Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Perks of Demon-Free Living

Martin Shongauer, St. Anthony Possessed by Demons
At the library where I work, there's a certain kind of patron who comes in and says, "Can you tell me where to find books on...(and here there's a dramatic, vaguely defiant pause)...the OCCULT?" They usually seem a little let down that I don't gasp, give them a dirty look, tell them Jesus loves them, or something. I just smile and say, "Sure, right back here."

These dramatic dabblers in the dark arts seem to want to be shocking or scary. They would dissappointed to hear that a different s-word pops into my mind when I hear talk about the occult: silly. As far as I'm concerned, they might as well be asking for books about training unicorns. They're reading about things that don't exist. If they go home and draw up a pentagram and burn some candles or something, they might freak themselves or their parents out, but outside of their own mind, precisely nothing will happen.

I've never seen any convincing evidence that dark supernatural forces (or any other supernatural forces) actually exist. I believe the world works according to regular natural laws. Nature doesn't care what kind of incantations you mutter. It doesn't alter its laws because you go digging up mandrakes at midnight or wear a hood and chant. That's not the kind of world we live in. Its levers are physical and psychological, not supernatural.

People often say they feel sorry for me when I express disbelief in the supernatural. I do see why they feel that way. If they fervently believe in the more positive aspects of traditional ideas of the supernatural--that prayer can cure illness, or that we go to heaven after we die, or that Jesus is still alive and loves us--those ideas would give them enormous comfort, and they would feel sorry for someone who didn't believe they were true.*

But there's a flip side to this equation. Yes, it can be depressing not to believe in the sunnier side of the supernatural, but it's also pretty nice not to believe in its dark side. It's nice not to believe in malevolent ghosts and demons. It's nice not to worry about bad omens. I once walked through an old cemetary next to my house in Baton Rouge, and saw two black cats mating on top of an above-ground tomb. I thought, "Wow. I'm glad I'm not superstitious, because if I were I would go straight home and lock the door." People throughout history have been paralyzed with real fear by such sights. I can just laugh it off. A common belief around the world is that sorcerers can make your penis retract into your body. This is something that truly terrifies some people to this day. Some Europeans believed it in the Middle Ages. In the Malleus Mallificarum, the notorious manual for witch hunters, we find this remarkable passage: "And what, then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn." I'm really happy not to lose sleep over this happening to me.

Of course, I don't want to suggest that most Christians who feel sorry for me are superstitious in these archaic ways. Most of them aren't (though many still are, especially in other countries). But they do commonly believe things I'm very glad to think aren't true. Once I had a job as a day camp leader for kids at a resort community in Arkansas. We were doing some kind of craft, and one of the kids surprised me by mentioning how they had talked about demons in Sunday school. I was thinking, "Demons? Seriously? In Sunday school?" when the lady leading the craft activity surprised me even more by saying, "Well, that's great. I think demons are one of the most important things Christians need to learn about."

Many of the Christians I know would disagree, but such beliefs aren't that uncommon. Roughly half of Americans believe in demon possession, and the Catholic Church still has official rites of exorcism. Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most powerful men in the country, got irritated with a reporter recently who expressed surprise that he believed in the devil:
You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil! Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.
I don't know how the reporter was looking at him, but he is right that most Americans (fifty-something percent, depending on the survey) believe in the devil. Anyone surprised by that figure really is out of touch.

But even if 100% of the people throughout history had believed it, that wouldn't make it true. Personally, I do not believe in the devil, and I really like it that way. Believing there is a super-powerful, evil genius bent on destroying the human race--that does come with certain worries. It's also quite nice not believing in hell. If you're a traditional Christian believer in hell, who thinks that anyone who doesn't accept Jesus as savior goes there, that means you believe that most of the people who have ever existed are currently languishing in hell. Billions and billions of people, suffering eternal torment, right this minute. I am thrilled to think that isn't true.

But don't get me wrong. It's not that I don't believe it because it makes me happy not to. I can't very well say, "You can't just believe heaven exists because it would be upsetting to think it didn't," and then turn around and commit the same fallacy (the consequentialist fallacy) with hell. No, the reason I don't believe in these things is that I've never seen any good evidence that they exist. I've never seen anything to indicate that the world's workings are based on the action of dark forces or entities that somehow exist outside of natural law. There are always simpler, naturalistic explanations that don't require us to postulate complex supernatural entities.  I certainly can't prove such entities don't exist, of course. But that's not where the burden of proof lies. If you're saying, for example, that hell exists, but you can't find it with a telescope, seismograph, or any other scientific instrument, then I think the burden of proof is on you, not me.

Evil itself, however, does exist. History is full of evil, awful deeds, and I have met evil, awful people (though not many.) But that doesn't mean evil is some sort of active supernatural force or entity. Evil, I think, can be explained naturalistically. While nature itself is not evil, it is callous and amoral. Nature doesn't stop and think, "No, if Vesuvius erupted again, that would just be too tragic. Better not." What happens in nature just happens. As for human evil, I think you can account for that with evolution. Evolution is based on competition for scarce resources. That means organisms--even members of the same species--are in a sense programmed to struggle with each other over those resources, often in very nasty ways. (That doesn't mean it's right, by the way. If we can transcend those nasty tendencies, great.) Given the way evolution works, it's no surprise that people are prone to being horrible to each other. We evolved in a rough, callous world.

But evolution isn't the only source of evil deeds. One major cause of human evil, I'm convinced, is believing in things that aren't true...believing, for example, that mentally ill people are possessed by demons, or that women have been especially prone to sin ever since that incident in the Garden of Eden. Oddly enough, then, dark supernatural forces can be destructive, even if they don't exist in the physical world. They can be destructive simply because people believe in them, and act accordingly. In that case, it's not just the believer who is made unhappy by them. The misery gets exported.

Think of all the people who have died horrible deaths because others thought they were witches or sorcerers. They weren't, and they died for no reason. Even if a few of them really believed they were witches, they were wrong. They weren't really able to call forth dark forces and cast malevolent spells (except through a kind of placebo effect, which really can hurt people--but once again, only people who believe in it.)

Here in the United States, we think this kind of thing is confined to past ages. It's true that its less common in western culture than it used to be, but it still happens. Mentally disturbed people are still sometimes subjected to exorcisms when they should be getting psychiatric treatment. As recently as the 1970's, the exorcism case that inspired the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose resulted in the death of a mentally ill girl through starvation and neglect. Even today, people in places like central Africa and Papua New Guinea are regularly killed as witches. Saudi Arabia officially executes suspected sorcerers. In some parts of Africa, albinos are killed by witch doctors who think their body parts can help them work powerful spells. This happens today; in a time when we've eradicated smallpox and landed a car on Mars. What the hell?

If evil supernatural forces don't exist, and the occult only has power to the extent that people believe in it, these are terrible tragedies. Even in more sophisticated regions, if there is no hell, no demons, no devil, it's a tragedy that people are still terrified by these things. It's a tragedy that children are still told they might go to hell and meet those demons if they don't believe certain things. It's a tragedy that they are being told what to believe, not based on evidence, but based on the consequences of disbelief. That's always seemed like a form of existential blackmail to me; with a memetic logic exactly like that of a chain letter. Believe and pass it on, and good things will happen. Don't believe, and you're in big trouble. Chain letters can spread and multiply for years because of that logic. Maybe hell is just one big chain letter?

There are plenty of real sources of evil and suffering in this world. Why add a bunch of made-up ones on top of them? Even if people in countries like the United States aren't quite as terrorized by imagined forces of darkness as we used to be, the tendency is still there, and we could easily retreat toward the dark ages. As usual, Carl Sagan expressed this worry much better than I can, so I'll leave my ending to him:
I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us - then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. 
The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

Anneliese Michel (exorcism victim)

YouGov Survey on Belief in the Devil and Demonic Possession

The Demon-Haunted World / Carl Sagan

The Persecution of Witches, 21st Century Style

Koro (fear of penis retraction) 

*New Age sorts have also said they feel sorry for me, but more because they think I live in a humdrum, mechanistic world devoid of wonder. I don't. I'm constantly bowled over by the world's wonders--it's just that I don't think something has to be unexplained to be wondrous. As Terry Pratchett once said, "It doesn't stop being magic just because you know how it works."