Pope Francis and the psychology of exorcism and possession (The Guardian)

Endorsement of exorcism by the Vatican will do nothing to prevent future tragedies like the death of Victoria Climbié

Chris French

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Last week it was reported that Pope Francis had formally recognised the International Association of Exorcists, a group of 250 priests spread across 30 countries who supposedly cast out demons. The head of the association, Rev Francesco Bamonte, announced that this was a cause for joy because, “Exorcism is a form of charity that benefits those who suffer.” While Pope Francis, who frequently mentions Satan, no doubt agrees with this sentiment, this granting of legal recognition to the concepts of possession and exorcism has come as something of a shock to those who do not share this world view.

Belief in possession is widespread both geographically and historically and is far from rare in modern western societies. A YouGov poll of 1,000 US adults last year found that over half of the respondents endorsed belief in possession and 20% remained unsure. Only 11% said categorically that they did not believe people could be “possessed by the devil”.

Is it possible that the pope is right and demons can sometimes take control of their victims’ behaviour? Are exorcists really bravely battling against the most powerful, evil forces imaginable? Or are possession and exorcism best explained in terms of psychological factors without any need to postulate the existence of incorporeal spiritual entities? I would argue that the available evidence strongly supports the latter interpretation.

There can be no doubt that some forms of behaviour that would once have been seen as evidence for possession by demons or evil spirits would now be recognised as being caused by neuropathology. Hippocrates, in The Sacred Disease, declared that epileptic convulsions were caused by brain malfunction, not evil spirits. Belief in possession was still widespread some 400 years later, however, when Jesus encountered an individual believed to be possessed but who was, in fact, clearly suffering from epilepsy.

Another condition that would often have been interpreted in a similar manner is Tourette’s syndrome. Interestingly, the first recorded description of a case of Tourette’s may be in Malleus Maleficarum (or Witch’s Hammer) published in the 15th century by Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kraemer. This notorious book served as a guide for identifying witches and the possessed and included a description of a priest whose tics were thought to be a result of possession by the devil. Although the symptom that people most readily associate with Tourette’s syndrome is vocal outbursts of foul language, this symptom is in fact quite rare, affecting only around 10% of sufferers. Having said that, this is probably the main symptom that, in times gone by, would have led to suspicion of possession.

There are several other neuropathologies (eg certain forms of schizophrenia) that might also have been interpreted as possession in less enlightened times (and sadly sometimes still are) but it is not plausible to explain all cases of apparent possession in neuropathological terms. It should also be borne in mind that the type of phenomenon that would be the main focus for the International Association of Exorcists is but one example of situations where an individual appears to have been taken over by some agent, resulting in a dramatic change in behaviour, mannerisms, voice and even, allegedly, memories.

Other examples would include mediums “channelling” communications from the dead; shamans inviting possession by the gods, ancestors or animal spirits; individuals apparently reliving past-lives, having gone through a process of hypnotic regression; and volunteers during hypnosis stage shows apparently taking on the identities of celebrities, animals or even aliens.

The controversial diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder) is yet another example of this phenomenon, though many commentators, myself included, believe that it is not in fact a genuine psychiatric disorder but is instead a product of dubious forms of therapy.

The sociocognitive approach, as outlined by Nick Spanos in his posthumously published book, Multiple Identities and False Memories, has the potential to explain all the phenomena listed in the previous two paragraphs without the need to invoke disembodied spiritual entities. Essentially, this approach argues that all of these phenomena reflect learned patterns of behaviour that constitute particular recognised roles within specific cultural contexts.

Although it may not always be immediately obvious, there are often benefits to enacting the role of being possessed. Indeed, in many societies, certain forms of possession are welcomed. For example, glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues”, is encouraged in many western Christian societies and is interpreted as possession by the Holy Spirit. During glossolalia, the individual produces vocalisations of meaningless syllables. Although these may sound superficially like a foreign language, analysis shows them to have no true linguistic structure whatsoever. Glossolalia can sometimes involve dramatic behaviour such as convulsions, sweating and rolling eyes but can also be much more subdued. The actual form the glossolalia takes is entirely determined by the expectations of the particular religious community involved.

For less positive forms of possession, the benefits of taking on this role may be harder to identify but they still exist. As Michael Cuneo describes in his excellent book, American Exorcism, the phenomena of alleged possession and exorcism are much more widespread in the US than is officially recognised. For many people, the idea that all of their previous socially and morally unacceptable behaviour was not in fact their fault but due to possession by demons is appealing. Furthermore, once those demons have been exorcised, the repentant sinner is now welcomed back into the loving arms of his or her community.

Anthropologists have pointed out that in some cultures, those with little or no social influence can let off steam and vent their true feelings towards the more powerful members of their society while “possessed” without having to face any repercussions. They are not held to be responsible for their actions, the possessing spirit is. It is notable that historically in Europe, it was women who were much more likely to be “possessed” than men.

Of course, we must not forget that the outcome for the person who is labelled as “possessed” can sometimes be far from positive. To give one notorious example, the parents of 23-year-old Anneliese Michel and two West German priests were convicted in 1978 of causing her death (they received suspended sentences). They had starved the young epileptic as part of a horrendous 11-month exorcism. She weighed just 68 pounds (5 stone or 30 kilograms) at the time of her death. The Guardian has noted that belief in possession has been a factor in several child abuse cases in the UK, including the tragic death of Victoria Climbié in 2000.

The official recognition of such pre-Enlightenment beliefs by the Vatican will do nothing to prevent future tragedies of this kind.

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