The other day a Christian showed up on a post I’d written to inform everybody that “Satan” was actually totally behind the revelations about Josh Duggar’s attacks on those five little girls he molested SO SHUT UP ALREADY, YOU MEANIEPIES. It was simply unbelievable how bad his efforts backfired, but it reminded me of exactly why we need to keep hammering the point home that these scandals are hardly supernatural boogitie-boo but rather the products of completely understandable–and earthly–dynamics. And we need also to understand why Christians keep returning to demons as explanations for their own shortcomings and failures.
We’ve been hearing this excuse from the Duggars—and their supporters–ever since the news of the scandal broke. Oh, demons are totally attacking these poor widdle godly Christians who are just doing their bestest despite all this demonic opposition! Oh, Satan himself has earmarked these poor widdle godly Christians for destruction because they’re doing soooooo much good/trying sooooo hard/whatever!
I used to think that way. When I was Christian, I moved through a world chockablock full of demons, angels, and other supernatural agents who could–and very often did–meddle with the visible world and its people on a constant basis. Every single day, everything that happened could reasonably be seen as the product of that meddling. If something good happened, an angel or “God” himself had made it happen; if something bad happened or someone got caught doing something terrible, demons or “Satan” had personally brought that about. Demonic attacks could come from any angle, so parents and leaders had to “pray a hedge of protection” around their loved ones.
When people outside my religion told me they didn’t think anything that happened to them had anything to do with spirits either way, I used to think it was sad that they were so blind. It took a long time to recognize how this belief played into the hands of the abusers and predators around me.
Of course, like most beliefs Christians have, there really wasn’t any way to falsify or even test this belief in constant supernatural meddling. Something good that happened could also be a demon’s work–when someone who wasn’t Christian had a great, easy life, often the Christians around me blamed that person’s fortune on demons clearing their way because only vulnerable, emotionally-destroyed, seriously down-on-their-luck people would ever find Christianity’s claims compelling in any way (yes, I know; I don’t think they really thought that one through either). Or terrible fortune might be our god’s desire–maybe to bring us down low if we were getting too uppity, or to reveal to us some great spiritual lesson our incompetent god couldn’t teach us any other way. And of course something could also be “of the flesh,” which meant not really anything spiritually-derived or affected, but most people in my denomination only rarely pulled that accusation out of their butts (always to denounce a conflicting opinion).
Indeed, I haven’t seen any Christians try to make a case that “God” is the one who is “attacking” the Duggars or using this scandal to teach them anything. I’ve heard Christians claim that any number of other horrific events are totally their god’s explicit intention, but I haven’t actually heard any Christians flat-out say that Jesus allowed five very young children to get molested for some greater purpose. They’re all totally convinced that Satan is behind all of it. I guess that’s a sort of progress, though really it just moves the problem of their god’s culpability one step over rather than resolving it.
There’s a reason why Christians seem to have gotten this idea of demons lodged in their heads and just can’t let it go.
1. Thinking of themselves as the victims of spiritual attacks makes Christians feel special.
When Christians insist up and down that “Satan” is attacking the Duggars, they’re saying that the Duggars are important enough for the Prince of Hell himself to go bother them. Because…. why? They’re a very visible element of right-wing Christianism? They’ve got a reality television show? They’re very loud about their particular brand of abrasive, nasty bigotry? Why on earth would the Father of Lies possibly care about some religious kooks? Is hassling them seriously what he spends his finite time doing?
Of course, this line of reasoning omits that the reason there’s any fuss at all is because someone who is claiming the moral high ground is actually a kiddie-diddler who covered up his crimes and totally got off scott-free from any legal repercussions from them, and his parents helped him do it every step of the way for years. If Josh Duggar hadn’t molested five little girls and his parents hadn’t responded the way they did, “Satan” wouldn’t have anything to bother them about, now would he? These charges aren’t getting made up out of whole cloth. They’re not fibs or lies. Josh Duggar really did molest five girls over a period of years, and his parents really did do every single conceivable thing possible to save him from any consequences resulting from these attacks. If not for the journalists who gained access to the 2006 investigation–a nearly-ten-year-old investigation, may I remind y’all–they’d still be lying through their teeth about what wonderfully moral people they are and L’il
Jesus Josh would still be spreading vicious smears and hate speech about LGBTQ people to try to strip them of their rights.
No no, Satan is writhing in fury and fear because some ultra-right-wing Christianists have a reality television show, so he… what, allowed to be publicized an actual crime that Josh and his parents committed years ago and were trying to deep-six? They’re such a threat to Satan’s glorious underworld kingdom that he has to… what, make sure that people know that this family’s leaders–along with various other big names in ultra-right-wing Christianism–are nothing but big-name hypocrites? Satan was required to make Josh Duggar’s attacks public? It couldn’t possibly have been just people discovering the presence of great evil in a family that’s made its money by claiming constantly to be morally superior to other types of families, to the point where Josh Duggar, his parents, and his allies think they have the right to judge others and try to control their lives?
But WHY would Satan need to go to all that trouble?
See, people already despise fundagelicals. People are already leaving their end of Christianity to the tune of thousands per day according to actual fundagelical sources. Churches are already closing all over the country. Fundagelical ministers are already facing a serious decline in authority and credibility. There is no reason for Satan to lift a finger; fundagelicals themselves are handling their religion’s slide into irrelevance just fine all on their own. But by making up a boogeyman to blame their troubles on, they make themselves feel much more puffed-up and important. They turn a perfectly normal and understandable trend or outcry into a skirmish in some vast spiritual war that only they can see.
And I remember feeling that way. I remember thinking to myself that I couldn’t be irrelevant if “Satan” himself was opposing me in my various efforts. This sense of demonic opposition fueled me on many days when otherwise I might have felt overwhelmed at how poorly my evangelistic efforts seemed to be doing. And, too, it was hard to perceive “God’s” actions, but very easy to perceive a demon’s! Say what you want about him, but Satan got shit done.
If I kept failing, of course, then I could certainly blame my failure on demonic oppression of some kind. And that’s exactly what I did for a long time. A big part of the allure of fundagelical Christianity is the feeling it gives its members of being embattled warriors for Jesus fighting this vast battle for the cause of good and justice.
But it’s hard to fathom how that vast battle desperately required Josh Duggar and his parents to hide and cover up his sex crimes. Usually when serious crimes are uncovered, we regard the forces doing the uncovering as the good guys; usually when a crime is exposed after years of cover-ups, the revelation is seen as a good thing. Fundagelicals want us to see those forces as the bad guys this time, and the revelation as an evil thing that demons have provoked. And then they seem shocked that we’re not willing to reverse the narrative this time for them.
Satan hasn’t been required at all; Christians are doing this damage all on their own. But that’s not anywhere near as fun of an idea, and it sure doesn’t let them feel super-important.
2. This blame game prevents Christians from engaging with the real reasons for why things happen to them–or for assuming responsibility for their own actions.
Blaming stuff on demons is a thought stopper, pure and simple, just like “God did it” is. The second a supernatural agent gets used as an excuse for anything, the discussion is over and there’s no reason to look further for why that thing happened or is happening. The mechanism for how that event happened is impossible to guess; there’s not even a way to reliably tell exactly what entity is behind the event. The only response a Christian can make to this kind of assertion is “Oh. Okay.”
And that’s exactly why this excuse gets trotted out as often as it does.
It’s meant to shut people up.
When a religious zealot uses demons as an excuse for why sex abuse keeps happening in their churches, though, this form of thought-stopping becomes sinister. There really isn’t any need to invent supernatural boogeymen to explain why uber-right-wing Christianist groups keep exploding into scandals and drama. Their dynamics aren’t hard to guess or perceive.
Indeed, we don’t need to stray beyond the visible world to explain anything Josh Duggar or his parents did. He was a kid raised in a hyper-misogynistic environment that suppressed all healthy sexual expression, and which treated women’s bodies as chattel to be owned and exchanged between male masters; his teachers taught him very well about thought crimes, sure, but never seemed to cover stuff like bodily ownership and consent. We don’t need to invoke demons to explain why he might have opportunistically preyed upon the only female bodies he thought he could get away with assaulting, or even why he kept escalating his abuse until his parents finally took more slightly more decisive action to stop him. His parents’ image and livelihood was at stake thanks to their idiotic son; there’s no need to invoke demons to explain their behavior when simple self-interest explains why they protected him and covered up his foul abuse.
The only people mystified about why Josh Duggar committed these crimes or how he could possibly have done something so monstrous are people in his community or sympathetic to it. Everyone else is only surprised that every kid raised like him doesn’t turn out to be a predator of some kind. That style of Christianity itself is hugely flawed, so of course it will result in horror stories more often than its practitioners would like.
But engaging with very flawed teachings is a lot harder than just blaming everything on demons.
I personally heard this thought-stopper used constantly as a Christian, and I still hear it today:
* “Of course the Deep South, which is way into fundagelical Christianity, is also a hotbed of every single conceivable form of miserable dysfunction and injustice. Demons attack ‘God’s’ kingdom more often!”
* “Of course fundagelical pastors keep getting caught diddling underage girls and women who aren’t their wives. Demons attack ‘Men of God’ more often!”
* “Of course uber-right-wing Christianists get caught in one sex and abuse scandal after another. Demons attack TRUE CHRISTIANS™ more often!”
(Looking at that list, I suddenly start wondering just how it is that right-wing Christians seem so very comfortable making all of these assertions about demons. They sure do know a lot about that subject. I’ve always wondered why… oh wait, no, I don’t at all.)
It’s exhausting listening to Christians thunder about “personal responsibility” one second but whine in their next breath that demons absolve them of all possible responsibility for their own behavior, switching whenever it benefits themselves to do so.
3. It keeps the status quo right where it is.
We have no proof that a supernatural world even exists, so we really have no idea if any agents exist beyond our senses who can actually interact with or impact our own world. If they exist, then we have no idea what they want or how to talk to them, and no idea how to influence them. In a very real way, such supernatural entities–being impossible to detect, understand, or meaningfully influence–are useless.
Which makes them absolutely perfect for Christians to use as scapegoats.
Once demons are deployed as excuses, Christians are basically throwing their hands up in the air and saying that they can’t possibly do anything in the real world to fix the problem they’re blaming on demons. Oh, sure they can pray a lot–which means talking to the ceiling, which did oh so very much to prevent the problem in the first place. They can fast and evangelize and do whatever else they think their god wants–which would make them feel very spiritual and lofty indeed but which won’t even come close to addressing exactly why a situation occurred.
If a problem is fixed by real-world means, then that would strongly imply that demons weren’t needed as excuses for that problem’s existence. I can’t imagine right-wing Christianists suddenly discarding their bizarro-world misogyny and hierarchical thinking, but if they did restore voices and power to their female members and saw those scandals dwindle in severity and frequency, what would that say about the involvement of demons in those scandals?
When an explanation involves demons, moreover, there’s no need to change anything at all. Hell, Christians using such an excuse might well drill down all the harder on the stuff that failed the first time around. That’s why we keep seeing such utter blithering incompetence and tone-deafness coming out of Christian churches. Is vicious misogyny not working to keep women in pews? Add more vicious misogyny by heading into “courtship culture!” Is enforced ignorance not keeping teenaged girls from having sex? Add more enforced ignorance by preventing them from accessing information on their own and making them engage in weird, creepy “purity balls” with their weird, creepy daddies! Is making sex absurdly risky not stopping young people from engaging in unapproved sex? Make it even more risky by denying kids HPV vaccinations and making contraception even harder for them to obtain! Is Christian bigotry driving Christians right out of their churches? Obviously these churches should keep being bigoted if not become more so!
Instead of making an environment that is totally inhospitable to abusers and predators, such groups continue to offer them plenty of room in which to operate–and then seem shocked when “demons” attack them over and over again. Little wonder that such abusers and predators seem to gravitate to fundagelical churches!
When “the same thing we already saw fail” fails even more spectacularly, the answer is always going to be that demons must be working overtime to prevent success–and the course of action is always going to be doing yet more stuff that already failed with extra doses of “spiritual warfare.”
So when I hear Christians blame stuff on demons, what I perceive is them demanding that everybody shut up and let them feel super-important and special when they’re not, stick their heads in the sand to avoid looking at why bad stuff really happens to them, and let them keep the status quo exactly where it is.
On the plus side, if all Christians do is repeat-with-feeling tactics that have already failed and blame fairies for these tactics’ continued failure, and if their response to their continued failure is to yell more loudly at the ceiling and to shake their fists more vehemently at the clouds, then that might be all to humanity’s eventual good. I just hate to think of all the vulnerable folks in their churches who will be abused and hurt because their leaders are busy pointing at demons to excuse their own earthly faults.
And needless to say, sane and moral people will continue to reject this self-serving excuse and continue to seek real-world answers for our problems, since that’s what actually creates change and improvement. We’re leaving this sick, diseased religion behind–and Satan has nothing to do with why.
When we see Christians blaming demons for stuff that is totally not supernatural in nature, we’re allowed to call them out for doing it. And as more and more of us do, I suspect that more and more Christians will start wondering why they’ve been blaming demons for their own shortcomings all this time.