Join 3,433 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Religion
December 19, 2004 2:09 PM   Subscribe

The Vatican's university in Rome is starting a seminar on satanism and exorcism. "The seminar will conclude with the testimony of two exorcists who will explain how to distinguish between someone who is ill and requiring medical care, and one is 'possessed by demons.'"
posted by semmi (67 comments total)

 
THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA and more...
posted by semmi at 2:20 PM on December 19, 2004


how to distinguish between someone who is ill and requiring medical care, and one is 'possessed by demons.'

It's about time. I'm forever getting them mixed up, which makes the whole 'psychiatrist' gig pretty damn problematic.
posted by Sparx at 2:34 PM on December 19, 2004


I think pea-soup projective vomiting is key
posted by dancingbaptist at 2:44 PM on December 19, 2004


It is quite interesting that in the earliest Gospel, Mark, when Jesus heals/ exorcizes a daimon/raises the dead, he usually admonishes those around him not to speak of what they have seen. his enemies accuse him of being a devil himself, since he can cast out devils. for this among other reasons it's a troublesome aspect of synoptic Christology, one that John, the latest Gospel, entirely erases -- John's Godlike Jesus never exorcizes demons, not even once

quick reference:
Demons and Exorcisms in the Gospels
by Prof. Felix Just, S.J. -- Loyola Marymount University
posted by matteo at 2:45 PM on December 19, 2004


The politics of exorcism: Jesus' reaction to negative labels in the Beelzebul controversy, in Biblical Theology Bulletin, by Santiago Gujiarro

Jesus was accused of being possessed by Beelzebul because of the exorcisms he practiced. This kind of view is characteristic of the first-century Mediterranean interpretation of deviant behavior. The purpose of this article is to determine the historical causes of this accusation and the purpose of the reaction of Jesus against it. To accomplish this we apply to the Beelzebul controversy some models developed in the study of deviant behavior. The first step is a source- and tradition-critical study of the sayings contained in it to determine which ot them can be assigned to the historical Jesus. Then the accusation of being possessed by Beelzebul is considered in the framework of societal reactions to deviant behavior. Finally, the responses of Jesus are placed in the scenario of the Mediterranean challenge and riposte game and in the context of other possible reactions to negative labeling.

posted by matteo at 2:50 PM on December 19, 2004


Nice post, matteo. But nowadays we are more enlightened, and those who practice deviant behavior can be considered mentally ill instead of possessed. What great strides we have made!
posted by adzuki at 3:17 PM on December 19, 2004


How in the world can Catholics even address this kind of nonsense without going into a fit of uncontrolled laughter?

What's next? Seminars on how witchdoctors can cure appendicitis with "psychic surgery" and chicken guts? The use of dildos to cure psychosis in women? Or how about how to get God to rain on your crops by getting stoned, dancing in a circle and killing a goat?

Organized religion isn't just the opiate of the masses. It's crack cocaine laced with rodenticides.
posted by mstefan at 3:19 PM on December 19, 2004


Giving the Devil His Due
posted by spock at 3:28 PM on December 19, 2004


matteo: If I get it correctly, the article you linked deals with the deviant nature of exorcisms by Jesus and the religious establishment's reaction to that, but not with the particulars that made the "victims" being accused of being possessed by demons, which is the more interesting social, political, psychological, and scientific issue.
posted by semmi at 3:45 PM on December 19, 2004


What's next? Seminars on how witchdoctors can cure appendicitis with "psychic surgery" and chicken guts? The use of dildos to cure psychosis in women? Or how about how to get God to rain on your crops by getting stoned, dancing in a circle and killing a goat?

Somehow, I doubt the Catholic Church is going to endorse any of those positions.
posted by Bugbread at 3:54 PM on December 19, 2004


Somehow, I doubt the Catholic Church is going to endorse any of those positions.

Hell, they might as well. Embrace and extend!
posted by mstefan at 4:12 PM on December 19, 2004


Maybe we can save some money by having priests triage ER patients as they come in.
posted by jon_kill at 4:12 PM on December 19, 2004


Does the seminar include copies of Paranoid and The Omen? Because an ex-gf of mine told me that was a way for "satan to sneak into your mind when you're not looking."
posted by jonmc at 4:26 PM on December 19, 2004


semmi, medical anthropology is indeed a field where one must tread very carefully -- it is so difficult to distinguish (if one believes in such a thing as possession) between the possessed and the schizophrenic (I mean, multiple personality disorder mustn't necessarily be a modern phenomenon). I remember John Dominic Crossan -- a nonbeliever in possession -- pointing out during a lecture, in his usual careful and compassionate way, that maybe -- just maybe -- the evil that "possessed" a girl may really be evil, but of a more human, non-supernatural kind -- like the evil of a relative or guardian who sexually abused her.
what would a modern doctor say about a 1st Century CE Palestinian Jew "possessed by demons" if time travel allowed him/her to examine the "possessed" person? I don't really know.
but being flippant about the Church's tradition of exorcism doesn't really make sense. I want to reassure our skeptics -- the Church is the first to call a doctor in case of symptoms similar to those of demonic possession. it's a very intricate and complicated procedure, in several stages, before the Church accepts to consider those symptoms to be part of actual possession, hence requiring an exorcism. only a tiny, ultra-tiny percentage of those cases is accepted by the Church as possession*

*again, let us not consider the Church more medieval than it actually is -- the Roman Catholic Church accepts, for example, evolution. we're taking about guys whi have been around for 2,000 years, they're too smart to fall in the "earth is 4,000 years old and dinosaurs didn't exist" fundy Protestant trap.

what we _can_ study more successfully is the history of theories about possession in ancient times:

Religious Healing in First-Century Christianity

______

for those who wonder about things happening in the modern era:
E. Mansell Pattison tells the story of Mary, a 13 year old girl on the Yakima Indian Reservation in central Washington.
Her hysterical symptoms were diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia by the local medical doctor, who prescribed anti-psychotic medication. Pattison was himself a psychiatrist with cross-cultural sensitivity, and having learned her dying shaman grandfather had prophesied that his power would descend to her, advised that an exorcism of the unwanted spirits. Mary recovered completely.
posted by matteo at 4:31 PM on December 19, 2004


oh, and -- *cue spooky music* -- I actually met a "licensed" (by the Vatican) exorcist priest, one of the very few of them who actually exist.
very interesting man.
very rational -- one of the more rational, least superstitious men I have ever encountered (it is apparently not a business for the impressionable). and he did have some stories that would scare you shitless, for real -- pea soup's just a Hollywood joke.
and he had seen the Friedkin movie, of course.
posted by matteo at 4:37 PM on December 19, 2004


Speaking of mentally ill...straitjackets for all these folks, please.
posted by rushmc at 4:50 PM on December 19, 2004


Yes, rush, let's institutionalize everyone who dosen't bow down to empiricism. That's certainly sensible.

I think the whole exorcism thing is ridiculous, too, but c'mon already.
posted by jonmc at 4:53 PM on December 19, 2004


Yes, let's take this opportunity to have yet another MeFi snarkfest about religion. How stupid these religious people are! How much better we are than they, and how much better we feel about ourselves contemplating their stupidity! Stupid, stupid religious people!

Whew, that was fun. Now, on to the next Flash movie or cool Google trick! Because that stuff is for smart people!

I'd be interested in hearing more about the exorcist priest, actually. Sounds like a fascinating guy.
posted by languagehat at 5:00 PM on December 19, 2004


languagehat has my heart for this discussion.

the laundry list of "inane rituals people do across the world" cited above especially made me sigh. meh. it's one thing to criticize the political ramifications of religious practice--i can stand behind those concerns easily--but making fun of a global, diverse human need to ritualize and mythologize as if there's something inherently broken about it and we're all past there here is, mm, naive at best.
posted by ifjuly at 5:10 PM on December 19, 2004


I'd be interested in hearing more about the exorcist priest, actually.

Me too. I'd heard similar stories in high school (of straight-shooting exorcist priests). The monks had to give a little back to keep us interested. I'm in the middle of Foucault's Pendulum too, so my willingness to believe is higher than usual.
posted by yerfatma at 5:29 PM on December 19, 2004


I'd be interested in hearing more about the exorcist priest, actually. Sounds like a fascinating guy.

seconded.
posted by exlotuseater at 5:31 PM on December 19, 2004


jon, rush, etc -- suppose that the family of a patient who hasn't been cured by traditional medicine asks an exorcist's help, and the exorcist concludes that he considers the person not to have a medical condition but to be possessed. suppose that after the exorcism the person is healed, and comes back to health.

well, it has happened before. placebo effect? yeah, I'm 99% positive. it's the remaining 1% I'm interested in, frankly

do I believe in exorcisms? I don't know, probably I don't. but some have worked. and I consider myself to be pragmatic. so if all else fails, and an actual exorcist says he can work on the patient, well... maybe it won't hurt

in the end, it's all about believing that either bad things happen by themselves or that Evil actually exists in this world, and it can operate directly, influencing people -- turning people into wrecks, if you want.

/derail
I was recently reading the first part -- the scariest one -- of Kershaw's biography of Hitler. well, I don't really know about bad things simply happening, in that case. the less rational part of me has doubts, when thinking about the magnitude of organized monstrousity that was Nazism. maybe it reeks too much of sulphur, who knows. I'm certainly not saying that old Adolf just needed an exorcist, I'm sure he was humanly 100% culpable for his crimes. but maybe pure, non-bodily Evil has a life of its own, and it can sometimes turn into flesh and blood -- and tiny mustache. maybe it can make already bad people dream of even more horrible crimes. maybe evil feeds on new pain and suffering and wants to create more. I don't know, really


languagehat,
he was reluctant -- thank God -- to tell actual tales at length -- I was already crapping my pants with only brief anecdotes, believe me. his main idea was that 99.999999999 % of the cases are actual mental illnesses.
but:
he also told me more or less that along with a, let's call it a spark, an influence of compassion and decency that exists in the world and sometimes gives women and men an extra capability to do good things (ie not only to people like saints, but to the maybe-unlikely heroes who sacrifice their lives to save other people's, etc), there is also a spark or an influence of evil at large in the world. sometimes, very very very very rarely he said, it successfully attacks a (spiritually or mentally) weaker human being creating chaos and pain and rage because human nature is kind of designed to reject that force of evil. because that "possessed" person's nature refuses the presence of pure evil in their hearts and doesn't want to give in

Baptism itself is considered a form of exorcism, by the Church.

possession is way older than Christianity, and well documented.
many of the Church's exorcism rituals are actually pre-Christian
and listening to the exorcist talk about love and compassion as the answer, and only very rarely mentioning God, strangely enough, he did sound almost Buddhist, in a sense.
fascinating man, really.
anyway languagehat, Presentazione del nuovo Rituale degli esorcismi
posted by matteo at 5:40 PM on December 19, 2004


Yes, let's take this opportunity to have yet another MeFi snarkfest about religion.

...."There's one group of people who get bullied all the time, and that's Christians," [Pastor Patrick Wooden] said. "I know what it is like to be bullied. It is apartheid in reverse — the majority is being bullied by the minority."

Poor, poor Christians.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 5:44 PM on December 19, 2004


matteo, even though I don't buy the exorcism thing, I'm certainly not gonna call for anyone to stop 'em. I was mainly irked at having to read yet more of rushmc's steely-eyed rationalist junior ubermensch routine and his contempt for anyone who isnt following along.

The exorcism thing is interesting from a cultural point of veiw for this lapsed catholic, anyway.
posted by jonmc at 5:45 PM on December 19, 2004


I almost forgot -- after discussing Mark's exorcism accounts, Jewish rituals of purification, and the presence of Evil in the world as the reason for the existence of Sin, I couldn't really avoid asking him the really interesting question -- had he seen the "Exorcist"?
he smiled, said that he had, but he had found it very cheap, theologically confused, and not realistic -- being according to him much less scary than the real thing.

but he did like Max Von Sydow. he was an Ingmar Bergman fan, actually.
posted by matteo at 5:56 PM on December 19, 2004


A non-Catholic version of the exorcism thing is fairly popular among fundamentalist charismatic pentecostal types. A friend's mother is studying right now to become a "deliverance minister", which is what her particular non-denominational church calls someone who conducts exorcisms. She told me a story the other day of a teenage girl who was delivered from demons--these specific demons seemed to make the girl use drugs and have sex, apparently--she said the girl seemed to have a seizure, her muscles locked up and she just sort of vibrated while making low, growling noises in the back of her throat. Finally she spit up some kind of gruely brownish substance before her body relaxed, and she didn't seem to remember the experience. I'm a raging skeptic and my friend's mother is a total nutjob, so I took all of this with a ten-pound bag of salt. Next time I see her I'm going to ask if the girl is still drugging and sexing.
I don't know much about the Catholic version of demon possession. I know that the protestant fundies I grew up with see it as a generational curse, something that leads to abuse and drug addiction and promiscuity, as well as homosexuality (and probably liberal political beliefs) as opposed to the tied-to-the-bed violent insanity portrayed in movies like The Exorcist.
Here are some links to and about protestant exorcism ministries:
wings as eagles ministries
demonbusters
a Christian site about the fraud of deliverance ministries
The scary thing about this is that these "exorcisms" are often used in place of psychological/psychiatric care, usually for young survivors of abuse who've turned to drugs, alcohol, and crime.
posted by cilantro at 6:31 PM on December 19, 2004


Armitage Shanks, you're sliding down a slippery slope there. languagehat was expressing irritation and disappointment with the (pretty frequent) game of "Mock the Theists!", not claiming to be persecuted.

I know that MeFi doesn't persecute Christians. However, sometimes the (pretty frequent) game of "Mock the Theists!" irritates and disappoints me too. I don't think that langhat was trying to imply anything more than that.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:01 PM on December 19, 2004


sidhedevil, don't spoil armitage's fun, he's learning firsthand what it's like to be part of a bullying majority, and he enjoys it.
posted by jonmc at 7:14 PM on December 19, 2004


However, sometimes the (pretty frequent) game of "Mock the Theists!" irritates and disappoints me too.

Then I would suggest that theists do less that is deserving of mockery. Demons, angels, possession, witchcraft, satansim... good grief. Why is it that someone who talks about an invisible evil presense who seeks to corrupt him and ultimately torture him for all eternity would be considered to be in the throes of a paranoid psychosis... until the "R" word is whipped out and it's demons and The Devil we're talking about... then people are nodding their heads up and down.

Let's be honest here. We're effectively talking about adults who believe the boogey man is living in their closet. Yet, because it's ensconced in religious doctrine, we're to vew it all with an uncritical eye; it's to be accepted as perfectly reasonable and not questioned, otherwise one is being "intolerant" of their fantastical (and often bizzare) belief system? Please.
posted by mstefan at 7:29 PM on December 19, 2004


Yet, because it's ensconced in religious doctrine, we're to vew it all with an uncritical eye;

No, be critical all you want, but have a little respect for humanity of the believers, even if (like me) you find the belief itself silly. It just seems that every time anything remotely relating to religion pops up here, the usual suspects come charging out of the woodwork with comments on the intellectual level of "break out the straitjackets." It's unbecming, obnoxious, and, quite frankly, boring and tiresome.

And yes, I understand that in the world at large, being an atheist or skeptic or even a theist critic of religion makes you a minority. Trust me, I know that only too well. But here on MeFi it makes you a member of the majority, and far too many people seem to be enjoying that a little to much for my taste. Being the person holding the noose is probably more fun than being the lynchee, huh, guys?
posted by jonmc at 7:35 PM on December 19, 2004


you're sliding down a slippery slope there

Yeah, fair enough, it wasn't the right context for it.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 7:37 PM on December 19, 2004


Not only is belief in demons and demon posession fantastical and bizarre, as mstefan said, it's also dangerous. Every time a psychotic or a drug addict is subjected to "exorcism" instead of medical care, it's dangerous. Every time a sexually active woman or homosexual is subjected to "exorcism" instead of being let the fuck alone, it's dangerous.
posted by cilantro at 7:39 PM on December 19, 2004


In fact, my denomination encourages us to look at our own doctrines with a critical eye (which can lead as far as a recent Archbishop of Canterbury saying that he didn't believe in the divinity of Jesus).

Of course, my denomination doesn't have exorcisms, let alone exorcisms of sexually active women or homosexuals (we'd have to start with our bishops!)

But, you know, all "religious" people the world over are exactly the same. Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Maya Angelou and Einstein and Marie Curie are all exactly the same as Fred Phelps and Jerry Falwell. Yep.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:55 PM on December 19, 2004


I personally think that it is arrogant to believe that the physical three dimensional universe that we inhabit is the only possible one that can exist.

Imagine a two dimensional universe (everyone lives on a flat "piece-of-paper" plane) and they have no CONCEPT of "up or down". We could come along (as three dimensional creatures) and trap a pair of "two-dims" by drawing a circle around them with a pencil (the thickness of the lead on the paper trapping them). We could also pick on of them up from his trap and sit him down outside. To his partner he would have simply vanished - only to appear again outside.

Move the illustration UP a dimension and it would be as easy for a four dimensional being to insert (or remove) a mouse from the inside of a basketball without breaking it. Impossible? Only to our limited understanding.

The point of this exercise? We may not be able to fathom things outside our existence, but at least we can comprehend why we can't fathom them.

Interestingly String Theory posits the existence of a multitude of additional dimensions.
I'm just sayin'...
posted by spock at 8:04 PM on December 19, 2004


I don't understand how the possible existence of other dimensions justifies, or even has anything to do with, the ridiculous (and, may I say again, DANGEROUS) idea that mental illnesses and behaviours that certain people find unacceptable are caused by demonic influences...
Oh, wait, the priest is taking the mouse (demon) out of the basketball (human) without breaking it. OK.

?
posted by cilantro at 8:15 PM on December 19, 2004


I'm bipolar, and I know I am not possessed, but I also know that it happens, and that there is a distinction between mental illness and demonization. (Which is a better term than possesssion, translationwise.)

A very wise bipolar Episcopal priest I am acquainted with puts it like this. If meds fix it, it ain't a demon.

(BTW in my church exorcisms are quiet, private, and the critters are not allowed to show off-no pea soup or fireworks, so to speak. People only have this done by their own permission, and their dignity is respected.)
posted by konolia at 8:26 PM on December 19, 2004


Matteo, do you seriously believe in "pure, non-bodily Evil"?
posted by davy at 8:37 PM on December 19, 2004


konolia, I'm interested -- how many exorcisms per year, in a community of how many parishioners?

davy -- that's a tough one. I haven't yet made up my mind about it. I don't rule it out completely, I'd say. the 99% versus 1% thing, right? as I wrote above, I'm a pretty rational person who keeps a little percentage of doubt.
posted by matteo at 8:42 PM on December 19, 2004


By the way, Schizophrenia is not the same thing as multiple personality disorder . (Which is not to say that either "syndrome" actually exists, mind you. )
posted by davy at 8:44 PM on December 19, 2004


davy, I was under the impression that MPD is disputed but schizophrenia isn't. and is recognized as an actual condition. isn't it?
posted by matteo at 8:50 PM on December 19, 2004


konolia, I'm interested -- how many exorcisms per year, in a community of how many parishioners?


I don't really know-they really do respect people's privacy that way. But I know the people that do them. I don't think it is all that common. Our church also has an enlightened viewpoint re treatment of the mentally ill. How they treat me would be a case in point. I am an active member of the congregation and I have never been told I cannot do something because of my illness. In fact they pay for my counseling appointments, since I have no insurance and can't afford them otherwise.

We have a large and transient population. The church has probably 2500-3000 members at the moment but as we are a military community the actual people representing those numbers do come and go.
posted by konolia at 9:02 PM on December 19, 2004


btw, Elaine Pagels interview:

What made you decide to examine the treatment of Satan in the New Testament?

EP: It's always struck me that the Gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark, have a sense of evil spirits as a real part of the world. But I was originally thinking about the ways that different religions imagine the invisible world. When my husband and son both died within a short period of time, I often thought of them as being both with me and not with me at the same time. Later, when I could think about the subject more abstractly, I considered how the people of the ancient world believed that there was an invisible world that impinged on this world, and the different ways cultures pictured the angelic and demonic beings of that world. I was looking at angels and demons, spirits and daimons.

posted by matteo at 9:22 PM on December 19, 2004



No, be critical all you want, but have a little respect for humanity of the believers, even if (like me) you find the belief itself silly. It just seems that every time anything remotely relating to religion pops up here, the usual suspects come charging out of the woodwork with comments on the intellectual level of "break out the straitjackets." It's unbecming, obnoxious, and, quite frankly, boring and tiresome.


It was one comment and you've now gone off on like six different comments about it. Give it a rest already.

Being the person holding the noose is probably more fun than being the lynchee, huh, guys?

Do you ever get tired of playing the moral middle man? You've been sitting on the fence post so long you look like one of Vlad the Impaler's lawn ornaments.
posted by The God Complex at 9:50 PM on December 19, 2004


but making fun of a global, diverse human need to ritualize and mythologize as if there's something inherently broken about it

But I would argue that there is something inherently broken about the way that many humans have twisted an innate trait to fetishize fantasy and cloak it with an unearned authenticity. But much has been written of this, and it's too involved to get into here.

Yes, let's take this opportunity to have yet another MeFi snarkfest about religion.

Wait, I've a better idea! Let's put on the broken record of languagehat's condescending defense of the poor, picked-on loons yet again! Because obviously the poor widdle fellas can't take the searing heat of rational dissent, being, you know, special and all...

but have a little respect for humanity of the believers

Humanity I can respect; the wantonly credulous, not so much.
posted by rushmc at 10:02 PM on December 19, 2004


You've been sitting on the fence post so long you look like one of Vlad the Impaler's lawn ornaments.

Too funny.
posted by rushmc at 10:02 PM on December 19, 2004


i'll surrender my demon when they pry him from my cold, dead soul.
posted by quonsar at 11:04 PM on December 19, 2004


i'll surrender my demon when they pry him from my cold, dead soul.

If you want it you get to keep it. Why you would want it is beyond me. Might as well want to keep a roach infestation.
posted by konolia at 11:21 PM on December 19, 2004


Exorcism is very interesting as a psychosocial phenomenom. While the idea in itself is ridiculous, everybody should take a moment to think about the 'how' of the process.

It's slightly misguided to concentrate on the "pure, non-bodily Evil" aspect of possession. Possession doesn't necessarily require such a construct. The essence of possesion isn't the evil spirits in themselves--rather it's their physical manifestation that causes all the hubbub. In fact, after a bit of research, I believe that the "Evil" aspect of possession is just a Christian perversion of the original idea. Originally 'posession' wasn't so much about evil as it was about people and places malfunctioning. To draw a simple analogy: imagine life as a computer program that's crashed hard and needs to be 'reset'.

This thinking that underlies the notion of possession is, I think, also much more common than many think. Luck, "good" and "bad" days, self-help books, the notion of "intent" found in Western law systems, Pythagoras--all of these aremutations and diluted strains of the possession idea (which is very, very old).

(There's also very strong themes of 'will' and 'power' in there... everywhere you find that only certain people may perform exorcists. Also you find that possession is always based on the idea of adding something--an evil spirit, poison, bad blood, germs--and never on the idea of losing something.)

Anyways, I'd suggest people look into it a bit deeper and concentrate less on the evil aspect and more on the conflict between internal psychological states and society at large. Please keep the links to other online sources on possession coming.
posted by nixerman at 11:32 PM on December 19, 2004


*eyes glow red, hisses at konolia*
posted by quonsar at 11:55 PM on December 19, 2004


I strongly recommend the recent Australian TV series John Safran vs God. The final episode, when the demons he has apparently accumulated throughout the series are apparently exorcised, is riveting. I've never actually seen anything like it, and it left me scratching my head.

Seriously. You must see this.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:40 AM on December 20, 2004


In a previous post I agreed that christians are no longer living in the dark ages.
Can I retract that statement? Thanks.
posted by spazzm at 1:10 AM on December 20, 2004


OMG, get the holy water - Matteo has been possessed by Troutfishing.
posted by grateful at 6:24 AM on December 20, 2004


This weekend I was reading about The Yezidis a little known sect in Iraq. They worship angels-- the most important is "The Peacock Angel" aka Lucifer.

Oh and they are not allowed to eat lettuce.

It would be very cool if they had exorcisms casting out Christ.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:53 AM on December 20, 2004


*spits a bit of pea soup on grateful's keyboard, cackles*
posted by matteo at 7:02 AM on December 20, 2004


Why do serious people not balk at the idea of "memetics", but start fuming and sputtering about superstition if "demons" are brought up?
You don't believe in disembodied evil, but surely you can buy the concept of "evil ideas"?

It has long been my (totally uninformed) opinion that the ancients were not, in fact, total ignoramuses, but spoke in a more anthropomorphic fashion than we do. If you have ever had a disturbing idea grip you and consume your life for a time, you will understand what I'm trying to say. "Demonic" ideas travel from person to person (perhaps not quite consciously) and may cause some of those people great mental distress, perhaps to the point of inducing violent behavior.
posted by sonofsamiam at 7:46 AM on December 20, 2004


yeah, I think we're getting caught up in literalism here where that doesn't have to be the case. It's actually kind of amazing to me how much language makes a difference to people. Half the diagnoses offered these days are basically tautological (you have symptoms X, Y & Z? well, you clearly have XYZ syndrome) and yet people seem to think they've gotten an answer when they're diagnosed. I suppose the fact that a syndrome has been named for the group of symptoms is comforting because it means other people have dealt with it, but it's still strange to me how a category can put the problem out of mind.

For instance, I have epilepsy, and have had various different kinds of seizures. Last year I had an especially bizarre episode during which I freaked out a neighbor. I don't remember any of it, but the neighbor and the landlady thought I was 'possessed' (it did not involve falling/shaking, but just weird behavior/speech). I won't go into the details, but I remember how strange it was for me when I went to talk with him afterwards. He was visibly frightened of me - and then I told him I had epilepsy, & he suddenly he breathed a sigh of relief and opened the door and relaxed - as if the name for the event changed everything.

The thing is, it doesn't, not really. My neurologists still don't know what triggered the event or why it was so radically different from most seizures I have, and all we can do is keep trying medications and see if it does or doesn't happen in a similar fashion again...

anyway. Also interesting that "seizure" means "being seized by", as in, possessed... Obviously I believe my seizures are the result of disorganized brain chemicals, not ethereal spirits... but then what do people mean by 'spirits' (alcohol is a spirit, after all) or 'ethereal' (the ether could be considered 'space-time' by modern scientific understandings - it was that through which light could travel-)? Maybe they're more or less trying to say the same thing but have conceptualized it differently according to their societies...

Basically, I agree that local churches performing exorcisms could be dangerous, but a carefully planned ritual after completely exhausting known medical methods seems pretty harmless to me. Guess what: as much as we wish we knew scientifically, we're really in the dark when it comes to neurology and psychology. Even the drugs that do work we don't really understand. And maybe sometimes a person just needs a ritual to get past something psychological. As irrational as they seem, rituals and symbols are central to human beings. Emerson noted that all men are mystics and poets when the flag is raised, for instance. I'm not saying it's the same, but if a ritual has a chance of helping someone, I don't see the harm. Whether we like it or not, rituals do seem to make a difference - the placebo effect is the result of the ritual of taking a pill... the meaning, not the chemical reaction, of taking medicine.
posted by mdn at 8:33 AM on December 20, 2004


Nice comment, nixerman.

I suppose the fact that a syndrome has been named for the group of symptoms is comforting because it means other people have dealt with it, but it's still strange to me how a category can put the problem out of mind.

I agree, and it's more than a little disturbing how quickly this sort of dismissal-through-naming is becoming the norm in our society. Certainly, it is a modern continuation of historic methods. But let's not forget that the paradigm of possession has gone far beyond merely identification—people have been ostracized, tortured, and killed in large numbers by people frightened by their behavior (this group would include epileptics), as well as used to scapegoat or remove undesirables or outsiders from a community. It's not a benign delusion.

Whether we like it or not, rituals do seem to make a difference - the placebo effect is the result of the ritual of taking a pill... the meaning, not the chemical reaction, of taking medicine.

To me, the danger is not in acknowledging or even participating in ritual, but in abandoning perspective and accepting it as not just representational but direct truth, like konolia. But then, my values tell me that humans have a responsibility to seek and protect truth above all, as Christians (in theory) believe we must seek good (and God), so such an abdication of purpose is repugnant to me.

This is very different from rejecting human imagination, which I think is central to our natures. To quote Daniel C. Noel from The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities:

To turn toward the power and process of imagining underlying our fantasies rather than their delusory content may actually bring us closer to the realities encountered....
posted by rushmc at 9:00 AM on December 20, 2004


sonofsamiam
It has long been my (totally uninformed) opinion that the ancients were not, in fact, total ignoramuses, but spoke in a more anthropomorphic fashion than we do.

I think you'll find this book to be an interesting read.
posted by kcds at 9:23 AM on December 20, 2004


sonofsamiam
Why do serious people not balk at the idea of "memetics", but start fuming and sputtering about superstition if "demons" are brought up?

"Demon" pushes too many emotional and cultural buttons. It is impractical to use "demon" for meaningful communication outside of very narrowly-defined religious contexts. After all, no two societies can quite agree on what demons actually are and what they entail.

The term "meme" has less strings attached; it is merely descriptive and does not make any sort of emotional nor moral presumptions. Thus it can maintain a fairly consistant definition between different peoples and societies, and is thus more useful for rational discussion.

You don't believe in disembodied evil, but surely you can buy the concept of "evil ideas"?

Too vague. Are certain ideas inherently evil, or are they evil only within a certain assumed context? Let alone the real kicker that renders this nothing more than pointless mental wankery: what is "evil" in the first place, anyway?

There is such a strong cultural imagery associated with the terms "demon" and their ilk that people automatically assume that there are equally strong and solid definitions behind them. When in reality they are actually quite ill-defined and useless on their own.
posted by PsychoKick at 10:45 AM on December 20, 2004


matteo: You were so right to bring Elaine Pagels into this. Her research most poignantly reveals the historical/political motivation behind the development of Satan, the heretical evil other in Christianity. When Irenaeus, in order to consolidate an extraordinarily diverse movement and to attempt to ensure its survival by consolidating of the surviving Christians into a single organization worldwide—which he called the "catholic" (that is, "universal") church, he urged Christians to destroy all the various "heretic" teachings and "gospels," except those now contained in the New Testament. If you can't get to her highly informative book, The Gnostic Gospels, in a hurry, there is a substantial interview with her in Edge.
posted by semmi at 11:41 AM on December 20, 2004


Sonofsamiam: Interesting comment, but i think the crux of the biscuit is that we don't use outdated terminology to describe events that we have much better understandings of.

Sure, when you get a cold, you produce much more mucus. However, the mucus is not the cause of the cold. We no longer say that a person who has a cold is flegmatic, and that their 'Humors' are not in proportion and they must be bled so that they are less sanguine and a bit more melancholic in order to reduce flegm production. Because we understand the phenomenon. We know what a cold virus is, and how it functions.

The same is true of memetics, and psychology. Ideally the term 'demon' should be a depreciated term like orgone energy, or flogistan. But unfortunately it isn't.

The older the idea, the harder it dies.
posted by Freen at 12:05 PM on December 20, 2004


Pagels rocks, but the problem of evil is not simply about names. forget about "Satan". it's not about finding labels for infidels on an exclusionary basis.
the question is, do horrible things (say, on a Rwanda or a Auschwitz scale) simply happen because people's brains work like that -- and certainly cruelty is very human -- or do malevolent influences actually exist?
one does not want to bring the Rolling Stones into this elegant conversation, but still.
I rode a tank / Held a general’s rank / When the blitzkrieg raged
posted by matteo at 12:07 PM on December 20, 2004


I'm not arguing in favor of the "demon" terminology (I couldn't care less, in fact.) I'm just floating the idea that perhaps not every person who has ever dealt with the topic is completely off their rocker, which you might think from the comments of some in this thread.

We know what a cold virus is, and how it functions. The same is true of memetics, and psychology.
FWIW, we do not know what a meme is, we just have a nice intuitive concept that seems pretty plausible. "Memes" are not nearly as well-supported as cold-viruses, nor is a lot of stuff taken seriously in psychology, for that matter.
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:15 PM on December 20, 2004


Matteo: Three words: "Got Mit Uns"

When you think you've got the supernatural on your side, anything is possible, nay allowed.

Sonofsamiam: yes, you have a point. But do you really want to talk about how 'well-supported' possession is? I don't think the people who talked about flogistan were off their rocker. People who talk about it now, though, expecting to be taken seriously, well yes, they would be off their rocker. Possession as an analogy for psychosis. Interesting. Possession as something totally different, or as the cause of psychosis, well that's a whole other kettle of fish.
posted by Freen at 12:23 PM on December 20, 2004


do you really want to talk about how 'well-supported' possession is?
I didn't mean to imply it was.
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:28 PM on December 20, 2004


...or do malevolent influences actually exist?

Sure they do. But what I think you're really asking is "do supernatural malevolent influences actually exist?" and then the answer to that would be "no".

This looking towards the supernatural to explain why people do bad things to one another is nothing more than an excercise in self-deception. A kind of social "the Devil made me do it" rationalization because we want to hold on to the idea that people are fundamentally good and if they act badly, it must be because they're being influenced by The Forces of Evil.™

The truth is, man is neither Good or Evil, he simply acts in ways that society considers good or evil and that definition changes over time. Consider homosexuality, which has gone from evil abomination to mental illness to a lifestyle choice to a genetic predisposition without any moral strings attached to it (well, unless you live in the Bible belt). In any case, the idea of a supernatural "evil force" is just an attempt to deflect responsibility for how poorly we treat one another; particularly the weakest and most vulnerable among us.
posted by mstefan at 1:13 PM on December 20, 2004


mstefan: I completely agree with you, yet in human terms we have not delt with the whys and wherefores of treating so poorly one another neither, nor with the meaning of "responsibility," which itself borders on "religion."

Perhaps it all goes back to evolutionary tribalism, grouping for survival; to the notion of familiar or alien, inclusion vs rejection by real or perceived self (group) interests. We have not yet been able to imagine a world with equally available resources yet different lifestyles, without avarice, or the fear of becoming selfless zombies without intellectual vitality.
posted by semmi at 10:24 AM on December 26, 2004


« Older OK, Seattleites, see the American flag here ? On t...  |  Fritz Lang's... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments