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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Demonology

Art by Sandro Castelli
It's getting close to Halloween, so let's talk about demons.

I'm going to define a demon as a non-human agent who works in the world-- the existence we inhabit-- to create evil. Now, yes, I've said that I don't believe in evil, that evil is a problematic concept. I don't, and it is. But I don't believe in demons either. This definition is a description of what demons are to people who do believe in them, and people who believe in demons typically believe in evil.

There are all kinds of demons. There are other kinds of "real" demons in folklore across the world, and other kinds of intentionally fictional demons depicted all over movies, literature, gaming, and so on. The Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for example has a whole slew of them, each with their own characteristics, rank, and abilities. Demons as mythological characters are really fun, because they can look like virtually anything although they typically have horns and a tail at least, sometimes hooves. A tiefling is a humanoid with demonic ancestry, and they're not even necessarily evil.

But the kind some Christians believe in? They're evil. Their reason for existing is, in fact, evil. They exist to prevent humans from flourishing and achieving spiritual salvation. That is, demons serve Satan and work to prevent the souls of humans from being saved so that those humans will go to a heavenly afterlife. In the Bible, demons usually take the form of "unclean spirits" who possess people and can only be removed via exorcism. Jesus was, among many other things, an exorcist. Catholic clergy have performed exorcisms for centuries and do to this day, while specifying that the allegedly demon-possessed person must be examined by a doctor to ensure that it is not actually a case of mental illness. After all,
“Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually does need one,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who organized the conference. “It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person. 
“But it’s rare, it’s extraordinary, so the use of exorcism is also rare and extraordinary,” he said. “But we have to be prepared.”
Indeed. A 2008 Pew Forum Landscape Survey found that 68% of Americans "believe that angels and demons are active in the world." According to a 2009 Barna Group study, in America,
A majority of Christians believe that a person can be under the influence of spiritual forces, such as demons or evil spirits. Two out of three Christians agreed that such influence is real (39% agreed strongly, 25% agreed somewhat), while just three out of ten rejected the influence of supernatural forces (18% disagreed strongly, 10% disagreed somewhat). The remaining 8% were undecided on this matter.
So these people believe that there are other agents in our world-- non-human but human-like agents-- which have an effect on the world for good or for evil. I'm focusing on evil for now, because I think it's more interesting in terms of moral responsibility. Namely, how demons function to add, take away, or otherwise mess with it. See, the notion of a non-human agent which can possess people and make them do evil works excellently for two purposes: 1) asserting that someone else is doing something wrong when you can't come up with any real evidence of the wrongness of the act, and 2) exculpating oneself of actual or at least allegedly actual harmful acts by taking the blame. You've heard someone speak of his or her demons? Some people actually mean that literally.

Whether they appear in someone's explanation for the reason for whatever they consider evil happening in the world, or in a movie designed to scare the hell out of us, there's one feature of demons that is particularly salient to me: they don't work voluntarily. And by that I don't mean demons are slaves. I mean that they can take control of things without any consent on the part of the person or people for whom they are ruining existence. Frequently when a demon shows up in a movie, it's because somebody summoned it by accident by performing some ritual (Ritual: A sequence of actions which produces a supernatural result as an emergent property, in addition to the expected physical consequence of those actions. Dunking someone in water gets them wet. Baptizing someone confirms them as a child of God.) which brings them into the world, completely involuntarily on behalf of the summoner. And when a demon is summoned on purpose, it's generally without the summoner having a complete understanding of what he/she is doing, which tends to turn out very badly indeed for him/her. Demons: not big fans of consent.

I watched Hellraiser recently for the Film Sack podcast. I'd never seen it before. I wasn't big on horror movies at all growing up because they'd seep into my dreams whether I recognized them as fake and ridiculous or not, so I just avoided them altogether. But over the past few years I've started watching both and old and new ones, good and bad, from The Omen to Poultrygeist, and the thing that sticks out to me the most is how they screw with moral responsibility. Sure, anybody who has so much as seen a horror movie or watched Scream knows this. But there's a lesson about morality that horror movies can tell you. I'm not saying it's a good or correct lesson, but it's a pretty darn consistent lesson:
Horrible things will happen, perhaps to you. They will be worse if you're a bad person. Whether it's "cheated on your significant other" bad or "serial killer" bad (or just "had sex" bad, if you're female) doesn't matter. Being a good person will not save you. You do have to be a good person to survive, but you also have to have access to and seize upon an opportunity presented for no real reason and based entirely on luck. If you do that, you might survive.  
In the case of Hellraiser there is plenty of Hell and demons, and fortuitous opportunity is a small wooden box. A box which apparently (the movie is not very clear) provides both the opportunity to inadvertently turn your soul over to the complete control of demons, or, under the right circumstances, to banish those demons. I won't spoil the movie for you, but I bet you can guess which sort of people get controlled and which get the banishing power. The important thing is how unintentional it was in all cases. In both movies and popular conceptions of demons, the matter of whether you end up being controlled by them or whether you are in a position of chase them away has very little to do with what you actually will to happen. In popular conception, here are some ways you can worship and/or summon demons completely inadvertently:
This last was the focus of a recent radio show rant by Linda Harvey of Mission: America, who said:
The core of Halloween is glittering artificiality, you can pretend to be someone you aren’t’ for a night, you can flirt with danger, you can divine a different destiny, but it is all void of the presence of or will of God. It’s a seduction that says, ‘don't be afraid, do whatever you want, there’s nothing to fear,’ it’s one of Satan’s oldest tricks. 
Costume parties are fun but these costumes may even disguise our very souls. Most Christians with a sincere faith acknowledge that there is a demonic realm and that Satan and his minions are at work in the world to deceive humans, so why wouldn't Halloween provide an extremely useful tool? Mixed in with the fun and games are frightening and disturbing experiences that may leave some children with nightmares. Then there is the flirtation with occult practices that are forbidden in Deuteronomy 18:10-12 and elsewhere, Christians aren't supposed to be consulting fortune tellers, Ouija boards or palm readers about our future but all are frequently a part of Halloween festivities. ‘But it’s just for fun,’ parents will say, ‘God understands my children are not serious.’ Really? Do your kids know how risky these practices are and that real contact with real demons is quite possible. Satan doesn't care about our intentions; he will take any willing participant.
Putting aside the fact that that "There's nothing to fear" was one of the profound messages of divine insight delivered in neurosurgeon Eben Alexander's trip to paradise, the most important thing here is that the only intentions which matter are those of Satan and his minions. Not even God's omniscient understanding of the content of the minds and hearts of men is apparently good enough to rescue what would otherwise be completely morally neutral acts of fun from actually being rituals to deliver souls into demonic control and presumably a very warm afterlife. Believing in Satan and demons means that there are evil agents in the world actively trying to pull your soul away from God's embrace, and they can do by means which coincidentally look just like the ways to have the most fun.

The arguments that practicing yoga is demonic center around the notion that you're actually practicing the rituals of another religion, and if you're doing that (knowingly or unknowingly) then you're obviously not conforming properly to your own religion. And since there are no other gods but God, you can't actually be worshipping the gods of other religions by mistake. What you are doing, then, is demonic. Since it is not God-focused, it must be Satan-focused, since Satan wants you to turn your attention from God. As if there isn't enough pain and suffering going on in the world occurring naturally, accidentally, and deliberately by the acts of the malicious, we have to worry about accidentally serving Satan by being influenced by demons to commit ungodly acts which don't appear ungodly because they harm nobody and actually seem fun, helpful, and/or educational.

The lesson of demon-believing Christianity seems uncannily like the lesson of horror movies, doesn't it? Evil is actively working in the world to cause you to suffer and die. You will likely suffer more if you're even slightly bad, but being good-- according to rather questionable rules we've made-- is not enough to save you. You must also be lucky enough to be given an unlikely and seemingly arbitrary opportunity, and you must seize on that opportunity in order to have any hope of surviving. If you ignore these rules and this opportunity in favor of enjoying yourself and doing what you think is right, you will unwittingly serve the interests of the evil agents and ultimately become theirs.

I submit that this portrayal of moral responsibility is absolutely incompatible with free will, which shouldn't be shocking at all (it may shock you that I believe in free will, but that's another commentary altogether. Sufficed to say I'm persuaded by Daniel Dennett's portrayal). I think that demon-belief is completely fatuous, which should also be unsurprisingly. But I also want to say that I consider it an immoral belief, because of this effect of completely distorting moral responsibility to make evil out of acts which are not just benign, but intended as benign and actually morally neutral or perhaps even positive. Demon belief is a cheap cop-out in terms of morality in a way that angel belief is not, which is why I didn't feel compelled to address angels here at all. I don't believe in angels, but consider the belief  mostly benign except when people credit angels for things like successful surgery rather than, you know, their surgeons.

I can't get people to stop believing in demons. But I think I have offered a sound argument for not taking people seriously when they attempt to invoke demons as moral justification for....well, anything. Linda Harvey's full rant included the suggestion that demons are responsibility for homosexuality and what she calls "gender confusion." We should not listen to people like Linda Harvey. They are literally making up supernatural support for their morality, and in the worst, most damaging possible way.

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