One of the big questions that religion writers discuss when they are in private and speak freely is this one: Are we supposed to challenge people when they claim that they have had some kind of unique, supernatural spiritual experience? Do we, somehow, try to dig into the details and challenge this kind of account?
I thought of that the other day when I was reading a Washington Post story — dateline, Poland — about the revival in parts of Europe of formal rites of exorcism.
Now stop and think about this from the point of view of a celebrity atheist. To accept an exorcism rite as, well, non-crazy, one has to embrace all kinds of beliefs about reality and life as we know it. For starters, you have to believe in supernatural evil and that implies supernatural good. That’s why it was such a major story when the Vatican released a revised exorcism rite a decade or so ago. Modernist Catholics were embarrassed, to say the least.
So Craig Whitlock’s story in the Post was interesting, in part, because it never — ever — challenged the whole idea of the rite. There are no skeptics, no modernist Catholic intellectuals who wave their hands in disgust at the whole discussion. This is a case when I really think the voice on the theological left is urgently needed. There should be debate on this issue, debate that defines and underlines key beliefs on both sides.
Here is a key chunk of the story:
The Rev. Andrzej Trojanowski, a soft-spoken Pole, plans to build a “spiritual oasis” that will serve as Europe’s only center dedicated to performing exorcisms. With the blessing of the local Catholic archbishop and theological support from the Vatican, the center will aid a growing number of Poles possessed by evil forces or the devil himself, he said. …
Exorcism — the church rite of expelling evil spirits from tortured souls — is making a comeback in Catholic regions of Europe. Last July, more than 300 practitioners gathered in the Polish city of Czestochowa for the fourth International Congress of Exorcists.
About 70 priests serve as trained exorcists in Poland, about double the number of five years ago. An estimated 300 exorcists are active in Italy. Foremost among them: the Rev. Gabriele Amorth, 82, who performs exorcisms daily in Rome and is dean of Europe’s corps of demon-battling priests.
“People don’t pray anymore, they don’t go to church, they don’t go to confession. The devil has an easy time of it,” Amorth said in an interview. “There’s a lot more devil worship, people interested in satanic things and seances, and less in Jesus.”
So, journalists out there, raise your hands if you think that Satan is real and personal. Ditto for demons, in general. How many of you agree with authoritative voices featured in this story that say Satan can work through yoga, New Age rituals and addiction to the Internet?
How many of you think the Post should have allowed skeptics to challenge the following information? Is this real?
Exorcists said the people they help can be in the grip of evil to varying degrees. Only a small fraction, they said, are completely possessed by demons — which can cause them to display inhuman strength, speak in exotic tongues, recoil in the presence of sacred objects or overpower others with a stench. In those cases, the exorcists must confront the devil directly, using the power of the church to order it to abandon its host.
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