Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Some thoughts about demons

C. S. Lewis' famous book The Screwtape Letters chronicles the tempting of a young British man (known only as "The Patient") by a junior demon, Wormwood, who is under the guidance of a senior devil named Screwtape.  The Patient experiences pulls and pushes from various sides, some (in Lewis' worldview) positive, i.e. toward god; others negative, toward hell and damnation.  A particularly interesting passage comes in Letter #10, where Lewis throws a barb at us skeptics and atheists (if you haven't read this book, recall that it's from the devil's point of view, and therefore "The Enemy" is the Christian God):

I was delighted to hear from Triptweeze that your patient has made some very desirable new acquaintances and that you seem to have used this event in a really promising manner. I gather that the middle-aged married couple who called at his office are just the sort of people we want him to know - rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly sceptical about everything in the world. I gather they are even vaguely pacifist, not on moral grounds but from an ingrained habit of belittling anything that concerns the great mass of their fellow men and from a dash of purely fashionable and literary communism. This is excellent. And you seem to have made good use of all his social, sexual, and intellectual vanity. Tell me more. Did he commit himself deeply? I don't mean in words. There is a subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a Mortal can imply that he is of the same party is those to whom he is speaking. That is the kind of betrayal you should specially encourage, because the man does not fully realise it himself; and by the time he does you will have made withdrawal difficult.

No doubt he must very soon realise that his own faith is in direct opposition to the assumptions on which all the conversation of his new friends is based. I don't think that matters much provided that you can persuade him to postpone any open acknowledgment of the fact, and this, with the aid of shame, pride, modesty and vanity, will be easy to do. As long as the postponement lasts he will be in a false position. He will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent. He will assume, at first only by his manner, but presently by his words, all sorts of cynical and sceptical attitudes which are not really his. But if you play him well, they may become his. All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be. This is elementary. The real question is how to prepare for the Enemy's counter attack.
It is clear that Lewis, although he meant The Screwtape Letters as a fictional allegory, believed in the reality of demons and their capacity for tempting humans into sin.  In the preface to Screwtape he writes,
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
What I find interesting about all of this is two things; first is why, if demons actually exist, they don't tend to bother atheists like myself -- wouldn't we be easy targets for possession?  (Lewis, I suspect, would respond to this objection that I am so far gone in my disbelief that the demons have already added me to their Ledger Book -- there's no further need to tempt me, as I'm already damned.)  Be that as it may, it's interesting that the only people who seem to be troubled by demons are Christians who already thought they were real beforehand.

The second interesting thing is how generally embarrassed Christians seem to be by the idea of demons, although it is clearly scriptural in origin (recall the passage in Matthew 8 where Jesus casts some demons out of a couple of guys, and the demons possess a bunch of pigs, who proceed to drown themselves in a lake).  Despite this, and with the exception of the fundamentalist sects of Christianity, a lot of Christians kind of turn red and change the subject when you bring up demons and possession.

As evidence of the latter, look at the dithering that came from the Vatican last week after Pope Francis did an impromptu exorcism on a guy in St. Peter's Square.  A television station showed a video clip that had captured the incident, and the announcer stated that it was "certainly an exorcism" given that the man had opened his mouth wide, convulsed, and then slumped to one side when the pope put his hands on his head.  Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi responded with some apparent unease that of course the pope hadn't performed an exorcism; "rather," Lombardi said, "as he frequently does with the sick or suffering who come his way, he simply intended to pray for a suffering person."

Not everyone shared Lombardi's trepidation on the topic.  After the incident in St. Peter's Square, and the media flurry that followed, Father Gabriele Amorth of Rome stated that despite Lombari's claim, the pope had clearly performed an exorcism.  How does Amorth know?  Because he is the head of the International Association of Exorcists, and over his career has expelled 160,000 demons.

That, my friend, is a crapload of demons.

Amorth himself is completely convinced that it works, and went on record in 2010 as saying that "bishops who don't appoint exorcists are committing a mortal sin."

So it's clear that there's some disagreement here, which only got weirder yesterday when the man Pope Francis either did or did not exorcise told the press that it hadn't worked, he was still possessed.  "I still have the demons inside me, they have not gone away," the man, who was identified as a father of two from Michoacán, Mexico named Angel V.  Angel V. has been possessed, he says, since 1999, and has had thirty unsuccessful exorcisms, including one...

... by the head of the International Association of Exorcists, Father Gabriele Amorth.

I couldn't make all this up if I wanted to.  The Mexican priest who accompanied Angel V. to Rome said, in all apparent seriousness, "the demons that live in him do not want to leave."

Or, maybe, it could be that Angel V. has a mental illness that could be treated by modern medicine.  There's always that.

In any case, that's our odd story of the day.  I still have to say that I wonder why the demons aren't after me.  I've been a non-believer for close on twenty years, and I've had nary a single demon come up and shake my hand in congratulations.  (It must be said that I never saw one before that, either, not even during my church-going days.)  So my general conclusion, given the complete lack of evidence, is that demons don't exist.

But I'm sure that Father Amorth would disagree.  "The principle responsibility of the exorcist is to free man from the fear of the devil," he told reporters.  Well, I guess that's a second reason I don't need him.  I'm not afraid of the devil at all.  There's no reason to be afraid of something that doesn't actually exist.

1 comment:

  1. If Angel V actually got his demons exorcised, he wouldn't get to meet all of his favorite Catholic All-Stars.