Emptying the Haunted Air

Emptying the Haunted Air October 27, 2007

Almost two hundred years ago, the English Romantic poet John Keats wrote a poem, “Lamia“, in which he lamented that the advance of scientific understanding would rob the world of its beauty and wonder. Keats’ chief villain, though not named in the poem, was Isaac Newton, whose use of the prism to split white light into its component colors was viewed by Keats as akin to desecration:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow…

(It helps if you read “awful” as “awe-inspiring”. Like species, languages evolve over time.)

Keats’ charge of “unweaving the rainbow” was answered by Richard Dawkins, whose book of the same name argued persuasively that understanding how the world truly works enhances, rather than diminishes, its beauty and our awe. This strikes me as a more than adequate reply. But as far as I know, Keats’ other point hasn’t been answered in detail, and I’d like to do so.

To this charge, I answer as follows: Yes, science will empty the haunted air. And the sooner, the better. That is not a thing to be lamented, but a long-awaited liberation from an especially harmful set of lingering and poisonous superstitions.

Throughout history, religious believers have been obsessed with the idea that human beings are constantly under assault by devilish powers. Christianity’s most famous evangelist, Paul of Tarsus, was one of the chief proponents of this demonic paranoia:

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

—Ephesians 6:12

And likewise the pseudonymous author of 1 Peter, who compared the Devil to a predator forever waiting his chance to strike:

“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”

—1 Peter 5:8

These believers, and many others, had demons on the brain. In everything they did, they saw evil spirits swarming invisibly around them, always seeking to bring about the downfall of the faithful, always plotting how best to tempt them into eternal damnation, and always ready to strike at any believer who let down his guard for even an instant. This superstitious phobia, which survives to the present day, has produced incalculable fear, suffering and misery.

For just one example, I wrote earlier this year, in “Rebuking the Devil“, of a Pentecostal church in the Congo that still thinks mental illness is a sign of demon possession. Rather than effective psychiatric intervention to help its sick patients, this church’s “treatment” consists of chaining them down and beating them, interspersed with faith healing and prayer. Whole sites also exist that are devoted to the idea of “deliverance” from demonic attack and curses in every aspect of life.

But it’s not just small fringe sects or Third World countries where demonic superstitions persist. These beliefs are still defended by large, established churches and respected religious spokespeople, and they are still causing harm to real people in the world today.

Consider this comment from a column on Catholic Online:

Those Catholics involved in deliverance ministry who are versed in the aspects of the occult inform me that curses of this type are very hard to complete.

Note – hard, not impossible. Evidently, this Catholic writer really believes that it is possible to cause harm to another by invoking occult aid. And he’s not some random nobody, representing only himself, but an ordained priest and a featured contributor on a large and popular Catholic news and opinion site.

Likewise, consider the evangelical Dr. Gary Collins, a highly qualified clinical psychologist and president of the 15,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors, who was handpicked by apologist Lee Strobel for his book The Case for Christ. In a stunning interview with Strobel, Collins reveals his belief that malicious demons exist and are actively possessing people in the world today. Even more amazingly, he implies – like the Pentecostals of the Congo – that he thinks this should be the basis for treatment of at least some of the mentally ill:

“From my theological beliefs, I accept that demons exist… there are spiritual forces out there, and it’s not too hard to conclude that some might be malevolent.”

“I haven’t personally [seen evidence of demon possession], but then I haven’t spent my whole career in clinical settings… My friends in clinical work have said that sometimes they have seen this, and these are not people who are inclined to see a demon behind every problem.”

“People who deny the existence of the supernatural will find some way, no matter how far-fetched, to explain a situation apart from the demonic. They’ll keep giving medication, keep drugging the person, but he or she doesn’t get better. There are cases that don’t respond to normal medical or psychiatric treatment.” (p. 204)

Vast suffering has been inflicted on people as a result of these irrational beliefs. Vjack of Atheist Revolution tells us about his friend Tony, who was kidnapped by his parents’ conservative evangelical church and “exorcised” against his will until he was emotionally broken. Another anonymous story, even more horrifying, adds the element of carving a cross into the unwilling exorcism recipient’s skin. Children and others have died during abusive exorcisms.

No good has ever been brought about by demon beliefs. They have only ever caused fear, suffering and misery, both for the people who are imprisoned, abused and tortured and for the genuinely mentally ill who are discouraged from getting the real treatment they need.

Thankfully, after millennia in darkness, we finally have an opportunity to recognize these falsehoods for what they are. As the light of true understanding spreads, the supernatural is retreating. We have learned that our world is not a demon-haunted place, with malicious spirits lurking in every corner, but is governed by stable, orderly natural laws, as majestic and impersonal as clockwork. There are no leering demons waiting to menace us; those creatures are nothing but the fevered dreams of a superstitious and ignorant age. In the daylight, they have no more substance than shadows, and melt away just as quickly.

So, Keats was correct: philosophy and science will empty the haunted air. He saw this as a lament, but we should view it as a blessing. Once we have finished clearing out the grotesque supernatural visions that have threatened and terrified so many people, we will be free to turn our attention fully to the needs and concerns of this world, which are the only real or important things.

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