Speaking of the Devil

7 Jul|Mark Vernon

Woodcut of a priest performing an exorcism on a woman, 1598.

The UK is in the grip of an exorcism boom but prayer isn’t the answer, writes Mark Vernon

Exorcisms are “booming”, apparently . The reputable think tank, Theos, has examined the intersection between Christianity and mental health. It reports that attempts to cast out demons in churches have reached “astonishing” levels. The UK is in the grip of a “burgeoning exorcism scene”.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t demonology supposed to have gone the way of astrology? Aren’t we supposed to live in a secular world of hard science that is steadily exorcising old superstitions? But the truth is different. Faith in science can itself frequently be a kind of wishful thinking.

When it comes to mental ill-health, medical science has dramatically failed to uncover agreed explanations for conditions from depression to anxiety, schizophrenia to psychosis. It can be shocking to learn quite how little is known. Research has revealed the causal pathways for only a handful of conditions, such as dementia, when the grey matter demonstrably decays. But stick a melancholic brain in a scanner and compare it with another that leaps out of bed in the morning, and the scan will tell you nothing. It’s a guilty secret for the science that grabs so much public attention, but it simply can’t tell the difference. When it comes to mental ill-health, the hard science can be little better than phrenology.

The story is slightly different when it comes to drugs. There are, now, a range of medications that can ease symptoms, sometimes dramatically. But quite how serotonin reuptake inhibitors and the like work is largely a mystery. Don’t believe the easy journalistic references to oxytocin and happy hormones. They’re hand-wavy.

When I’ve spoken with psychiatrists about this predicament in the hospital where I work, one word is never far from their lips. Syphilis. “A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury”, the Elizabethans used to say, reflecting on their “cure” for the STD. All manner of alarming madnesses came in its wake, and before the bacterial cause was discovered, its poor victims were sent to asylums. So today, scientists stay on the quest for biomedical reasons for other mental deteriorations in the hope of finding similar organic causes. They are also motivated by the fear of missing one. Only as yet, any bugs, presuming they exist, have remained highly elusive.

Into this world, in which pills can be helpful but a bit second best, step spiritual entrepreneurs, like the demon-handling Christians. There’s a gap in the market. If pills fail, try prayer. There is, presumably, no shortage of mostly men keen to exercise their gospel muscle by taking on the devil himself.

They seem to be supported by the Bible, as the Theos report discusses. Jesus told the disciples to go and cast out demons. But, here, the report weakens. It is hung-up on an odd kind of Biblical literalism. They did it then, and so, somehow, should we now. Only, that does not follow.

There’s no doubt that demon possession was a widespread fear and phenomenon in the ancient world. The Egyptians had their curses. The Greeks and Romans their lurking sprites. Early Christianity was born into this milieu. But it also changed it. Historians of ideas have realised that the new religion was instrumental in morphing the human psyche. Under the influence of Christianity, it changed from the old porous self, that was highly susceptible to external invasion, to a new buffered self that gradually split off from the enchanted world. Nowadays, this buffered self routinely gets lost in its interior isolation and loneliness. As Carl Jung put it, “the gods have become diseases”. Whether or not angels and demons exist, and personally I’m inclined to believe they do, modern human beings generally don’t notice them.

It’s a fascinating predicament. When the former missionary, Daniel L. Everett, first went to preach to the Pirah├ús of the Brazilian Amazon, he bumped right up against it. He discovered that these people still live in a world of sensed others. “I have seen an entire village yelling at a beach on which they claim to see a spirit but where I can see nothing,” Everett writes. The spirits are as tangible to them as the ghostly value of the paper we call money is to us. This, I believe, is what modern Christians must take on board. Devils are no longer a big problem. But the gods who have become diseases are.

What’s missing from the report is a key way to tackle them. It is via psychology and psychotherapy, as opposed to pills or prayer. There is lots of evidence now that the talking cures make dramatic differences to people’s inner lives. CBT can illuminate troubles that have a clear focus. Psychotherapy is good when you want to go deeper and uncover the patterns that, if left alone, disrupt a flourishing life. Moreover, a range of psychological causes to problems, from anxious relating to personality disorders, are now substantiated.

But one thing stands in the way of this hopeful approach. Time. Pills and prayer promise something instant. Ironically, we’ve bought into the old saying that was popularised by the Christian reformers 500 years ago: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”, they said, quoting the Bible. So keep busy. Thus today, everyone from NHS care commissioners to potential patients struggling on the street resist the fact that mental ill-health takes time to address. It’s deemed too expensive by the medics and self-indulgent by the rest.

Well, that’s a judgement on the insanity of our times. Mental health is a massive problem, much bigger than poverty in this manic culture. So I hope Theos drops its worries about exorcism. I hope it opens its think tank mind to more than the potential promise of medication. In so doing, it would be doing us all a favour.