Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Great Demon Debate

Yesterday, over on Facebook, I posted a link to an intriguing article by a psychiatrist who also teaches psychiatry at a New York college, on a controversial subject. Titled, As a Psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. And sometimes, demonic possession. It appeared in the Washington Post.

The title is somewhat misleading because in the article itself, Dr. Richard Gallagher says that he doesn't diagnose people as being possessed, only certifies for those who come to him that the cases in question don't lend themselves to a medical diagnosis of mental illness. But Gallagher, like the late M. Scott Peck, also a psychiatrist, is convinced of the existence of demonic possession.

That's provocative enough, of course, coming from a man of science who looked into possible demon possession with skepticism. But Gallagher writes:
The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions.
He condemns those who engage in quackery, treating the mentally ill as though they were demonically possessed. And he claims to know the difference:
A possessed individual may suddenly, in a type of trance, voice statements of astonishing venom and contempt for religion, while understanding and speaking various foreign languages previously unknown to them. The subject might also exhibit enormous strength or even the extraordinarily rare phenomenon of levitation. (I have not witnessed a levitation myself, but half a dozen people I work with vow that they’ve seen it in the course of their exorcisms.) He or she might demonstrate “hidden knowledge” of all sorts of things — like how a stranger’s loved ones died, what secret sins she has committed, even where people are at a given moment. These are skills that cannot be explained except by special psychic or preternatural ability.

I have personally encountered these rationally inexplicable features, along with other paranormal phenomena. My vantage is unusual: As a consulting doctor, I think I have seen more cases of possession than any other physician in the world.

Most of the people I evaluate in this role suffer from the more prosaic problems of a medical disorder. Anyone even faintly familiar with mental illnesses knows that individuals who think they are being attacked by malign spirits are generally experiencing nothing of the sort. Practitioners see psychotic patients all the time who claim to see or hear demons; histrionic or highly suggestible individuals, such as those suffering from dissociative identity syndromes; and patients with personality disorders who are prone to misinterpret destructive feelings, in what exorcists sometimes call a “pseudo-possession,” via the defense mechanism of an externalizing projection. But what am I supposed to make of patients who unexpectedly start speaking perfect Latin?

I approach each situation with an initial skepticism. I technically do not make my own “diagnosis” of possession but inform the clergy that the symptoms in question have no conceivable medical cause.
The article is, as I say, provocative and it has provoked some discussion over on Facebook.

Andrew, a one-time neighbor whose parents are dear friends of ours and who grew up with our son Philp and served as Phil's best man when Phil and his wife were married last year, probably speaking for many, wrote the following:
The people who are being diagnosed as demon possessed aren't getting their mental illnesses treated. Highly highly irresponsible of this charlatan "psychiatrist".
I responded:
I wonder, Andrew, if you read the article. I agree that what you're describing happens. So too, would the author, a psychiatrist and man of science who appears to be open to the facts speaking for themselves.
And also:
Incidentally, the late M. Scott Peck, also a man of science and psychiatrist, was led to a view similar to that of the author on these things. He details his experiences in 'People of the Lie.'
Andrew replied:
I did read the article. And the author obviously doesn't agree with me since he is "diagnosing" people with demon possession. Anyone he decides is demon possessed is not getting the psychiatric help they need. As someone who suffers from mental illness I find it incredibly irresponsible that you're promoting this. You can't pray away depression or anxiety or especially personality disorders and schizophrenia. When I was in the church my treatment was delayed because people in authority told me I could pray it away or that I must be sinning. The church has a horrible history in helping people with mental illness and this kind of unscientific bs just makes it worse.
I responded:
Andrew, he specifically said he doesn't do the diagnosing, but lets others know that there is no scientific explanation for some of the cases he's run up against. He says that in the overwhelming numbers of instances, scientific diagnoses can be made. And he would concede, as I would, that you cannot pray away physiologically rooted instances of anxiety, depression, personality disorders, and schizophrenia.

Quacks who say otherwise are destructive and irresponsible. The evidence would indicate to me that this guy is no quack.
Andrew joined (see what a good relationship that we have, that we can talk about something like this and keep talking to each other!):
We don't know what's causing this mental illness - therefore demons seems like a textbook definition of quackery.
My response:
But to the open-minded, other explanations are worthy of consideration.
Andrew's answer:
Being open minded means looking at all the evidence and then coming to the conclusion that that most closely fits that evidence regardless of your previous position. There is zero evidence for demon possession. The author doesn't even bother to present any. He even goes so far as to try to explain away the lack of evidence by talking about how demons are too smart to be recorded on video. In skeptic circles this is called the shyness effect. The same sorts of explanations are given to explain why there are no pictures of Bigfoot or UFOs. So I would ask you to be open minded and follow the evidence where it leads and to acknowledge when there is no good evidence for a claim you're making.
At this, Jeff Schultz joined the conversation, writing:
"Being open minded means looking at all the evidence and then coming to the conclusion that that most closely fits that evidence regardless of your previous position." With respect, I believe that's what this psychiatrist is doing, and what you're unwilling to do. It seems your assessment is based on a purely materialistic view of reality. In that case, then what this psychiatrist is doing is indeed quackery. But what if we don't live in a purely material universe? What if there is a spiritual dimension to reality that can't be scientifically explained, measured, and controlled? The unwillingness to consider that possibility seems like another kind of close-mindedness which would lead to another kind of malpractice.
Andrew replied to Jeff:
What if we don't live in a purely materialistic universe? What if there are Demons? Psychic powers? Faith healing? Show me the evidence for any of these phenomenon and I'll believe it. Seriously. Show me.
But there isn't any, as the excuses in this article suggest. I was a Christian once. I've assessed the evidence. It is lacking. I'd ask you to attempt to do the same.*
Jeff responded:
I don't wish to be difficult or argumentative. You've stated there isn't any evidence. I took that to mean there is no evidence that would satisfy you, especially as you've stated that you also concluded that lack of evidence led you to abandon faith in Christ. Since we see things from such different perspectives, there doesn't seem to be much sense in putting forth reasoned arguments or evidence.
You maintain that believing in the supernatural is baseless and foolish faith that leads to quackery. I maintain the same thing about materialism. But my contention is no more close-minded or inherently dangerous than yours. That's all I'm asking you to consider.
Andrew answered Jeff:
But it is. People are being treated for demon possession by exorcists instead of for mental illness by doctors. You really don't see how that's not inherently dangerous to people?
I answered:
Andrew, I feel that you're arguing against a straw man. At the outset of the piece and in my remarks, the author and I both have said that there are irresponsible flim-flammers treating physiological or emotional disorders as though they were demon-possession. They're to be condemned. And that has zero to do with what we're talking about here.
The psychiatrist who wrote this piece and, as I mentioned earlier, M.Scott Peck, are/were people of science. One came at the subject of demon possession skeptically. Peck was a Buddhist when the reality of demon possession began to impress itself upon him. Both warn that demon possession is rare and that in the lion's share of cases that have been presented to them, the people in question were suffering from psychiatric disorders. (I recommend Peck's book, 'People of the Lie.' By the time he wrote this, he was a Christian, in part because his encounter with the demonic had convinced him of the existence of a non-material world.)

And I agree with Jeff, that the author of the 'Washington Post' article did present phenomenon inexplicable by traditional scientific means.

As to the existence of a non-material world, I commend a book to you: 'Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine' written by a medical doctor, Larry Dossey, not a Christian, who refers to many studies done at places like Harvard Medical Center, in which persons who did not [know that] people were praying for them, experienced markedly greater rates of recovery and lower rates of mortality than persons for whom no one was known to be praying for them. Many dozens of such studies have taken place over time and are highly suggestive of the existence of the non-material.
Just anecdotally, here in Dayton [there's] a hospital where the surgeons, nurses, and anesthesiologists often ask [if] they can participate in prayer[s] I offer for surgical patients and [attending] medical staff before procedures. The doctors' experiences over the years have convinced them of the efficacy of prayer.
Of course, the only way for a person to believe is to be open to it. Erickson rightly said that the first and most fundamental issue we must face in our lives is trust v. mistrust. I believe that this issue is with us our entire lives. Much about this life can delude us with the notion of self-sufficiency or that we must be self-sufficient. The fact is that it is difficult for us to believe either in the God we cannot see--but who, I believe has been revealed definitively in Jesus--or in the dark powers at work with ferocity in our world.

When I was an atheist, I refused to trust in a God I couldn't see. But, in the people of what became my home church in Columbus, I saw the evidence of a higher power acting in the lives of ordinary people: the man who had dealt with a lifetime of emotional issues who drew uncommon and inexplicable strength--despite setbacks--from Christ as he underwent treatment; the devoted husband who lost his wife yet could say on the day of her funeral how good God had been to him; the seminary student who described the encounter with Christ that led him to go to seminary.

I realized that God is a gentleman. He wants love to be real [to love Him back voluntarily, not because we have to]. He will not force us to acknowledge His lordship or His call on our lives. I came to the God wasn't the Allah of Islam. Nor was He either the indulgently passive deity or the harsh cruel master of popular opinion.

While taking a class called 'Life with God,' trying to understand why the Christians I met in that congregation were so real and so together, I realized that I could only know the God revealed in Jesus Christ by letting Him into my life. I didn't yet believe. But I wanted to believe. I still struggle to believe, [to trust]. I've found that as I open myself to Christ--not the Christ of my imagination nor the Christ of popular preference, but Christ as He revealed Himself to the apostles--I experienced life differently. Christ in me [empowering me and inciting me to do things I can't and am not inclined to do] was and is evidence of a non-material world.

I myself have had to be treated for anxiety over the years, occasionally requiring prescriptions. Members of my extended family have suffered from depression and anxiety and have received treatment for it. I have met people in my counseling through the years who clearly suffered from mental or emotional issues that required the healing God provides through the medical profession.

I agree with you--I think that Jeff Schultz does too--that it's far more likely that someone displaying some behaviors is medically ill than that they are possessed by demons. But when people exhibiting symptoms similar to the mentally ill also manifest the ability to speak a language they've never known or to see...events in the lives of persons they've never met, common sense, experience, and God's revelation all suggest that something else is going on.

You may choose not to believe it all, of course. I did once. But that doesn't give you license to say that the evidence that has been compiled through the centuries and even more recently in rigorous scientific studies doesn't exist. I think it does exist.

I love you, boy! There's always a place in my heart for you. And, whether you want it or not, I pray for you. Be happy.
Here's Andrew's answer:
I'll just leave this here and leave it at that then. This quote sums up my feelings on the article well:

"By accepting their delusion, you are reinforcing it, making it even harder to treat. You are victimizing the people you are supposed to be helping, by failing in your primary duty as a professional to be detached and evidence-based."

Believing and propagating the lie of demon possession causes real harm to real people.
http://theness.com/.../a-psychiatrist-falls-for-exorcism/ NeuroLogica Blog » A Psychiatrist Falls for Exorcism theness.com
That's where the "demon debate" stands at this point. I believe that it's been conducted with love and respect, as it should be.

I'm thankful to Richard Gallagher for his article and to the Washington Post for publishing it. It addresses an important topic.

*Andrew evidently didn't remember that I was once an atheist. It was the people of what became my home church who caused me to investigate the truth claims of Christian faith. I had previously seen them as irrational. But I realize that atheism is even more irrational. It argues, basically, that scientific observation, giving, as it does, information on the processes of life, means that all truth is scientifically observable. Science is important; it answers questions about the what, how, and (maybe the) when of the universe. But it cannot and we cannot reason our way to answering questions of why and who. Nor can it tell us definitively if there is or isn't non-material (spiritual) life.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]


Charis Meade said...

This is a really interesting debate. John and I often discuss these sorts of things after watching horror movies. I come down on the side of believing in demonic possession (but not in ghosts). Demonic possession and exorcism is even documented in the Bible, most memorably in Mark 5. I think, as stated by the author of the article you referenced, it is rare, but maybe it isn't as rare as we think. Even though physiological symptoms of mental illness can be relieved by medical treatment, can we say with certainty that in all cases that improve or resolve with medical treatment, the origins of the mental illness had nothing to do with demonic activity? Or can we say that in every case, nothing has occurred spiritually (through prayer for the individual or their own faith) to help combat the demon in tandem with medical treatment? Spiritual healing could be an "X factor" that cannot be quantified because there's no way to tell at any given time how much God is intervening spiritually in a person's life.

Mark Daniels said...

These are really insightful remarks, Charis. Thanks so much for sharing them!

Our situations and we ourselves are far more complex than the either / or alternatives people so often advance, I think. The Bible says that we are either combatants, pawns, and / or treasures in spiritual warfare. And if those who have been teaching us about holistic health are right--and I think that the Bible supports such an understanding of what makes us healthy or unhealthy, then it shouldn't surprise us that battle for our well-being must be waged on many fronts against man enemies--from genetic distortions to physiological ailments, from mental illness to demon possession.

I am a pro-science guy and I don't think that the empirical realm of science is intrinsically at odds with belief in the non-material realm.

Thanks again for your comments!