Cost of ignorance: another death by exorcism

We are so constituted that we believe the most incredible things: and, once they are engraved upon the memory, woe to him who would endeavour to erase them.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This is the 21st century, isn’t it? It’s hard to tell when you come across stories like this. A thirteen year old girl was not just killed, but tortured to death by a so-called pir (exorcist) who is now on the run from police who intend to charge him with murder.

The report of an autopsy performed on Salma, 13, stated that she had died from suffocation. It said the girl’s breathing was hampered by blocking her nostrils with cotton buds and holding her mouth shut.

The autopsy, carried out at Cheechwatni tehsil headquarters (THQ) hospital, confirmed that her skin was burnt with a hot iron rod. The report said there were bruises on the girl’s arms, face and chest.

The girl’s parents are not being charged with anything, apparently, but I think they should be. It seems incredible to me that this case only came to light because of a tip-off to the police; the child’s father had accepted his daughter’s death as “…the will of God,” and would not have taken any further action had it not been for someone else reporting it.

It isn’t clear what, exactly, convinced the girl’s father that his daughter was possessed by a djinn, but the exorcist recommended to him was someone who didn’t charge money for his services, so it must have seemed like a bargain at the time.

According to the girl’s father, at the end of the exorcism:

“The pir said we could take her away and warned us against uncovering her body, wrapped from head to toe in a piece of white cloth,” he added.
He said the pir immediately left the room afterwards. “He had fled by the time we found out that she was dead,” he said.

But this is the cost of ignorance and superstition. And it is still going on today. Exorcisms are not confined to third world countries where education is severely limited; it goes on even in the so-called advanced western democracies. Deaths by exorcism –and subsequent prosecutions – have also been reported in the UK. Incredibly, even in a UK newspaper, this dangerous nonsense is promoted as if it were real. If you don’t believe me, then have a glance at this series of articles in The Shields Gazette: here, here, and especially here.

Superstition goes hand in hand with ignorance, of course. And the problem with ignorance is that the more ignorant a person is, the more certain they are that they are right. And the more certain that they are right, the more certain it is that someone is going to be hurt or even killed.

On the other hand, when someone does die of a botched exorcism it can just be claimed it is the will of God. Problem solved. But that’s the useful thing about religion: whatever happens, just say it is God’s will and you are absolved from all personal responsibility. That’s handy – so long as you can find people stupid enough to believe you.

It’s little comfort to the victims of exorcism and their relatives, but at least in our secular society, there is a chance that the criminals who advocate and perform superstitions that lead to the death of innocent victims will be caught and jailed. Unfortunately, it is only serious harm or death that will attract the attention of the authorities. Exorcism cannot be regulated by any accredited governing body because so-called possession cannot be confirmed by any objective measure. It therefore cannot be confirmed as being a real phenomenon, and like everything in any religion, it comes down to faith; in other words, a belief without any supporting evidence.

That’s fine for consenting adults who go to their places of worship and conduct whatever rituals they deem necessary to commune with their particular god or gods. But it is different for children and other vulnerable people who find themselves under the control of religious fanatics who have decided, through their own particular interpretation of their holy writings, that they have the answer to what they think is a supernatural intervention in their everyday lives.

prayer2Astonishingly, these exorcists who, by their own admission, (and in fact) are mere mortals, think that they can overcome and beat into submission supernatural beings who, by definition, have powers beyond normal human comprehension. They do it through their particular god or gods by simply calling upon their deity to do the job for them. (OK, there has to be a lot of ritual and associated mumbo jumbo to satisfy the faithful – and themselves.) I am sure there are many supposed cases of “possessed” believers being informed that they are possessed and then, through some ritual, believing they have then been “freed from demon possession.” The same can’t be said for the unfortunates who end up dead or seriously injured – physically or psychologically.

Here’s the problem: there is absolutely no objective evidence whatsoever that possession by demons, djinn or any other proposed supernatural entity is real. To determine whether a person is “possessed” by a supernatural entity, it would be necessary to determine whether that person is mentally ill or not. According to the believers in possession, the possessed are not mentally ill, therefore the aberrant behaviour exhibited by them can be explained only by possession. On that basis, only an exorcism can cure the problem.

Now consider this: the diagnosis of any physical or mental illness can only be carried out lawfully by a qualified medical professional who is licensed to practise. Anyone who is not so qualified is committing a criminal offence if they make any such diagnosis. A doctor – in particular, a psychiatrist – has the necessary qualifications to make an informed decision about a person’s mental health and is also qualified to diagnose and treat that particular affliction with the best available science and evidence based treatment. There is no recognised medical or psychiatric diagnosis that comes under the heading “spirit possession” or anything like it.

Only people who believe in possession are likely to claim it as the explanation for someone’s unusual behaviour. But if someone – an exorcist – claims that someone is possessed, then they have made a diagnosis about a person’s mental condition that they are not qualified or legally entitled to make. This is extremely dangerous for at least two reasons: 1) a person who has a mental health problem is not going to be cured by any religious ritual, and without proper treatment their problem is going to worsen; 2) the victim of an exorcism could be injured or killed – as is happening regularly around the world.

I sometimes wonder how many deaths by exorcism have not been uncovered. As in the case above, superstitious believers are very unlikely to make an official complaint when a loved one is killed by an exorcist. It is almost a license to kill, with the easy get-out that if a possessed person dies then it is the will of God.

Nothing I can write, of course, will convince believers that they might just be wrong about about spirit possession. We can only hope that this kind of dangerous nonsense will start to die out as future generations become better educated and scientifically literate. (It will take a long time, though, and there will be a rising body count before it happens.)

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2 responses to “Cost of ignorance: another death by exorcism

  1. Barely a day goes by without news of another victim of exorcism at the hands of delusional family, friends or holy men, or just downright dishonest scumbags. Many of the victims are children. Others are guilty of nothing more than being unwell, suffering mental illness or just being different. The burden of proof is ignorance. Sadly, writers like the Gazette’s Mike Hallowell portray possession and exorcism as fact, and in doing so normalise a dangerous world for their readers, a world where the vulnerable and desperate may seek solutions to their problems from people who are neither qualified or sane enough to provide them.

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  2. Brian,

    Thanks for your comment.

    You might be interested to see this:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19248144

    It seems that the UK government has finally realised that there is a problem with superstition being accepted as reality by some sections of the UK public. It has taken a number of injuries and deaths to awaken them to the fact.

    Here is a quote from that BBC article: “Abuse linked to faith or belief in spirits, witchcraft or possession is a horrific crime, condemned by people of all cultures, communities and faiths – but there has been a ‘wall of silence’ around its scale and extent.”

    Belief in possession – and subsequent exorcism – is what is going on in this country right now, promoted by self-styled “experts” like Mike Hallowell.

    Freedom of speech is fine, of course, but it looks like the promotion of exorcism will now overstep the line: Mike Hallowell might find himself attracting the unwelcome attention of the authorities if he continues to promote a dangerous fantasy as if it were real. And the same might apply to the editor of the Gazette if he doesn’t check the unproven claims he allows into print.

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