Two news stories came across my desk this week that highlight the persistence of dangerous and wrongheaded ideas with roots in the Satanic Panic era of the 80’s and 90’s and centuries old witch-hunt mentality of theistic religions. These practices and techniques have little to do with genuine scientific rigor but maintain an outsized cultural influence within certain circles to the detriment of many who would benefit from genuine forms of treatment. These practices have a very real potential to launch a new wave of Satanic Panic type hysteria if taken seriously.
Man Charged and Jailed on Debunked Practices
Miami parent Jose Cordero was imprisoned for over a month and was barred from seeing his family based on testimony from Cordero’s autistic son’s teacher. The source of that testimony was a debunked and thoroughly discredited practice called ‘facilitated communication’. The facilitating part comes from the fact that Cordero’s son is nonverbal and unable to communicate. So the teacher, Saul Fumero, used a technique called “hand over hand,” facilitation in which he would ‘guide’ the boy’s hands with his own.
After the father’s arrest Fumero continued to employ the method with the boy and continued to make more and more outlandish claims. Eventually, after it became clear that Fumero was doing far more than just facilitating and the accounts failed to concur with DNA evidence, Cordero was released and the Attorney General admitted there was no case.
In this instance, ‘facilitated communication’ lead to months in prison for an innocent man and the severe disruption of a family that will, now, hopefully get back to normal. Other instances of this absurd practice haven’t ended so well as The Satanic Temple’s Grey Faction points out in the case of Jude Mirra. In Jude’s case his mother Gigi Jordan, used a different form of ‘facilitated communication’ to justify her delusional belief that Jude was being secretly abused as part of a ‘Satanic Ritual Abuse cult’. Jordan eventually became so obsessed with this belief that she murdered Jude by giving him an overdose of pharmaceuticals. In her mind, she was did this to put an end to his suffering at the hands of a cult. The problem, of course, is that the cult never existed.
Of course, the therapists responsible for enabling Gigi Jordan’s delusional belief in a ritual abuse conspiracy, and the validity of ‘facilitated communication’ through which she bolstered her beliefs have suffered no consequences.
Exorcism is Making a Comeback Too
While we’re on the subject of delusional beliefs let’s switch from psychological quackery to Catholicism. Since the installation of Pope Frankie little attention has been paid to the underlying unfounded tenets of Catholic dogma for a lot of reasons. Pope Frank is far and away more likable and media friendly than the last guy, he’s got a chemistry degree which lends some impression to the idea that he’s a science minded kind of guy, and though he hasn’t made any sweeping changes to church policy he talks a good talk about being compassionate and welcoming.
None of that, however, changes the fact that Catholic teaching still asserts that things like literal transubstantiation and demonic possession are real. It would be easy enough to write-off the concept as a fringe idea within the church’s lower ranks if there were no institutional support for the practice of exorcism. But that’s just not the case. Vatican Radio has priests come on-air to discuss the half a million reported cases of demonic possession a year in Italy and the Vatican press has reported a tripling of exorcists in recent years and announced formal recognition of the International Association of Exorcists in 2014. The perceived threat is so real to the church that they’ve set up a new training program. As the Guardian’s Deborah Hyde editorializes:
“… the class of specialists produced by exorcism courses and professional bodies. These specialists derive status from the practice of their “skills”, in the manner of Maslow’s hammer: when you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. An investment in the intellectual models of demonic possession and exorcism can bring catastrophic momentum.”
The Dangers are Real
I don’t think I need to tell you, dear reader, that demons aren’t real and the concept of demonic possession is an antiquated throwback to a time when a pre-scientific method world was trying to make sense of mental conditions like schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and autism. We know better now and shouldn’t continue to encourage unscientific diagnoses like ‘your problems are because you’ve been possessed and you need to let a clergyman sprinkle special water on you to fix them’. It’s insulting.
I also shouldn’t need to tell you that there is no evidence whatsoever of a global Satanic conspiracy that secretly orchestrates kidnapping and abuse. Satanic organizations can’t even stop arguing in public about who is and isn’t a Satanist long enough to agree on whether or not it’s Satanic to engage in politics at all, much less manipulate the strings of power in any coordinated way. That doesn’t stop the conspiracy theorist though. Much like other debunked beliefs like ‘vaccines cause autism’ and ‘the earth is flat’, many will cling to any idea that supports their pre-conceived bias no matter how ridiculous. Unfortunately some, including many people in well-established institutional organizations, are so fervent in these claims that real people get hurt. We’d do well to be mindful of that reality before these unfounded beliefs spark yet another witch-hunt.