Guest Post by Tim Muldoon: Demons Are Hot

We at Vox Nova are happy to bring you this post today from Professor Tim Muldoon of Boston College.  Thanks to Professor Muldoon for sharing this with the VN community.


OK, bad pun.  But it’s hard to avoid the fact that there’s suddenly a fascination with all things demonic.  Consider this Discovery Channel series in production, cooperating with the Vatican (though the article does not specify who or what office of the Holy See).  Then there are the films The Last Exorcism and, coming this month, Anthony Hopkins in The Rite– the latest in a more-or-less constant fascination with demons dating back to films like The Exorcist (1973),  The Omen (1976) and others.  And even the Catholic Church–at least in the United States–convened a conference in November for the sake of educating bishops (56 attended!) and priests on exorcism.  Catholic News Service reports that a 2005 document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith specified that every bishop is to appoint an exorcist in his diocese.

Belief in demons has its roots in the Bible and is a constant theme in the history of Christian writings on spirituality.  Consider as one more or less typical example that of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), whose Spiritual Exercises is one of the most influential spiritual texts even to this day.  He writes frequently of the “enemy of our nature,” or some similar phrase, as one who constantly tries to seduce us into approving desires that will lead us to unhappiness:

the enemy of human nature, roaming about, looks in turn at all our virtues, theological, cardinal and moral; and where he finds us weakest and most in need for our eternal salvation, there he attacks us and aims at taking us.  (tr. Elder Mullan here)

For several years I’ve taught a course on Ignatian spirituality at Boston College, and my experience tells me that few students are willing to take Ignatius’ very clear language about the devil or demons at face value.  At the root of this bias is a characteristically modern posture: what ancient writers meant by demons and possession, moderns understand to be psychic disorders and epileptic fits.

There is some truth to this modern posture.  The Church’s exorcists will seek to identify when psychological or medical help is called for, and indeed there is good reason to support the idea that our knowledge of the sciences renders understandable much of what was once taken to be divine or demonic forces in the world.

But conventional wisdom errs at a fundamentally epistemological level when it dismisses demons a priori, or suggests that we have all the evidence to safely conclude that there is no such thing as possession.  How can we possibly know that?  The reason why people find demons uncomfortable is that they do not fit the diminished notion of transcendence that moderns and postmoderns have dangled before us.  We’re just a little too uncomfortable with the idea that demons have power that only God can save us from.  That would make us unable to have perfect autonomy!

To be clear: Hollywood demons are pretty much nothing like the ones that exorcists and spiritual directors deal with.  Ignatius, for example, living in the 16th century–really the tail end of the Medieval world–did not describe demons in a Dante-like way.  In Ignatius’ mind, demons weren’t hopping around with pitchforks or melting people’s faces.  They were real, but their work was not one of terror but of constant temptation, and they could be overcome through lives of virtue and prayer.  Indeed, the spiritual life as a whole, he wrote, was an ongoing practice of discernment so that one could learn which desires were rooted in God and which were rooted in the demonic.

At the foundation of this picture of the spiritual life, of course, was a basic conviction: God has created us for freedom, and we attain our freedom by living in ways that call forth the greatest love.  Turning away from demons amounts to turning away from the false loves which, in the end, cannot make us happy.

It is interesting to consider, for example, that most modern model of spirituality: the 12-step program, as an intuitive (even if not explicit) recognition of the power of the demonic.  Those who suffer from alcoholism or drug use, those addicted to sex or shopping, those who have compulsions like hoarding or cutting– often describe themselves as out-of-control.  And yet all these conditions are kinds of actions which people themselves choose to undertake, even though they do not feel free when they choose them.  We are very quick to assume that their problems are psychic and ought to be handled by therapy, and to a large extent that assumption is well grounded.  But does the need for psychotherapy mean that the causes are not demonic?  And can we be certain that every instance of compulsive behavior can be treated by psychotherapy?

Belief in demons is a belief in an “I know not what” that can have a negative impact on our lives.  Ignatius’ thoughtful language of “the enemy of our nature” is a way of expressing this basic reality: there are movements in our hearts whose origins we cannot fully plumb, but whose influences need to be weighed by the careful practice of discernment.  And the key direction of that discernment is asking the global question of whether a proposed choice leads to greater faith, hope, and love.  One of Ignatius’ important pieces of advice is that temptations are real and they must be faced head-on with courage– the enemy gets afraid of our resolve and weakens the grip on our desires.  This suggestion, I have found, is on the money, even if it offers a different picture of the demonic than that of most films.  Yes, there are many archaic images of demons out there, and that’s partly why there’s some fascination about them.  But relinquishing entirely the idea of the demonic, as a corollary to the modern posture of denying any reality beside that which can be measured or surveyed, strikes me as dangerous.  I am advocating for a certain epistemic humility: let us acknowledge demonic power but not pretend that we fully understand it.  Ignatius’ basic insight here is still valid: recognizing the power of the demonic should lead us to turn to greater reliance on God, whose love calls from us a love in return which is greater than the power of any demon.

"If you don’t believe in God like me though you can have as many robit ..."

What would “pro-life” mean in a ..."
"If technology can solve these problems then we will be free, although if humans start ..."

What would “pro-life” mean in a ..."
"Was just looking back over my copy of Brave New World. Here's Controller Mustapha Mond ..."

What would “pro-life” mean in a ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Morning’s Minion

    I’ve met Fr. Gary Thomas, the priest behind “The Rite”, and heard him speak. He claimed that he insisted that the movie portray things accurately, and he even hired lawyers to make sure this was done! I’m looking forward to it…

    I agree completely with the thoughts behind this post.

    • David Nickol

      I heard an interview with Fr. Thomas on Busted Halo, and in spite of the skeptical message I just wrote here, I found the interview quite fascinating, partly in the almost matter-of-fact way he regarded the reality of the demonic. I recommend listening to the interview to anyone who is at all interested in the topic.

      • Ronald King

        Thanks for the link David. I remember in my first position in mental health in 1974 working in a partial hospitalization program for children ages 6-12 and one of the children was taken to see The Exorcist by one of the parents. This unfortunate child began to act out the part of being possessed. He was possessed with the pain of not being loved and probably came from a long family history of a lack of love spiced up with verbal and physical abuse.
        This topic does trigger all kinds of thoughts about the energy of hatred and its manifestation as evil and the question being can evil exist where there is perfect love? Since we do not love perfectly do we then help support the manifestation of evil?

  • David Nickol

    If by “the demonic” is meant an inexplicable tendency to do things we do not want to do, or to willingly do things we regret only minutes or seconds later, only to do the same thing again and again, then I see value in it. (Anyone who is on a diet is familiar with this phenomenon.) I am not sure, though, why the word “demonic” has to come into it. Why not a Freudian concept like the Id?

    But if we are to take demons as real beings (say, fallen angels) I have asked before — and never received an answer that I found satisfying — by what mechanism do they influence us? Can they put thoughts in our heads? (Can they read our thoughts?) Can they cause a person to mistype a URL so that a porn site appears in a web browser when the person was looking for something else? Can a demon weaken your will so you will give in to temptation? And isn’t it also said God will always give you sufficient grace to overcome any temptation? Are we to picture a demon and God hovering over an individual with the demon intensifying his temptation and God giving more grace?

    I am rather appalled at the idea of attributing, even partially, psychiatric disorders such as OCD to demonic influences. Mental health problems are stigmatized enough without bringing demons into the picture. Also, if demons can cause compulsive behavior, they can make you do things that are against your will. (Geraldine: “The devil made me buy this dress!”)

    From a news account of a speech by Archbishop Chaput:

    During his keynote address, Archbishop Chaput had also referred to the importance of recognizing that evil exists and that “Satan is real.”

    Responding later to a question from CNA about where he sees the Devil’s presence in society, the archbishop said, “Well, one of the most obvious things in the United States is internet pornography which is pervasive, and subtle, and attractive and totally destructive of peoples’ lives and there’s very little talk about fighting it.

    “If you talk about fighting pornography in the media you’re somehow seen as anti-American, anti-freedom of speech. … things that are so obviously destructive to society…” he said.

    Do you really need the Devil to explain Internet porn? If anything was totally predictable it was that the Internet is a perfect medium for pornography. What exactly did Satan do to boost the porn industry on the Internet?

    • Tim Muldoon

      David, thanks for these great questions.

      Satan is an interesting character in the book of Job: he’s one of God’s counselors, whom God allows to afflict Job for reasons the author never makes clear. The drama, of course, is that Job’s friends want him to admit how he sinned, while Job maintains innocence. The friends see someone who has lost family, property, and health–they see the immediate causes. The omniscient narrator of Job, of course, is highlighting the friends’ ignorance of God’s plan, and specifically the causation of “the Satan.” I’m raising a parallel issue here: we can bring all our medical science to bear on any given pathology and explain it down to the genetic and even molecular level. But that doesn’t explain the kind of thing the author of Job was after, namely what it all means.

      My response to the question about by what mechanism the demonic persuades us is again to echo Ignatius: it’s an attempt to turn a good desire into a less good or evil desire: a proposition, a seduction. (Very Augustinian, in that respect.) I’m hungry; a little food would do it. What about that leftover cake? It’ll only go to waste….

  • Henry Karlson

    I agree with the spirit of all that is said here. There are many different things which can look demonic: some are things which science can explain, other things which would not be. And of those which science can explain, I still think the idea that spirits have elements which they are associated with can still mean even matter has an element of the demonic under its control, and medical science is a way to expel that (St Luke was a doctor, after all).

    The one thing I would add: though not all demonic encounters are what we see in the movies, I do know of exorcists who have described some obviously supernatural things, sometimes as fantastic as seen on tv.

    As a side note, I thought an interesting rendition of the demonic, written by an author who is agnostic but respects faith, was in the Lost Tales DVD for the Babylon 5 tv series.

    • David Nickol


      I was disappointed to see that the reality show will consist of re-enactments of cases from the Vatican files. I read M. Scott Peck’s book Glimpses of the Devil : A Psychiatrist’s Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption. He tells of an exorcism he witnessed in person but which was also filmed. By his own account, some of the things he witnessed did not show up on the film. Could it be that some elements of the supernatural don’t register on film (like vampires don’t show up in mirrors)? I suppose anything is possible. But undoubtedly being present in such a highly emotional setting affects your perception and your memory. So whom do we believe — the camera or the eyewitness?

      Of course, if demons exist and are at all intelligent, if the reality show were to attempt to present actual exorcisms (which it sounds like they might want to do in a second season, if the first season is successful), the obvious thing for the demons to do would be never to reveal their presence when the cameras were running.

  • Ronald King

    Another thought about addictions is the discovery of an allele in the dopamine receptor2 site in the brain that is responsible for reward. A geneticist named Blum discovered this mutation in about 77% of alcoholics and its absence in 72% of non-alcoholics. This mutation theoretically prevents long term reward from being experienced and those affected with this seek more and different stimuli to gain a sense of reward because of a feeling of emptiness and/or boredom brought on by decreased dopamine absorption at the receptor site.
    Another mutation was discoverd in the enzyme that breaks down folic acid into its active compound l-methylfolate. L-methylfolate is the only compound in folic acid that can cross the blood-brain barrier and it is critical for the synthesis of neurotransmitters that give us the ability to think clearly and rationally. This is now being used to treat treatment resistent depression and other psychiatric disorders.
    Every person that I saw in the last 3 years for counselling that I referred for the genetic test MTHFR Polymorphism had at least one of the two mutations. Nine out of ten had both mutations. This enzyme is also associated with the absorption of B12 and this vitamin along with the proper balance of neurotransmitters gives us a buffer against the stress of life or the evil that causes this stress. These can help make those who are weak in these areas stronger and also positively affect their opening to God’s Love.

    • David Nickol


      The more discoveries of genetic tendencies to certain undesirable behaviors, the less plausible it seems to implicate demonic forces as causes of undesirable behaviors (for those who are inclined to do so). I suppose one could claim that demonic forces cause the mutations, but how could allowing demons to damage a person’s genetic make-up be reconciled with God’s justness and goodness? And of course, the stronger the genetic disposition to a certain undesirable behavior, the less culpable (presumably) the person who exhibits that behavior.

      • Ronald King

        David, If I remember correctly, I read an article about 3 years ago where researchers studied two groups of the same species of pond fleas. They were from different ponds and one group was more aggressive than the other group. The aggressive group had horned-like structures on the top of their heads and the more peaceful group did not. The aggressive group was introduced into the pond of the peaceful group and the next generation of the peaceful group grew these horned structures also and acted more aggressively. When the aggressive group was removed from the environment it took four generations to stop the growth of these structures in the peaceful group.

  • Dan

    There seems to be two options that make sense of this:

    1) Supernatural entities (angels/demons) manifest their actions through natural/physical means.

    2) Angels/demons are abstractions that we personify, when they have no real personhood per se.

    I don’t subscribe to either theory, as I have no real opinion on this matter. If I had to guess, I would wager that the truth is likely a combination of the two.

    • brettsalkeld

      One way the Catholic tradition has understood spirit is as “organizing principle.” I think your suggestion that a combination of your two options comes close to this. One things the tradition has maintained, however, is the insistence that these “organizing principles” are personal. The are not just like “the Force” in Star Wars. Sometimes the insistence on “personality” gets taken so far as too exclude the “abstract” nature of such being, i.e., the become just like us but invisible. On the other hand, I wouldn’t go so far with the “abstraction” as to deny the personal nature. I, for one, would be interested in having Tim Muldoon’s thought here.

      • brettsalkeld

        I have a friend who is working on a study of angels. I should also ask him his thoughts.

      • Tim Muldoon

        I consulted the Angelic Doctor on these points (ST I QQ. 50-64). The summary is this: the angels and demons are intelligent creatures that emanate from the intelligence of God, as heat emanates from a source of heat. Angels and demons have free will, but the demons are angels whose will has turned upon themselves in the sin of pride. Their second sin is envy: they envy human beings and therefore desire to corrupt them. Demons are, in Aquinas’ view, jealous of human beings. And they desire to remove human beings’ enjoyment of the goodness of God by placing obstacles to that enjoyment, i.e. false pleasures (NB: In this sentence I’m riffing off Aquinas). Note throughout Aquinas’ insistence that the good and evil angels imitate God’s intelligence, but that the demons fall because of a misplaced desire to be God. And they want human beings to share that desire. To me, the real nugget is that sin is always rooted in some form of twisted self-understanding, which follows from a perverted desire.

  • Pingback: A Renewed Interest in Exorcisms (Updated) | The American Catholic()

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Perhaps a little flippant, but this thread reminded me of the following exchange from the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes:

    Calvin: Do you believe in the devil? You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption, and destruction of man?

    Hobbes: I’m not sure that man needs the help.

  • Pingback:

  • digbydolben

    Teresa of Avila is known to have stated that she wasn’t so much afraid of the devil as she was of the people who were fascinated by or obsessed with him.

    • Jimmy Mac

      digbyolben: go to the old thread entitled Easy Arguments and Gay Marriage and see a reference to an article in The Tablet that I posted on 7 January (the last posting thereon). I think you’ll want to seek out the original article. I didn’t know of any other way to bring this to your attention, so I’m posting an unrelated comment on this thread. Sorry to the rest for the interruption.

  • Tim Muldoon

    A follow-up to my post: the Vatican Press office Director Fr. Federico Lombardi denies that the Holy See is collaborating with the Discovery Channel. See the EWTN story at