The Devil We Refuse to See
History, reason, and common sense demonstrate the dangers of seeing demons everywhere. We moderns don’t, however, appreciate the danger of refusing to see demons anywhere.
You don’t expect to see stories about demon possession in the pages of a mainstream newspaper, but that’s just what readers of the Indianapolis Star got in late January. The paper published an astonishing story about the alleged possession and exorcism of Latoya Ammons, and her children. National and international media outlets picked up the story and made it a viral sensation.
What made the Ammons story different from the kind of lurid accounts you find in tabloid newspapers? Evidence given in official state documents and on-the-record interviews by police officers and medical personnel, who said they witnessed bizarre things that could not be explained by ordinary means.
According to an official report filed by a Department of Child Services investigator, a physician’s staff observed one of the Ammons children “lifted and thrown into the wall with nobody touching him.” The investigator and a psychological counselor saw the child “walk up the wall as if he was walking on the floor and [do] a flip over the grandmother.”
There was much more along these lines. Testimony like this is common among Christians who work in exorcism and deliverance ministry, but it is exceedingly rare to find it attested by doctors, police officers, and state investigators. As a former newspaper journalist, I am certain that the Star published this chilling story because it judged the word of police and medical eyewitnesses more reliable than the claims of religious believers. As a matter of professional ethics, they were right to; extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
How much evidence, though, is required for skeptics to believe in the reality of demonic possession, and of the existence of intelligent spiritual entities dedicated to hate and destruction?
Almost all religious traditions – pagan, Abrahamic, and Eastern -- posit the existence of malevolent spirits, called “demons” in Christianity. In the Gospels, Jesus often confronts and casts out demons. Yet in the post-Enlightenment West, the idea of “spiritual warfare” – a term for the direct and indirect struggle humans endure with these entities -- has been largely abandoned, even by churches. What earlier ages would have identified as demonic, we call psychiatric.
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