Sunday, 7 August 2011

Bell, Book and Candle



Exorcism is not just unscientific - the concept of evil makes us all Bart Simpson.

BBC's Sunday Morning Live today had a discussion about exorcism and a woman claiming that it cured her alcoholism. Leaving aside the scientific aspect - regular readers will know what I'd say on that - there is another aspect to consider.

Belief that bad things are caused by an outside agency is the supernatural equivalent of the Bart Simpson defence - a bigger boy made me do it.

The word 'evil' is problematic. It's used by non-believers to describe certain sorts of human behaviour and by believers to describe the agency of the devil. Both use it to identify something that is allegedly inhuman, alien or Other. And that's the problem. Whether it's alcoholism, homosexuality, mental illness, unruly children, child abuse or serial killing, 'evil' sources the cause as something outside human nature.

Even though many non-believers use it as a catch-all with a whole range of nuances, there is still too often a sense that this is not regular human behaviour. But it is, everything humans do is human nature, we can't just pick the bits we like or easily understand. Neither is it evidence of our 'animal nature', something to be tamed or that we must rise above, it's part of human complexity.

A secular authority uses the judicial system to deal with this 'evil', some religions use exorcism.

Exorcism - or deliverance as some churches call it - is founded on a victim mentality that is perversely comforting. We are not responsible. We are at the mercy of supernatural attacks and only God can protect or liberate us. In addition, sometimes it's the most religious who are the most assailed so it becomes almost a badge of piety to be possessed. The woman on Sunday Morning Live who blamed possession for her alcoholism was handing over responsibility. She saw alcoholism and other afflictions not as a disease or as a choice but as something that was inflicted on her, something which she had no power herself to overcome.

Like many of us, she wanted to blame someone or something for what happened to her. No one can help being born with a propensity for alcoholism or psychopathic behaviour but 'blaming' our genes or environment isn't satisfying. As humans, we look for something with human-like intentions because that is both easier to conceptualise and to distance from ourselves.

One response to her was that whatever gets you clean is good. But this way of thinking leaves people like her open to further possessions. Anytime something bad happens, responsibility is handed over to the devil. If God doesn't deliver you the first time, keep going until he does. Not only does this attitude make us victims, it infantilizes us, holding us in a suspended state of child-like irresponsibility, pushing away both blame and understanding.

A watered-down and more secular version of this Devil-think is the idea of luck, which looks to ascribe outside causes to agencies that can be propitiated or neutralised through ritual. It may appear less harmful than a belief in possession, but it's part of a continuum, a position that acknowledges science but then over-rides it. It's like instances where people know there is a scientific reason for something happening - livestock dying or being burgled, for example - but then go on to ask why here, why now, why me? And the answer is something Outside.

Calling behaviour evil can be a way of saying 'it couldn't happen here, we're not like that'. But as we saw in Norway recently, it can and does happen in all of our 'heres'. Putting photos of killers with red-eye in the paper and calling them the face of evil really doesn't help prevent that. We're all capable of behaviour that we're not proud of and the only way to prevent it, either as an individual or a society, is to recognise it, not to think of it a some sort of alien invader.

We're not Mediaeval peasants who can execute a pig for killing a child or blame a curse for making our crops fail but our minds haven't changed in just a few hundred years. Belief in exorcism or even (bad) luck is still a kind of contamination theory: something infects us or attacks us or breeds inside us - something that can be contagious and that has a cure of the same order. Whether we think it's the devil or some sort of allegedly secular evil, this is sci-fi/horror movie thinking.

Max von Sydow is not going to turn up to fix us and neither is Sigourney Weaver. The Alien is us.

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