Unseen Worlds

howaboutdemonsA few weeks ago I wrote about re-watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose. In anticipation of the inauguration I was in the midst of a spate of possession movies. I watched several others, including The Rite and The Possession. This got me thinking I should read Felicitas D. Goodman’s book How About Demons? Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World. Goodman was an anthropologist who’d done fieldwork among groups that practiced possession—keep in mind that many religions believe in good spirits as well as evil ones. Her book is one of the few that takes the larger picture seriously. Many writers simply dismiss the “demon haunted world” as naive and superstitious, but Goodman makes the point that possession is a real phenomenon and we don’t know the cause of it. Indeed, it’s impossible to say with certainty what the agency is because spiritual causes can’t be studied empirically. That said, science deeply informs her analysis.

I’ve observed people speaking in tongues before. It’s an uncanny experience. No matter what you decide the origin might be, it’s strange and not a little unsettling. It’s related to possession, as Goodman shows. So is multiple personality syndrome. Unlike most scientists, however, she doesn’t make the unwarranted leap that since these are all related they’re all the same. Speaking in tongues is usually considered a good thing while demonic possession is not. Interestingly, recordings of glossolalia—speaking in tongues—show the same pattern globally. This indicates that whatever it is, it originates biologically from human brains in a mostly predictable way. Many world religions allow for possession by good spirits or gods and alternate states of consciousness are accessible by learning how to reach them. Anyone can do it, but some have the gift of doing so easily. Those who do overlap with the pool of the possessed.

As the White House shows, we like simple answers. Possession, however, is a complex phenomenon. Throughout, Goodman refuses to equate it simply with the physical manifestations that have been observed and recorded. She was a true scientist. Reductionism is related to our love of simple explanations. I wanted to read How About Demons? because it contains one of the few serious academic studies of the case of Anneliese Michel, the young woman on whom The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based. I was expecting, since this is an academic treatment, that the cause would be nailed down simply and efficiently. I was pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t. Well before the movie Goodman interviewed those involved in the case and wrote an entire book on it. Although she clearly believed in science to explain our world, as this book demonstrates, she didn’t give it more explanatory power than it actually has. In a complex world we need as many subtle minds as we can get.

4 responses to “Unseen Worlds

  1. I was reading a very interesting article yesterday by Dr Tom Pepinsky who wrote, “weak leaders often act like strong leaders, and strong leaders often act like they are indifferent”. I would accept extending the analogy to science, as follows: weak scientists act as if the theories they study must apply to all problems, and strong scientists are indifferent to such universality and indeed are unsurprised when their theories fail to apply to certain problems. It feels like, in the last few weeks, our Western Anglophone society has undergone a sudden phase transition, where science went from being given too much explanatory power to suddenly having none.

    I completely agree—subtlety is underappreciated in scientists. Sometimes, Occam’s Razor works and we find beautiful, simple explanations for a bewildering zoo of phenomena (Newton’s mechanics, Maxwell’s electromagnetics, etc.). But most times, especially in the day to day work we do, we know to expect complex phenomena to have complex, very subtle explanations.

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  2. Hello,
    On an unrelated subject (but still about religion, faith and belief), I heard this podcast today and thought you might be interested: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/what-matters-to-australians/8223784
    The subject: As Church attendance dwindles and distrust of politicians and the political system reaches an all time high, what are the things which Australians now care about? What are the things which will sustain us beyond today’s turbulent times?

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