminds me of Christopher Moore’s novel “The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove” – though it’s darkly comic, and also the psychiatrist who puts the town on placebos does it not from religious motivations but because she becomes afraid that she’s relying on drugs too much … It all goes horribly wrong in that patented Moore fashion, and the title character doesn’t help things, either.

  • Eric

    I think the scientific understanding of rainbows has increased their beauty. Without science we might have mistakenly believed a rainbow is a thing just independently out there. It is not. A rainbow is a *relationship* between an observer, a light source, and water vapor. Conclusion? NO TWO PEOPLE HAVE EVER SEEN THE SAME RAINBOW, though many have seen closely similar rainbows. If two people standing only a few feet apart were able to accurately plot their lines of sight to the highest point of the rainbow, these lines would be parallel, unlike their lines of sight to a distant object like an airplane which would converge.

    Further conclusions of a scientific understand of rainbows: THERE IS NO SUCH PLACE AS “OVER THE RAINBOW!” An observer in the symmetricly opposite position to you as you saw a rainbow relative to the apparent position of th rainbow would see nothing. That observer would see nothing special if he looked into the place in the sky where you see the rainbow. That observer would not be in the right relationship to see your rainbow, though they might be lucky to see a rainbow elsewhere.

    Furtheremore; THERE IS NO “END” OF A RAINBOW!. Here folklore got it right with its pots of gold. If you were to teleport to the apparent “end” or where you saw your rainbow, you would have either left the area where conditions were right for seeing rainbows, or you would see another rainbow elsewhere.

    None of these totally cool facts would be known about rainbows without scientific analysis.

    I think the soul is something like a rainbow. It is not a thing in itself, it is a relationship between physical things. The most important of these things is the body, and under all conditions we understand by evidence are possible, the soul dies with the body and sometimes expires before the body.

  • terrence

    Those who are concerned with demons might do well to ponder the great Ingersoll:

    “In nearly all the theologies, mythologies and religions, the devils have been much more humane and merciful than the gods. No devil ever gave one of his generals an order to kill children and to rip open the bodies of pregnant women. Such barbarities were always ordered by the good gods. The pestilences were sent by the most merciful gods. The frightful famine, during which the dying child with pallid lips sucked the withered bosom of a dead mother, was sent by the loving gods. No devil was ever charged with such fiendish brutality.”

  • OMGF

    terrence,
    Do you have a link for that? That’s a great quote and I’d like to use it.

  • http://goddesscassandra.blogspot.com Antigone

    Although, I wouldn’t necessarily say that psychiatry has progressed to the point where we can 100% trust that, either. There are plenty of times that “science” has been used to reinforce a status quo (just ask Plath).

  • terrence

    OMGF: I got that on my desktop and I could probly find where I got it. BUT I DONT KNOW HOW TO “LINK” could use some help here ):……………..

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Terrence,

    Go here and read the section entitled “The Anchor Tag and the Href Attribute”. You don’t need to know the rest :-)

  • James Bradbury

    You’ll see above the posting window a subset of XHTML tags you are allowed on this board. For more info on how to make a link (the A tag), have a look here.

    Another tip is to check the “Comment preview” below the text box before you submit. Hover your mouse over the link while checking the status bar at the bottom of your browser to see that it contains the right address (you should include the http:// prefix).

    A few people have asked this, so I hope this helps.

  • James Bradbury

    terrence,
    Hope this helps.

  • terrence

    Thanks everybody! The Ingersoll quote is from his “The Gods” and can be found on the Internet Infidels site.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    “I think the soul is something like a rainbow. It is not a thing in itself, it is a relationship between physical things. The most important of these things is the body, and under all conditions we understand by evidence are possible, the soul dies with the body and sometimes expires before the body.”

    Eric, that is gorgeous. Thank you.

    Lately I tend to call it “consciousness” or “identity” or “selfhood” rather than the soul, just because I think the world “soul” has strong metaphysical implications that I don’t like. But I totally get your point, and it’s crystallizing a lot of things for me. Plus it’s just expressed really beautifully. Thank you.

  • OMGF

    Thanks Terrence. I’m going to bookmark that one.

  • Eric

    Greta Christina, I’m glad you like my point about the soul. I know people might not get what I’m trying to say when I use the word “soul”. It was at least clear enough in this case that I do not believe there is some kind of mystical otherworldly soul-stuff. Souls are not “things out there” just like rainbows aren’t.

    I think it’s time to reclaim the word “soul”, to untangle it from so much nonsense.

    BTW, I’ve come across your blog a few times. It’s been pretty good. I liked the “angry” rant.

  • Valhar2000

    Eric, don’t you mean “claim”, rather than “reclaim”? As far as I know, the word soul has never been devoid of nonsense, except in relatively recent times, and then only once in a while.

  • Eric

    G-C: Maybe you’re right about claim vs. reclaim. But you can find materialistic treatments of the soul in ancient writings. I’m pretty sure that Lucretius sometimes uses the word “anima” in addition to “mens” to refer to a material substance responsible for mental events.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Actually, while it may not be technically correct in the strictest grammatical sense, I think this usage of “reclaim” is correct in the common general usage. Example: The queer community talks about “reclaiming” the word “queer,” even though it was never anything but an insult (with the meaning of “homosexual,” anyway) before we reclaimed it.

    Oh, BTW, Eric: I just put up a blog post about your comment and my thoughts on it. (Sorry for the self-linkage and the noise, everyone, but there’s no URL here for Eric, and this was the only way I could think of to let him know.)

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Eric:

    Put briefly, both souls and rainbows are emergent properties. I find myself in complete agreement with you, and indeed have said for years that I believe in souls as such a property of a complex brain. (Need I add “mortal” soul? Well, there it is).

    I further heartily agree with Ebon’s larger point that knowledge doesn’t sap beauty, but enhances it. Once again he has explicated my view succintly.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    For OhioAtheist, whom I should have answered earlier: Yes, I have read The Demon-Haunted World, and it’s probably my favorite of all Carl Sagan’s books. I don’t know how I’ve managed to overlook writing a recommendation for it – that’s an unconscionable omission, and I’ll have to correct it as soon as possible.

  • Randall

    “I further heartily agree with Ebon’s larger point that knowledge doesn’t sap beauty, but enhances it. Once again he has explicated my view succintly.”

    Ditto, as regards this specific point.

  • spaceman spif

    When I read the title to this article, my first thought was it was about a trip to White Castle…

    Another excellent read, and even more excellent posts. I’m really enjoying this site for the content from both the author and the people who comment.

    I agree with Ebon as well as many others that knowledge enhances the beauty of the world around us. Understanding of scientific phenomena does not reduce the awe and inspiration of that phenomena one bit.

  • Adele

    “Understanding scientific phenomena does not reduce the awe and inspiration one bit”, spaceman spif – it ENHANCES it.
    One of my favorite examples of this is the consideration of DNA – out of the hundreds of billions of possible combinations of DNA that our parents could produce, our specific DNA was the one that eventually became a human. To realize how ridiculously improbable it is that we specifically were born – doesn’t that lend a certain value, a certain beauty, to life?