What if demons existed?

Thursday, 21st May 2009 at 8:00 UTC 17 comments

It has become clear that the post I originally made under this title, which is still available below, caused considerable upset to certain readers. I took as my point of departure a news story concerning a condition which appears to have become prevalent in Nicaragua recently, referred to locally as Grisi Siknis. There were some clearly badly communicated points and these need clearing up.

The post was meant to be speculative: what’s to say this isn’t a real case of demonic influence? It quite possibly, even likely, isn’t. But to rule it out from the outset because its not something one wishes to consider is almost unscientific. Moreover, you would never be able to spot a real case if one appeared, no matter how many people you were still able to correctly diagnose with your subset of possible diagnoses.

This doesn’t mean that because a doctor runs out of options, it’s clearly a demonic possession, they might not have all the available facts, even though the reverse would likely be true: a demonic possession would probably confound Western doctors. To say that demonic possessions occur is not the same thing as to say that anyone who becomes inexplicably ill has a demonic possession, indeed I would never claim that one automatically led to the other. This was a major failing on my part.

I certainly don’t think for one moment that anyone I know is a victim of a demonic possession, and I can see how anyone who thought this was the case would be feeling badly hurt. Please accept my apologies if you think that this applies to you.

Original Post

I was having a discussion lately in which the “God of the Gaps” theory was mentioned, the idea being that God exists only as the concept by which we can explain away things we can’t understand, and further, now that science can explain everything, why don’t we just forget God and move on. Problem? In villages in Nicaragua there are teenagers suffering a sickness no doctor has yet explained, but one which sounds awfully familiar from certain biblical tales…

65 cases of Grisi Siknis have been recorded, and the general understanding is that it is some kind of virus which passes from person to person, the victims all teenagers, with symptoms that involve violent rampages followed by total coma-like paralyses. For anyone who’s read the bible in huge depth, this sounds like the kind of diseases which “we don’t really have anymore” as many a Sunday School teacher must have tried to explain.

As Science has become more adept at dealing with the world around us, so society (especially the non-scientists) has grown ever more convinced that nothing will be left unexplained by science. There are various suggestions for what these “demons” might actually have been, and many have been much more humane understandings. Its certainly true that these were mental illnesses, but they appear to have often gripped people in a very physical way.

Most of the suggestions take one thing for granted: the descriptions are embellished by the author’s belief in a realm that simply doesn’t exist. It supposes that what we read cannot be what actually happened, but must instead have been the interpretation of the society of the time. We’re clearly too sensible to get caught up in this, so we rationalise the illness.

And then we look at our own world, what’s happening today, and we see something like this: teenagers gripped by some condition, some illness so potent it controls their actions, throwing them, or causing them to throw themselves, into wells, for instance. It just doesn’t fit. Western Doctors cannot fit it into their classifications. And suddenly we have to ask ourselves, what if?

What if the demons written about in the Gospels, that Jesus of Nazareth is said to have commanded by name, what if they weren’t just misunderstandings of perfectly normal, modern conditions but instead were completely real? Suddenly all this talk of science replacing the need for God might look very very shaky indeed.


Entry filed under: Faith, Health, Latin America, Religion, Science.

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17 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lois  |  Thursday, 21st May 2009 at 13:58 UTC

    I think you need to be careful of implying that God alone can explain the presence of gaps in our knowledge. Because in a few years/ decades/ centuries time someone may discover a ‘natural’ cause for whatever you attribute to the supernatural, and then people turn round and say “ha! You were wrong, so there is no God.”

    The answer, as I see it, is that we’re looking in the wrong place, or the wrong way. Maybe- I don’t know- this illness is demon related. But God’s bigger than just the gaps we don’t understand. You’re right that science doesn’t replace God. He’s God of everything else too.

    • 2. Graham Martin  |  Friday, 22nd May 2009 at 10:36 UTC

      I hope I didn’t imply I wanted to run the theory backwards. Its definitely broken: you can’t say God only exists to fill the gaps, and you can’t say the gaps are what proves God. Like I said, some things have spiritual causes that have very definitely beyond-spirit effects. That said, natural causes do exist.

      I know some people would really like to split out natural causes and spiritual causes, but I think in some ways that’s to set God as being very definitely part of a heavenly realm looking down. But that’s a completely different discussion for somewhere down the line!

  • 3. Sophia  |  Thursday, 21st May 2009 at 17:01 UTC

    Oh for goodness sake Graham!

  • 4. Lois  |  Friday, 22nd May 2009 at 12:51 UTC

    Fair enough. Didn’t think you did, was just trying to clarify. I agree you can’t make a tidy separation between ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual.’

  • 5. brainduck  |  Friday, 22nd May 2009 at 12:55 UTC

    This post is inaccurate in almost every respect, displaying an utter failure to grasp the basic concepts of culture-bound syndromes or even any medical anthropology and sociology whatsoever. Made of fail. It’s dangerous nonsense like this which caused me to spend several years trying very hard to be an atheist. Please ensure that you have some vague understanding of what you are talking about before opening mouth.

  • 6. Greg  |  Friday, 22nd May 2009 at 20:43 UTC

    I thought my comments used to be the vehement ones!

    Whatever the situation, it sounds like it needs a lot of prayer either way.

  • 7. Graham Martin  |  Saturday, 23rd May 2009 at 18:59 UTC

    I’ve now posted a bunch of clarifications at the top of the post. I realise this was about the worst possible issue on which to write a post with that many holes in it. Hopefully I’ve now gotten my original point across, and more importantly, made it clear I wasn’t referring to anyone I know.

  • 8. brainduck  |  Saturday, 23rd May 2009 at 21:35 UTC

    You’ve entirely missed the point. The sheer intellectual laziness of this post is astounding.

    ‘I don’t understand this yet – therefore it’s DEMONS!!!!!!!!!11!!1!1!’ is not an explanation of anything.

    I’m not expecting a detailed knowledge of cross-cultural anthropology, but please look up what ‘Grisi Siknis’ actually is, and the role it plays in Miskito culture. A short, sensationalist piece of BBC froth is not a substitute for an anthropological monograph.

    You might also want to look up the descriptions of observable symptoms ascribed to ‘demons’ and ‘evil spirits’ in the Bible. ‘Grisi Siknis’ doesn’t match particularly well either symptomatically or epidemiologically.

    International mental heathcare does indeed need lots of prayer, and action. For specific points, here is a good place to start: http://www.globalmentalhealth.org

    • 9. Graham Martin  |  Sunday, 24th May 2009 at 11:06 UTC

      Yes, I was being lazy. I was using something as a jumping off point that I should have done background reading on. The laziness has already been corrected about as far as it can be without me taking this post down and trying to pretend this never happened. I’m not going to make a skeleton in my closet out of this. I said it, its archived all over the net, alluded to on facebook and hiding it wouldn’t solve anything.

  • 10. Graham Martin  |  Sunday, 24th May 2009 at 0:20 UTC

    I didn’t conclude that it was demons. I tried not to conclude anything, very deliberately. The whole point of the post was to question the absolute refusal to consider, not the denial in the eventual diagnosis. Is there not a difference between ruling a possibility out and ruling it to be the correct one?

    Are you trying to say that the demons mentioned in the gospels existed, but that this can’t possibly be related, or that they didn’t, and were figments of a less-developed culture’s imagination? Or of course, that they were somehow a combination of the two, in which case, how so?

  • 11. sophia  |  Sunday, 24th May 2009 at 21:31 UTC

    No such thing as demons Graham. Even with your clarifications the whole post is utterly ridiculous; unscientific, intellectually lazy, tasteless and insensitive.

  • 12. brainduck  |  Monday, 25th May 2009 at 10:05 UTC

    I don’t want you to take the post down, I want you to try to understand what you are talking about.
    For instance, have you read anything more on Grisi Siknis & ‘culture-bound’ syndromes?
    Or how about looking at more cases of ‘demons’ in the Bible than Matthew 8 / Mark 5 / Luke 8? (clue: there aren’t many, and many of those mentioned don’t have symptoms we’d regard as mental illness).
    Fortunately, being a Christian doesn’t require one to believe in first-century Jewish folk medicine.

  • 13. Alice  |  Monday, 25th May 2009 at 13:38 UTC

    For some reason this post skipped my feed reader, so I’m a little late coming in on this.

    The people who don’t like this post are the ones who think they know everything about modern medicine because they have training. They forget that there are times that modern medicine can’t fully explain things and get scared at such times so lash out.

    Modern medicine is a belief system just as Christianity or Paganism is; admittedly it is a more scientifically-based than others, but it’s still a belief system which doesn’t explain everything. It is just as unacceptable to claim that modern medicine can explain everything and is always right as it is to claim that everything “wrong” is demonic possession. There are clearly acceptable mixtures of belief systems which work, and modern medicine is poly-theistic in the way it accepts different specialists and can (but rarely does) work with religions.

    It is perfectly acceptable to believe that your own illness is caused/related to spirituality, and indeed it is important that mind body and spirit are healthy – since they all are connected and affect each other. It is less acceptable to push your own beliefs about illnesses onto others, and this includes doctors; doctors and spiritual leaders can suggest what is wrong and suggest the best course of action to take, but to claim that they are entirely correct and that nobody else can be is dangerous.

    • 14. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 25th May 2009 at 13:52 UTC

      OK, now I’m lost. Whilst I get what Alice is getting at for most part, calling modern medicine polytheistic? Polyistic, maybe, but where did the monist connection come in.

    • 15. brainduck  |  Monday, 25th May 2009 at 15:46 UTC

      Um – my training’s in psychology, not medicine, and I’m fully aware of the limitations of a strictly biomedical model of health & illness (it’s rather a caricature to suggest that medics aren’t, the bio-psycho-social model is increasingly well-used).

      It’s interesting though not unexpected in the case of Grisi Siknis that the cultural issues reportedly being enacted are most effectively addressed by indigenous health beliefs. It’s also worth considering just how much of ‘Western’ biomedical psychiatry is about the symbolic value of biomedical attributions, particularly around the construction & treatment of depression. In popular media ‘serotonin’ often seems to be used in a way interchangeable with ‘demons’ in this post.

      But either ‘demons’ really exist, or they don’t, *regardless* of whether you believe in them, and regardless of whether or not they are a useful socio-cultural or personal illness-attribution. Beliefs about demons can be simultaneously A and not-A, but to reify that to *actual* demons that are only there if you believe in them is Daft.

      I don’t think that ‘modern medicine knows everything’, and I certainly don’t think I do – precisely the opposite in fact, which is why I’m so frustrated by the misuse of ‘demon’ to stand in for ‘something I can’t be bothered to try & learn about’. The world is far too strange & complicated & wonderful for that.

      Could you unpack ‘polytheistic’ pls – not sure I quite understand what you are getting at there, but am intrigued.

  • 16. Alice  |  Wednesday, 27th May 2009 at 10:23 UTC

    Psychology/medicine – both parts of the health system, working together, accepting each other (and sometimes other belief systems) and therefore poly-something. Theistic perhaps not being the correct term.

    Demons, spirits, seratonin, chemical imbalances, why does ti matter what you call it? If modern medicine can’t explain or “fix” it then it may as well be a demon and the cultural health system allowed to continue. If we have to stop calling it a demon then do we have to bring MTV into all those isolated villages because it’s “better” than their music?

    We shouldn’t be interfering with other cultures and imposing our beliefs on them.

  • 17. Greg  |  Wednesday, 27th May 2009 at 12:14 UTC

    Is it just me, or are the comments that argue over whether demons or natural psychology caused this stuff, on a level with the people who argue that life couldn’t have evolved because God did it (and vice versa)? All of it’s the same logic that says my kettle couldn’t have boiled because I wanted a cup of tea: it boiled because current ran through the element, causing a power dissipation proportional to the resistant of that element, causing the water temperature to increase proportional to the energy absorbed and its specific heat capacity.

    Two different levels of reasoning, people, two different levels.


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