Friday, 7 August 2009

We are Legion: religion and mental illness

One last look at the Christian Medical Fellowship (I hope). For first-time readers, the CMF is a group of British Christian doctors, around 4500 strong.

The CMF has a guidance section on its website called Demon Possession and Mental Illness which asks if doctors should 'see demonic influence as being a neglected aetiological factor within a multifactorial model for the aetiology of mental disorder?'

In other words, should doctors include possession by the devil in the list of causes for mental illness ?

The CMF's answer is yes.

This is in another category entirely to the usual CMF guidance as it is predicated on a world view that includes demons as real and active beings rather than a selective or fanciful use of data to support a religious moral stance. It is not a matter of claiming that condoms don't work, homosexuality can/should be cured or that abortion leads to insanity and social breakdown (as I have covered in earlier posts). This is a matter of practising medical doctors who believe that demons exist and possess people.

I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that people who believe in the existence of a deity also believe in his opposite number but there are many doctors (and others) who have faith but do not go this far.

The guidance refers to an article called Demons and The Mind by Roy Clements, published in Cambridge Papers (Towards A Biblical Mind) vol 5 no 3 September 1996. Clements has a PhD in physical chemistry and a diploma in theology. At the time of writing, he was minister of Eden Baptist Church in Cambridge.

This article is not available online but I have a copy. In it, Clements argues for a more holistic model of the human personality in which 'mental illness might be caused by faulty body chemistry (physical influence), dysfunctional family experience (social influence), demonic assault (spiritual influence) and unresolved guilt (personal sin).' (my italics)

He recommends that 'drug treatment, psychotherapy and exorcism should not be regarded as mutually incompatible remedies but as complementary therapeutic interventions, each exploiting a different facet of human nature'. This holistic model, he believes 'can do justice to both modern science and the Bible'. In other words, he is placing science and the supernatural on an equal footing.

He is also seeking to exploit the current trend for so-called alternative and holistic treatments, stating that 'many people today are dissatisfied with the hubris of modern medical science and are sympathetic towards more holistic forms of therapy'. The CMF echoes this sentiment with 'not all human problems will be explicable by medical science'.

Three points come to mind:

1. These are scientifically trained doctors, paid for out of public money, many of them working in GP surgeries around the UK, not people who have bought bogus PhDs from imaginary American colleges seeking to fleece the gullible and the desperate or New Agers using vague terms like 'energy' and 'natural' and 'detox' to sell their products.

2. Medical science doesn't claim to treat all human problems. No branch of science claims to know or explain everything. It's not how much you know, it's how you know it - evidence-based, peer-reviewed, replicable testing would be a start.

3. Anyone talking about the hubris, arrogance, coldness etc etc of modern medicine usually has something to sell based on an unassailable certainty that they are right.

Clements is very clear that he wants exorcism and related 'treatments' to be firmly based in the English Protestant tradition, which would require an approach 'far more responsible than that which prevails in much of the deliverance ministry scene at the moment'. None of your foreign all-singing, all-dancing exorcism, then. (Much deliverance ministry is done in the UK by Afro-Caribbean churches).

Catholic exorcism has traditionally been far from the variety Clements is proposing. Just one example is Father Gabriele Amorth, a Catholic exorcist working in Rome. Amorth says that 'he always asks for someone's medical history and consults a psychiatrist if he thinks it useful. On the other hand, he argues that only performing an exorcism provides certainty, because it is in the reaction to the exorcism that one detects the presence of a demon. Besides, he said, "An exorcism never harmed anyone".' It would be interesting to know his definition of 'anyone'.

They really haven't thought this one through.
  1. Would Clements' Protestant version be any safer?
  2. What safeguards would there be?
  3. Are the CMF proposing that deliverance should be recommended or even practised by NHS doctors?
  4. Who would train these doctors to recognise the signs of possession?
  5. Would there be a demon-spotting module in medical degrees?
  6. What about non-Christian doctors (and nurses too), whether atheist or of other religions?
  7. Would there be discrimination against patients who do not share this belief or who reject a diagnosis?
  8. What about equality of service provision?
  9. What do the BMA think about all this?
  10. And many other questions.

The CMF guidance lists a series of examples from the New Testament where Jesus casts out evil spirits; the list includes an episode, repeated in all three synoptic gospels, where an epileptic boy is cured in this way. No doubt, as doctors, CMF members know the difference between epilepsy and mental illness, which makes it even more puzzling for them to include it. There are cases of epilepsy being confused with possession throughout history right up to the present day but lumping it in with mental illness does nothing to help the stigma of it.

Incidentally, demon possession 'may also be an aetiological factor in some non-psychiatric conditions' - although there is no mention of which ones. Kidney stones? Diabetes? Cancer? A broken leg?

The CMF guidance is reproduced on a website with the innocuous title of Ethics for Schools, which is entirely written by Christian doctors for students of philosophy, ethics and religious studies.

Just in case it looks like the CMF are the only villains or that I am unfairly targeting them, as a random sample, the website might be expected to deal with mental illness in a scientific or at least objective way. The home page seems entirely rational, helpful and informative. Except that the site also promotes schizophrenia as a marketing opportunity for God: 'the Bible has great relevance to the needs and questions among families of the mentally ill. (...) These families comprise a huge, overlooked target group for evangelism.' It's not the same thing, but it is another example of religion trying to stake its claim on mental illness.

On a personal note, the death knell of my (mercifully brief) teenage religious phase was sounded when the leader of a youth group I belonged to told me that he had visited a local mental hospital and was convinced that the illness of some of the patients was clearly caused by the devil possessing them. He was not a doctor but a dentist, someone who had also received science-based training.

I sincerely hope that I am now done with the CMF.


  1. What a shock - I knew that churches (even the staid, traditional ones) still provided services for exorcism, but had no idea that the area was inhabited by clinicians of any variety. And unless I've understood it wrong, it seems that religious input is not being offered as a placebo or psychological support, but as a real force on an empirical agent.

    I can't imagine that no-one has ever been harmed by an exorcism. The profoundly held belief that you are inhabited by a malign and powerful supernatural force which must be wrenched from you can only be traumatic, surely?

    At the best, this is poor thinking. At the worst, it's abuse of the vulnerable.

  2. No, you haven't misunderstood. Alas.

  3. You may be able to stay clean and sober for periods of time, but without a medical detox program and drug addiction treatment, you cannot hope to stay away from drugs and alcohol forever.

  4. I have a couple of experiences with 'Demon possession' and exorcism. Many years ago,a school friend of mine was diagnosed as being possessed at a Youth Worship (Methodist) meeting. The demon's name was extracted from his struggling body as "Ughh!". The demon was 'succesfully' exorcised. He continued to be unhappy and anti-social Many years later, I met up with my friend who revealed that he had been diagnosed as Bipolar and this was controlled with medication. My ex-wife believed she had the 'Gifts' of exorcism and 'speaking in tongues'. She would practise her exorcisms on her sister, who also had a host of impossible-to-diagnose medical conditions. They both had attention-seeking disorders and shared other symptoms of mental health problems with a third sister, who had been diagnosed as Schizophrenic as a child. Clearly, claims of demon possession are more likely to be linked with issues of low self-esteem, mental health and attention-seeking. It is grossly irresponsible of any adult, Doctor or Priest, to suggest or accommodate the hapless sufferer any credence to such damaging ideas. I had to bring my marriage to an end and take custody of our children. I have absolutely no respect or time for people who would encourage this practise.

  5. When I was a Christian, I had "deliverance prayer" because a Christian counsellor I was seeing about my mental health recommended it because I'd been involved in the occult in the past. It left me terrified and shaking - and I was still schizophrenic afterwards.

    Mind you, I'd previously made the mistake of praying with my OT, who was also Christian. She thought I had schizoid personality disorder (turned out to be Asperger's) and while praying asked God to help me "repent" of this. I was puzzled about how you repent of a medical condition. That should have warned me straight away.