by Dr Tasia Scrutton
Last Tuesday was the first day of Lent, the forty days in which Christians observe the temptation and testing of Jesus in the desert by the devil, interpreted by some Christians in literal and others in metaphorical, usually psychological, terms. On the same day, newspapers reported the story of Vilma Trujillo, a 25 year old woman from Nicaragua who died after sustaining severe burns. Vilma’s murder is also connected with Christian beliefs about the diabolical or demonic, albeit in a rather different way. While the case has yet to be brought to trial, it seems Vilma was attacked, tied up, and thrown into a fire by a pastor and church members as part of an ‘exorcism’ ritual, since she was believed by the church to be demonically possessed (BBC, 2017). This incident is not unique. For example, in 2005 a young Romanian Orthodox nun, Irena Cornici, died as a result of being gagged and chained to a cross and left in a cold room without food and water for three days at the hands of priests and fellow nuns – part of an attempt to exorcise her for what psychiatrists identified as schizophrenia (BBC, 2005).
In what kinds of context might these bizarre-seeming and horrific modern-day incidents make sense? Though it’s tempting to distance ourselves culturally from them (the short BBC article mentions twice that Vilma was from an ‘isolated’ part of Nicaragua), demonic accounts of what psychiatrists would call ‘mental disorder’ are in fact quite common, especially in Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. Demonic accounts are also extremely geographically widespread. In a 2008 textual analysis of Christian bestselling self-help books about depression, most from the US, Marcia Webb, Kathy Stetz and Kristin Hedden note that demonic influence is the most frequently-cited explanation for depression (Webb, Stetz and Hedden, 2008). A 2007 study finds that 54% of Americans believe in demons and an additional 19.4% think that demons ‘probably’ exist, thus opening the door to demonic accounts of mental disorder (Baylor Religion Survey, Baylor University, 2007). In a 2005 Australian-based study, Kristine Hartog and Kathryn Gow find that 38.2% of 126 Protestant Christians endorsed a demonic aetiology of depression, and 37.4% endorsed a demonic aetiology of schizophrenia. While only anecdotal, since beginning to study this topic, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have told me about demonic accounts in the UK, whether by people who have encountered them in church contexts, or by people who themselves endorse them.
Demonic accounts of mental disorder are sometimes described as forms of ‘lay theology’ (Webb, Stetz and Hedden, 2008), and yet we can find them in literature written by church leaders, mental health professionals and academics – literature that of course is particularly influential because of the status of the authors. One such example is Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness, written by Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, a practising psychologist, and a church leader. An initial glance at Stanford’s book might give the impression that he will criticise, rather than endorse, demonic interpretations of depression.
The blurb on the back cover explains that:
Each day men and women diagnosed with mental disorders are told they need to pray more and turn from their sin. Mental illness is equated with demon possession, weak faith, and generational sin. Why is it that the church has struggled in ministering to those with mental illnesses? As both a church leader and professor of psychology and neuroscience, Dr Stanford had seen far too many mentally ill brothers and sisters damaged by well-meaning believers who respond to them out of fear or misinformation rather than grace. (Stanford, 2008)
The expectation that this will be a book that challenges demonic accounts will be strengthened if one is aware of Stanford’s academic research in this area, which includes a study that surveys ‘negative interactions’ people with mental illness have with their churches. These ‘negative interactions’ include abandonment or shunning and the idea that the mental disorder is the work of demons or the result of sin (Stanford, 2007). Stanford also reflects on the gendered dimensions of church responses to mental illness: according to the findings of his survey, ‘the mental disorders of women, significantly more than men, are being dismissed by the church’, which he puts down to ‘misguided patriarchal views’ influencing leaders’ advice to women (Stanford, 2007, 448). The tone of Stanford’s writing here, and indeed in parts of the book, is one of liberalism, moderateness and humanity.
However, this tone and aspect of his work sit strangely with many other things Stanford says within his book. Stanford uses biblical texts to argue that some, though by no means all or most, physical and mental illnesses are caused by demons (2008, 28 – 29). While demons may afflict Christians in this way, demon possession, defined as a person completely losing control of their thought and behaviour to a demon, happens to some people, but it is not possible for it to happen to a Christian (2008, 30, 33). Under the heading of ‘encountering the demonic’, Stanford describes the experience of Cindy, a then-non-Christian woman who had an episode which involved running up and down the street in the rain in her underwear. When her husband grabbed her and restrained her in a chair, she said ‘This whole God thing is crazy!’ A friend said she was going to pray over her, to which she replied ‘No prayer! Don’t pray for me!’ followed by ‘I hate my mother’ and ‘I’m mad at God. I wanted a baby and I never got a baby!’ Stanford recounts that when Cindy was prayed over the episode stopped, and that she then accepted Christ and became active in ministry and never had a similar experience again (2008, 36 – 7). Implicitly, here Stanford seems to identify correlation with cause: becoming a Christian seems to have been what ended her alleged demonic encounter. Elsewhere he argues that ‘The simplest – and most effective – way to deal with […] demon-possession would be to lead the individual to faith in Christ’ (34 – 35). Interestingly, despite being a psychologist, Stanford does not appeal to psychology in relation to Cindy’s episode, for example by discussing the possibility of repressed feelings of anger at God or the church or her mother, or sorrow over not having a child. Concomitantly, becoming a Christian, rather than exploring or addressing these feelings, is presented as the solution to the problem.
Stanford’s account is more moderate than many, but it is typical of conservative Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian ways of relating mental illness to the demonic in several respects. For example, demonic accounts of mental illness from this religious milieu are part of a family of accounts of mental illness in which the mentally ill person is regarded as not saved, as experiencing judgment for or the natural result of sin, or as demonically possessed or oppressed, almost always as a result of sin. What is common to these ideas when compared with other Christian interpretations of mental illness is that they see mental illness as antithetical to salvation and the spiritual life (see Scrutton, 2015a). According to these accounts, mental illness is reflective of a spiritually unsalutary state. Simply put, mental illness is spiritual illness. This may seem an obvious point, but it is at odds with other strands of Christian thought – for example, the idea that evil spirits are more likely to tempt a person if they are in fact particular holy or close to God, of which the story of Jesus’, and St. Anthony’s (depicted in the picture above), temptations in the desert are examples. The Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian accounts of mental illness are also characterised by an individualistic and voluntaristic view of sin. In other words, sin is something done voluntarily – it is within the person’s control – and it is also something for which an individual person (or number of individual persons) is responsible, rather than something more corporate or shared, for example on account of belonging to and participating in a shared culture. Again, while typical of this kind of Christianity’s view of sin, this is not representative of Christian thought historically, or across the board (see McFadyen, 2000).
The vast body of recent literature on religion and mental health has pointed to a positive relationship between mental health and religious belief (Koenig). Whether or not they involve violent exorcism rituals, the relationship between belief in demonic possession and mental health seems less salutary. We might speculate that the belief that one is continually being targeted by unseen, powerful and malevolent beings as a result of one’s sinfulness might not have a beneficial effect on one’s mental well-being, and this is borne out by the empirical evidence. A just-published paper by Fanhao Nie and Daniel Olson reports a pair of studies involving a longitudinal telephone survey of 3,290 young Americans between 2003 and 2008, which strongly suggests that belief in demons has a significant negative effect on mental health (Nie and Olson, 2017). In addition to the direct impact of a person believing in the demonic, demonic accounts may have other, indirect, negative effects on people experiencing mental illness. For example, whether or not they themselves believe in the demonic, some Christians report being cautious about sharing their experiences of mental illness with others Christians for fear of being told they are sinful or demonically possessed, leading to alienation and a lack of social support from communities they might otherwise turn to (see Scrutton 2015b).
In addition to this, demonic accounts of mental illness are damaging, not least because they deflect attention away from the social causes of mental illness by problematising the person (by regarding them as sinful), and de-problematising their context (the circumstances that led to their mental distress). The pages of demonic accounts of mental illness tend to feature quite regularly the examples of people, but especially women, whose ‘sinful’ behaviour is highlighted, without much reference to the wider social factors in play. As is increasingly recognised, what appears to be a relatively high prevalence of mental health issues among groups frequently disadvantaged, harassed or discriminated against – including women and LGBT people – mean we need to take the social causes of mental illness more rather than less seriously. Conservative Evangelical and Pentecostal demonic accounts reflect Christianity’s continuingly-problematic relationship with gender, sex and sexuality. The dismissal of women’s experiences of mental disorders (Stanford, 2007) and the stories of Irena and Vilma highlight just a few of the harmful and devastating consequences of it.
What is the role of Religious Studies scholarship in all this? Sociological, anthropological, philosophical and theological dimensions of Religious Studies can help us to understand the very different contexts in which ideas about demonic possession emerge, and how they fit into (or depart from) the religions, cultures and ideologies of which they are a part. This is crucial, since we cannot engage intelligently or effectively with beliefs and practices we don’t understand. While some Religious Studies scholarship has historically been hesitant about critically engaging with religious beliefs, preferring to retain a neutral or disinterested observer perspective, the role of Religious Studies in not only describing but also evaluating and appropriately criticising problematic beliefs and practices is important too. Indeed, since beliefs and practices we’ve come to define as ‘religion’ sometimes get a free pass in our culture on account of being ‘part of someone’s religion’ and so the damage they cause tolerated or overlooked, by having a detailed understanding of the belief or practice in question, and rigorous philosophical, sociological and other tools to critically analyse beliefs and practices, Religious Studies has a distinctive role to play in bringing about positive social change.
Baylor University. 2007. The Baylor Religion Survey, wave II. Waco, TX: Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.
BBC, 2017. Nicaragua woman burnt on a fire in an exorcism ritual. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-39123952
BBC, 2005. ‘Crucified’ Romanian nun exhumed. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4269312.stm
Hartog, K. , & Gow, K. (2005). Religious attributions pertaining to the causes and cures of mental illness. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 8(4), 263-276
Koenig, Harold, King, Dana and Carson, Verna (2012), Handbook of Religion and Health. Oxford: Oxford University Press
McFadyen, A. 2000. Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust, and the Christian Doctrine of Sin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Nie, Fanhao and Olson, Daniel. 2017. Demonic Influence: The Negative Mental Health Effects of Beliefs in Demons. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, DOI: 10.1111/jssr.12287
Scrutton, Anastasia Philippa 2015a. Two Christian theologies of depression. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology 22.4, 275 – 289 (DOI: 10.1353/ppp.2015.0046)
Scrutton, Anastasia Philippa. 2015b. ‘Is depression a sin or a disease?’ A critique of moralizing and medicalizing models of mental illness. Journal of Religion and Disability 19.4, 285 – 311 (DOI: 10.1080/23312521.2015.1087933
Stanford, Matthew. 2008. Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness. Colorado Springs: Paternoster Press
Stanford, Matthew. 2007. Demon or disorder: A survey of attitudes toward mental illness in the Christian church. In Mental Health, Religion & Culture 10.5, pp. 445–449
Webb, M., Stetz, K., & Hedden, K., 2008. Representation of mental illness in Christian self-help bestsellers. Mental health, Religion and Culture 11 (7), 697 – 717