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?

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About Adam Lee

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


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