I was quoted in an article on Vice talking about exorcism. That article talks about how there are only a limited number of Catholic priests in the International Association of Exorcists who are approved and authorized by the church to chant the official incantation that will expel demons. Try to ignore for the moment that there is an international association of people who pretend to do this, and that they’re taken seriously and even trained and authorized by the single most popular and politically powerful religious denomination on earth. These wanna-be demon hunters first have to show that they’re spiritually and mentally tough enough to challenge the devil. I wonder how someone demonstrates that ability to their bishop? Especially when they’re not even capable of debating me. But there is reportedly a language barrier as seasoned exorcists think that most demons only understand the spell when it cast in Latin. Personally I think it just sounds more magical to believers, and that’s why they really do that.
This was not the article it was supposed to be. When the author contacted me about this, it was I think supposed to be about two different topics he wanted to write about. But the writer told me that since then he “had to take it in another direction”. Since it turns out that he couldn’t use my replies to his original questions, I will share them here.
Editorial 1: Exorcism Schools (Focuses on different approaches to exorcism training, with an eye to skeptical critique of both the methods and the end goals of such training)
1) Setting aside the metaphysical given that atheists don’t believe in spiritual beings and so don’t believe exorcisms are possible, what do atheists see as negative or harmful about exorcisms? Are they acceptable as tools of mental health in certain cases where the sufferer might benefit from a placebo effect?
There can be no benefit of an exorcism. It’s not like there could ever be an instance where an actual demon is involved, and a priest would be helpless even in that situation if there were any reality to that. Even if there were some placebo effect to the ritual, it still encourages belief in things that would still persist in the imagination and thus never be fully cured even in the mind of believers. And if the problem stems from any sort of actual mental disorder, then the ritual only postpones or replaces actual medical attention.
2) This article focuses on the theory and practice exorcists go through before beginning their missions. How do skeptics train specifically to debunk exorcisms or possessions?
Before I could say how I would prepare to debunk an exorcist’s specific claims, I’d have to know what those claims are, and what perceived behaviors or conditions that is based on. Because they might be masking an actual disorder, or they might be reacting emotionally to something that maybe doesn’t even concern the person being exorcised: often then the problem really resides with others wanting that ritual performed.
3) In the past century, certain exorcising institutions (most notably the Roman Catholic Church) have begun referring suspected possessees to mental health professionals to exhaust all possible material reasons for their afflictions. Do you see this as a positive development?
I am glad to hear that the Catholic church is now referring patients for medical health treatment first, as that is the only possible treatment that could have effect any actual malady. If the situation turns out not to be related to any actual pathology, but is rather a superstitious cultural reaction to who knows what, then again diagnosis might lead to therapy of those demanding the exorcism to be done –rather than the suspected possessee.
4) Do you know of any instances where skeptics have gone to have themselves “exorcised” in order to expose certain exorcists as frauds? Is there any documentation of these activities anywhere?
I’ve never heard of any skeptic being exorcised with the intent of debunking the practice. But it sounds like a good idea, and I think I would be an ideal candidate to do that –since believers often think I look scary anyway.
Editorial 2: Satanic Panic (surveys the cultural hysteria and paranoia of the 80s and 90s, typified by Turmoil In The Toybox, banning heavy metal records, etc.)
1) Why do you believe the panic over supposed satanic or occultic elements in He-Man, the Smurfs, or Ouija boards took such a hold on so many Americans?
I was a young man in the ’80s, and I was into medieval weapons, Harleys and Heavy Metal. I even played D&D back when that was supposed to induct players into real-life witchcraft. So I remember all the ridiculous superstition surrounding the secret meanings of ear piercing, the pseudo-paganism of Procter & Gamble, the seemingly Satanic messages in back-masking, and the allegedly suicidal insinuations of some metal albums. I attribute a lot of that to the fact that atheism didn’t have any appreciable presence back then. In those days, if you didn’t buy into Christian dogma and were openly critical of it, then you were a witch. You were either a neo-pagan or (more likely) you were Satanic. The latter would be applied regardless how you might prefer to identify. To my cultural experience, there was no such thing as a skeptic as that is known today. Back then, skeptics were considered cynics who refused to open their minds. It must have been a great time for paranoid Christian conservatives. They actually like Satanists a lot more than atheists. Because Satanists not only play the Christian game; they give Christians the moral high ground. Whereas atheists piss everybody off by pointing out that it is a game and that every believer in any religion is just pretending.
2) Despite the irreality of their claims, do you think the counter-narrative of Satanism and its threat to dominant religious thought is a positive development in American culture?
I have encountered devil worshippers and even interviewed one on my podcast. They are not representative of Satanism. The Satanic Temple, for example, is entirely atheist, Satanists may be hedonists and may not necessarily be scientifically literate scholarly skeptics. So Satanists are not representative of atheists either. But I applaud them because the Satanic Temple has been very proficient in their defence of secular politics, much more so than typical science advocates who aren’t Satanic. Nobody cares what the nerds say. But when the Satanists speak up, then believers listen.
3) You live in Texas and, I assume, have heard of or seen evidence of the cult of Santa Muerte, the rapidly-growing Mexican religious movement that honors death personified. Do you believe this cult is any better (or worse) than the dominant religions in America? Why do you think this cult has spread to the degree that it has?
I regret that I can’t comment on Sante Muerte, because I never heard of them until now.