The Harmful Superstition of Exorcism

The Harmful Superstition of Exorcism November 7, 2019

Oklahoma was still in an active state of moral panic regarding The Satanic Temple’s attempts to erect a monument on the state’s capitol grounds when a devout Stillwater, OK Christian man was arrested for hacking the head off an alleged practitioner of “witchcraft.” Both media and law enforcement failed to attribute the crime to the perpetrator’s religious beliefs, even when that connection was made perfectly explicit.

The killer was reported to have been “watching Youtube videos related to his Christian beliefs” immediately preceding the fatal assault. The murderer’s brother, who was present during the crime, further explained that the victim was “practicing witchcraft and Isaiah [the perpetrator] had strong Christian beliefs.”

Despite these facts, media reports explained, “At this point, the motive for the murder is still unclear.” Bafflingly, Captain Randy Dickerson of the Stillwater Police Department was reported as assuring the public that “the case is not related to recent beheadings by Islamic extremists” and that therefore “the case had no religious implications.”

Only a month prior to that incident, another Oklahoma man beheaded a co-worker. Federal officials investigating the crime were quick to point out that “they had found no links between [the perpetrator] and Islamic extremist groups that have beheaded several Western hostages.” The mother of the perpetrator explained, “My son was raised up in a loving home […] My son was raised up believing in God. That’s what he believes in. My son was a good kid.”

While in that case there may not have actually been any connection between the killer’s religious beliefs and the murder he committed, it was curious to see assurances of the killer’s Christian conviction invoked to establish the slaying’s lack of religious motive.

Those of us in The Satanic Temple knew that if the perpetrator in either case had been a card-carrying Satanist, no other facts surrounding the murder — no amount of drugs consumed, no prior record of mental health issues, no Crime of Passion narrative — could possibly divert the blame away from Satanism as the motivating culprit. In fact, even when a self-described “born again” Christian drove his car into the controversial 10 Commandments monument which inspired our bid for equal access to the capitol grounds, Oklahoma officials insisted that the man was a Satanist due to his claim that the Devil had made him do it. Where Satanism is involved, even distantly and indirectly — and often even when it is only falsely invoked — it will always be to blame. Where Christianity is involved, even flagrantly and directly, it will be entirely ignored. This double-standard is so culturally-entrenched as to go often unnoticed even by those who recognize its injustice once pointed out.

Take the backward, harmful tradition of exorcism which regularly results in deaths worldwide. If any other religious identity in the West, outside of Christianity, openly practiced rituals of such simple-minded magical thinking with even half the rate of death attributed to exorcism, there would be a full-scale panic, with an outcry to ban the practice, as well as the religion that sanctioned it. Instead, stories about exorcism are often treated by journalists as a compelling foray into the world of the unexplained.

In 2018, a journalist for the Guardian, Deborah Hyde, described the problem:

The first [problem] is that people get hurt. Really hurt. Recent UK government statistics suggest that almost 1,500 child-abuse cases a year are linked to notions of witchcraft and demonic possession. The Metropolitan police’s Project Violet was set up to explore child abuse connected to spiritual beliefs. I have written about Nigeria’s “witch children”. And there was the recent horrific case in Nicaragua of Vilma Trujillo, who died after being burned alive. This all demonstrates that the danger is neither localised nor irrelevantly ancient.  

Just last month, in October, a Tucson man was arrested for drowning his 6-year old son while trying to exorcise him of a demon. The Washington Post reported that the boy’s mother attempted to phone a pastor before calling 911, but the article fails to make any mention of the family’s religious affiliation, noting instead that “[t]he 6-year-old boy, his adoptive mother, Romelia Martinez, and his biological mother are members of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, according to a criminal complaint.” We are informed, however, that “Belief in demonic possession is not a fringe idea. Slightly more than half of Americans polled in a YouGov survey in 2013 said they believed in it, and 46 percent reported that they believed exorcisms could drive out demons. Demand for Catholic exorcisms has been growing in recent years […].”

Of course, the murder of the 6-year old did nothing to reduce the annual flood of Halloween-time spooky “journalistic” mainstream media paranormal investigations into exorcisms which serve to popularize and normalize the practice. In fact, the pop culture popularity exorcism holds has resulted in trend wherein the demand for exorcisms is growing, even while Catholicism is in decline… according to a Newsweek piece which utilizes that particular unique bit of information to springboard into a typical credulous exorcism report that expresses zero skepticism amid quotes from “experts” in demonic possession.

According to an entry titled “Deaths Resulting From Exorcism” in the book Spirit Possession Around the World: Possession, Communion, and Demon Expulsion Across Cultures, “In many traditions, exorcisms of demonic or evil spirits involves practices that are abusive to the possessed, such as binding, beating, or starvation. Although these practices are not intended to be fatal, it is not uncommon for the possessed to die during exorcisms [demonstrating] why the study of exorcism is relevant to many fields of study, including law.”

The Catholic Diocese publicly insists that “strength beyond the normal capacity of the person” is an indication of demonic possession, suggesting perhaps that the demon-possessed may likewise demonstrate a greater tolerance for physical interventions. While “witch doctor” has become a pejorative associated with primal superstitious savagery, “Exorcist” unjustly manages to maintain some air of credibility. Infuriatingly, Western missionaries export this dangerous superstition to the Third World, even while congratulating themselves upon spreading “civilization.” Our superstitious are no less savage, we merely maintain a conspiracy of silence — a dignified respect for the superstitions of others, so long as those others are not so “other” as to not be our fellow countrymen — which prevents us from acknowledging the murders committed in superstition’s name.

According to Spirit Possession Around the World, “In the United States, there have been numerous cases of injury and death resulting from improvised exorcisms. These cases frequently involve people killing their own children by beating, starving, or drowning them to remove demons. Some cases are noteworthy because of the particularly strange manner of the exorcism. In 1980, Patricia Abraham killed her baby in an oven in attempt to ‘burn the devil’ out. In 1997, a mother, Angelic Burney, and a grandmother, Rosa Wilkerson, in Brooklyn accidentally killed a child by forcing it to drink a mixture of ammonia, vinegar, cayenne pepper, and olive oil intended to drive out a demon. A similar incident occurred in 2009 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when Latisha Lawson forced her son to drink a mixture of vinegar and blessed olive oil to remove a demon called ‘Marzon.’ She prevented her son from vomiting the mixture, causing him to choke. In 2011, Dora Alicia Tejada Pleitez of Nantucket, Massachusetts, killed her three-year-old daughter by stuffing roses down her throat to drive out demons.”

Again, these were noteworthy due to their methods, not due to a rarity in exorcism-related deaths. Having set my alerts to receive updates related to exorcism in the news, I have collected a binder full of exorcism deaths worldwide that we keep stored in the library of The Satanic Temple headquarters in Salem. 

Naturally, the reaction to these reports is often one that suggests that my focus is perhaps a little unfair. Surely, these unsanctioned exorcisms aren’t indicative of the “real” practice. Trained, vatican-approved exorcists are not drowning or beating children to death. Perhaps not, but they are propagating the harmful delusion of demonic possession that leads to these improvised exorcisms. General public toleration and credulity for exorcism as a practice further exacerbates the problem. 

I am puzzled by the social etiquette that generally protects exorcism from skeptical scrutiny, though I have no doubt what the public reaction be if Satanic Unbaptism rituals involved literally beating prior religious indoctrination from participants. I think I have a clear idea what our situation would be if even a miniscule percentage of those participants were to die each year. I believe it would be the same if the death rate was even one.

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  • WallofSleep

    :sigh: After having gone through the Satanic Panic of the 80’s in my teen years, I had hoped we would be further along the path to ditching such harmful, superstitious b.s. by now.

  • I can see an “exorcism” ritual being all kinds of cathartic for a willing adult participant.

    BUT!

    This by-the-seat-of-your-pants free-form “exorcism” on people who don’t consent or, worse, on those who can’t consent is 1000% wrong.