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Exorcism in religion and psychology

3925 words (16 pages) Essay in Psychology

20/04/17 Psychology Reference this

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Contrary to what may seem to be common sense, nowadays the beliefs in paranormal are still very prevalent in the society. Indeed, the revival of the interest and acceptance of such phenomena as poltergeists, ghosts, and devil took place in a quite secularized modern society dominated by the scientific thinking and medical worldview (Milner, 2000). However, it is not that surprising. It could be assumed that the possibility of the belief in the existence of such phenomena is rooted in the people’s understanding of the functioning of the world with religion being one of the sources that provide this kind of information.

Some modern scientists propose that religious and spiritual phenomena consist of multiple factors like inherited or developed neural circuitry of the brain, pro-social tendencies selected through evolution, and the general biology of the human mind which generates the specific cognitive processes like religious beliefs (Fayard, Pereau, & Ciovica, 2009). This kind of biological predisposition for spirituality and religion might explain why similar phenomena such as possession by the spirits as well as the subsequent healing and expulsion of these spirits are found in many different cultures and religions around the world despite the existing significant differences in ideology and practice. Furthermore, it may also explain why the belief in such paranormal phenomena is still alive in the society even when many old religions and beliefs were extinguished or substituted by science, and modern religions like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and etc.

The revival of the interest in exorcism in the mainstream Christianity was evoked by the rise of the interest in the occult in the society in general such as the fascination with New Age movements which are interested in learning more about the occult (Milner, 2000). Acknowledging all the risks involved in the exorcism, the Christian church was afraid that vulnerable individuals might be hurt by the ritual performed by the healers who lack proper training, beliefs, and resources despite their good intentions, if such are present(Milner, 2000). Furthermore, fascinated by the enthusiasm, spirituality, and mass appeal of various Charismatic and Pentecostal movements that put the emphasis on various occult practices including exorcism, the mainstream Christianity tried to incorporate such practices into their worship in part in response to the demands of the society and due to the perceived threat to the authority of the mainstream Christianity (Milner, 2000). As a result, the issue of exorcism was brought back to life, however in the light of science.

Exorcism defined

Despite the revival of interest in exorcism for many people including the ones involved in the Christian ministries, it still remains a bizarre and frightening ritual that came from the past targeting the vulnerable individuals who could be traumatized by this practice (Milner, 2000). For instance, within the legal system traditionally exorcism is defined as physical act of holding down the individual while facing the spiritual, psychic and physical opposition from him. It might be even recognized by the court as the false imprisonment, if exorcism is performed without the consent of the individual (Koploy, 2010). On the other hand, in certain religious groups this ritual is considered to be fundamental to faith just like baptism or marriage (Koploy, 2010). Furthermore, due to the fact that exorcism is very closely connected to the belief system and basic religious experiences, it might be seen as a indirect way of controlling and leaning people’s minds (Versteeg & Droogers, 2007).

It is very hard to describe the actual ritual of exorcism because the practices as well as the beliefs in demons and spirits vary greatly even within the branches of Christianity (Versteeg & Droogers, 2007). However, every incidence of exorcism regardless of the religion within which it is performed includes common elements and can be assessed by the following criteria (Versteeg & Droogers, 2007): demonological criterion – the nature of the evil: personal or impersonal, spiritual or human; etiological criterion – the explanation of the problem, spiritual and natural causes; diagnostic criterion – methods of finding the cause: discovering spirits and other medical causes; tropical criterion – the experience of reality by the people involved in the ritual: direct or metaphorical; ritual criterion: – the structure of the ritual, the people involved in it, and other treatments scientific or spiritual that accompany the exorcism.

In the Christian perspective the exorcism is the violent and dangerous battle between the person performing the ritual and the devil inside the individual (Milner, 2000). Therefore, the possessed individual may express uncontrollable anger, strange noises, supernormal extrasensory perception and strength, may uncontrollably call the name of Jesus or devil and have a strong desire for drugs, alcohol, and abnormal sexual practices, be subject to violent rages and be able to speak in language they never knew before (Milner, 2000). Furthermore, they might be unable to perform certain religious practices such as praying, reading Bible, and participating in meditation. In addition, the possession affects the social life of individual due to the rapid deterioration of their relationships with other people and outbursts of panic, terror and envy (Milner, 2000).

However, the main danger of such practice as exorcism is not the lack of the acceptance in the society, but rather the too much emphasis on it, which may escalate into a full blown paranoia of attributing everything that is contrary to a specific understanding of the world and religion to the work of devil (Milner, 2000). This misunderstanding may result in tragic occurrences such as abuse, violence, criminal activity, suicide or homicide (Milner, 2000). Furthermore, looking from the psychological perspective, the focus on the devil as the cause of the behavior and demonizing what is not demonic encourage people to ignore the psychological and physiological needs and characteristics of the person and may lead to the diffusion of responsibility or even encourage people to deny that they are in fact responsible for their own actions and behavior (Miquel, 2010). Thus, the presence of devil becomes a very quick and simple explanation and may distract the attention from various psychological, medical or social problems (Milner, 2000).

Demon possession

Being the result of the problem, it is hard to explore exorcism from both religious and psychological side without taking into account its’ primary cause, demon or spiritual possession. The word possession within the field of psychology usually refers to the belief that the person’s mind and body can be controlled by another personality (Stevenson, 1995). That personality might be represented as the deceases person or an evil spirit. This idea was accepted almost universally till the 16th century and was almost always linked to witchcraft (Stevenson, 1995). However, even after the 16th century when the first skeptical work on witchcraft and magic started to appear, such beliefs remained prevalent in the society. The literature indicates many ways of differentiation among the states of possession such as ritual – non-ritual, good – evil, or voluntary – involuntary, but no single classification is yet developed (Stevenson, 1995).

The research shows that the incidents of possession are even though infrequent, but not that uncommon as people usually think. For instance about 2% of general Canadian population reported having experiences a possession (Bull, 2001). Furthermore, even though the general religious affiliation declined in the last century, the cases related to vampires, werewolves, and demons have not ceased (Bull, 2001). Despite the fact that such instances are highly influenced by the traditional culture, the beliefs in paranormal and supernatural are common in the modern society and that many of them arise from the direct personal experience (Ferracuti & Sacco, 1996).

Scientists agree that spiritual possession is a more cultural phenomenon (Miquel, 2010). This suggests that the existence and identification of this phenomena depends not only the perception and the beliefs prevalent in the society, but also on the interpretation given by the typical members of this culture (Miquel, 2010). Therefore, it is understandable that while working with the Christian clients the reports related to demonic encounters may even increase. For instance the survey of the 343 Swiss Protestants patients showed that about 38% of them believe that evil spirits or demons may be the cause of their psychiatric illness and around 30% of them actually tried the healing prayer or exorcism (Bull, 2001). The frequency increases even more if the individuals with the Dissociative Identity Disorder better known to the general population as the Multiple Personality Disorder are assessed. In one study around 29% out of 236 individuals with this diagnosis indentified their other personality as a demon (Bull, 2001). Interestingly enough, the tendency to attribute mental illnesses to the work of devil and possession exists in our society from the Stone Age (Ward & Beaubrun, 1980). Even though this etiological theory advanced a lot, it is still evident in the modern society.

One of the disorders proposed in DSM-IV-TR for further research and possible inclusion in upcoming DSM-V is Dissociative Trance Disorder (2000). The defining diagnostic criterion for this disorder is the presence of a single or episodic altered state of consciousness in which the identity of the person is replaced by another altered identity usually attributed to the spirit or deity (DSM-IV-TR, 2000). However, such diagnosis is valid only if this experience leads to distress or dysfunction. Therefore, it could be said that within the framework of religion, not all possessions are pathological and require some kind of “treatment.” Furthermore, the possessions experienced during the specific ritual ceremonies may even have a valid individual and social function (Ferracuti & Sacco, 1996). However, in some countries such as Italy possession disorders where another identity is identified as a demon appear to be quite widespread. In one survey done in the 1990’s 46% of respondents said that they believe in devil (Ferracuti & Sacco, 1996). Furthermore, there was a higher incidence of various paranormal and magical phenomena among this group of respondents. The fact that the majority of the majority of respondents who reported these beliefs and the incidents of encounter with paranormal were women might possibly be explained by the fact that women are considered to be more religious than men (Spilka, 2003). In addition women are also more likely to have Dissociative Identity Disorder, which is often associated with the demon possession (DSM-IV-TR, 2000). However, some researchers indicate that the belief in paranormal, magical and spiritual phenomena is not pathological unless it interferes with the functioning of individual on both interpersonal and intrapersonal levels (Ward & Beaubrun, 1980). Furthermore, possession may even be seen as the culturally appropriate coping mechanism because it offers the way to escape the stressful reality and reduction of guilt by transferring it to the evil entity that possessed the individual (Ward & Beaubrun, 1980).

Exorcism in Christianity

Within the Christian tradition, exorcism often belongs to the broader category of ministry called deliverance (Milner, 2000). It includes dealing with such paranormal phenomena as poltergeists, ghosts, and devil. Therefore, the term deliverance derived from the line of the Lord’s Prayer “deliver us from evil” is the preferred official term for exorcism in Christianity (Milner, 2000). However, deliverance may apply to both people and places or things, while the term exorcism still traditionally is used only in connection to people. The existence of such practice is defended by the Bible, which describes Jesus’ healing abilities, one of them being to cast out demons (Koploy, 2010). Thus, the main task of the person performing exorcism is defined as to confront the demon that possessed a person, and restore the victim of possession to life making the person again whole with self, community, church, and God (Milner, 2000). This description allows seeing that the ritual of exorcism is meant to bring not only religious, but also psychological and social benefits.

However, due to its nature the ritual of exorcism can be easily abused, if not carefully controlled. Therefore, churches had to develop the guidelines for diagnosing the need for this kind of interventions in the cases involving the paranormal as well as for the way to carry them out (Milner, 2000). The control is executed by normalizing and medicalizing the primary cause of the exorcism which is demon possession, as well as bureaucratizing and rationalizing the procedures of exorcism. Furthermore, the revival of exorcism in the secularized and scientific society is risky because it raises many issues about the proper balance between the etiological explanations that emphasize the role of the paranormal and spiritual activity or the role of the material and physical factors. These tensions may lead to the reduced cooperation between the medical professionals and spiritual healers (Milner, 2000). Thus, exorcism may become one of those battle fields, where the ideas of medicine, psychology or science in general clash with the ideas of religion eliminating each other from their own worldview. However, according to the famous psychologist David G. Myers, this should not necessarily be the case and both religion and psychology may complement each other by addressing different sides of the same issue (1991).

Some members of the church involved in the healing ministry try to take an approach that helps to ease the tensions. They still believe in possibility that the devil can be present inside the person, but they also accept other psychological and physical explanations of the condition (Milner, 2000). The healers try to normalize the process of exorcism making it anything but bizarre to the society and develop a healing model that would correspond to the treatment of the whole person which is emphasized in the modern medicine. The actual process of exorcism includes the involvement of doctors, therapists as well as the healers at every level. Thus, such regulations make an exorcism the last option of healing if neither medical nor psychiatric or psychotherapeutic approaches work (Milner, 2000). The healers are trying to make exorcism a highly regulated and infrequent procedure used together with medical diagnosis and treatment of the condition.

Furthermore, they emphasize the idea that the task of the person doing exorcism is not only to cast out demon, but to help the person recover in religious, physical, psychological, and social spheres (Milner, 2000). Therefore, the medical, psychiatric or psychological help remains essential even after the exorcism is performed. As one of the authors stated, “The results are important, not theories” (p.262). Furthermore, the healers tend to distinguish between the possession syndrome, when people due to other medical, psychiatric or psychological factors falsely believe to be possessed, and the actual possession, when the devil is involved (Milner, 2000). Thus, now it is not uncommon to meet an expert in spiritual healing who also has education and professional training in psychotherapy or counseling (Versteeg & Droogers, 2007).

Exorcism in psychology

In the field of psychology of religion, exorcism received some attention in the light of research done on other topics such as cults, Satanism, and even conversion (Versteeg & Droogers, 2007). It is known that some experiences such as religion can create and sustain a community because they provide a common purpose for existence, help to define the identity of the group as well as legitimize the community and its goals (Singleton, 2001). Thus, religious experiences are very important elements of the religion, faith, and culture (Versteeg & Droogers, 2007). The supernatural experiences of evil and the encounters with the devil are quite obvious examples of such religious experiences. For instance 80% of the Australian Protestants believe that evil spirits are active in this world and 65% of them have no doubt about it (Singleton, 2001). Even though the actual percentage of such people varies according to the doctrines of specific Christian denomination, it still could be said that the beliefs in the devil are very widespread. Furthermore, Christians believe that both physical and spiritual parts of the body can be subject to the attack of the devil, thus allowing for the physical as well as spiritual healing (Singleton, 2001).

However, despite the prevalence of these beliefs in the society, the literature on psychotherapy generally describes exorcism as being not therapeutic for psychiatric patients and even harmful (Bull, 2001). The fact that exorcism is a part of the religious healing practice leads to the view that it is not scientific or psychological and thus could be dismissed as not feasible treatment. In the literature concerning the Dissociative Identity Disorder points out that those performing exorcism are prone to confuse the other protective or self-destructive identity of the person with the presence of the demon (Bull, 2001). Only small percentage of authors actually considers the possibility of implementing exorcism as a treatment option for the disorder. However, the extremely negative and deteriorative outcomes for the exorcised patients found in several separate studies even lead to the idea that exorcism should never be used in therapy (Bull, 2001). The main two objections for its use are formulated as the lack of psychological or medical understanding of the disorders by the members of the church performing the exorcism as well as the lack of cooperation of the patient during this process (Bull, 2001).

However, the therapists with the Christian background, such Friesen and Mungadze, who acknowledge both the presence of the demon as well as the disorder, see exorcism being a helpful treatment in addition to the psychotherapy for some of the patients having a particular religious background (Bull, 2001). They allow the possibility that the psychological disturbance may coexist with the spiritual disturbance, which could be a defining justification for the application of both psychological and spiritual treatments. Even in the same studies that found the negative outcome to be associated with exorcism some positive outcomes were also reported (Bull, 2001). The differentiating factors in these situations were whether the exorcism was couples with psychotherapy and whether the patient felt coerces to participate in exorcism. For instance, even Allison, one of the pioneers in treatment of dissociative identity disorder had mentioned that he has too much experience of the demon possession, exorcism, and positive outcomes to completely dismiss this possibility (Bull, 2001). Furthermore, medicine and science alone are not capable of fully explaining human abilities. Therefore, it is proposed that both the neurobiology of the individual as well as the context of culture significantly contribute to the development of complex human abilities and the ability to relate to God among them (Fayard, Pereau, & Ciovica, 2009). This implies that spiritual or religious experience does not exist apart from our physical reality and daily life in the immaterial spiritual reality. Thus, both religion and science can work hand in hand in order to increase the wellbeing of the individual.

Bull proposes the phenomenological model of application of exorcism to the treatment of certain disorders such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (2001). According to him, current treatment of this disorder includes the usage of the perception of the patient without taking into account and questioning the reality or truthfulness of what the patient reports. Therefore, the same approach might be used while applying the exorcism as a treatment. This allows to avoid the clash between the religion and psychology by dismissing the delicate question about the actual existence of demons that is so puzzling for some secular therapists and to work within the belief system of the patient in order to use the beliefs otherwise considered irrational and delusional for the benefit of the patient (Bull, 2001). In addition, this also allows keeping the personal biases of the therapist at minimum. Thus, the religion practices and beliefs being the part of the culture and cultural identity of the person, the incorporation of such beliefs in the therapy might be seen as a simple culture-sensitive therapeutic approach.

Furthermore, taking into account the idea that the patient is coming from the religious background that acknowledges the belief in the existence of demons and views the problem as caused by the foreign evil entity possessing the mind or the body, gives the therapist one more psychological tool for helping the patient (Bull, 2001). Such beliefs and worldview propose the idea that if the patient believes that something was put into the mind or the body, then it can be expelled. This technique showed to improve the overall social functioning of the individuals diagnosed with the Dissociative Identity Disorder (Ferracuti & Sacco, 1996). Thus, the therapist may help the patient to apply their own spiritual resources while fighting the psychological or psychiatric diseases or at least coping with it (Bull, 2001). However, some research also indicates that religious coping strategies may be helpful for patients who identify themselves religious leading back to the issue of working within the belief system of the patients (Wildman & McNamara, 2008). The same approach is suggested not only in the cases of psychotherapy but also in family therapy or counseling (Bull, 2001).

In addition to the beliefs, the actual term exorcism might also be concern while adopting this approach. Due to the negative depiction of this ritual in the popular media such as in the famous film The Exorcist, this term may evoke a negative reaction. Therefore, for the sake of the comfort of the patient it can be substituted with more appropriate terms like the one preferred by the church which is deliverance or spiritual warfare (Bull, 2001). Furthermore, the therapists are even advised to use the same work describing the perceived foreign evil entity inside the patient that the patient uses (Bull, 2001). The therapist should not only identify the evil spirit that possesses the patient, but also ask the patient to tell if he or she believe in the any higher force that is more powerful than the one inside them in order to use this reference in the further treatment trying to expel the foreign evil entity (Bull, 2001).

Assessing this approach from the perspective of the Christian healers, it should be said that it does not contradict the scripture. The Bible shows many episodes of exorcism. However, there are no strict guidelines regarding the symptoms, places or the ways to perform it. Furthermore, the patients from the Judeo-Christian background that perceive themselves being possessed also believe in the power of God who can help to expel the demons (Bull, 2001). However, the personal and professional skills of the person performing exorcism are no less important than the skills of the psychologist because they both provide the guidance during the exorcism necessary to achieve the regenerative outcome (Ferracuti & Sacco, 1996).


The presence of extensive literature on exorcism and demon possession in the fields of theology, anthropology and sociology where spirit possession is considered to be a classic topic, and the lack of it in the fields of psychology of religion or psychiatry shows that these phenomena are not very well researched (Versteeg & Droogers, 2007). Even though such incidents are not very common, they are also not as rare as society perceives them to be. For instance, about 10% of the patients in India who are diagnosed with dissociative disorder not otherwise specified actually have a possession disorder (Ferracuti & Sacco, 1996). Thus, studying the psychological significance of exorcism within the Christianity or any other religion and the ways it can be applied for the benefit of the patients in combination with other medical or psychological treatment may bring some substantial results. However, as Wildman and McNamara state, while doing an empirical study in the field of religion the researchers should be very careful considering the social implications of their research (2008). Even the unbiased study on religion still occurs in the specific social and cultural context. Thus, the results of the ideologically neutral study might escalate and have a profound effect on the social policies, laws, and both religious and non-religious self-understanding of individuals (Wildman & McNamara, 2008). Handling such controversial topic as exorcism and its’ application in medical, psychological or psychiatric treatment which brings together the issues of religion, medicine, psychology and psychiatry requires even more carefulness because it possesses both the benefits and the problems of each field.

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