Belief in demons is not new. According to The Atlantic's Mike Mariani, Babylonian priests performed exorcisms in ancient Mesopotamia, and the Hindu Vedas—dating back between 1500 and 500 B.C.—referenced demonic figures. In today's psyche, many assume "demons" are a metaphorical manifestation of mental illness, but some say there's still a difference between mental illness and possession.
YouGov reports that 51 percent of Americans believe possession by demonic beings is possible, and requests for exorcisms are on the rise. One priest told Mariani that he'd received 1,700 requests for exorcisms in 2018, the most he’s gotten in one year. Mariani provides one example of a demon at work from the 1800s:
That summer, Magdalene complained of a spirit that had “flown upon her, pressed her down, and endeavored to throttle her.” Soon, she would fall victim to full possessions: An entity she referred to as the “Black One” would descend and supplant her consciousness with its own. “In the midst of her work she sees him in human form (a masculine shape in a frock, as if issuing from a dark cloud; she can never clearly describe his face) coming towards her,” a contemporary observer wrote. “Then she sees him approach, always from the left side, feels as it were a cold hand which seizes the back of her neck, and in this way he enters into her.”
People seeking exorcisms from the Catholic Church have to undergo both a mental and physical examination before being passed off to the church, and only a small number of requests make the cut. Other reasonable explanations are often offered, such as schizophrenia or going off of a certain medication. Per the Atlantic, according to the church, there are tell-tale signs that go beyond symptoms like hallucination:
If neither the mental-health evaluation nor a subsequent physical exam turns up a standard explanation for the person’s affliction, the priest starts to take the case more seriously. At this point he may begin looking for what the Church considers the classic signs of demonic possession: facility in a language the person has never learned; physical strength beyond his or her age or condition; access to secret knowledge; and a vehement aversion to God and sacred objects, including crucifixes and holy water.
According to church doctrine, demons use doorways in order to take possession of a person; they take advantage of occult material (ouija boards, crystals, even birthstones), habitual sin, or family curses.
Some might still believe demonic possession is misdiagnosed mental illness, but even some psychiatrists believe demonic beings are real. CNN's John Blake reports on one psychiatrist who routinely helps priests with exorcism rituals: "Dr. Richard Gallagher is an Ivy League-educated, board-certified psychiatrist who teaches at Columbia University and New York Medical College."
Gallagher claims he is a "man of science," yet does not deny the possible existence of demons. After one encounter with a patience he calls "Julia," Gallagher was changed for good. And according to Blake, Gallagher isn't the only one. Blake references a letter from Dr. Mark Albanese, who studied medicine at Cornell and has been practicing psychiatry for decades:
[Dr. Mark Albanese] also says there is a growing belief among health professionals that a patient's spiritual dimension should be accounted for in treatment, whether their provider agrees with those beliefs or not. Some psychiatrists have even talked of adding a "trance and possession disorder" diagnosis to the DSM, the premier diagnostic manual of disorders used by mental health professionals in the US.
Many still point to a lack of evidence when it comes to demons and possession. Steven Novella is a a neurologist and professor at Yale School of Medicine. He is also one of Gallagher most outspoken critics.
According to Novella, Gallagher's evidence is thin at best and indicates a lack of critical thinking. He writes in a blog post:
Skeptics will recognize this a special pleading, otherwise known as making up lame excuses to explain why you don’t have any actual evidence. Gallagher says that demons are “crafty.” In the same way UFO proponents claim that aliens are too smart to get caught red-handed. Bigfoot is also brilliant, and can turn invisible at will. Psychic powers don’t work when skeptics are looking, and “Western” science cannot test “Eastern” medicines.
In other words, demons are only elusive and difficult to understand because they do not exist. They are a product of imagination and centuries of folklore.
Some psychologists believe exorcisms are successful in casting out “demons” because patients believe they are possessed. The exorcism has a placebo effect, and the demon was indeed a mental battle, not an actual being. According to Psychology Today's Stephen A. Diamond:
Of course, the main difference between psychotherapy and exorcism is that modern psychotherapy is typically a secular treatment for figurative, metaphorical "demons"--mental, emotional or psychological traumas, memories or "complexes,"-- whereas exorcism takes the existence of demons quite literally. Doing so can have certain advantages in treating patients who believe in the Devil, demons and exorcism, if for no other reason than the extremely impressive power of suggestion.
Keep in mind, psychotherapy can be just as complex and unexplainable as exorcism. Diamond reminds readers:
Psychotherapy, like exorcism, commonly consists of a prolonged, pitched, demanding, soul-wrenching, sometimes tedious bitter battle royale with the patient's diabolically obdurate emotional "demons," at times waged over the course of years or even decades rather than weeks or months, and not necessarily always with consummate success.
Demons are nothing more than manifestations of mental states. Science still has a lot to learn about the brain, but explaining away anomalies through the religious or supernatural is a red herring.