Interesting Conversation about Demons

Interesting Conversation about Demons July 27, 2012

A few days ago, Fr. Dwight Longenecker put up a little piece noodling the question of whether a mass murderer might by diagnosed by an exorcist as demonically possessed, and looking at the general way in which priests who do that sort of ministry try to make evaluations, etc.  It’s a side of life most of us don’t know too much about except from lurid movies, so it was nice to have a dispassionate view from somebody who knows a little about it.

Then a day or two later, a fellow Patheosi who wrote a piece arguing that we should “reject” the demonic possession narrative.  This struck me as remarkably pre-emptive and close-minded. Why the rush to reject it without trial?  Seems like the sensible thing, when confronted with an obviously demonic act, is to ask people familiar with the phenomenon of the demonic (ie. exorcists) if there might be a reason to do an exorcism.  Obviously, it’s not up to the state to do that (we do not, alas, live in so civilized a time).  But if I were that guy’s family I would want to call out every piece of heavy artillery–medical, psychological, neurological *and* spiritual–to save his soul.  Considering the possibility of demonic involvement seems to me like complete common sense here.

Somebody might reply, “I think you would have to believe in demons to begin with, and you would have to be the kind of person willing to call other people demonic.”

I suppose. But in treating  of the demonic, I think the sensible thing is to keep an open mind, not a closed one.  Since there is nothing in the sciences or common sense to say the existence of fallen angels is impossible and there is plenty not merely in the Abrahamic religions  but in paganism as well to testify to the reality of evil spirits, I see no reason not to consider the possibility. As to “calling other people demonic” strictly speaking this has nothing to do with that.  It would be more accurate to say that there is a possibility that he is demonized.  Demons are demonic.  People are human.  Some people have been oppressed by demonis.  Some have even been possessed by them.  In the Catholic tradition, a possessed person would not actually be responsible for their actions.  So if it were to turn out that the shooter was possessed, he would be exonerated of guilt.  I am skeptical this is the case, but it’s worth looking at.  If he is (as I suspect) a willing cooperator with demonic influences, whether knowingly or unknowingly (and he sure as hell wasn’t a willing cooperator with the Holy Spirit) then we are looking at really saying something negative about him personally because he was acting freely and with full possession of his faculties.  In other words, it is much harsher to call him a grave sinner than to say he may have been demon possessed because a sinner is in the driver’s seat, a possessed person is tied up in the trunk.

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  • JB

    It’s darkly amusing that so many of the hostile commenters call acknowledgement of evil spirits “medieval”, using that term in a perjorative way, as opposed to what? The present generations who within living memory created Auschwitz and nuked two cities?

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    It may be that the preemptive refusal even to consider the possibility of demonic possession (or even demonic obsession, which is to be heavily influenced, but not possessed by a demon) is due to a strong fear that if I grant the possibility that such things actually do exist, then I might be vulnerable to such a horrific eventuality, an eventuality against which I have zero defenses.


    Utterly terrifying. Not many people could admit such a thing and remain sane.

    Through the Sacraments and the life of grace, faithful Catholics live spiritually far, far inside the protected perimeter of the Kingdom of Light and have many effective weapons to wield against any intrepid evil spirits that God may permit to enter there and to encounter us, weapons such as the Sign of the Cross, holy water, prayers, especially the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and lots of others. We carry a healthy aversion from demons and all things demonic, but are not terrorized by the thought of them. Armed with our weapons, we can face them.

    Unbelievers cannot. If I were an unbeliever, I don’t think I could.

  • JB

    Fr Longenecker’s article which warned against evil received over 100 almost unanimously hostile comments. In contrast literally no commenters took the pagan to task for defending witchcraft. Something is just wrong about that.

    • JB: Catholics don’t tend to troll pagan websites looking for ways to belittle someone’s beliefs.

      • JB

        That’s kind of my point.

  • Dave Pawlak

    Some years ago, there was a woman in Milwaukee named Debbie who believed herself to be Jack the Ripper’s mother reincarnated, and that her son could be brought back via human sacrifice. This was attempted; the intended victim escaped and alerted the authorities. Debbie was found unfit to stand trial and was committed. My father, who worked in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, knew the psychiatrist who was working with this poor woman. He (the psychiatrist) was actually willing to entertain the notion of demonic possession in this particular case. He had never done so before (or, presumably, since).

  • Nate

    Hold on: this guy is a pagan and he doesn’t believe in evil spirits?

    At the risk of being insensitive, or of sounding ignorant (I’m probably both here): it sounds like he’s a pagan of a particularly modern, bourgeois sort. Early Saxons didn’t believe in evil spirits or demonic possession? Really?

    • Maybe he’s only a cultural pagan.

      • Andy, Bad Person

        Let’s be honest. That’s really the only kind there is anymore.

        • Really? Actually been to a Pagan festival lately? You’ve interviewed thousands of us? No, wait, let me guess, you had a “Pagan friend” once and they were totally ignorant and wrong! Or, maybe you “read a book once” that affirmed your suspicions. I’m sure these experiences have completely qualified you to pass judgment on a wide-ranging religious movement.

      • dean steinlage

        Sort of an S&E pagan? (solstice & equinox)

        • Lynne

          wish there was a like button here… 🙂

    • Mark Shea

      He notes that belief in evil spirits is also part of the pagan tradition (one of the constant strategies of neo-pagans is to constantly claim credit for everything in Christianity). However, he believes more in the shibboleths of sexual libertinism and moral relativism. Therefore, he is more concerned to carry on the culture war from the left and shriek with moral panic when a Catholic priest notes that sexual perversion and occultism may be indicators or demonic oppression or possession. In other words, his real concern is not whether the shooter might be under demonic influence, but with shouting down anybody who suggests that pet sins are sins.

      • Ted Seeber

        Oh, so he’s a PROTESTANT Pagan!

      • Hilarious that I’m “shouting down” the argument of demonic possession, but you see no problem with literally demonizing Pagan religions. Mark is arguing against a straw-man version of my piece, boiling it down to me “constantly claim[ing] credit for everything in Christianity,” or that I’m “shrieking” while the poor Catholics are simply trying to help people understand the dangers of demons.

        That you engage with my article by proxy is telling.

        • Mark Shea

          Could you document where I said pagans are demonic? Thank you.

          My view of paganism (real paganism, I mean, not the synthetic variety called neo paganism) is actually quite high and much more nuanced. Yes, there are some pagans who are willingly cooperating with devil. But then again, there are Christians who are willingly cooperating with devils. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, including–especially–me.

          My actual view of paganism is much closer to Chesterton’s than to Jack Chick: “Paganism was the biggest thing in the world. Christianity was bigger. Everything since then has been comparatively small.”

          I’m not sure what engaging your article by proxy means. I’m not super interested in your article. I was just interested in the (sadly brief and desultory) conversation I has with somebody, because it ocassioned a couple of thoughts. As I say, I don’t spend much time fighting with neo-pagans. The movement seems to me to be what the Irenist describes: a boutique sect. It seems to me to be a particularly silly species of Protestantism based on an even more fictional history than the fictional Baptist history of the Trail of Blood. It’s massively anachronistic. It is driven (like all revolts) by a perception of some real evils that need righting. In particular, it wants to restore a kind of sacramentality to the world that has been ruthlessly crushed by the materialism and scientism of the 20th century. But it makes the fundamental mistake of worshipping the creature instead of the Creator (which truly *is* pagan). It has a lot going for it and I empathize with much that it empathizes with. But it is hopelessly confused.

        • Ted Seeber

          No demonic there- only good old fashioned Martin Luther variety moral relativism

  • beccolina

    From what I’ve read of spiritual warfare, possession and exorcism, by the time a person is completely possessed, they have been a willing participant in some sort of demonic activity–though possibly without realizing it. They might be tied up in the trunk, but when the demon said, “lets go for a ride, and I want to zip-tie your hands,” they said, “Sure, sounds like fun.” Then they found out they were riding in the way, way back.
    I find in amazing that people are so ready to believe in ghosts (look at all the TV show devoted to hauntings or ghosts), but if you believe in demons or possession, you’re a total kook, stay away from my kids!

  • Mark S (not for Shea)

    Whenever I see a neo-pagan calling himself Earendel, my only reaction is: You really misunderstood that book.

    • Tricia

      ‘Earendel’ is a real word in Anglo-Saxon which Tolkien used for his ‘Earendil’ It means something like ‘dawn’, ‘shining light’ and/or ‘morning star’. Despite the fact that it appears in an Anglo-Saxon Christian poem (‘Hail Earendel brightest of angels…’), it’s not exclusively Christian or a Tolkien invention. I agree with Mark on the guy’s attitude to demonic possession, but the fact that he’s using the AS spelling instead of the Tolkien spelling shows that he’s not making a stupid mistake about his name.

      • Pancho

        But the only reason most people today are even aware of the name “Earendel” is because of Tolkien and that Anglo-Saxon Christian poem,”Crist”, where “Earendel” refers to St. John the Baptist. According to Wikipedia the same identification is made elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon literature, in the “Blickling Homilies”, a collection of homilies on Lent and Holy Week in Old English. So I think it’s fair to be amused at this guy’s choice of name because the non-Christian associations with the word were lost centuries ago and it survived in English because of Catholic Christian works. With due respect it’s a little like saying the word “Jesus” is not an exclusively Christian invention because it’s a real word in Hebrew ( or a hellenization or latinization of a real word in Hebrew).

        • Mark S (not for Shea)

          I was going to say what Pancho said, but since he already said it, I won’t say it. ‘Nuff said.

        • Tricia

          To some extent that’s a fair point – but on the other hand, a huge amount of the written evidence for pre-Christian European religions (not to mention folk traditions that may or may not identifiable pre-Christian roots) owes its existence to Catholic redactors and preservers. That means we’re getting into the somewhat deeper question of to what extent such things can be ‘reclaimed’ by modern neopagans in any meaningful sense, as this Earendel Pagan is likely to claim he is doing. It’s an interesting question, but it’s nostill not the same as simply misunderstanding the Silmarillon.

          That’s not to say that there aren’t neopagans who do make that mistake with Tolkien. Years ago, I remember I was on a list where someone lamented the great works lost to the world when C.S. Lewis converted Tolkien to Christianity. 😛

          • Pancho

            I suspect, though, that a lot of the ‘reclaiming’ of pre-Christian traditions is done with assumptions that are basically Christian. I think a lot of people don’t realize the extent to which Christianity has influenced Westerners, the extent to which Europe became a (relatively) kinder, gentler place. It’s hard to un-baptize the West.
            I do think he ‘s probably misunderstanding Tolkien as I’ve come across a lot of people who deny Christian influence in Tolkien’s work, even though Tolkien flat-out said LOTR is a fundamentally Catholic work in his letters.

  • JB

    Modern Western “pagans” are by and large practitioners of ritual magic, therefore they have a vested interest in convincing themselves that the powers they non-human powers they invoke are not evil.

  • Irenist

    To be perhaps too-cruelly frank, I view modern neo-paganism as an inconsequential sideshow of a very, very small number of misguided 60’s refugees akin to Scientology, Unitarianism, or Episcopalianism, so I’m not really interested in the opinions of any particular “Elrond Hubbard” type.

    However, I do think there are very serious problems with a demonic explanation for the actions of people like the murderous loser in Aurora. First, any legitimate Catholic exorcist will doubtless be the first to tell you that although the Satanic and demonic are frightfully real, most of their referrals should be referred right back to a psychiatrist.

    Second, telling people like the Aurora dirtbag that they’re possessed legitimizes their self-narrative of being grandly dark. As C.S. Lewis reminds us in “Perelandra,” the demonic is always petty. Darkness is not a grand force, it is, as Augustine taught, a privation of the grandeur of the one necessary Being.

    Long ago in my geeky atheist teen years, I used to be a D&D dungeon master. One “house rule” I enforced was that no one was allowed to play what D&D called an “evil” character. I told my buddies, “You can put ‘My character is a self-centered jerk with a traumatic childhood’ on your character sheet, but none of this lame metal-fanboy ‘evil’ crap in my game. It’s not how real human beings work and it annoys me.”

    There’s a surprisingly important piece about all this in “Slate” right now. The conclusions it draws at the end are probably far more Christian than its author realizes:
    * * **
    “The English phrase “running amok” is derived from the Malay concept of pengamok, or someone who commits an intensely violent and indiscriminate homicidal assault, often with a machete or a dagger, often in a crowded public space. Westerners have been fascinated by the pengamok since Captain Cook first visited the Malay archipelago and recorded its existence in his journal, in 1770. Since the amok was regarded as an extreme form of gila kena hantu (a kind of possession by evil spirits, or tiger spirits) or gila buatan orang (possession by witchcraft), it was treated with enormous tolerance—even, researchers claim, subtly sanctioned by the Malay tribes.
    “Historians of the amok now speculate it was a redemptive act of face saving, a way for a young male to massively compensate for a perceived loss of status. The analogy to the civil massacre is obvious. But here is where things get interesting: Incidents of amok began to decline as Malay tribes modernized and Westernized. By the mid-19th century, the amok was being described and treated as a mental illness. In effect, Western psychiatric medicine disenchanted and banalized the amok—and as a result, it lost its implicit sanction as a magnificent act signaling the presence of evil spirits.
    * * *
    ‘When Hannah Arendt returned from Jerusalem, having inspected the Nazi villain Adolf Eichmann up close, she shocked many The New Yorker subscribers by proclaiming he was, in every respect, small: small-minded, small-statured, small-souled. The concept of evil being the easiest trick by which the middlebrow mind aggrandizes itself, her readers wanted Mephistopheles; but Eichmann persisted in being small. It was an almost ontological comedown, to think that the worst mass murderer in history was not in any respect awesome. Everyone is familiar with the catchphrase the banality of evil. But it serves to obscure the truly revelatory thing Arendt concluded from her journey to Eichmann’s trial: “Only the good has depth and can be radical.” What would a world that understood the depth and the radicalness of that statement even look like?
    More at:

    • Irenist

      Just to clarify: I do believe in the reality of evil as taught by the Church, I just think we should be careful about explanations that play into the desire of adolescent misfits to be “eeeevil” in the black-hat, Hollywood sense. (And given that I used to be a D&D DM, I know all about the interests of adoloscent misfits from personal experience, believe me.)

  • kenneth

    The reason pagans are touchy about the Catholic obsession with demonic possession (and it surely is an obsession in some quarters), is that we and our religions are consistently implicated as wellsprings of evil and gateways to demonic possession.

    Some of the loonier demonic possession crowd routinely accuses us of stealing hosts to used in depraved rites and all other sorts of lurid “satanic panic” tales. Some exorcists have built a personality cult around themselves by implausible claims of thousands of exorcisms, and they speak of Wicca and paganism as common causes of this problem, despite never being able to produce any independently verified accounts.

    It’s basically the same tactic as was employed against the Jews for centuries and embodied in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” That has real consequences. People have gone to prison for years for crimes which were never committed based on such panic and scapegoating. Longenecker’s speculation is, at best, irresponsible. He is, so far as I know, not trained as an exorcist and has certainly not examined the suspect in these killings. Even the Church’s real authorities on such matters acknowledge that mental illness like schizophrenia is a much more likely explanation for what happened. The problem we have with the “demonic possession narrative” is that is is usually a vehicle for implicating us in evil. The subtext (and sometimes overt) tone of speculation is that “this could well be demonic, and we all all know what sort of people invite that influence into the world.”

    We pagans don’t appreciate this sort of speculation for the same reason that you didn’t appreciate those people who said that Anders Breivik was the natural outcome of Christianity.

    • Mark Shea

      You know, if you wanted to have a self-pitying culture war fest, you could have just said so. Since Fr. Dwight’s post was not about paganism, nor obsessive, but simply informative about what exorcists look for in diagnosing such things, this whole pity party is rather ridiculous.

  • WhiteBirch

    I am confused how you portray this as a conversation, when we have two lines from the other side.

    • Mark Shea

      Conversations are when two people exchange words. Some conversations are brief. Some are excerpted. This is both.

      • WhiteBirch

        It looks to me like you read his article, where he explains pretty clearly his reasons for rejecting the possession narrative, asked why he rejected it again, and then sermonized at him when he didn’t engage with you. A conversation really implies that both sides hear what the other said. If you mean an exchange of words, sure that happened. I don’t see any evidence of a discussion though.

        • Mark Shea

          Nope. None of that is what happened. The conversation was not with the author of the piece but with somebody recommending the piece. I posted the excerpt here because the purpose of my blog is, among other things, to give me a forum for saying stuff that occurs to me. I could have re-written the excerpt to simply exclude the other person and make it a monologue. But I’m lazy and thought I’d give the context for why this thought occurred to me.

          • Mark Shea

            Not as silly as me.

  • Mark S (not for Shea)

    “To be perhaps too-cruelly frank, I view modern neo-paganism as an inconsequential sideshow of a very, very small number of misguided 60′s refugees akin to Scientology, Unitarianism, or Episcopalianism, so I’m not really interested in the opinions of any particular “Elrond Hubbard” type.”

    Yep. In my experience, neo-pagans, if they are men, simply played way too much D&D as a kid, or if they are women, read The Mists of Avalon one too many times (which is once, by the way).

    • kenneth

      In my experience, many Christian men are cast from the same die as Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist. Are both of our self-selected negative experiences fairly representative of their respective larger groups? Personally, I’d prefer a culture of mutual respect between Christians and pagans, but if you want to take it the other direction, we’re fine with that too. We don’t need or want your approval and we have the same rights to practice under our Constitution as you. If that’s the sort of atmosphere you want to foster however, you shouldn’t be surprised when we and most of the rest of society doesn’t come to bat for you when the government or popular culture puts the squeeze on you. If all you put out is anger and contempt for everyone else, you can expect to get that back with interest.

      • Mark S (not for Shea)

        I’m not the least bit angry. My contempt for neo-paganism is amused. Although really, contempt is probably too strong a word. I hold absolutely no ill will toward neo-paganism in general nor neo-pagans specifically. I completely understand the emotional appeal of it. It’s the willful misunderstanding of history and logic that leaves me rather baffled. Neo-paganism strikes me as religious form of playing dress up, a sort of Comic Con one never leaves.

        • Mark Shea

          What puzzles me about neo-paganism is why it wastes all this time inventing a fake synthetic paganism based on some suburbanites supposings about what illiterate druids did centuries ago, when there are lots of real pagans running around in Asia and the global south. The focus of the neo-pagans is on pretend recreations of ancient euro-paganism, based on fictionalized history about “burning times” that never happened, and modern notions of relativism and libertinism that would have often baffled and horrifed many ancient pagans (who were by no means a monolith). They also carefully ignore the fact that the last thing *those* pagans did is ask for baptism, since, of course, the *real* motivation of neo-pagans is to articulate a particularly strong form of Protestantism that rejects not just the Church, not just Jesus, and not just the hardboiled atheism that is a reaction to monotheism, but the reaction itself and all that comes before it. It wants theism and sacramentalism and a certain Middle Earth aesthetic, as well as some of the trendier aspects of postmodern feminism dressed up in cool robes and ignoring the actual lot of women in the overwhelming majority of pre-Christian antiquity. And all while ignoring the real flesh and blood pagans who happen to not be ethnically related to dilletante Americans and Europeans. I suspect this may be due to the fact that dilletante Europeans and Americans don’t *really* want to adopt the lifestyle of a Borneo cannibal, or eschew western science (a fruit of Christianity) in favor of shaking mistel branches at statues when they have a toothache, or living the hardscrabble hand to mouth existence of a hunter/gatherer on the Veldt. So it’s hard to take seriously. It’s really hard to feel angry or threatened by it.

          • kenneth

            “So it’s hard to take seriously. It’s really hard to feel angry or threatened by it.”……………
            You and everyone else on these sorts of threads swears to believe this, yet you all fill up servers with responses that seem very much to belie anger and a sense of threat. It’s so silly and inconsequential that it’s not even worth engaging, and yet you can’t resist the angry dig and the paragraphs upon paragraphs of bile every single time the issue comes up even tangentially.

            There’s a big disconnect between word and action. I mean, life is full of things that we variously consider silly or contrived or wastes of time. For me, that list includes reality TV, “extreme” sports, and guys who go in for the “stubble but not real beard” look and pretty much every video that “goes viral”. Yet I can’t ever remember taking time out of my day to castigate at length those people who are into such things. It’s also obvious that all of these authoritative pronouncements on what modern paganism is all about are produced without the benefit of ever having read a primary source or firsthand interaction with anyone who practices the religions. It holds all of the credibility of “critiques” of Catholicism rooted in Jack Chick tracts.

            • Mark Shea

              Whatever. You’re the one on a Catholic blog reacting to what I write. I don’t spend time on pagan blogs reacting to whatever invented “paganism” they write. The only reason I noticed this particular pagan blog was because somebody mentioned it on the Patheos FB page and it was talking about… a Catholic blog. Sorry, but your pretend neo-pagan made up stuff is basically a particularly silly and ahistorical form of Protestantism, obviously concocted as a reaction to Christianity, not as a return to anything pre-Christian (since we don’t really know much about the paganism of Europeans who did not write down their pagan beliefs and the pagans who *did* write down their pagan beliefs all became Christians). There are, as I say, still a lot of pagans running around today who *do* have historical continuity with their ancestors. But when you consult, say, the Dalai Lama on things like sexual mores, he sounds disappointingly more like Pope Benedict than like some sexually liberated votress of a goddess from a Joss Whdeon fantasy universe dressed like a Frank Frazetta heroine.

              • kenneth

                The difference is that I’ve never, to the best of my shaky memory, ridiculed your religion itself nor questioned the spiritual or intellectual sincerity of those who practice it. I often challenge the political views associated with it, or the leadership culture of the organization, but I don’t presume to call the entire enterprise absurd because it doesn’t happen to be my own. In doing so, you come off as the theist mirror image of Richard Dawkins.

                This is part of the dynamic that is turning people away from organized Christianity in droves, and not primarily to paganism but to “none.” The see a movement that speaks of love but almost invariably deals in derision, hubris and self-righteous anger. They quite reasonably ask themselves “Why would I want to emulate these values? Why would I want to pass them on to my family? Why would I want to allow them to inform the public policy of the nation in which I live.”?

                We don’t stake a claim of validity of our religions upon historical continuity with past tradition. The obsession with “apostolic succession” is purely a Christian one. There never was a monolithic and static “pure original” pagan religion. There were thousands of living traditions which changed and varied across time and even from village to village. What made their religion real and organic was not some unchanging liturgy passed down from the mists of time, it was their personal devotion to their gods and the power of ritual that spoke to their frame of reference. Even if I knew exactly how the Iron Age Celts practiced their rites, why would I want to ape word for word what they did? I’m a 21st Century American.

                We do, in fact, have a rich literary history which tells us a great deal about the gods and goddesses and how people wrestled with the big questions. We also don’t need some caste of bishops to interpret what they think our gods said to some guy a thousand years ago. When we have questions, we go straight to the source, and we get answers. And not always the answers we wanted, believe it or not.

                There are also a number of fairly intact pagan cultures which were never wiped out or co-opted fully by Christianity, particularly in the Baltic region. Various Afro-Caribbean traditions are also embraced by many neo-pagans, and those traditions have been fully alive and unbroken for centuries.

                • Pancho

                  Wait a minute. Those Afro-Caribbean traditions have been fusing with Christianity for centuries now, and in more recent times with European theosophy and spiritism in some cases (I’m thinking of some Brazilian traditions). The Baltic region was Christianized relatively late compared to the rest of Europe but it was still done by the end of the Middle Ages and they were surrounded by Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran peoples and they (the Lithuanians and Latvians) became Catholic and Lutheran themselves.

                  Pagans had and have their own priests and shamans and oracles and mediums and soothsayers whose job is indeed to interpret omens and signs and the spirits and the gods and the stars. There was no pagan sola-scriptura. It was tradition handed on an interpreted by these authorities. *Nowadays* you can log on the internet and read about these traditions on your own and maybe put your own spin on them (and plenty of people do in this day and age) but say you want to be legit? You have to go find the recognized authorites to learn and become initiated. Traditional religions have never really been “do-it-yourself” systems. That’s a modern concern.

                  • Rosemarie


                    >>>Pagans had and have their own priests and shamans and oracles and mediums and soothsayers whose job is indeed to interpret omens and signs and the spirits and the gods and the stars.

                    Indeed, in Cuban Santeria, the will of the orishas is determined through Ifa divination which is traditionally only performed by babalawos – the highest level of priesthood in Santeria. Which happens to be traditionally all-male, btw.

                    The notion that every neo-pagan is a priest or priestess (hence the leaders of their covens are called the High Priest and High Priestess) is not characteristic of paleo-paganism. It rather smacks of the Christian concept of the royal priesthood of the laity and the Protestant notion of private interpretation of Scripture.

                • Pancho

                  “We don’t stake a claim of validity of our religions upon historical continuity with past tradition.”
                  But you do appeal to the past. You appeal to visions of the pre-industrial age (like some Catholics do themselves) and ancient practices (the Druids, etc.) and “ancient wisdom” and ancient deities and so on and so on.

                  • Mark Shea

                    “We don’t stake a claim of validity of our religions upon historical continuity with past tradition.”

                    Hah! Half the cachet neo-paganism lays claim to is that it is (allegedly) the immemorial *true* religion of the gynocentric ancients who worshipped the goddess and were in harmony with Mother Earth, and that all this was brutally suppressed by evil androcentrist monotheistic dead white males (especially, of course, catholics, but Jews get their share of blame, as well as other (real) pagans in antiquity who fail to fit the postmodern feminist fantasy and who therefore must have been part of some mythical Indo-European wave of pagan chauvinists who destroyed the “ancient ways” of the goddess. As I say, it’s a particularly robust restatement of the fake “Trail of Blood” history of some Baptists. It just places the date when the True Historic Religion went underground a bit earlier. And, like many Baptists, it advertises itself as the ancient religion now emerging from hiding after centuries, not as what it actually is: the recent creation of suburban dilletante imagination in revolt against the Christian tradition. It’s hard to take Kenneth seriously when he tells whoppers like that.

                    • kenneth

                      Your knowledge of the modern pagan movement is out-dated. Wicca certainly did stake claims to unbroken continuity with ancient matriarchal goddess cults, based largely on the now-discredited early 20th Century work of British anthropologist Margaret Murray. Murray’s assertions, while certainly appealing to Wicca’s early founders, have not had any serious currency within most corners of modern neo-paganism for at least 15 years or so. Nor do most of us subscribe to the idea that ancient paganism was suddenly eradicated in “The Burning Times.”

                      I don’t claim that modern paganism is an accurate re-production or continuance of any particular historical tradition. To me, it’s power and beauty derives from the fact that it is in no way dependent upon the survival of ancient texts, or languages or cultures.

                      The essential pieces of the mythology and voices of the deities survived just fine – within Christianity itself, within folklore, within art and literature. The art of medieval and Renaissance Europe is shot through with images and sculptures of the ancient gods and goddesses that are as as infused with inspiration and love as any produced in 400 B.C. Christian monks worked very long and very hard to record and preserve what we do have of the ancient mythologies. I find it very hard to believe that was motivated solely by academic interest.

                      Paganism never went away, and has always bobbed to the surface whenever social and political conditions allowed. That’s not because of apostolic succession. It’s because it’s hardwired into the human spirit. Our modern creations of things like Wicca are nothing more than points of entry or re-framing of what has always been there. Are many of modern Wicca’s trappings and people silly as Hell? Of course. Dismissing the whole movement as 60s refugees and teenage rebels runs into serious problems, however. It fails to explain the second and third generation pagans, and the people who live and grow with their religion long after their rebel years (long after their own parents pass, in fact). It fails to explain the cops, and paramedics, and combat soldiers and dentists and scientists who are pagan.

                      It fails to explain how very ordinary and well, boring, many of our people look. At pagan events these days, for every longhair wearing a robe or outlandish head-gear, you will find two or three other folks who look like Republican politicians. Some are Republican politicians. We have polyamorists and hedonists, but we also have celibates and very traditional marriages. We have nudists, but also a movement of women who have taken to veiling themselves much like Muslims.

                      If modern paganism were really just what you say – a fantasy game of Ren-faire freaks and a mode of social rebellion, you would expect to see a movement almost exlusively of teens and 20-somethings, and you would expect to see the thing falling apart within a decade or two after its founders had died. Quite the opposite is true.

                    • Pancho

                      to Kenneth @ 4:43 pm:
                      there’s a lot to unpack in that comment and maybe Mark could use it for a new post but I’ll just comment on one thing (and maybe another):

                      “To me, it’s power and beauty derives from the fact that it is in no way dependent upon the survival of ancient texts, or languages or cultures.”

                      “But it *is* dependent upon the survival of ancient texts, or languages or cultures. Unless you’re from a Hmong family that still practices shamanism, or you encountered Santeria in Little Havana. Certainly, if you’re appealing to ancient European paganism this is the case, no matter how hidden it is in traditional European folklore because 1) at least some of that is debatable and 2) what has survived was Christianized centuries ago.

                      The other thing is I think you, like a lot of people, assume that “paganism” automatically equals ceremony and ritual. It does not but I think it’s a point of view that resulted from the Protestant Reformation, rather than seeing it as the natural way humans worship. I think this is behind a lot of the appeal behind neo-paganism, the permission to engage in ceremony and ritual without engaging with the Catholic Church.

            • Irenist

              “It’s also obvious that all of these authoritative pronouncements on what modern paganism is all about are produced without the benefit of ever having read a primary source or firsthand interaction with anyone who practices the religions. ”
              My journey through atheism back to Catholicism included a rather long detour that involved reading through much of the Wiccan literature provided by witch friends, and then serious participation in a local grove of the neo-druidic Ár nDraíocht Féin organization. I found Wicca to be adolescent, but I found the druidry of Ár nDraíocht Féin to be admirably well researched in the abstract (there are some really scholarly Indo-Europeanists on their chat boards). However, while I admired the aesthetic, felt solemn and important in my white robe, and enjoyed using my rudimentary Irish Gaelic to translate some of our grove’s liturgy, I sadly found the ceremonies to be spiritually vapid Live Action Role Playing littered with pop-culture-inspired anachronisms. There was no there there when the “elder gods” were invoked. So although I enjoy the company of neo-pagans (many of whom are witty and quirky in delightful ways) I still think it’s all a bit of sideshow in the grand scheme, a boutique sect like the Episcopalianism of Bishop Spong, unlikely to have a lasting impact in the world–for all the invocation of the Earth, it’s all too rootless and contrived. Your mileage clearly varies. It’s a free country, so enjoy your idolatry in happiness and health.

      • Ted Seeber

        In my experience, many pagans and atheists are also cut from the same die as Fred Phelps- overly defensive of a religion that doesn’t exist outside of their own minds.

  • Hezekiah Garrett

    The Constitution!

    We are talking about the most elementary questions of human existence, what is truth, what does it mean to inherit a worldview, how shallow can modern man make himself?

    And he appeals to his rights under the constitution? It’s as if, in a discussion of the various schools of quantum mechanics, appealed to my AAA discount at motels, useful though it might be.

  • Samson J.

    If he is (as I suspect) a willing cooperator with demonic influences, whether knowingly or unknowingly

    Can you explain what you mean by this? I’ve known one person in my lifetime that I genuinely suspect was – at a minimum – being strongly influenced by demonic forces, but I don’t know the precise mechanisms or relationships by which this can occur. What does it mean to be a “willing cooperator” but not actually be possessed?

    • Mark Shea

      Anybody who commits a sin is cooperating with demons. The only thing that makes a demon a demon is rebellion against God. That’s what sin is.

      • Samson J.

        Oh, okay, that’s all you meant.

      • Samson J.

        Actually, I should just have read the Longenecker article, which answers my questions.

      • Phoenix Blue

        See, this is why folks have a hard time taking extremists seriously.

  • Star Foster

    My name is Star Foster, and I’m editor of the Pagan Channel here at Patheos. If you’d clicked on my profile you would have seen that.

    I think it’s great you only copy and pasted part of the conversation. Because that really makes me think better of your copying and pasting a private conversation rather than inviting each of us to elaborate on our views via our blogs.

    But that’s ok, here in public you got the last word, and that’s what counts, right?

    • Mark Shea

      As I say, I could have simply cut out the remark and made it a monologue since, egoist that I am, I was mainly interested in posting what I said. But I was lazy and left her remark in to provide context rather then re-edit what I wrote to provide it myself. I provided a link to Jason’s (and Fr. Dwight’s) remarks so people could see what I was commenting on.

      • My name is Star Foster, Managing Editor of the Pagan Channel at Patheos. I agree that you’re an egoist, but you don’t have my permission to address me as Earendel in a public forum.

        • Mark Shea

          I was unaware that I needed permission. My apologies. I will edit you out of the blog comment.

          • Star Foster

            Before quoting a private (aka not public) conversation? Always.

            • Mark Shea

              As I say, I did not think the FB groups was private. I regarded it as a public forum with quotable conversations. That’s why I told you I was planning on posting the excerpt. I just thought it was an interesting conversation and thought I was being polite giving you (or rather your handle, since I don’t know you and didn’t know it was a handle) credit for your words. I won’t happen again. I was trying to act in good faith.

    • Pancho

      I’m not sure how this conversation originally went down, and Mark certainly doesn’t need me to defend him but as a long time reader allow me to point something out, Ms. Foster.

      If you look up to the right on his blog, immediately after “Email Me!”, it states, “This Site Adheres to the Welborn Protocol: All correspondence is blogable unless you specifically request otherwise.” This “protocol” is named after Amy Welborn, another popular and long-standing Catholic Blogger. The Welborn Protocol is long-standing practice followed by many bloggers in the Catholic blogosphere (aka “St. Blog’s”).

      Maybe the conversation resulted completely out of Facebook and not the blog and he made a mistake, but if it was a mistake it was an honest one and consistent with the practice on his blog (and on others). If anything, I think he was being considerate in referring to you by your nickname. In my experience people usually prefer that online rather than going by one’s real name, and giving context to the remarks is fair to you as well as him. The reader has a better idea of what you were trying to say. If your going to be upset keep this in mind and be fair to him.

      • Star Foster

        I will remember that he will honestly mistake private communications for public ones. Thanks!

        • Pancho

          Hmmm. I sense some sarcasm in the force. I suppose my pointing out the so-called Welborn Protocol was of little account, and recognizing that perhaps he made a mistake did nothing to assuage your anger.

          People share talks they had with others all the time. They’ll say something like, “I was talking to this guy at work the other day, and he said…”. I’m reasonably certain you’ve done something like this yourself.

          If you’re upset, fine, but he didn’t share any personal info as far as I can remember. He used your nickname, which seems to me an attempt to preserve some sense of anonymity. The only thing he shared was on topic and relevant to his and Fr. Longenecker’s posts.

          I mean, com on, the only reason the readers of this blog know it was a discussion with you is because you’ve revealed yourself as the woman behind that alias.

          Perhaps now is the time to make lemon out of lemonade? Maybe try to be a little gracious about it, accept his apologies, and enjoy the spike in hits your page might be getting out of this?

          • Pancho

            Ha! I meant “take some lemons and make lemonade”.

      • Phoenix Blue

        I wonder how the Welborn protocol meshes with wiretap law.

        • Pancho

          I’m no legal expert but I doubt talking about your own emails counts as wiretapping, anymore than quoting your own letters of ink-and-paper do.

          If I wrote to Mark as Frodo, and he quoted me as Frodo talking about so-and-so’s OP-Ed piece in the NY Times, I doubt a court would see that as wiretapping. If I wrote to Mark as Frodo, and he quoted me as Frodo talking about Fr. So-and-So’s latest post on his Patheos blog, I doubt it would count as wiretapping either. Unless talking about my conversation with Uncle Bilbo on the phone the other day counts as wiretapping, in which case we’re all in trouble.

          • Pancho

            I mean maybe it is a grey area, and maybe the polite and considerate thing to do would’ve been to ask for permission to quote her, but I don’t see how it was done with any malice, or how it could have ruined her reputation, unless increase exposure to the Patheos Pagan Channel counts in which case I say, “who knew?”, or how it’s dicey from a legal point of view (this coming from a non-expert opinion, of course).

        • Mark Shea

          Wiretap law? She wrote to a FB group we’re both on. All I knew was the handle she chose to use. I was trying to be polite and give her credit for the quote.

  • tigresslilly

    Mr Shea,
    Jason Pitzl-Waters does explain in his post exactly what harm he believes considering demonic possession does. Essentially, he says the criteria Fr. Dwight Longenecker asks us to consider as criteria for possession demonizes acts that are not actually evil or wrong but only wrong in the context of the Catholic faith. Examples he gives for indicators of demonic possession include playing violent video games, drinking, sexual activity, and “occult practices”. I was surprised the man wasn’t backwards enough to include listening to Marylin Manson, Ozzy Osborne, and dressing up “goth”. A whole ton of things he lists as deviant and signs of evil taking over are culturally acceptable and just make him sound like the cranky old man who doesn’t like what the young kids are doing these days.

    Besides being a distasteful series of beliefs to hold that a dominant culture uses to supress any minority other movement they find threatening, Jason Pitzl-Waters sites specific times that these possession narratives have been used to jail innocent people, ruin people’s lives, and spread fear and suspicion for no reason.

    He mentions that in this particular circumstance, some people may find the idea that Holmes is possessed comforting, but in a larger picture it only helps to continue a practice of the majority intentionally or unintentionally demonizing the minority.

    • Mark Shea

      I’m aware of what he wrote. And if he’d wanted to just say, “I resent that Catholic teaching rejects polytheism, sex outside of heterosexual marriage, warns of cultivating a fascination with violence, counsels against habitual overindulgence in drugs and alcohol, and cautions against involvement in the occult” I’d have appreciated that more direct route. If what he wanted to say was, “I am a neo-pagan in reaction to Christianity in general and Catholic teaching in particular” he could have done that and I would have said, “I agree. You are”. But instead, he chose to take this roundabout route of saying that we should “reject” the possibility that Holmes was acting under the influence of the demonic. I think that analysis is close-minded, though my inclination, like Fr. Longenecker’s, is to assume any number of more naturalistic explanations before leaping to that one. All Fr. Longenecker did was point out that there are clusters of behaviors that . *may* open a human being to demonic influence. He did not say anything like “If you play violent video games or engage in kinky sex etc, you are demonic”. That straw man was reserved to his pagan interlocutors.

      The notion that pagans stand on the very brink of being jailed or persecuted by a theocratic Christian state that is going to ruin them with charges of demon possession is a fetching piece of self-pitying fantasy. I feel the same thrill of fear about it as I do that you are just about to throw me and mine to the lions. Welcome to the 21st century.

      I repeat: Fr. Longenecker said absolutely nothing about pagans. That Jason chose to apply his remarks to himself and other pagans says a lot about how Jason hears, but nothing at all about what Fr. Longenecker says.

  • tigresslilly

    It sounded to me like he said ” I resent Catholics who use the fear of demonic possession as a threat against any who may question their world ethics and as a tool to silence any who may dissent”. I’ll grant that it was a little soap boxy given the person under discussion for demonic possession is Holmes. Jason Pitzl-Waters does commonly cover a lot of stories where people are accused of demonic possession, people are forced into exorsicsms and abused or where a person’s religion is brought up in legal cases where that information has no relevance. His narrative is one that ties these together to show why minority faiths need to band together in support and community. Applying this message to Homes is a bit of a tenusous, but I think seriously considering demonic posession in the first place was tenusous at best. The sited examples as to why Holmes might be possessed is that there was static on a phone call, that we don’t know why Holmes would do what he did, and that there is a curse or something inherently demonic about the new batman series. All of this seems as likely as Holmes being brainwashed by aliens and commanded to commit murder. If Jason Pitzl-Waters had written an article talking about why we should reject an alien invasion narrative, I’m certain we’d have less blow back.

    I think that deciding why Jason Pitzl-Waters or any person of faith believes what they believes is both presumptious and insulting in the highest degree. I’m curious as to what in the article would have made you feel confident to make that leapt.

    I’m not sure what’s wrong with having a mind closed to some ideas. Personally I’d catorgoize any form of possession that would excuse a person from a terrible crime as the kind of thing we should close our minds to. Indeed considering possession of any kind for any reason when all natural considerations have not been fully explored seems superstition and dangerous.

    You’re correct Fr. Longnecker did not say that all people who play violent video games or engage in kinky sex are demonic. You are mistaken if you believe Jason Pitzl-Waters’ article says such as he also uses the term “might” and then justifies his interpretation with a quote with what two priests, one of which is a sanctioned Catholic exorcist.

    Paganism doesn’t have to be mentioned for it to be a something of interest or concern or note to pagans. I wouldn’t think anyone would have to explain to a Christian how something that may have moral roots can be applied to a faith whether or not a faith is mentioned. The whole process of identifying possession strikes Jason Pitzl-Waters as unjust and immoral particularly to those of the pagan and lgbt community. He covers the story from that angle and makes cross references where applicable to help tell that narrative.