5X5 Episode 63

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5X5 Episode 63
Possession and Exorcism
25th March 2009

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5X5 62 5X5 64
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Possession and Exorcism[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5x5, and tonight we're discussing demonic possession and exorcism. Exorcism is a practice, a rite or ritual, which is designed to remove a demonic or evil spirit from possessing a person.

J: Not just a person, Steve; actually, inanimate objects or even places can be thought to be possessed, like an unholy relic or a building or a house or something, and a lot of times exorcisms are done on places, like a new house that people move into; any type of ritual that’s done, to even bring good luck, can be thought of as a type of exorcism.

R: I think a lot of those cases are pretty innocuous, but the problem with exorcism comes when you have someone who might be... might have a real mental illness, or let’s say seizures, or someone who hallucinates. And if someone mistakenly believes that this person has demons in their soul that need to be exorcized, it could be dangerous, because that person could miss out on getting real drugs that could save their lives, and occasionally there are situations where exorcisms can result in death.

S: That's right. That’s almost—that’s literally medieval in thinking, interpreting psychological or psychiatric problems as demonic possession. There are many sites that promote the notion of possession and exorcism, and they have lists of symptoms of demonic possession or oppression. These include: lack of self control, outbursts of hatred, depression, violent behaviour. In fact, there are some who are specifically promoting demonic possession as an alternate diagnosis in cases of psychiatric illness.

B: It's also important to consider that no exorcism case that's ever been documented has ever shown anything other than either an outright fraud or fake, or mental illness. They've never really documented anything paranormal or supernatural. And people that have claimed to be cured by the exorcism, if you carefully go over the case, and you'll see that these people previously had mental illness before the claimed possession, and then afterwards those symptoms probably remained for a while until they were treated psychologically.

S: Yeah, in fact, if you have a person who has, let's say schizophrenia or a psychotic disorder, and they as part of that disorder, they believe that they are possessed by a demon, or the Devil, then that's usually part of a pre-existing, or cultural, or familial belief system that they are simply latching onto as part of their delusion. The absolute worst thing you could do to them is to validate or play into their delusion. That is generally considered to be a harmful, counterproductive thing to do. So, if you have an authority figure who is telling a mentally ill person that "yes, you are in fact possessed by a demon", there’s nothing more harmful than that to that person.

E: And, exorcism is not just limited to those who are the more hard-core officials and believers within the church structure. There are those in the medical profession, MDs and so forth, who advocate, and certainly participate on some level, with cases of exorcism.

S: A fairly recent development with the exorcism community is that some churches are promoting exorcism for everyday, mundane problems. For example, they might argue that if you’re having trouble with gambling, well then maybe you’re possessed by a "demon of gambling". Or if you are overweight, you have a "demon of gluttony" in you. Whatever your problem is, it could be explained away as you being victimized by a demon, and therefore treated with exorcism. So this is not just the mentally ill, or the attention seekers, or hoaxers. It's just everyday people with everyday problems who are being told they have a demon inside of them and they need to have an exorcism to address their problem.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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