This article came across the newswires recently: Six Fined Over Malaysia Exorcism Death Report. A toddler was killed by six adults who were treating her aliments with a superstitious ritual. They received fines of a few thousand dollars. What surprised me was not the results, but the fact that it was reported, as most of these sorts of crimes seem to go unreported in most countries. Perhaps the lack of publicity is because it’s a factual abject failure of some popular religious belief.
I have not been able to find any information on how frequently these sorts of “faith-based” delays in proper medical or psychological attention occur. Death is the worst outcome, but there must be a substantial amount of untold physical and mental injuries being suffered as a result of this phenomenon.
Faith Healing is Practicing Medicine Without a License
Think about it. In most societies, if you try to practice medicine without a license, you would be fined or go to jail. But if the “medicine” you practice is a religious or superstitious “cure,” you probably won’t be prosecuted. Just look at that most litigious and regulated of countries, America, for an example of this. Faith “healing” is a staple of daytime cable televangelist programs. (My personal favorite, seen some years ago when I was visiting Florida, featured a preacher diagnosing a woman’s persistent constipation as “the devil in her bowels”… I give credit to this preacher for not laughing as he “healed” this woman by purging her of the transgressing demon/spirit/whatever. Being a demon must be pretty boring stuff if the best you can do is clog up someone’s colon. Perhaps we should think of farts as bowel-escaping demons?)
For most of us, this is entertainment of a sort (it’s not as good as cat videos on YouTube for me, but I’m partial to cats), but for the true believer, this is the same as medical treatment. And it’s not just in the US, and it’s not just purely religious practices (by which I mean calling on a deity or supernatural agent to effect a healing). I would put Chinese traditional medicine in this category, as well as homeopathy, acupuncture, pyramid power, most herbal remedies, and the plethora of cultural cures and remedies that exist in almost every culture.
The reason they all go into the same bucket for me is that they are all sustained and quite often legally protected to some extent by reason of the fact that some people (or even a preponderance of the people) have “faith” that they are efficacious. Why is it “faith”? It’s because there is no real scientific evidence that they actually do much more than a placebo would. Proponents trot out the same stale rhetorical questions such as, “If they weren’t effective, why do so many people use them?”, “Why have they been used for so long?”, “How do you explain that people get better?”, etc. (I lived in Hong Kong for many years, and constantly had this discussion with people who believed in traditional Chinese medicine.) But all these supposed “cures” have all been examined to some extent, and none of them have been proven to be effective. If they had been, then major pharmaceutical corporations would have adopted their use and they would become part of the mainstream medical practice. There is no conspiracy to somehow keep them out of the hands of sick people, especially when their use could make someone a great deal of money if they were proven to be effective. So it’s all a question of “faith” – believing that for which there is no justified evidence. So they are allowed, and in some cases treatments are even paid for by Governments. All this falls under the same rubric; politicians don’t want to rock the boat by criticizing what some people believe. “Faith,” even in the provably absurd, is to be respected.
True Believers Live in a World with Real Witches, Warlocks and Demons
So much for bogus medicine, but I am not writing about that. I want to talk specifically about exorcism: the belief that physical or mental ailments are caused by supernatural agents that can only be “cured” through an application of spiritual power. Most cultures have believed in some sort of supernatural agency for illness at some point in their history. Until the advent of biology and virology, frankly, there was little other rational explanation, although some people did try to provide non-supernatural explanations and treatments (most books on medical history will give you some horrific examples of this, but Nathan Belofsky’s Strange Medicine: A Shocking History of Real Medical Practices Through the Ages is quite good, just don’t eat a big meal before you read it…). The thing that strikes you about ancient medicine, and even medical practices up until the recent age, is that quite a few of them were indistinguishable from superstitious practices anyway.
Exorcisms fall into two broad categories; those that are caused purely by supernatural agents, and those that are caused by humans (and sometimes animals) invoking supernatural agents or powers, these latter are generally called witches or warlocks. These two agencies have existed in almost every culture, going back to the earliest recorded times where the Sumerians (the people who probably gave us beer and writing, so they can’t be all bad) believed that demons caused disease. But we can’t blame the Sumerians, as cultures with no traceable link to them independently developed similar concepts.
Many religions (including Christianity, Islam and Hinduism) acknowledge both possession and witchcraft or magic. However, this is less the case with Islam. Although possession is frequently mentioned in the sahih hadith, the Koran (as far as I know) does not mention possession at all, and Mohammed does not cast out any djinns (although he does have advice about the djinns, which are not really the same as the Christian concept of a demon, as djinns are physical in nature—I’ve never heard of one in a zoo, however, or being interviewed on Al Jazeera). Djinns in the Islamic tradition are physical creatures with free will, created by Allah (God) prior to the creation of humans. The entire 72 surah of the Koran is devoted to the subject of djinns. There is quite a bit of discussion of possession, the evil eye, and witchcraft (in one writing Mohammed himself was afflicted by a spell cast by a Jew; Sahih Muslim 26:5428) in authoritative Islamic literature, however. So it is part of the religious culture, but an argument can be made that since it’s not explicitly mentioned in the Koran, it may not be part of the core teachings of Islam.
The same cannot be said for Hinduism (where parts of the Atharva Veda relate to magic) and Christianity and its precursor Judaism, both of which have the existence of witchcraft and possession (much less for Judaism than for Christianity) as an important tenant of their beliefs. There is a line of thought in Judaism that witchcraft is derived from the worship of other gods. (Contrary to most popular belief, Judaism was not monotheistic for most of its early existence, it was merely the belief that there was one god (or gods, as was probably the early case) for the Hebrews, and other gods for other peoples (who may or may not have been as potent as YHWH). This belief system is called henotheism (think about the ten commandments: “No other gods before me,” not “There are no other gods”). Hebrews probably needed to believe that there were other gods, as their own god YHWH, even when carried into battle in his Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 4: strange how he needed a box to get around…) could never quite seem to beat those pesky Philistines, who always seem to lose the battle (of course the Hebrews were writing the stories) but never the war, and are still there for the next round. YHWH also had problems dealing with iron chariots…. (Judges 1:19) and he was never quite able to conquer and hand over to the Hebrews all the Promised Land, which was from the Euphrates to the Nile (Exodus 23:31).)
We’ve Found a Witch! May We Burn Her?
For Christianity, most of the comments about witchcraft are in the Hebrew Bible, including the oft quoted “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18). Some of the villains of the Hebrew Bible were associated with witchcraft (Jezebel (2 Kings 9:22) and Saul (1 Chronicles 10:13), and YHWH even got upset with Jerusalem once because of witchcraft (Isaiah 29:1-16). Witch murder still goes on today, even in developed countries. It’s not part of the law any more in most Western countries, and it’s (thankfully) an infrequent occurrence and is treated as an unjustifiable crime (see BBC News for a case of witch murder in 2012 in the United Kingdom). But it still happens all too frequently in the world at large (check out Live Science).
There are still a number of countries where witchcraft is recognized as a serious crime, with punishments ranging in severity up to the death penalty. These cases where witchcraft is a legal crime are usually found in some Muslim countries which practice sharia law and some African countries – and it may be the case that in Swaziland witches by law are not supposed to fly over 150 meters (I don’t know if this report is true or a joke, but it’s funny either way: Swaziland Witches Banned from Flying Over 150 Meters).
Can You be a Christian and Not Believe in Demonic Possession?
But exorcism, the banishment of demons or djinns from human beings may be the most frequently and widely practiced curative religious ritual (other than praying for healing or miracles). It’s a core part of Christianity, being mentioned 11 times in Matthew, 3 times in Mark, 4 times in Luke, 3 times in John, and 8 times in Acts – and I may have missed some. Most of these exorcisms were done by Jesus himself, or by others acting in his name. I could never understand how people could claim to be Christians and yet say that these “miracles” were somehow an explanation of cures made to primitive people. Jesus could have just healed them, as he did on a number of other occasions without referencing possession, but this is not how the stories are written. So for devout Christians who believe their Gospels, possession is a reality (for which Hollywood is no doubt duly thankful, as horror films about possession are so very popular).
And it’s not just Catholics who hold with these practices, many other Christian sects share this belief, though its treatment seems to be more institutionalized in the Catholic faith as set forth in the Rituale Romanum. As I noted before, these charlatans can be seen every day in America making bogus claims before millions (really?) of claimed television viewers. The live performance of many of these ministers are often attended by thousands of people. Even Pope John Paul II (the perhaps soon to be Saint John Paul II) is recorded as having performed three exorcisms during his term as Supreme Pontiff.
How to Banish the Demons of Ignorance and Lunacy
How does an intelligent society deal with this patent nonsense? On the one hand, a free society should allow people to believe whatever they want, provided it does no harm to others and (in many countries) it is not supported by the State. But here is the rub: a belief in exorcism and its practice does harm people. At least, I would believe that it does. I can’t find any academic research on the topic (send me some if you know of any). But the basic assumption of withholding proper medical treatment in favor of some religious rite should be treated the same way as are parents who withhold medical treatment from their children in favor of the healing powers of prayer (as some Christians believe, most notably some Jehovah’s Witnesses).
It’s time to impose stricter punishments on people who falsely claim to have magically healed others, thereby causing them to delay seeking proper medical attention. No doubt, many psychosomatic illness are “cured” by exorcisms, but these cause no harm. So, because of its status as a religious practice we probably cannot seek to outlaw exorcism itself, but by making the penalties for its failure in cases where people are actually sick more rigorous and punitive, we can slowly move towards discontinuing this abhorrent practice in a modern, civilized society. People should be able to sue exorcists for malpractice when it doesn’t work, at the least. That’s the ticket, sic the ambulance chasing lawyers on them. The problem will be getting the politicians to act on this.