Let’s begin with a story. When I was around 10 or 11 I had a strict 9:30pm weekend bedtime, in a household that watched The X-Files from 9 to 10. As you can imagine, this meant I had my fair share of nightmares, because I’d watch the set-up for the weekly horror concept, but never stick around for the resolution.
Now, I suspect my parents were of the opinion that I’d eventually learn my lesson and just… not watch the first half hour with them. Instead, I learned how to handle my horror. I’d watch that first half hour and note how music cues, lighting, and camera angles were priming me for a coming shock. When I felt particularly unnerved, I used to comment to myself on how effective the music was, and how clever a particular use of light and shadow was. And… it worked. In time, I went to bed at 9:30 still grumpy about missing the endings, but able to apply logic to whatever fears the premise had created.
A couple years later, I declared to my father that I was going to do it: I was going to watch The Exorcist alone in the dark. I’d heard so much about this film, supposedly among our scariest, and I looked forward to being chilled by it. Instead, I enjoyed it–I was struck by how the structure of the movie called for an intelligent audience to fill in the narrative gaps–but I was disappointed by the actual fear factor, and told my father so.
“Well,” he pointed out, in an office where a recent paperback of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (1995) held a place of prominence, “You’ve never believed in The Devil or other evil forces. So maybe the premise just can’t scare you?”
And he was right. One tremendous benefit of not being coaxed to see demons everywhere was that fears of possession made no sense. I wasn’t entirely immune to fear of things that went bump in the night… but it was humans, not malevolent nether-creatures, that I worried might be doing the “bumping”.
Twenty years later, give or take, I watched The Curse of La Llorona (in Spanish: I watch a movie a week here to practice) with my usual fondness for horror films. I love reflecting on how their premises speak to cultural anxieties (say, about the breakup of family, or the death of loved ones). I love noting how the limits to their violence (i.e. the kids are usually safe from real harm) show what we really fear as a culture. And I love how they represent atheists–because an atheist protagonist who doesn’t believe in ghosts and ghouls almost always changes their mind the moment the evidence for such is clear.
But while watching La Llorona, which draws on Mexican myth as well as a wide range of Latin-American Christian-adjacent spiritual practices (e.g. the egg tests, the laying of seeds at entrances, the smudging), the sheer number of cultural rituals naturalized in the film reminded me that ideas of possession and larger-than-life malevolence are not the sole provenance of religion after all.
And almost 25 years since Sagan first published his profoundly influential text, even secular folks sometimes fall prey to both. We haunt our world, that is, with far more spectres of monstrosity than need exist.
Christian Counterparts in Secular Demonology
Before I expand on this assertion, though, I want to dispel the notion of a hard divide between religious and non-religious people on this accord. In the secular realm, I think we’re all complicit in this sort of haunting.
After all, it’s no surprise that most children’s first books of Christianity leave out the hard, uncomfortable fact that the character of Christ believes in demons. It’s easier to warm a child to the notion of a god who simply “heals the sick” and is a friend to the downtrodden when one ignores that his ministry was a ministry predominantly of exorcism. Christ talks to devils, Christ exorcises devils, Christ even wrestles with Satan in the desert (a story most probably drawn from mythology around Set, vilified Egyptian god of the desert and chaos–but since Set’s now Satan–he counts as a devil).
And yet, children are brilliantly inquisitive. Tell them about a god-among-men constantly pulling devils from men, and… a kid’s going to want to see that shit go down! Why doesn’t our church do exorcisms? Where’s the nearest church that does exorcisms? Can we go see an exorcism? What if I need an exorcism? Who’s going to exorcise me?
A child, furthermore, is going to have a million questions about the implications of possession. Are kids in my class possessed? Are my teachers? How do you know they’re not? How do you know there’s no demon waiting to possess me? Have you ever been possessed? Do you know anyone who was possessed? How do I know a demon if I see one? Will I see real ones at Halloween? If not, why not? Why were there way more devils in Christ’s time than now?
…Suffice it to say, then, it is far easier, in more pragmatic, modernized, and secularized parts of the world, simply to leave that whole topic to one side when it comes to children’s stories of Christ. Why cause a child that much cognitive dissonance when living in communities where it’s abundantly clear that devils don’t walk the earth?
Christians from milder denominations thus often don’t confront this textual reality until far later in their lives of faith (if at all). Fire and brimstone is treated as something purely Old-Testament-y, pre-Christ, while the Biblical selections in their weekly services are lovingly curated from tamer, more inclusivity-oriented slices of the gospels and later additions from either Paul or the actual writer of the Pastoral Epistles.
Why does this matter? Because it means that we atheists would do well to remember that quite a few Christians also recognize that demons are nonsense from a less-informed era. These Christians have simply never been given reason to see their non-belief in demons as in conflict with their belief in Jesus Christ.
And yet, they and we alike might still be susceptible to the same demonizing impulse in our shared secular domain. As such, we humanist types might all benefit from a little more humility, when working together to rise above it.
Beyond a “Rustle in the Grass”
So what is this demonizing impulse? It is, simply put, the tendency to make larger-than-life enemies out of other human beings.
Do you recall, dear fellow atheists, Michael Shermer‘s argument for the logic of belief in the unseen? How, when our ancestors heard a “rustle in the grass”, they had better chances of survival if they more often entertained the possibility of a predator?
The trouble with this example is that it ascribes such logical behaviour solely to the unseen. In our secular world, though, we also see plenty that we imbue with larger-than-life malevolence. And we do this, in particular, when we reify notions of evil and monstrosity in the vessels of mere human beings.
Likewise with, say, the Pope, who has most certainly endangered lives with his support of exorcism. Likewise with, say, Deepak Chopra–a few years back, at least, when “quantum” was still a useful buzzword among the “woo”-mongers. Likewise with any other contentious world leader or prominent public figure.
We choose our foes, in other words–and in so doing, we imbue their mythology with a greater power than any single human being intrinsically has. After all, what power does a single human being intrinsically have? We are born fragile and small. We grow up in given contexts and are shaped by them: our goals, our values, our fears. Our sense of who is important, and why.
And then sometimes–but not always–we gain an awareness of contexts outside our original conditions, and sometimes–but not always–we choose to be shaped in turn by this new knowledge. Some of us grow to be well-known in our communities and specific spheres of knowledge, but all of us, in the end, still die. And then, when we’re dead, the fullness of our impact depends on what other individuals choose to carry forward about us. Whether they will tell the next generation if we were among the “important” human beings, and why.
Put that way, it becomes clear, too, why some would prefer to play larger-than-life Cowboys-and-Demons.
Is there even another way?
The Nature of History, the Nature of the Modern Demon
When recently asked my favourite first line in all of literature, my answer came unhesitatingly: the opening to Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War. In Rex Warner’s translation (unlike a few others, which impose a more dignified third-person distance on the text), our narrator plainly declares, without any attempt at subterfuge,
I began my history at the very outbreak of the war, in the belief that it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those which had taken place in the past.
I remember rereading that line as a child, trying to make sense of its causality arc. Was the war actually a great war, objectively so, or simply a great war because Thucydides a) believed it would be, and b) put in the effort to record it as if it actually was? And if it wasn’t a “great war”, how would we know? By what comparative measures?
Likewise, today, it is very difficult sometimes to discern what is and is not actually important from a simple reading of the news and related media trend cycles, because we spend so much time belabouring that which in the grand scheme of human history surely will not be seen as anywhere near as consequential. But why?
As Henry Thomas Buckley (1821-62) once sagely noted, in a quotation misattributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” But ever so often, it is precisely these latter two components–events and peoples–that frame our culture’s discourse. (I don’t need to belabour this point among US readers, I suspect, because you’re currently living the slings and arrows of that hellscape in your unending presidential primaries! Sorry, folks!)
As such, it becomes so easy to fixate on one of our culture’s most popular sports: vilifying individuals, and otherwise constructing larger-than-life spectres of malevolence from them. We may not be living in a literal Puritan society like the one showcased in The Witch (2015), but how many rituals of modern life still rely on a similar approach to cultural history: the impulse, that is, first to construct larger-than-life opponents, and then to establish our own importance through the battles we wage against them?
Exorcising the Instinct for Exorcism Itself
It’s a tall order, but I think we can outgrow this long-standing tribalistic tradition of glorifying ourselves through notions of triumph over larger-than-life constructions of malevolent forces in the form of fellow human beings.
We not only can, but we need to stop demonizing each other, and to stop treating our greatest problems as matters of simply “purging” ourselves of certain people. Such thinking is equivalent to trying to plug a leaking dam one crack at a time.
How do we go about this, though?
Well, first, I think we humanists need to own up to the roots of what we’re doing: namely, engaging in rituals of exorcism, not so far removed as we’d like to think from the practices of folks in the era of Christ, or in many spiritual groups alive and well today. When we prop up individuals as targets for criticism and expulsion, we elevate their specific examples of transgression over the general principles we’re trying to uphold. We’re favouring cults of personality over the indiscriminate establishment of laws and social practices that will be just for all.
Next, we need to mind how often we invoke the names of our given targets, and in so doing centre these individuals in ongoing cultural myth-making. We speak their power into being–but by speaking of other concepts more forcefully instead–in time, en masse–we can change not just the content by the actual form of our discourse. What would the shape of US news look like, for instance, if there were more public discussion of relevant laws and ethical standard-bearers in lieu of another news cycle dedicated to what 45 tweeted in the night? How much easier might the Chopras of the world have been shifted from the limelight if, instead of fixating on them by name, we’d shifted more directly and consistently to discourse on say, the actual definition and sphere of influence for the term “quantum”, and continued with that public science education instead?
And finally, if we’re spending so much of our discursive lives targeting specific people from opposing ideological camps, we need to ask ourselves why. Why we are measuring our own successes, and the value of our own lives, in terms of our argumentative triumph over other such individuals, given to represent whole other ideological factions?
And even if you’re among those humanists who might already comfortably say “Ah, but no, that’s not me–my struggle has only ever been for personal growth”… take a good long look at how you’ve framed that internal struggle, too.
We still talk, after all, so frequently and so casually about “inner demons”.
What would our inner struggles look like if, instead of regarding our greatest failings as other, we recognized that, even in times of great personal crisis, the only “beast within” that we’ve been wrestling with is… ourselves?
And that, at the end of the struggle, the best we can hope for is not an exorcism of our lesser nature, but simply a synthesis of all past faults and failings within a paradigm of self better prepared for what fleeting time still lies ahead?
It’s not an aggrandizing mythology, granted.
But it’s one in which we might forgive ourselves–and each other–for being, in this vast and wondrous cosmos full of mysteries… merely human in the end.