“With God by your side, you can do no wrong,” says Father Jose Francisco Syquia, who heads the Manila Archdiocese’s Office of Exorcism in the Philippines. And he should know, since he’s been through hundreds of exorcisms. Indeed, he should know, but clearly he has no idea what it means to be “wrong,” or else he would not try to justify the torturous treatment of mentally ill people. But this caliber of fool doesn’t understand that demonic spirits don’t reside in the victims of exorcisms, but in the minds of those who perpetuate this archaic practice.
What is Exorcism?
Exorcism is a practice involving all sorts of magic such as holy water, prayers, relics, and incense, in order to drive out the evil spirits who have apparently possess someone. At least, that’s the idea behind it, according to exorcists. As the Guardian reports on the statements given by one Bishop Thomas Paprocki, from a conference for Catholic priests and bishops:
To be possessed, “you have to invite a demon in. Demons are always looking for broken or nonexistent relationships between human beings. I’ll give you an example. Eighty percent of the people who come to see me have been sexually abused by a family member [or other person],” Thomas said. “Sexual abuse is a doorway for a demon. It doesn’t mean that they will be possessed. It does mean that they’re vulnerable.”
This would be profound… if not for the fact that he is speaking literally, not metaphorically. Psychologists (aside from the minority of those who are devoutly religious)don’t believe in exorcisms or possessions, which is why “demonic possession” is not a recognized disorder by any professional psychological association. A recent study, explored by sociologist Tom Rees on the Epiphenom blog, found that 119 villagers in Uganda showed clear evidence of a correlation between earlier traumatic events and later onset of “spirit-possession.” As Paprocki said, the possessed were more likely to have been abused.
To be clear, this is not a phenomenon that completely baffles scientists. In fact, if you actually examine the symptoms of “possessed” people, you can find explanations of mental illness in all of them. For example, dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as “multiple personality disorder”), psychosis (losing your sense of reality), epilepsy (seizures), Tourette’s Syndrome (involuntary physical ticks and/or speech), and many others. Also, don’t forget the responsiveness to suggestion, by which I mean the exorcist provokes (for lack of a better term) the victim into playing a role. For example, many people, having seen the 1973 film The Exorcist, exhibit the low voice that was characteristic of the possessed main character. This type of suggestiveness is the same thing that makes hypnotism work, but of course exorcism is a lot more dangerous. As Robert Carroll from the Skeptic Dictionary says:
The exorcists’ only prop is a Bible, which is held in one hand while they talk down the devil in very dramatic episodes worthy of Jerry Springer or Jenny Jones. The “possessed” could have been mentally ill, actors, mentally ill actors, drug addicts, mentally ill drug addicts, or they may have been possessed, as the exorcists claimed.
…But, to play devil’s advocate, Carroll neglected to mention the possibility that they could be mentally ill drug-addicted actors who were possessed.
Regardless, while it may seem as though exorcism may in fact be a form of therapy… it’s not. It’s far from it. In fact, the more people who believe that exorcism should (or even can) be carried out, the more arrogant, ignorant, and dangerous the world becomes. Or did you actually believe Father Syquia’s quote above?
While fake, “Exorcism” still has real consequences
When people take exorcism into their own hands, they numb their critical thinking facilities by the absurd belief that the individual receiving the abuse is not the one experiencing it, but the demon who has taken possession of the body. Indeed, what would you do if you knew someone had taken possession of a loved one’s body? This is a safe hypothetical thought experiment (a terrifying one, though), but if you were to believe this idea too strongly, you may take things too far.
In 2008, the 59-year-old Susan Kay Clark was murdered by her husband, who suffocated her because he believed she was possessed. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is an age-related phenomenon. Little 6-year-old Evelyn Vasques was killed in the same year, at the age of 6, because her 25-year-old mother was convinced that Evelyn’s sleepwalking was because the devil had possession of her. Her solution? Viciously stabbing and slashing her to death. Earlier that year, a mother of four children aged 5 to 17, Banita Jacks, was arrested when marshals found the decomposing bodies of her four daughters. She said that the children were possessed, and died in their sleep, but the stab wounds, slashes, and bludgeoning to the children’s bodies said otherwise.
These took place in the U.S., but don’t assume that only a country as Christian as that has such foolishness. In 2007, well-intentioned muslim clerics in the Republic of Macedonia beat the mentally ill 27-year-old Abedin Alijoski to death while readings from the Koran were read. Later that year, 22-year-old Janet Moses was drowned in New Zealand during an exorcism ritual that was supposed to release her from her curse. Earlier this year, in Russia, a 25-year old mother of two, Alexandra, confessed to her parents that she was hearing voices. To expel the “unclean spirits,” they opted to force her to drink five liters of water (“holy water,” no less), and then jump on her until she died.
And this isn’t just regarding poorly educated people either. In India, in 2008, three brothers were convinced that their 55-year-old mother was possessed. They punched, kicked, and beat her with a rod until she died. They foolishly believed they could kill her, and then bring her back to life using another family member as a sacrifice. These were all reportedly well-educated Indian siblings.
It gets even worse. Sometimes the motivation is even beyond any fathomable semblance of an explanation. Also in 2008, the 13-month-old baby Amora Bain Carson was bitten and bludgeoned to death. The killers, which included the child’s mom, lied about it first, but the police found over 20 bite marks on her body, and couldn’t determine how many times she was bludgeoned. Somehow that was supposed to be an exorcism. I wonder what convinced them that a mere 1-year-old was possessed. Perhaps the baby was crying?
As bad as it sounds, these only make up a tiny fraction of the global exorcist obituary over the last few years. Exorcism is widespread, and especially popular now in Europe, Africa and Latin America, and I haven’t even scratched the surface with these examples. After all, I didn’t even include examples earlier than 2007.
Washing away the life of a child
Let’s change gears for a moment. When people who are addicted to surgery go through not just one, but five, ten, fifteen surgeries or more, you can sometimes find them later on TV, justifying their actions in interviews. “I don’t regret any of the surgeries,” they might say, despite the obvious fact that they weren’t satisfied enough to keep themselves as they were after the first procedure. I don’t want to equate exorcism with plastic surgery – because, among other reasons, plastic surgery is voluntary – but it should be noted that in both cases, if you keep having to do it, then obviously the results were not satisfactory the first time. Most people don’t hesitate to say that plastic surgery patients are deluded, or have a warped view of the world, yet often fail to see the logical parallel with such religious practice. So when exorcists repeatedly work on a patient, believing that they are helping an individual, one has to ask themselves: to what extent are exorcists really improving that individual’s life?
This is a question I wish Atsushi Maishigi (age 50) and Kazuaki Kinoshita (age 56) had asked themselves, before their exorcisms on Maishigi’s daughter, Tomomi (pictured right). Last week, Tomomi, who was 13 years old was again subjected to “taki-gyo” (滝行, “waterfall rite”) at a (non-Christian) church here in Japan. This had apparently been done on her hundreds of times within the last half-year, which should give you an idea of its effectiveness. The purpose was, as always, to rid her of evil spirits. As the water came down, drowning the life out of the girl, the father held her to the chair – faced up – while Konishita, a Buddhist monk, chanted sutras. You’d think that 100 trials would be enough for someone to say “okay, this isn’t working,” but these obviously weren’t very science-minded individuals.
In fact, I would argue that virtually no one who believes in exorcism is science-minded. We know from various scientific demonstrations that the effects of exorcism (when it doesn’t end in death) can be accounted for by the placebo effect. And, as I mentioned above, there are plenty of scientific explanations for what the religious call “possessions.” So it’s true that these individuals need help, but it’s psychiatric help that they need, not religious intervention.
This is why it has me worried when Syquia says things like “There is a great dramatic increase of possessions right now. More and more the demons are gaining a foothold into this society.” He believes that a B.A. is psychology at a Catholic university qualifies him to understand the problems of the people he wants to exorcise. This is not the kind of guy I would want giving me therapy of any kind. As The Australian reports:
His first case came when a man singled him out from a group of priests and asked for deliverance after confessing that he had been deep into occult practices.
How the man knew his name was a mystery to Syquia, although he said deep in his heart he knew – just a week earlier he had begun studying a book on exorcism that he had bought long ago.
It’s no wonder psychological organizations don’t address this as a credible disorder; knowing someone’s name is apparently good enough for a diagnosis? Syquia also recalls a success story that, to me, raises about as many questions as it does concerns:
Her troubles began when she decided to return to the Catholic Church and offer all her blessings to God.
Soon after, the demons took over her body for hours at a time, while unexplained paranormal activity began terrorising members of her family, Syquia said. “When the time came to bless her with holy water a voice that wasn’t hers shouted for us to stop,” he said. “What really scared me was that this was the first time that I saw something very alien in her eyes. I was looking at something else. It was totally evil.”
The voice taunted Syquia and told him to return to his mansion and rich family, personal details that were unknown to those in the room, he said.
Exorcisms in Japan
While I see far more reports from Western cultures, exorcisms are not foreign to Japan. In 1995, six decomposing bodies were found in the home of religious cult leader Sachiko Eto, who was 47 years old. She convinced her clients that she was a messenger of god, and would beat them in order to exorcise them, and encourage them to beat each other. The beatings occurred between the end of 1994 and the middle of 1995, and she was arrested with three of her followers, eventually receiving the death penalty in a court ruling a decade later. That decision was upheld in Japan’s Supreme Court a few years later.
There was also the case in 2003 where a number of people were going around metropolitan areas in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kanagawa, approaching random passersby. They dressed in tennis attire or carried violin cases to “appear more credible,” saying things like “Your back is possessed by the spirit of a dead woman and she has attached strings to your neck,” or “the spirit of a dead man with severed legs is cling to your waist.” The 55-year-old group leader, Shunichi Miyazaki, charged over 1000 people up to 1 million yen (about $8500) for exorcisms. He and eight other members were arrested for fraud, despite the fact that he maintained his innocence.
The cases above, from death to fraud, just highlight the fact that people must be educated in the fact that you cannot be possessed by demons – to the extent that it is separate from a psychiatric issue. There are of course people who need help with their vividly visual and auditory hallucinations, such as people suffering from schizophrenia. We should never deny that these problems exist, but absolutely deny the explanations offered by “spirit healers.” They are simply not qualified to handle the complexities of human psychology.
The Bottom Line
If you haven’t yet guessed what made Tomomi’s parents to decide to start doing exorcism, it was because of her mental and physical illnesses that manifested when she was around 12 years old. And last week, after Tomomi stopped responding to the water torture, her mother called an ambulance for help. It was too late.
I’m not an expert, but I’m being serious when I say it’s the adults who need mental help. The whole family should have been booked into a mental health clinic. The father and the monk have since denied all charges, maintaining that they were just trying to help get rid of evil spirits.
Indeed, September 27 was the last time Tomomi Maishigi was possessed by demons.