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

  • SuperHappyJen

    This proves nothing. Demons just don’t like the antipsychotic drugs, or epilepsy medication.

  • almightygod

    I wonder how fundamentalist Christians would respond to antipsychotic drugs. This sounds like a pretty good description of their condition: “unshakable confidence in the truth of their delusions that could never be achieved by relying on mere evidence.”

  • Paul

    But demons do mind multiplying entities.

  • MissCherryPi

    This is my biggest issue with people like Sylvia Browne. She would go on the Montel Williams and tell people who the “ghosts” in their house were. Some of the people were probably just superstitious, but others – who claimed they couldn’t sleep because of the noise, or that they were being grabbed in their beds, etc needed to see a mental health professional. I was so angry when she told them the “ghost’s name” and that the person should just calmly ask them to leave. It was so irresponsible!

  • Brock

    The ability of a psychotic individual to convince others of his delusions is amazing, and probably accounts for the success of people like Saul of Tarsus, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, et. al. I personally had a professional relationship with a young man who was a methamphetamine addict in early recovery, whose delusion that he was being followed everywhere by governement agents was so strong, that he was driving around with his adoptive father, an Episcopalian priest, and convinced his father of the truth of his assertions. The psychotic aspects of the addiction were beyond my professional competence, and despite being referred out for mental health consults and treatment, at the last contact I had with him, he was still convinced of the delusion.

  • Sarah Braasch

    And, beyond the belief that the psychotic break is the result of demonic possession, the Jehovah’s Witnesses inculcate a scientology-esque aversion to psychiatry and psychology and therapy of any kind in their sheep.

    The thinking is that it makes you more susceptible to demonic attack, because you are not in control, akin to hypnotism.

    Also, one should turn to Jehovah God and the Bible only for help with mental and emotional problems.

    Because psychiatrists and psychologists are going to advocate “worldly” methods for alleviating mental/emotional problems.

    Also exacerbated by the hermetic culture of isolationism and “not airing your dirty laundry in public” and not “showing Jehovah God in a bad light to the world.”

    I blame these attitudes for the decade or so when my brother suffered, undiagnosed and untreated, with paranoid schizophrenia.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Someone once told me that, as a psychiatrist, they always knew when someone’s mental illness was abating, because the religious delusions diminished.

    Religion is mental illness.

  • Omega Man

    Real Exorcism “Deliverance” exists.

    Demons are real and psychotropic drugs wont exorcise them from a person being tormented. It just quiets the evil spirits for a few hours and weakens the natural defenses that GOD puts around everyone’s minds and allows the demons to accelerate their control and demonization of the person.

    If you need deliverance from demons – the LORD JESUS CHRIST can set you free.

    We do LIVE exorcisms with anyone in the world who needs help and we dont charge

    contact us

  • Antigone

    At first I thought it was a Poe, but nope, his website looks sincere enough

    Okay Omega Man, you made a few claims:

    1) Demons are real
    2) Psychotropic drugs just quiet the evil spirits for a few hours
    3) Psychotropic drugs weaken the natural defenses that God put around everyone’s minds
    4) Psychotropic drugs allow demons to accelerate their control and demonetization of the person
    5) God exists
    6) Jesus Christ can help people be exorcised.

    Time to put your money where your mouth is. What evidence do you have for those points? Which studies can you point to? Let’s ignore 5 for the time being (you’re outgunned) but let’s go with the ones where evidence would be easy to find. If 2- 4 are true, you should be able to find studies showing how participants took drugs, the drugs only lasted for 3-4 hours before the symptoms of psychosis came back, the symptoms came back stronger and were more resistant to medicine over the long term. To be extra compelling, a line graph showing an inverse relationship to strength of “demon possession” and drug intervention would be nice.

    I’ll sit here and not hold my breath.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Omega Man,

    You better be careful. You sound obsessed with demons and exorcising demons and avoiding demons.

    And, you know, nothing attracts and piques the interest of demons more than obsession with demons. And, they often like to go after the most devout, just for fun. Especially someone such as yourself, who almost seems to be taunting them, who almost seems to be mocking them with your divine-like abilities to expunge them, someone who has the audacity to boast on an atheism website about his/her abilities to rout out a demonic attack.

    That’s demonology 101.

    Run and hide.

  • Eurekus

    I initially thought Omega Man was joking, until I clicked on his hyperlink.
    He’s the exact kind of person taking advantage of the irrational faithful that I’ve often commented about. A denier of psychology to the mentally ill in a desperate attempt to hold on to their tithe money.
    What is so sad about this? There’s a person of his quality in every church, mosque, synagogue or temple anywhere on earth.
    Me once being one their suckers, is the biggest regret of my life.

  • Dan

    Thank the gods for Internet radio, since that’s how OmegaMan transmits his exorcistic healing to those in need. Makes me want to shout out a “Braise Jeebus!”

  • jane hay

    My son (still an evangelical, unfortunately) was attracted in his teens to a local Assembly of God church where some of his friends were members. He dated the pastor’s daughter for awhile. She was seizure-prone; these people wouldn’t think of “treating” the condition, as it is considered a “sign from Gd” and “being slain in the spirit”. Dropping to the floor and having convulsions during the service is a mark of accomplishment, as is speaking in tongues (a learned skill, rather than an involuntary one, I have decided). “Healing” is also a big part of the theology (as it was in the beginning 2000 years ago), so the sect disproportionately attracts the desperate, the emotionally unstable, the physically ill and families with handicapped members. The once or twice we attended services (our son was a member of the church rock band) I observed that these people formed a substantial proportion of the congregation. On the other hand, among the membership were some very smart professional people (David French was one) and the pastor was no dummy. I guess cognitive dissonance was a prerequisite.

  • Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Some contemporary philosophers of religion appeal to the malevolence of demons to explain some natual evil when discussing the problem of evil.

    In case you wondered about the Lisbon earthquake that set Voltaire going.

    Or that recent Indonesian tsunami.

    Alvin Plantinga, for instance.

    The demons – fallen angels in the story, I believe – would have been God’s first batch of beings with free will to go wrong, as the tale is told.

  • Rollingforest

    #GSG: So the angels of Heaven don’t have the free will to do wrong? Kind of destroys the whole “God lets you decide for yourself whether to go to Heaven or Hell because slavery isn’t love” myth.

  • Jeff

    So the angels of Heaven don’t have the free will to do wrong? Kind of destroys the whole “God lets you decide for yourself whether to go to Heaven or Hell because slavery isn’t love” myth.

    This is one of their many, many contradictions. We’re told that angels, unlike humans, don’t have free will and exist only to adore and praise God (which he seems to require 24/7) and to carry out his commands. On the other hand, we’re told that demons are fallen angels who chose to rebel. Try confronting them with this; you never get a straight answer.

  • Gaius Sempronius Gracchus


    Sure they did. And do. But they chose otherwise, and always do.

    Angels are nice.

    Haven’t you seen them on TV?

  • Feste

    Another late reply from a fool—I should really keep better track of my RSS feeds.

    The point: I suffer from schizoaffective disorder, which manifests itself in auditory hallucination, delusional thought, and paranoia. I can say this all with relative clarity because I’ve been going through treatment since about three months after my initial psychotic break. I still hear things that aren’t there, but my paranoia and delusion thoughts have vanished almost completely.

    On those days after I’ve missed my antipsychotic medication, however, I find myself more easily swayed by magical thinking of all stripes.

    It’s hard to quantify, but there it is. My subjective experience of psychosis and the connection to religiosity.

  • keddaw

    I heard the Catholic Church’s top exoecist on a 5 minute radio interview on the BBC and he came out with the rather fanciful (AND EMINENTLY TESTABLE) claim that when a priest went in to perform an exorcism the people who were just faking (or ill) couldn’t tell the difference between Holy Water and non-Holy Water. The demons apparently suffered when blessed water was sprayed on them, but not if regular water was used.

    There is 100% proof of the truth of Catholicism and demonic possession, if only they’d publish the double blind tests they’d done on possessed people…