Let me start by making a very bold statement: There is no such thing as a demon.
Yes, I said it. They don’t exist. They are fictional, products of the imaginations of people who were trying to explain things they weren’t equipped to explain at the time. But as to real beings that can cause havoc, desire suffering, or possess unwilling human beings and subvert their free will, there is no such thing.
Why am I stating this? What makes my above bolded statement a bold statement?
There are people who still don’t understand that.
Here we have televangelist and certifiable loon Pat Robertson. Yes, I know it’s easy to dismiss the guy as the crank he is, but nearly 1,000,000 people watch The 700 Club daily. They watched when he claimed that the earthquake in Haiti was a good thing and that the Haitian people had made a pact with the devil. They watched when he claimed that the tornadoes that killed 39 people could have been staved off if they had just prayed hard enough. And now they’re watching him claim that being gay is a sign of demonic possession.
Why am I bringing up this mostly harmless old kook? Because he’s not the only one who believes this absolutely ridiculous thing. And often the results are worse.
Magnolia, TX resident, 5-year-old Michael Spurlock, is in critical condition after his mother, convinced her son was possessed by demons, slit his throat. Actually, first she stomped on his chest, which is usually enough to cast out any demons that might have been masquerading as breath in his lungs, then she slit his throat when that didn’t seem to work.
While this whole situation is horrendous, one of the quotes sticks out to me:
“Even if you believe in that sort of thing, how can a 5-year-old be possessed or have something like that? It’s inconceivable in my mind,” said Greg Riley, a Magnolia resident.
I think Magnoila resident Greg Riley is missing the point. If somebody believes a person can be possessed at all, what stops them from also believing that a five year old could? Is there something about 5 year olds that any reasonable person can point to and say, “Yep, no way a demon is getting into this kid”? Why shouldn’t somebody who already believes in demons also believe that a 5 year old, her own child, has one inside of them and the method by which to expel that demon involves slitting the child’s throat?
I can already hear the claims of “isolated incident.” Thing is, this isn’t. Child deaths related to claims of possession and witchcraft are on the rise in the UK. Less than two weeks ago a teenaged girl in Umlazi, South Africa was killed after being tortured for three days on suspicion of being possessed.
The problem with the theater is that it’s not just theater. I can watch Max Von Sydow do battle with the creature inside Linda Blair and know that it’s fiction. There are no “principalities and powers” that are waging war on me for the fate of my soul. They simply aren’t there. But encouraging these beliefs is no different than assuring a paranoid schizophrenic that yes, there are people out to get them, but it’s safe right now. It’s a delaying tactic, one that might or might not calm the person for the moment, but ultimately re-enforces their delusions that they are in danger from unseen powers.
Often people say that it must be frightening to be an atheist, the idea of living in a huge universe that is ultimately unfeeling, uncaring, and not concerned with me. Personally, I find it comforting living in a world with neither demon nor divine patriarch to worry about offending, a world where if I don’t know what something is, I can find it out. I world where should I one day have a 5 year old son, I will never, ever have to worry that I might be forced to cut his throat because I, in the throws of delusional paranoia, am absolutely convinced that a mythological being is real and inside my precious boy.
And that’s the sticking point. I have no doubt in my mind that Daphne Spurlock loved her son. You don’t do that sort of thing, take on the power of the supernatural, for somebody you don’t love, and in her mind that’s what she was doing. But she was told by members of her church that she could cast out demons and in Chekovian fashion, she eventually tried to use this power. She believed in something that wasn’t there, and she almost killed her son because of it.
There are monsters in this world. I’ve talked about them many times. But they aren’t supernatural and often aren’t particularly subtle. The monsters in this story were not to be found within Daphne and Michael Spurlock, but rather in those who convinced them that demons exist. The monsters in this world are the ones who encourage fear and ignorance, who promote superstition as a virtue and condemn critical thinking as a vice. It is the witch hunters, the Helen Ukpabios of the world, that are the most ironic of monsters.
But we, as rational people, can fight ignorance with knowledge, superstition with fact, and extremism with reason. There is no reason why any child anywhere should be killed for being possessed by nothing, but I am positive that now that Pat Robertson has said something, queer kids all over the country will find themselves tied to beds, starved, and anointed with holy water until the gay exits their body with the demons their parents are sure lurk there.