Evil and Demons and Sin, Oh My!

By now you have surely heard of Liza Long’s article, I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother. In it Long talks about the difficulties of dealing with her mentally ill teenager, of searching for answers, and of the need for better systems of mental healthcare.

I will admit to being a bit ambivalent about Long’s article. Like her, I feel very strongly that we need find better ways of approaching and handling mental health issues in this country. However, Adam Lanza’s mother is dead and unable to tell her story, and appropriating her name seems to me unwise. Furthermore, I think we need to not simply assume that every mass shooter is mentally ill. First, doing so paints the mentally ill as dangerous when they are not actually any more violent than anyone else, thus further stigmatizing those with mental health issues, and second, doing so allows us to paint those who would do such things as “the other,” and thus allows us to distance ourselves.

Given my concerns about the article, I was not expecting to so suddenly and forcefully find myself rising up in defense of Liza Long. But then, I should realize that I can never really know what to expect when I open a link from the website Ladies Against Feminism.

Stories about Aspergers are starting to show up in the news following the tragedy in CT. Humanistic psychologists are touting answers that are not grounded and which only sow more seeds of fear and confusion in an already emotional nation.Even a mother is equating her son’s demonically influenced sin to the condition calling for the government to help. (Caution: language. Mature Readers.)

Oh. Oh I see. It makes sense now. Liza Long’s son is violent and unpredictable because he is being indwelt by a demon. The world makes sense again. It’s so much less confusing this way.

I’m honestly not surprised that the writers at Ladies Against Feminism would reach that conclusion upon reading Liza Long’s article – I mean, I would have thought the same thing as a teen or in college – I guess I’m simply surprised that, in this day and age, they’re still willing to put that in print. I shouldn’t be.

See, I remember viewing the world as the devil’s playground. As an evangelical, I was taught that demons surround us, invisible to our eyes, seeking to stir up mischief and turn people from God. I took the Screwtape Letters very seriously, and I was actually quite terrified of demons even though I believed that, as Bible believing Christian, I couldn’t be touched. I remember believing that much if not most of mental illness today was demonic – that, in other words, “mentally ill” was simply the modern term given for what the Bible called “demonically possessed.”

But you know what is most interesting about what the Ladies Against Feminism piece said about Liza Long’s son? They manage to blame demons while still also blaming the teenage boy – they call Long’s son’s condition “demonically influenced sin.” This is actually rather important, because the entire rest of the article is about how Adam Lanza committed murder not because he had Aspergers or some other condition, but rather because of, well, sin.

People are looking for answers as the nation reels from this blow and we pray that they will find comfort in truth, part of which is understanding murder is caused by sin not a mental condition.

I actually had this same argument made to me on facebook when I suggested that we need better support for mental health issues and a relative countered by saying that these sorts of atrocities arise from sin, not mental illness, and that mental illness is simply the result of demonic influence and possession.

I feel like evangelicals and fundamentalists are using two narratives on this issue, but that these narratives don’t actually mesh perfectly. The first is that mass murders like this are caused by sin, and that all of the blame must be placed fully on the shoulders of the murderer rather than making excuses. The second is that mental illness is the result of demonic influence and even possession, with the suggestion that young men like the Columbine shooters or Adam Lanza were under the influence of demons. So which is it? Are these sorts of things the fault of willful sin, rendering the shooters completely accountable for their actions, or are these things the result of demons pushing them into committing atrocities? By calling Long’s son’s condition “demonically influenced sin,” the authors of the Ladies Against Feminism piece attempt to have it both ways.

No matter which narrative they go with, though, evangelicals and fundamentalists ignore the vast complexity of life and trot out pat answers that a growing number of Americans find antiquated and inadequate. But I think that last bit is incredibly hopeful, because even if I find the intense focus on mental health issues a bit too much I am glad that so many Americans are seeking to understand why these things happen on a deeper and more complex level than the trite answers touted by so many evangelicals and fundamentalists for so long. I’m incredibly glad that more and more Americans are realizing that this world is complex and confusing, and that viewing it through a reductionist black and white lens does more harm than good.

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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.

  • flyn

    One of my relatives on FB shared something her pastor said; “He undoubtedly had mental problems, but his greatest problem was a spiritual one.”
    He never outright says he was possessed by a demon, but it’s nearly the same thing in my opinion.
    As an atheist, it’s pretty irritating and upsetting when they post things like this. Do they think I’m going to end up doing something like this because I have “spiritual” problems? Maybe they don’t even fully realize what they’re saying by posting things like this….

  • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia Lucreza Borgia

    Normal people do really bad things on occasion and that isn’t some sort of statement on “but for the grace of god”. Over and over, in many situations, people who aren’t deranged or evil kill, rape, murder, and torture. What is the common factor? Typically, it’s not viewing the other person as human or viewing them as some sort of disembodied enemy that needs to be defeated at all costs.

    Were the Hebrews evil when they went around the promised land killing, raping, and looting?

    • Emmers

      That last question was rhetorical, right? Of course they were.

  • Bob Jase

    Can anyone explain how believers claim people do evil out of free will and people do evil due to demonic possession are the same thing? If they aren’t, how can you tell which is which?

  • Abbiestract

    Is it that if you’re a “sinner” you open yourself to demonic possession? It makes no sense to me, but then I’m more used to any kind of mental illness being considered a weakness or an excuse, which is also not a helpful attitude.

  • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

    I’m trying to parse the ’caused by sin’ phrase. I thought sin was something you DID, not something that caused anything. I would think that the shooting was the sin–it didn’t cause itself, did it? Or am I just working from a totally different frame of reference here.

    It’s weird, they almost get a good point in by trying to de-fang the ‘mental illness’ boogeyman, and then take a sharp left into WTFland.

    • Kate Monster

      I think it’s an rephrase of the “This happened because of society! And society giving up on (my interpretation of) God! And because teachers are working with math and science instead of beating their students and then praying with them all day like they should be!” argument that we’ve been hearing from the far right. So when they say “it was caused by sin” they mean “Society infected with all of its sinfulness him and made him want to kill.”

      • Carys Birch

        I think it’s more an expression of the “original sin” principle. Like, Luther’s dunghills covered in snow, except in the case of a non-Christian, just dunghills covered in dung. Sin is an active sort of malicious force in the minds of a lot of evangelicals (my folks are fundie-lite) and they definitely see “the sin nature” or “the old man” (a reference to not-born-again-ness, not old men) as something that CAUSES individual peoples’ individual sin-acts.

        It’s twisted.

  • Tracey

    But the shooter ticked off all the boxes the Fundies love! He was homeschooled, his mother hoarded guns and dreamed about the end of the world…what could be more holy to them?

  • Cy

    Liza Long’s post about her fears for her aggressive son and her exhausting, frustrating and futile attempts to help her son, protect herself, her family and the rest of society impressed me. I have a son, who, while not violent or threatening, very much does not fit the idea oaf what a successful  “good” tennager should be.  I have had some similiar experiences with school authorities and teachers,  psychiatrists, and police. I could write an article entitled, “I am Liza Long”.   And by that I would mean that I have had many similar experiences, NOT that I actually am Ms. Long.   And not that I’ve had as bad an experience as she has, not that my situation is as drastic as hers—just that, yes, I feel that I have been in  her shoes and walked the same path, in my own life.
    I don’t get why that is so hard to understand.

    I was actually rather shocked that so many comments were on that subject: “How can she claim to be Adam’s mom? She clearly isn’t!  

    Does anyone remember the famous John F. Kennedy speech to the citizens of Berlin, Germany, about their fears concerning the Berlin Wall?  To show his solidarity with them he claimed, “I am a Berliner!”.  Was he?   NO!  He was just making the point that he stood in solidarity with them.  Hmphh. Anyway, I’d like to make the case for not being so literal.  It’s really missing the point.

    Also, the demon claims are so—–not helpful?

  • Rovin’ Rockhound

    What annoys me most about that article is that she’s equating her son with Adam Lanza, and they don’t seem to share that many qualities. There is no evidence that Adam Lanza was a sweet kid who liked stuffed animals but would go on rages and threaten to kill his parents with the kitchen knives. There also seems to be limited evidence that his mother was seriously worried about his mental state and tried, unsuccessfully, to get help out of fear that he was going to go on a rampage. His mother also didn’t carry her cache of weapons with her in a plastic container whenever Adam was acting up, as the author does. This woman’s kid, on the other hand, has shown uncontrollable aggression but has never gone on a premeditated shooting spree at an elementary school (although she sounds as if it is a sure thing that he will). I’m guessing that the thoughts that go through the minds of these two kids are quite different because their brains are different. She’s not Adam Lanza’s mother – she is her child’s.

    To be fair, the original article did not have that title. It was added after it went viral and spread by other sources.

    • http://noadi.etsy.com Noadi

      My big issue is less with the article itself as with her disregard for her son’s privacy. She gave him a pseudonym but that is a ridiculous measure when she wrote under her own name and gave very identifying information like his age and freaking photo of him. In other words: he will see that article is he hasn’t already and the parents of his friends and classmates almost certainly have. What kind of damage is that going to do to him? There’s a good chance he’s going to have friends and classmates who’s parents are going to forbid them being friends or warn them not to trust him. Learn that his mother has so little hope for him that she thinks he’s going to be a mass murderer. I understand she’s frustrated but that doesn’t excuse her making public so much sensitive information about her son.

      • Ray

        That’s my problem with the article and that the author lumped all of the previous shooter’s mental illnesses and situations together. Articles like that tend to create backlash against those who has mental illnesses that have very much little to do with whatever mental illness is revealed to be linked to a mass shooter. It is suppose to be well meaning, but disregarding his son’s right to privacy and lumping the spectrum of mental illness is a problem.

  • Rae

    That reminds me of my fundy mom – I have some neurological issues with my brain, and she keeps insisting that there’s a spiritual cause, despite the fact that we both know that my medical history is such that it’d be more surprising if I didn’t have them. I can’t imagine what she’d be like if it was an issue that couldn’t be measured by any medical test or didn’t have a direct cause :-(

  • http://www.mymusingcorner.wordpress.com/ Lana

    Your point about how mentally ill people are not violent is somewhat valid. (I work with teens with mental illnesses, and the majority are not violent whatsoever.) But in the troubled teens I’ve seen, the mental illness combined with either an abused past or something else has created violent behavior when at a low point or in the wrong environment.

    The demon possession is way off, but like you, I’m not surprised.

  • J.

    If you thought that what Ladies Against Feminism wrote was horrible, you should hear what Kevin Swanson, the homeschool leader from CO who is connected to Vision Forum, has to say about it. Hint: He thinks that society should consider putting Liza Long’s son — and those with similar problems — to death, which is what the Bible also recommends, of course. As a bonus, he thinks that laws against marital rape are wrong and sinful. Yeah, I’m not even kidding, either. You can listen to him talk about the Massacre and the article here:


  • smrnda

    One reason I find many Christians ridiculous (and have for my whole life) is that in situations where there exist perfectly adequate, naturalistic explanations, they have to promote some mythological explanation as if its an equally likely explanation.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    “Ladies Against Feminism”? Kind of scared of what I’m going to find when I click over to their website…

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    Demonic Influence today is the Changelings of yesterday.

    Think back in the mythologies of changelings. You have your happy, joyful baby, babbling and engaged and then literally overnight, their personality changes to something entirely different. “They must have been stolen and replaced by a monster.” Goes the cry of the woe-begotten parents. Some raise the child and abuse it, others kill the child.

    Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like what happens with an autistic child?

  • http://dukesofearl.blogspot.com Joy

    A character in Lois McMaster Bujold’s _Mirror Dance_ makes the statement something like “much of what we call madness is some poor fellow dealing with pain in a way that annoys the people around him.” Similarly, I think much (or, more likely, all) of what is called “demon possession” is a pre-modern way of understanding socially disruptive mental illness. When the person with this mental illness and/or the people around them are very religious, even today, the mental illness can very easily move into what that social group will regard as demon possession.

    The other theological explanation for demons is where demons are actually a metaphor for (or a personification of) “temptation to do wrong or sin” and this aspect it is very easy to ascribe anything bad anyone does to demonic influence.

    Either way of understanding demonic influence –or both–would explain the use of the “demon” language in describing either mass murder or violent rages. You need to be viewing the world through a religious prism to see it, of course, but it’s hardly incoherent. (It isn’t particularly helpful, I think, in preventing future such incidents or helping those who are mentally ill, though, unless those are the varieties of mental illness which are somewhat relieved by ritual).

    • smrnda

      It is a way of explaining everything, but (to me) it’s entirely circular and unfalsifiable. If scientists and doctors figure out what’s actually wrong and actually fix problems with people, then it’s demons making you well so that you’ll trust doctors instead of faith healers.