As I’ve noted before, Pope Francis is a big believer in devils and demonic possession. The Vatican has an Official Exorcist, and there are hundreds of Catholic priests holding the equivalent of Exorcism Licenses. Not many people know this (and the Church, for obvious reasons, tries to keep that under wraps), but it’s information easily accessible with a few mouse clicks.
What I didn’t know until now is that the exorcists are assisted by non-priest professinals like psychiatrist Richard Gallagher, a professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College. And, in an article in the July 1 Washington Post,”As a psychiatrist, I diagnose I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession,” he notes that over the years he’s developed the expertise to distinguish people who are mentally ill from those who are actually possessed by Satan or demons! His ability to diagnose demonic possession is, he said, based on science.(You can see one of his case studies here.)
Here are a few excerpts from his article, including a list of the criteria he uses to see if someone is infested with demons.
I’m a man of science and a lover of history; after studying the classics at Princeton, I trained in psychiatry at Yale and in psychoanalysis at Columbia. That background is why a Catholic priest had asked my professional opinion, which I offered pro bono, about whether [a woman who described herself as a Satanic high priestess] was suffering from a mental disorder. This was at the height of the national panic about Satanism.
. . . But my subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training. She could tell some people their secret weaknesses, such as undue pride. She knew how individuals she’d never known had died, including my mother and her fatal case of ovarian cancer. Six people later vouched to me that, during her exorcisms, they heard her speaking multiple languages, including Latin, completely unfamiliar to her outside of her trances. This was not psychosis; it was what I can only describe as paranormal ability. I concluded that she was possessed.
So there you have the “evidence”: these people, under demonic influence, blurt out things that they could not possibly have known otherwise, and they speak in languages they couldn’t possibly have learned or picked up. But there’s more! Levitation! Superhuman strength!
But I believe I’ve seen the real thing. Assaults upon individuals are classified either as “demonic possessions” or as the slightly more common but less intense attacks usually called “oppressions.” 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.
Well, he didn’t actually see the levitation, but he knew people who swear that they did. And yet Gallagher claims that these conclusions are scientific:
For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness — which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. 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.
. . . As a man of reason, I’ve had to rationalize the seemingly irrational. Questions about how a scientifically trained physician can believe “such outdated and unscientific nonsense,” as I’ve been asked, have a simple answer. I honestly weigh the evidence.
So if there’s all this evidence, and even levitation (LEVITATION!), why haven’t scientists documented it? After all, surely there are ways of detecting whether the possessed have prior knowledge of languages or whether they are doing a form of “cold reading,” or even know something about the exorcist. Sadly, these remarkable abilities seem to vanish under scientific scrutiny:
I have been told simplistically that levitation defies the laws of gravity, and, well, of course it does! We are not dealing here with purely material reality, but with the spiritual realm. One cannot force these creatures to undergo lab studies or submit to scientific manipulation; they will also hardly allow themselves to be easily recorded by video equipment, as skeptics sometimes demand. (The official Catholic Catechism holds that demons are sentient and possess their own wills; as they are fallen angels, they are also craftier than humans. That’s how they sow confusion and seed doubt, after all.) Nor does the church wish to compromise a sufferer’s privacy, any more than doctors want to compromise a patient’s confidentiality.
Damn! That makes it tough to demonstrate real demonic possession, doesn’t it? We’ll just have to take Gallagher’s word. But he adds another line of evidence. First, many cultures have stories or examples of possession by spirits, and the descriptions are often similar. And many cultures believe in spirits. Surely that can’t be coincidence, or reflect cultural inheritance. Nope: it’s demons all the way down!
In the end, Gallagher concludes that “the evidence for possession is like the evidence for George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. In both cases, written historical account with numerous sound witnesses testify to their accuracy.”
Well, we’re talking about miracles here, not George Washington in a boat, and so we need some substantial evidence. Videos or examination by magicians and “mind readers” like James Randi would be useful, but we already know that both the Church and those pesky demons are loath to be filmed or examined. We might invoke Hume’s principle of miracles here: is it more likely that there are non-divine explanations than that levitation is occurring, or that some “possessed” person suddenly speaks a language that she’s completely unacquainted with? I, for one, want to see those films of levitation, and not levitation of the Criss Angel type.
Why was this published as a long piece in the Washington Post? Well, if there were a possibility it was true, and there were real evidence for demonic possession—even just a bit—it would be provocative. But I can’t help thinking that the Post likes this because it gives some evidence for numious, for Catholicism. Yet if regular people and even scientists can be fooled by stuff like this, why can’t Gallagher? It takes magicians to reveal how these tricks or done, or to suss out the “miraculous” stuff. In the meantime, and assuming that there isn’t demonic possession, the Post, like Gallagher, is doing substantial damage. By claiming that we can distinguish demonic possession from psychiatric disorders, or even trickery, both Gallagher and the paper not only enable all the invidious follies of Catholicism, but may even prevent the mentally ill from getting real treatment. Surely we can agree that the application of a cross, holy water, and cries of “OUT, SATAN!” aren’t efficacious in real cases of mental illness. When they do work, it’s surely on people who are faking their symptoms, possibly to get attention.
By the way, I was amused by a juxtaposition of the article’s text with one of those links that papers interpolate to get you to click on other stories (the IAE is the International Association of Exorcists). Here’s a screenshot: