Category Archives: Exorcism

Tech-Savvy Satan Puts Frighteners On Priest

By our religious affairs correspondent, Joe King.

 

Priest believes the Devil is a twat.

A priest claims he has been receiving death threats from Satan shortly after he completed several gruelling exorcise sessions. “I exorcise regularly,” said Father Raving, who has been practising, but is not yet perfect at, the art of casting out demons.

After failing in his attempt to destroy the demonic spirit inhabiting the soul of a teenage girl, the priest declared that he had upset Satan even to the extent that the Dark Lord Of The Underworld Himself was now resorting to modern technology to get back at him. Beelzebub now uses a mobile phone, but not his own.

“It’s not like the old days,” said the elderly priest, “when a demonic possessor would just attack you with flying objects – knives, pots and pans, or even just set up cuddly toys in unlikely scenarios, or maybe get the young lass to vomit all over you. It’s different now and much more frightening.”

Asked what was different nowadays, and why his job was much more difficult, Father Raving said, “Look at it this way – if you get trouble from someone on Twitter, you can just block the fucker. Text messages are different. OK, the sender’s phone number appears, but it doesn’t mean that the teenager I was exorcising actually sent those messages. It’s obvious to me that Satan has possessed her phone and it’s not her or someone else taking the piss out of me.”

In one shocking incident, after the priest prayed for the girl’s salvation, he received a sinister text message from Lucifer saying, “Up yours, mate.”

“The owners of mobile phones often don’t know that they are being used like this,” the priest said. “At least not until they get their phone bill. That’s when they go mad.”

The priest added: “This girl is in need of further help, so I’ll probably pop round later to administer extreme unction.”

“In the meantime, there’s not a lot I can do about Satan, except unfriend the twat on my Facebook page. That’ll send him a message he can understand.”

 

[By coincidence, a completely different priest has been having similar problems. You can read about it here.]

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Teenage Kicks For Jesus

So what’s the latest in exorcisms these days? Oh, yes, teenage karate experts kicking demonic ass!

As the BBC reports:

Brynne Larson and Tess and Savannah Scherkenback are all-American girls from Arizona, who enjoy martial arts and horse riding. But something sets them apart from most teenagers – they perform public exorcisms and often appear on TV chat shows.

Teenage kick-ass ninja exorists

Brynne just happens to be the daughter of famous (or infamous) “exorcist” Bob Larson. I’m not going to link to his website, but it won’t take you long to find him if you feel so inclined. And when you get there you will be able to apply for a test to find out if you are possessed or just mentally ill. Maybe you will find out that there is nothing at all wrong with you (in which case, why would anyone bother with any of this in the first place?)

I find this pretty shocking, really. Exorcisms are causing death and injury around the world on a daily basis, but now we have exorcism as entertainment. You might even say it’s becoming glamorous.

The teenage exorcists are greeted on stage as if they were celebrities. There is applause and they announce to the audience that they look forward to “kicking some demon butt”.

This is from America, of course, and the girls are regulars on the TV chat show circuit. They travel the world with their show, but they do have their eyes on the UK in particular – a “hotbed for witchcraft” because of the Harry Potter books:

“The spells and things that you’re reading in the Harry Potter books, those aren’t just something that are made up, those are actual spells. Those are things that came from witchcraft books,” says Tess.

Fortunately for the possessed, these home-schooled teenagers are on the case. Satan must be quaking in his hooves.

No doubt it’s just a matter of time before TV producers create a show based on the “real-life” exploits of the girls. They could call it something like, Teenage Kick-Ass Ninja Demon Slayers.

At least they look happy in their work. There must be a lot of job satisfaction from making money from mugs saving souls from Hell.

The Appeal To Authority – Not So Authoritative

Einstein quote The worst reason there is for believing anything is that someone says so. Einstein said that E=MC^2. Does that make it true? Funnily enough, no.

As it happens, that bit of fundamental physics is true – it has been tested so many times under every condition imaginable that it would be perverse to deny it. It is not true because Einstein said so; it is not true because a teacher says so; it is not true because a university professor says so: it is true on its own merits independent of who makes the claim. And it can be tested, and so far all of the evidence supports it.

Claiming that something is true  because a scientist, doctor, parapsychologist or anyone else with “authority” says so is a fallacy called the appeal to authority. It is usually resorted to by people who cannot prove (or supply any testable evidence to support) the claims they make. 

The appeal to authority is always a fallacy in formal (deductive) logic for the simple reason that even an expert in a given field is not immune to error. Although a qualified person is probably almost always right in what he has to say about his subject, it does not follow logically that he is perfect; there has to be independent, verifiable evidence that can be checked.

Although all appeals to authority are false appeals, there is a distinction between an appeal to authority when someone is qualified in a particular field, and someone whose qualification is in another area altogether. There are, for example, paranormal researchers who are, indeed, scientists, but who are now pursuing what can only be described as fringe science at best. When someone appeals to the alleged authority of someone whose legitimate qualifications have nothing to do with the claims being made in an unrelated area, then that is very definitely the false appeal to authority.

This post came about because of a comment from one of my correspondents in my previous post about some Christian mental health professionals (including a significant number of doctors) who believe that mental illness can often be traced to possession by demons. My correspondent taunted me by saying:

“Terrifying when qualified people acknowledge the existence of something you don’t want to believe in, isn’t it?”

The qualified people he refers to are doctors – people who have been trained over many years in a science-based discipline. They have had to pass rigorous exams to become doctors. They should be capable of diagnosing an ailment and then treating it with the appropriate science and evidence-based treatments that have been developed over many years by empirical research. They have not been trained in exorcism – for which there is no empirical evidence at all.

So, it seems, for my correspondent, the opinion of a qualified person like a doctor (who has no recognised, accredited qualifications in the supernatural) gives weight to the idea that possession is real and that an exorcism is the cure.

OK, let’s test my correspondent’s argument and see if it still holds. A very qualified friend of mine holds some of the highest qualifications it is possible to get in electrical engineering. He is as qualified (or better) in his own area of expertise as the doctors referred to above. In his opinion, the supernatural is bunk.

Here’s the situation:

  1. My correspondent implies that the opinion of some doctors supports the possession/exorcism hypothesis. (More specifically, he says that they “acknowledge” its existence, therefore implying that it really, really is true because they say so.)
  2. My electrically qualified friend says that supernatural possession is not real. (But he says that that is just his opinion.)

In both instances, qualified people have made a statement about something they are not qualified in. And in both instances, quoting them as an authority in possession or any other aspect of the so-called supernatural is fallacious.

The problem can be more subtle, however. In psi research especially, the appeal to authority is widespread. From over a hundred years ago, people like William Crookes – a great scientist – are quoted again and again in support of arguments for an afterlife and supposed communication with the dead. Crookes was a scientist; he also dabbled in séances: he believed it, promoted it, and his say so is good enough for the believers.

Even some modern scientists – from various scientific disciplines – are quoted extensively in favour of the paranormal. But again, the fact that someone has an academic qualification does not mean that their opinion about something that has not been empirically demonstrated should automatically be accepted as true. But it sounds impressive when someone with a PhD makes a pronouncement in favour of the paranormal.

Everyone, whether qualified or not, is entitled to an opinion about anything they are interested in, of course. But it still comes down to one simple fact: the evidence – available, testable and repeatable is what counts, regardless of who makes a claim. There are some astronauts who claim that the US government has captured alien spacecraft and aliens – now hidden away in secret facilities. Their claims might or might not be true, but they supply no tangible evidence, and some believers quote them as “authorities” on the matter.

If you believe in UFOs and you quote the say so of an astronaut, have you proven your case? No, of course not. Have you strengthened your case? Not in the slightest. Are you exposing your ignorance? Obviously.

The bottom line:

Quoting an “authority” is irrelevant with regard to whether a claim is true or not. Someone qualified in a subject might be right most of the time, but he is not immune from error. The fact that an “authority” says something does not automatically make it true.

Quoting someone who is not an authority – even though qualified in another area – is naive at best, or just an example of hopeless incredulity.

In short, the appeal to authority is bad thinking.

As I said at the beginning of this post – and it is worth keeping in mind when someone makes an extraordinary claim – the worst reason for believing something is that someone tells you so.

Trust me – I’m a skeptic.

You’re Not Mad–They Are

thCA150FN4I was hoping that possession and exorcism would be a subject that I would not be returning to for a while, but I find that things are worse than I thought. It’s one thing for well-meaning but ignorant religious zealots to propound their personal superstitions, but it turns out that there are religious zealots in the UK who are actually in a position of real authority and who are ready and willing to impose their beliefs on certain vulnerable people.

There is a serious warning in this excellent blog post at Leaving Fundamentalism. Believe it or not, there is an organisation of medically qualified people that includes doctors who believe that mental illness can be, and often is, according to them, possession by demons!

Medical science is based on empirical research – testable, repeatable research that is not allowed into medical practice until its safety and effectiveness has passed the most rigorous tests. A candidate who wants to become a doctor has to undergo strict training over many years, and when he or she passes their final exams even that is not the end of it; there is still ongoing supervision and training and a requirement to keep up to date with the latest medical science.

For some medics , however, it seems that the science they learned can now be ditched in favour of their (Christian) religion. For a possible mental illness, forget the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), go to the Bible instead:

“However, we also need to recognise that not all human problems will be explicable by medical science. The New Testament tells us that Jesus has commissioned us to ‘ drive out demons’ (Mk 16:17), and we must be ready to respond to this commission if and when we are called to do so.”

And this:

“It would seem, therefore, that the exercise of a spiritual gift (1 Cor 12: 10) would be likely to be more useful than the application of medical knowledge when a person is demon possessed, although a knowledge of psychiatric illness is undoubtedly of value in continuing the diagnosis of a psychiatric illness when one is present.”

I wonder what people would think if their gas engineer disregarded his training and did their annual safety check using prayer and incantations instead of well established methodology? If their house blows up later, would it be sufficient to say that it must have been God’s will? (That’s usually the excuse when exorcists kill their  victims clients, after all.)

That’s pretty much what is going on here with people we are supposed to be able to trust to work within the  scientific parameters they have been taught.

It seems to me that if mental health workers – in particular doctors – come across something that is not (currently) “explicable by medical science” then that should open up a new area of empirical research to get to the bottom of it. Knowledge does not advance by calling on superstitious beliefs; it advances by objective research.

In the second quote above, these people are clearly relegating medical science to a second-class status when they say, “…a knowledge of psychiatric illness is undoubtedly of value in continuing the diagnosis of a psychiatric illness when one is present.” Science is “of value”? Well, thanks for that. But they also think that exorcism – “…the exercise of a spiritual gift…” – is better than medical knowledge when a person is “demon possessed”?

And by what objective criteria do they decide that someone is possessed by demons? They don’t say, and I would bet that none of this crap has been published in any accredited peer reviewed scientific journal.

It just beggars belief.

Religion is a delusion, which by definition is a fixed, false belief held in the face of opposing evidence (even proof). It seems that in this instance, the “qualified” people are the very ones who should be having the psychiatric treatment they would deny to others in favour of exorcism.

There is a big problem when bad thinking takes over. If religious superstition really worked, there would be no need for doctors or hospitals. In cases like this, if your doctor suggests a religious solution for whatever ails you, it’s time to find another doctor. And after you do so, make a formal complaint about your former witch doctor to the British Medical Association. (Assuming you are in the UK, of course; for everyone else, complain to your nearest medical governing body.)

Mike Hallowell on the Jinn–A reply

 

In my last post, here, I wrote about possession, and I referred to this Shields Gazette article written by Mike Hallowell. In it, he details his belief in possession, but I disagree with him that it is a real phenomenon; at least there is no objective, confirmable evidence to support it.

Mike has replied to that post, but in order to give him a full reply, I have to do so by creating this new post. That’s because images I need to use to support my points cannot be embedded in the comments thread.

I would recommend that you read my previous post (and Mike’s reply) and the Gazette article before you go ahead reading this reply of mine to Mike.

My reply to Mike Hallowell:

Mike,

 
I know that hanging was the usual punishment in England, but I referred to the UK in general, not England in particular. Scotland was the place to go for the burnings. In any case, crimes against the state were so often synonymous with crimes against the church.

Some religious people have, of course, made great scientific leaps forward, but they did it using science, not religion. Isaac Newton was a devout Christian, but he did not explain his findings in terms of divine intervention in the movement of celestial bodies, he explained their movement with mathematics, even if he thought that a god existed and created the laws of physics he was measuring. He also went off the rails with his pursuit of alchemy, but he kept that research quiet until his death because he knew that he himself would face execution if anyone found out about it.

Science and religion are incompatible. Young Earth creationists insist that the Earth is no more than between six and ten thousand years old. They are wrong – demonstrably so. Faith healing does not cure disease – medical science does. Prayer does not suspend the laws of physics in favour of the person who prays.

 
I am not “condemning religion on the basis of what some psychopathic extremists once did,” (and still do, for that matter).

As for the Soviet Union – you might even be thinking of Joseph Stalin, an atheist – you might also like to note that even he did not kill the millions he undoubtedly did in the name of atheism. He killed millions because he was an evil dictator. Now look at all the killings being done around the world right now in the name of religion.

I will go along with your notion that extreme acts are done by psychopaths who might not necessarily be representative of most of their contemporaries. They are also done by otherwise sane people who believe they are carrying out the will of their particular deity.

As for the use and misuse of science, scientists do not make political policy. Science has been warning of the dangers of man-made global warming, for example, but some countries – the USA in particular – are going ahead with policies that are making things worse. The world does indeed suffer from poverty, crime and so on, but that is despite science, not because of it.

You mention religious-minded scientists again, but again, those religious scientists get their results from using scientific methodology, not prayer. One man’s superstition is still superstition.

“Antiquated” opinions are those old ideas that are held despite evidence that disproves them. The Earth is not 6000 years old, for example, it is more than 4.5 billion years old.

I do not try to curtail anyone’s free speech. I’m not on a campaign to have your Shields Gazette column stopped, nor do I try to prevent you from publishing your books. You might even notice that I have published your comment here in full and without any editing of it. And I’m also not demanding that you stop expressing your opinions.

Teaching the paranormal and creationism in schools and universities? Not in science classes. Science deals with hypotheses that can be measured and tested objectively. Faith is not required.

You mention free speech again, but I’m all for it. As for your readers, they are not all the same. Some of them probably believe everything you write, others are more discerning.

You are playing with words when you say you do not believe in demons. You are certainly talking about alleged supernatural beings that supposedly invade a person’s body and/or mind. It doesn’t really matter what you call them. If, as you claim, demons and the Jinn are entirely different phenomena, I look forward to you demonstrating first of all that they exist, and secondly how you tell the difference between someone who suffers a mental health problem and someone who is possessed.

Then again, I said that there is no objective evidence that these alleged entities exist, and your response was, “To the best of my knowledge this is correct.” If you agree that there is no objective evidence that these things are real, then there is no need to believe in them.

Yes, indeed, I said, “If someone has the right to promote superstition, then others have the right to challenge it.” But it’s not up to me to supply any facts; you are making the claim, so it is up to you to prove it. But you said that you agree that there is no objective evidence to support your claim. By your own words, you are saying that you cannot prove the claims you are making. That’s what I’m getting at. But prove it and I will change my mind.

Regarding your “certain local blogger,” are you referring to me? I know you have never “promised” to release your evidence, but the fact that you keep on claiming that you have evidence supporting your claims gives your readers a sense of expectation that never seems to be fulfilled.  That’s sort of the point, really; you never do promise to reveal your evidence. And you have certainly claimed to have sent evidence away for analysis, and which has returned startling results.

 
In fact I did prove it with a link on another blog. Unfortunately, since then, on your web page I linked to, your reference to “startling results” has  been changed to  “extremely interesting results.” Here are the screen shots:

Before:

Startling results 01

“Can you tell us more about the audio recordings?”

“Some of the audio recordings have already been subjected to analysis with startling results, which will hopefully be detailed on the forthcoming documentary.” (Emphasis added)

And after:

Startling results 02

“Can you tell us more about the audio recordings?”

“Some of the audio recordings have already been subjected to analysis with extremely interesting results, which will hopefully be detailed in the forthcoming documentary.” (Emphasis added)

Why did you change it? Anyone following my link to there would see something entirely different to what I directed them to.

 
As for the “salon ghost,” here’s a link to the original newspaper item:

http://www.jarrowandhebburngazette.com/news/local-news/is-this-the-face-of-the-salon-ghost-1-1303932

The reporter wrote:

“Mr Hallowell has sent the pictures off to be analysed, and an overnight vigil is to be organised to gather more evidence from the salon.”

Any reasonable person would take that to mean that you yourself told the reporter that your pictures had been “sent off to be analysed.” (Emphasis added) If the reporter has misreported what you said, or worse, just made it up, then you should take that up with the Shields Gazette and demand a retraction.

Like you, I keep records too. I found out a while ago that your website is unreliable as a source to link to. Apart from the fact that you have changed a crucial point that I referred to earlier, many of my bookmarks now go to dead pages (error 404) or have different content entirely. But I make it routine to archive every web page I visit. The same goes for video.

I like this point of yours:

“Oh, and as for those “unqualified, self-appointed” experts you speak of, as you’re presumably an expert yourself could you give me just one example of such a person who has truly proclaimed themselves as an expert as opposed to being lauded as an expert by others?” (Emphasis added)

Yes, Mike – you. Have a look at this comment you made on Curly’s blog:

http://curly15.wordpress.com/2008/05/22/exorcisms-on-the-rates/#comment-23600

“…we’re experts in the field and you’re not.”

As you requested, just one example. And they are your own words, answering your own challenge.

That’s something of a paradox, though. On your own website, the veteran paranormal writer  Guy Lyon Playfair describes you as amateurs. I’m including a screenshot before you change that page as well.

Experts Playfair

“…amateurs like Mike and Darren…” (Guy Lyon Playfair)

And remember, on the Shields Gazette website:

http://www.shieldsgazette.com/community/columnists/wraithscape/we_re_worlds_apart_on_ufos_1_3441571

(All of the comments are now removed for some reason but here are a couple of screenshots): I asked you what qualifications you had, and you told me that qualifications are not necessary:

Expert 03

“…as we live in a democracy, one is entitled to call oneself a Paranormal investigator without having a single qualification at all.”

Expert 05

“For your edification, Skeptic, paranormal investigators do not have any “authority” and do not need any, just as you don’t need any “authority” to engage in any of your own interests and pass-times [sic].”

Additionally, you say here about you and your colleague, Darren Ritson, “Well we are not scientists and have never claimed to be”:

http://pelicanist.blogspot.co.uk/2009/06/south-shields-view-from-minefield_25.html

(Just scroll down to the section, “Findings should be presented in a calm, scientific manner…”)

So, in your own words, you have no relevant recognised qualifications or authority, and yet also in your own words, you claim to be an expert. You also say in your own words that you are not a scientist. In response to me saying that the supernatural beings you refer to have no objective evidence for their existence, in your own words: “To the best of my knowledge this is correct.”  And Playfair describes you as amateurs on your own website.

I don’t claim to be an expert in the paranormal. On the other hand, I recognise a claim that doesn’t fit in with what science knows about the universe. I know that when people talk about supernatural energy, or whatever, then the well established laws of thermodynamics, for instance, are being challenged. But again, it is up to the person who makes the claim to prove it. Anyone who makes a claim that contradicts well established science is likely to be challenged. That’s OK, though. Sometimes there are some theories in science that turn out to be wrong – or, more likely, incomplete rather than totally wrong – but if you can overturn what science thinks it knows, I don’t mind if you can prove your claims of the supernatural, paranormal or anything else you write about.

The number of books and articles and radio and TV shows and all the rest of it that you take part in is neither here nor there. The fact that you write about weird things does not make them real.

I know there are some mental health workers who consider the possibility that possession is real, but I see that as an indictment of some faulty training they must have had. When you get down to it, though, no psychiatrist is going to diagnose possession in a person and then refer them for an exorcism. If you know of any who do, please report them to the General Medical Council. Urgently.

No, I haven’t read the Qur’an (well, not much of it, anyway). But any holy book is self-referential. Every religion refers to its own religious writings to support its beliefs. Everything makes sense for the religious when they view the world from their particular religious perspective, but there are thousands of religions in the world, and all of them think they have it right and everyone else is wrong. They can’t all be right.

Your reference to Doctor and Egyptologist Maurice Bucaille is a simple appeal to authority. So what if he thinks the Qur’an is scientifically accurate? Perhaps you can tell me what you think of this video of an Islamic scholar explaining that the Earth is flat and that the Sun revolves around the Earth and the Sun is smaller than the Earth, and a number of other things. His authority is the Qur’an, so do you believe it? I’m not sure what to make of it myself; he is saying something that is directly opposed to science.

The Earth is flat–Islamic science from the Qur’an

 

Thank you for your offer of a public debate, but I will decline it. I think it is much better for us to put our views in writing rather than have everything we say forgotten or misremembered by a live audience. Having our “good-natured and civilised debate” like this on blogs and websites is much better.

And, of course, you will be able to copy and paste screenshots and anything else I post, and use it against me at a later date. (And I probably won’t even threaten to sue you for doing so.)

You are wrong when you say my mind is completely closed to the possibility of Jinn possession. I’m a sceptic and you can change my mind by proving what you claim. It was you who said that Muslims are the ones who are not going to change their minds.

As for your suggestion that I remove this post, the answer is no. You had the right to publish your views on the subject in the Shields Gazette; I have the right to criticise it; and you are quite welcome to post your rebuttals here. I don’t see how I could be any fairer than that. Free speech is a valuable commodity, and I protect my free speech by helping to protect the free speech of others – including you. If you think your arguments are sound, then there should be no need for you to request, demand or even issue legal threats to have opposing opinions removed from here or any other website or blog.

Of course you let your readers know who you are – you need publicity because of the very nature of what you do. But those critics of yours who put a name to their posts could be anyone – anyone at all. You don’t know who they are, either – just like I don’t know the identity of the improbably-named “Fred West” who sprang to your defence on the above Shields Gazette UFO article, and who, by the most remarkable coincidence (it could almost make one believe in synchronicity, even), had the same problem you suffered: his same comment being repeatedly posted. Astonishing.

No, I’m not a coward, but your name-calling doesn’t strengthen your arguments.

The story behind Jinn possession – an exercise in belief over objectivity

the-exorcistIn those parts of the world where learning and science have prevailed, miracles have ceased; but in those parts of it as are barbarous and ignorant, miracles are still in vogue.
— Ethan Allen, Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1784)

In a western secular democracy like the UK, everyone has the right to pursue their religion without hindrance, and that is the way it should be. The same freedom applies to atheists, who are not forced into following a state religion that will apply torture and even death to any non-believer or anyone of a different faith.

In this country we are quite lucky, if you think about it. In times gone by, when the Catholics were in charge, Protestants were burned at the stake. When the boot was on the other foot, Protestants were burning Catholics at the stake. But both sides would quite happily kill anyone thought to be guilty of witchcraft. Or heresy. Or anything else that did not agree with the prevailing dogma.

One of the greatest perceived enemies of religion has always been science. It’s pretty significant, I think, that you will not find any historical accounts of astronomers banding together and marching out to burn the religious to death, but the aroma of roasting scientists was not exactly uncommon in the medieval era. Contradicting religious dogma was a dangerous business. (It still is, in some parts of the world.)

Then the Enlightenment happened. Science gained a foothold and superstition started to be replaced by objective study of the world – and the universe – around us. I hardly need to start listing the benefits that science has brought to the world – everything from electricity to medical expertise that routinely saves millions of lives worldwide. It’s amazing.

And yet, even in this day and age, there are those who still try to force their antiquated superstitions on us. That’s the price of free speech, of course, but free speech is a two way street that is open to everyone, and we cannot let superstition take us back to the dark ages.

I found an article in the Shields Gazette that promotes exorcism  (yet again, ad nauseam) as though it is a real method for driving out the demons (or Jinn) that the author – Mike Hallowell (who announced his conversion to Islam in June 2011) – believes can possess some individuals. I’m not going to do a full critique of the article (you can read it, and shake your head in exasperation, by clicking on the link), but I will make a few points.

There is no objective evidence that demons (or whatever name you want to give them) are real, nor is there any confirmable evidence that those who have the symptoms of a mental illness are possessed by such alleged entities.

In the article, there are some points in particular that are worth mentioning:

If you haven’t seen a Jinn-possessed person up close and personal, you have no right to pontificate on the matter.

Wrong. If someone has the right to promote superstition, then others have the right to challenge it.

“In the West, some health professionals want everything their own way.”

That would be the scientific way. Obviously we can’t have that, can we?

Most significant, perhaps, is this gem:

Both sides need to learn from this and be prepared to understand each other a little better.

Which sounds fair and conciliatory, except it is followed immediately by this (bold added for emphasis):

Muslims are not going to change their belief, substantiated by the Qur’an, that the Jinn exist and occasionally possess people.

In other words, “It doesn’t matter how much science and objectivity you bring to bear, our beliefs will not be altered. The Qur’an says it, I believe it, that’s the end of the matter.”

In view of such closed-mindedness, the fight for rationality obviously has a long way to go yet.

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.)