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.

  • Kacy

    I can shrug off a lot of the quirky beliefs in Christianity as simply quaint, cute, or weird, but attributing demonic possession to those with mental illnesses really harms lives. It’s illegal to sell bogus cures like snake oil. Even vitamins must comply to certain standards regarding their claims. But religious groups get a free pass to perform bogus cures.

    My dad has bi-polar disorder, and he was able to control it very well with medication. Then he started going to a faith-healing church. I’m pretty sure that’s when he stopped taking his medication and when his mania nearly wrecked my family. When he came off his manic high, he attempted suicide, before we were finally able to have him committed to a mental institution. Speaking from personal experience, this sort of teaching is incredibly dangerous.

    • kagekiri

      Yeah, I fairly recently had my mother try to guilt me into feeling like I shouldn’t have ever been depressed if I had prayed properly or really seen all the blessings in my life.

      Because OBVIOUSLY, when you hate yourself, telling yourself that you have plenty of good things that you don’t deserve makes you feel great! /sarcasm It was incredibly hurtful and infuriating.

      Then when I told her I had become an atheist, and my atheism motivated me to actually seek treatment instead of beating myself up over my depression, she blamed atheism and demons for my depression, because OBVIOUSLY, a real Christian wouldn’t get depressed. Of course, my crushing depression started when I was very deep in Christianity, but that MUST have been a lie if I deconverted! I was just angry at God! I wasn’t waiting enough, I was praying wrong!

      Yeah…rationalizations and victim-blaming guilt-tripping suck, and that’s all Christianity has to fall back on when their god fails to show up or heal anything, as per usual. And that’s why I’m more than atheist; these beliefs are harmful, and a pointless barrier to emotional and physical wellness.

      • Jaimie

        I’m sorry you had to go through this. I saw adaptations on your mom’s performance many, many times. This no-win scenario crushes the human psyche and saturates it with guilt and paranoia. You showed much wisdom in rejecting it.

  • smrnda

    I think the whole belief in demons ought to be scrapped just owing to the principle of parsimony; there are other perfectly adequate explanations for human behavior, for good or evil, that do not require a belief in the supernatural. The other problem is that to the extent that demons are believed in, people end up being empty shells that are just animated by whatever good or bad spirit is strongest that day, and that seems to invalidate the idea not just that people have free will or are morally responsible for what they do, but that there is even a personality in the body to begin with.

    On the whole problem of a ”sin nature,’ I reject the idea but I also think that even for someone who takes it seriously, it’s too vague to be useful. If a ‘sin nature’ causes a person to eat 1 cupcake too many or to kill people, then we’re looking at a cause that’s too inclusive because it’s being used to explain things that have very different motivations. Psychology, sociology and economics seem to do a much better job of explaining human behavior.

  • Kevin Alexander

    “Better to ask, “Was James Holmes taken over by Evil?”
    Yes. Something happened to the mild mannered science geek. He turned into a monster.”

    Does the priest have any evidence that Holmes was a science geek or is he just taking the opportunity for a cheap shot at the competition?

    • Christine

      How is it a cheap shot to portray him as a science geek? I don’t think that changing from someone who is seen in a positive light to a monster is any worse than changing from someone who is seen in a neutral or negative light to a monster.

    • Rae

      Nah, I know someone who went to school with him a few years ago, and they said he was a typical science major in college – and if you’re a typical college science major, you probably identify yourself with the phrase “science geek”.

  • Jaimie

    OMG! My mom was totally into this for years. I like to call it, The Wacky World of Spiritual Warfare. I’ve never met Frank Perretti, but I have met and had dinner with a number of them: Dr, Ed Murphy who wrote The Handbook for Spiritual Warfare, Neil Anderson, Mark Bubeck, Tom White, and others. My mom used to organize seminars and recruited me to help with box lunches and selling their books.
    What a weird time that was! They used to sit around our living room, trying to upstage each other with shocking and dramatic stories of demon possession. You would not believe the stories I have heard.
    The worst part is that they rejected psychology and actively discouraged therapy of any kind. It’s not a mental problem. It’s Satan! The whole thing was utter bullcrap and from someone (reluctantly) on the inside, I can tell you they were nutters and charlatans who took complete advantage of vulnerable people.

    • kagekiri

      Anyone tell stories about people flying around or using black magic? My dad seems to literally believe that demons enabled people to perform dark miracles in his presence, and was very defensive when I seemed skeptical. It was the evidence he cited for believing in God when I told him I was atheist, which I found a bit bizarre.

      And my former head pastor is convinced that kung-fu powers are given by evil spirits. Not like punching or kicking, but the stuff in kung-fu movies: flying in the air, running on walls in defiance of gravity, using qi to knock people out without even touching them or force them to hurt themselves, and so on. He was telling us that he knew some kung-fu master who sold his soul to a demon to gain his powers, and that doing any martial arts might leave us open to demonic possession.

      Soooooo….yeah. It’s not just manipulative people in it for the cash (which my former head pastor’s crap might be attributable to), but true believers like my dad who think that physical tricks (like cutting yourself and not bleeding, or various kung fu tricks like swinging a sword at paper after muttering a spell and then the paper not being cut or leaning your neck on a spear-point), black magic proves demons, and demons prove God.

      • kagekiri

        Oops, that sentence in the last paragraph should read “physical tricks are black magic”, not just “physical tricks”.

      • smrnda

        You mean that the guy actually thought kung fu movies were a realistic portrayal of martial arts?

      • Jaimie

        Oh yes, there were plenty of stories about witches, black magic, ritual spells and incantations, and satanic objects. There were levitation and things flying around the room stories as well. I went with my mom to a couple of house cleansings and that blew me away. If nothing else, these people are incredibly adept at violating personal privacy.
        And you are right, not all who teach this stuff are in it for the cash. I knew the people at the top tier like authors, speakers, and those who “counselled” people not to go to therapy or take medication. They made some nice bucks. After knowing them for many years I concluded that only one really believed in this crap. And he had some major personal issues.

      • Christine

        So all those crazy stunts aren’t the result of wirework and trick camera shots? People can actually DO that? Kung fu movies just became more awesome!

      • Schaden Freud

        I’ve heard black magic levitation stories too. My particular favourite involved witches flying around on logs of wood which they powered by means of human sacrifice. The log supposedly had a kind of fuel tank arrangement into which the victim’s blood was poured and it acted as fuel for the log. As far as I can tell the individual who told that story to me genuinely believed it.

  • Nadia

    I am so glad you’ve mentioned this because my mother believes that she is oppressed by demons sent from hell itself and these demons are the cause of everything wrong in her life.

    This meant she was convinced she couldnt work and so she didn’t pay bills and ended losing our house. Because it was just me and her we were homeless for 3 years: when I was 17 till 20. I’m 23 now. So this is all recent.

    I lived most of my life believing her and convinced demons ran everything in the world, I also did not celebrate Halloween and was not allowed to watch Sabrina the teenage witch.
    It was all very crazy.

    I’m an atheist now but it’s very hard because my entire family still believe in this crap.

    • Sheila Crosby


  • Neal Edwards

    The fundamentalist refusal to acknowledge the reality of psychological issues has a very real result: instead of depression ceasing, it is instead exacerbated with guilt. And sometimes fear (after all, there could be demons involved, who wouldn’t be afraid?) This is one of the more damaging aspects of religion — Fundamentalists view mental health the way Christian Scientists view physical health.

  • math_geek

    Since you brought up Catholicism in conjunction with Evangelical beliefs on demons and demonic possession, I’d like to point out that the RC Church specifically recognizes mental disorders as being biologically founded and many (most?) people coming to the Church looking for exorcist are sent instead to a psychiatrist.

    • Sheila Crosby

      The Catholic church also has a few professional exorcists. One was in the news a few months ago, saying that demon possession would make a person vomit glass and other bizarre beliefs. It’s not mainstream Catholicism, but it’s not condemned either.

  • machintelligence

    Since no one has brought it up yet, allow me to recommend Carl Sagan’s book “The Demon Haunted World”.
    Belief in demons is left over from our species’ quest to explain the world by primitive animism. When the cause of something is unknown there is a strong tendency (most likely evolved) to impute agency. This may well predate the genus Homo. Even a dog, startled by the sound of snow falling off a roof, will bark a “who is there?” alert. It is only recently, with the rise of rationality, and particularly science, that we (as a culture) have begun to pare down the number of supernatural agents. I hope the pruning continues until the number reaches zero.

  • Sue Blue

    I think that these kind of beliefs are an underlying cause of the way we still think of and treat mental illness as separate from other illnesses and problems. It’s a product of dualism – of seeing the “mind” as an entity separate from the “body”, of believing in a “soul” that resides somewhere in the brain. Even some people who know better, such as physicians and scientists, often regard mental illness as somehow different from other illnesses; insurance companies offer less coverage for mental healthcare and psychiatric medications; public mental health facilities are always among the first things to go during budget cuts; many lay people who don’t believe in demons still regard mental illness as a “character defect” or a sign of emotional weakness. People suffering from depression are often ashamed or embarrassed to seek help, afraid that they’ll be seen by their families, friends, coworkers and bosses as a failure. Nobody’s embarrassed to admit to cancer in their families; but they are stigmatized by schizophrenia. I believe all of this can be traced to the lingering belief, conscious or not, that “demons” or external agents of evil can kick out the soul and take over control of the brain.
    As a nurse, I believe we need to stop separating the mental from the physical and start treating all disorders with the same level of care, compassion, and competence; we need to educate the public that suffering from depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia is no more a “fault” than suffering from insulin-dependent diabetes or lupus.

    • Christine

      Exactly this. A friend of mine, after years of suffering from depression, managed to kill himself (it was the nth attempt, so none of us were horribly surprised). He alternated between insisting that he was perfectly capable of making rational decisions regarding self-care and saying that he was morally less because of this depression. This may also be due to him getting chased away from his childhood church – he was an atheist, but I’m not certain that he didn’t judge himself negatively for that, or for being gay (he belonged to one of the churches that is not only homophobic, but that preaches that *being* gay is a sin). While he was alive I respected his wishes and didn’t tell people he suffered from depression, but after he was dead I told anyone who asked how he died that he’d lost a battle with illness. If they asked for more details I gave them. We need to de-stigmatize this, so people ask for help and are willing to believe that they deserve it.

    • Eamon Knight

      Yes, very much. Even among supposed materialists, there’s a sense in which we consider the mind to be “us” in a way we don’t consider a limb or a kidney or any other organ. So everyone takes for granted that a broken leg or flaky heart is something you get treatment for, and get it “fixed”, or maybe in the worst case, the disease kills you — it’s still all something that happens *to* you. But mental illness is something that you yourself (ie. your mind) is doing, so you should be able to stop, right? Just like deciding which book to read, or what to have for dinner, we take our own volition for granted. But in reality, Mind is a product of Brain and physical or chemical disorders in the latter make the former do weird things — including being unable to judge that its own behaviour *is* weird, and figure out that it should trust doctors to treat it (though it doesn’t help that treatment for many mental illnesses like depression are rather hit-&-miss).

  • Shanna

    My mother had a friend who was a Pentecostal, and she literally believed that you had to watch out for demons. When her three young boys started not being constantly obedient, she decided that it must be because the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys they had must be demon possessed, and that they had brought the demons into the house and that’s what made the kids disobey. She got rid of them, and then their family prayed all over their house to “cleanse it of the evil spirits.” I kid you not. Of course, that didn’t fix the fact that her kids were badly behaved. (My mother babysat them occasionally, and they were pretty destructive.)

    I grew up in an Independent Baptist church and household. I also grew up bipolar, and undiagnosed/untreated. My mother was afraid of me being stigmatized and medicated (“I didn’t want the doctors to label you!”) I was alternately very, very depressed and very, very manic (sometimes happy, sometimes angry). My childhood, especially my teenage years, was hellish. There were times where I literally got so very angry I lost my grip on sanity. I still have holes in my memory for those times. I went berserk. My mother usually dragged me into the shower fully clothed and turned the cold water on to shock me out of it, and coming back to myself in the shower is all I remember of those incidents, although my mother and sisters tell me I screamed and screamed, and kicked and bit and fought like crazy. My grandmother talked to her pastor about it and he came up with the ever-popular diagnosis of “she’s demon possessed”, of course. This and other factors caused my grandmother to say (to my face): “I hope God kills you so that you won’t be such a bad example for your sisters.” I didn’t wind up getting diagnosed and getting treatment until I was in my mid-twenties and had hit rock bottom emotionally.

  • Lee

    I know from personal experience how dangerous and harmful blaming demons for psychological problems, as well as things like neurological disorders (ie, Tourette’s) can be. I have autism, which I didn’t know until I was 26 because my parents blamed the symptoms on demons. Instead of getting me the help I needed, I was sent to church, had the Bible read to me, and had parents scream at me that I was a filthy demon-possessed child and that they “did not deserve this child.”

    I also had depression, from living with parents who think it is acceptable to do things like break a yard stick over my back for “using a tone”, and who constantly told me I was disgusting and they wished I wasn’t their daughter, and I had a father who told me I was his property/possession and he could do with me what I wished. And I lived in a house that was infested with fleas, roaches, and rats the latter two of which would climb all over me while I slept. Yet, according to them, I had no right to be depressed, and demons were making me fake being sad. Couldn’t I see how ungrateful I was being to my parents, and what I a bad daughter I am? Why did I shy away from them and not want to hug and cuddle on them all the time? All children must love their parents; the fact that I tried to avoid mine by hiding in my room must be demons whispering in my ear.

    Even today, they will not own up to their behavior, and blame demonic influence on that fact I refuse to speak to them. It can’t possibly be *them* and the fact that they still think it’s okay to view me as a literally a possession who can be slapped around whenever they please, and that I am bad person if I object.

  • Tricia

    I don’t see it as an either/or thing, this whole matter of whether depression has a spiritual or psychological cause. I believe the two can be entwined and interdependent. I grew up in Christian Patriarchy, I suffer from depression and generalized anxiety disorder, um, amongst other things, and while I have left my parents’ belief system, I still consider myself a spiritual person and am ready to admit there could be a spiritual dimension to both my ailments and their healing.

    I’ve been in therapy for over a year and I can’t deny that that helps, but prayer helps too. I would not rely only on prayer or ever guilt someone else into doing so. . . that is monstrous. The causes of depression can be complex, but being trapped or forced into living an inauthentic existence can certainly be a contributing factor, especially if there is denial on top of it all. Having a religion imposed on you that is at odds with how you know the world to be, intuitively and experientially, can cause of a lot of psychic pain and dissonance that will result in symptomatic feelings and behaviors. I do not think the fact that therapy can help with this a good deal contradicts biblical spirituality, living and believing a lie is clearly set forth as spiritually deadly. Sometimes we need help sorting through the lies we’ve lived with and internalized. For many, going through this process is a step in uncovering, or discovering, a healthy spirituality, the mental and psychological benefits of which are widely recognized and even touted within certain sectors of the mental health community.

    I do not know if demons are literal or metaphorical, but I do believe that spiritual despair and corruption can wreak psychological havoc. Contributing factors to an event like the shooting under discussion are complex and I don’t think graspable via armchair analysis by a lay person commenting on a blog such as myself. But I do not think it has to be either/or, and was interested in enough in this topic to drop by and say so at some length.

    Peace all.

  • Ryan

    I used to always think of this as a “yeah right, no one actually believes that.” I have only recently realized how wrong I was. My girlfriend was very religious when I met her (though not directly QF/CP) and she has really opened my eyes to the rather incredible beliefs that are held. I mean i have read a number of Frank Peretti’s books and they took up the same mind space as modern fantasy such as Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. I believe they were a gift from an aunt, and recently I have been seeing a disturbing pattern getting into Christian homeschooling.

  • Froborr

    I generally don’t pay too much attention to such things–is there any actual evidence that Holmes was mentally ill? The definition of mental illness has two prongs–you need to have distorted thought or perception, and it needs to cause harm to you or others around you. The latter prong is clearly met, but is there any evidence of distorted thinking?

    You cannot diagnose mental illness on the basis of one violent act. People perform acts of horrific violence for reasons that have nothing to do with mental illness–money and politics are perennially popular–and yet the first assumption whenever we hear about a multiple-murder is always that mental illness was somehow involved. I don’t think that assumption does much to help the stigma that surrounds mental illness.