Demons v. Psychology: Possession and depression

Do you remember that after the Aurora shooting happened this summer some Christian religious leaders suggested that James Holmes might have been possessed by demons? I have to say, I wasn’t surprised. Evangelicals – or at least the ones I grew up among – believe that demons are alive and well in this world, fighting invisible battles with angels all around us. And more than that, demons interact with human beings – and even possess them.

Have you ever heard the Screwtape Letters? It’s a book by C.S. Lewis that consists of a demon writing letters to his superior about how his work to keep the human he is assigned to unsaved and in a life of sin is going. I grew up taking that book seriously. I read it, and I also saw it performed. I believed, firmly believed, that demons were real and sought to tempt me into sin.

Have you ever heard of Frank Peretti? He wrote evangelical thrillers, all about demons and New Age witchcraft. Here’s a quote from one of his books, from a detailed description of an exorcism: “There were fifteen [demons], packed into Carmen’s body like crawling, superimposed maggots, boiling, writhing, a tangle of hideous arms, legs, talons, and heads.” Once again, I took these books very seriously. Just like the Left Behind books explained what the end times would be like, I believed, so too these books gave a picture of our very real daily battles with demons.

But I’ve written about a lot of this before – including the sightings of demons I grew up hearing about, my fear of Halloween and its connection to demons, the connection I made between demons and aliens, and my extreme childhood nighttime fears of demons. Further, I was taught that demonic possession was real, and that in the end times the Antichrist would be possessed by Satan himself.

What I want to highlight now, though, is the connection between demonic possession and psychological conditions. When I wrote about the Aurora shooting I said the following:

I no longer believe that the restraining hand of God is necessary to keep people from going on murderous rampages. I have seen people do great good regardless of whether they believe in a God, and I personally believe I am a more moral person today than I was when I believed. I am not a psychologist, but I generally chalk this kind of atrocity up to a disturbed mind. What part is genetic or environmental, I don’t know. I’m not trying to make excuses for the shooter – he did make a conscious choice to do what he did. All I’m saying is that normal people don’t do this sort of thing. This isn’t something that, as fundamentalists would have you believe, is something any of us could do “but for the grace of God.” If mankind were intrinsically evil, you would think you would see this sort of thing more often.

Here is a quote from a Catholic priest on the Aurora shooter:

Is James Holmes demon possessed? It is impossible to say without a detailed diagnosis. Even then, it is a slippery question. We are dealing with a reality that is rubbery. In many ways this is the wrong question. Better to ask, “Was James Holmes taken over by Evil?”

Yes. Something happened to the mild mannered science geek. He turned into a monster. Something twisted in his mind and heart, and Evil made an entry. Evil infested his life. It took him over. Whether the twist was through mental illness, some inner wound or some terrible dark intelligence, we cannot say. The fact that we can’t say what went wrong and don’t have a neat and tidy answer is the key to understanding the terrible conundrum of evil.

So, pop quiz. What made James Holmes do what he did? My position – he had mental issues and needed psychological help. This priest’s position – he was taken over by evil.

Many evangelicals and fundamentalists – though not all – chalk mental problems up to demonic possession or influence. They even believe that depression itself is caused by demonic possession or influence. As a teen, I rationalized that this explained how common depression was among people in “the world” – they were empty and without Christ, and subject to demonic influence and even possession, so it was no wonder! What I didn’t realize was the selection bias involved, and for several reasons.

For one thing, along with many other evangelicals and fundamentalists I grew up believing that Christians should automatically be full of joy because they have been saved by Christ’s sacrifice and now have the Holy Spirit living in them. This didn’t mean we had to be HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY all the time with plastered on smiles, but rather that we should always feel a deep sense of underlying joy even with daily ups and downs. And if a Christian isn’t feeling the joy, well, there must be something wrong with their faith! It was seen as a spiritual problem, and was either hidden away or else addressed as a spiritual problem, not a psychological problem.

And then of course there’s also the belief in faith healing – the idea that depression can be prayed away. In fact, I’ve even seen people specifically pray that the “spirit of depression” (aka demon of possession) that is tormenting someone be cast away in Jesus’ name. And if it’s not working? Well, maybe you’re not praying hard enough. Or maybe you don’t have enough faith. Because if you truly believed, if you truly trusted God, you should be able to keep that demon of possession at a distance! I think, too, it was easier to trust invisible things like depression to faith healing than visible things like, say, a broken leg.

Today I no longer believe in demons, and I realize that human biology and human psychology is oh so much more complicated than I had ever thought it. People do suffer psychological problems and therapy and medicines can help fix these problems. Things like depression are not anyone’s fault and they’re not always something people can fix on their own or pray away or fake away. And looking back, I think I can pick out some of those in the evangelical community I grew up in who, in my layman’s opinion, were likely dealing with depression and other issues.

Thinking anthropologically, I wouldn’t be surprised if these ideas about demons developed in part as a way to explain mental and psychological disorders that they didn’t have the tools to understand. Why was that person continually unhappy? Why was that other person unable to feel empathy? The demon explanation made sense. Today, though, we understand why some people are continually unhappy, or why some people don’t feel empathy. We understand that there are things like chemical imbalances, etc., that cause these things. But many evangelicals and fundamentalists are unable to give up those previous explanations, explanations they integrated into their religious beliefs and are unwilling to cut out.

One thing to remember is that these ideas shape how we respond to tragedies like that in Aurora – and how we work to prevent them in the future. The evangelical/fundamentalist response that attributes James Holmes’ actions to demonic possession,the presence of evil, or the depravity of sin nature and the need of salvation ends up arguing that the best way to prevent this sort of thing in the future is to convert people to Christianity and make this country a truly “Christian nation.” In contrast, the response that attributes Holmes’ actions to mental or psychological problems urges an improved mental health system, better access to preventative care, and better awareness of how to identify, deal with, and treat unstable individuals as the best way to prevent future mass shootings. This is a totally different response.

(For another take on the relationship between psychology and fundamentalist/evangelical religion, see How Bad, Evil Psychology Helped Me, by Latebloomer)

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.