Is it crazy to believe in the devil?

by WCE

As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession.

Dr. Gallagher writes about his efforts to distinguish mental illness from possible demon possession. He added this explanatory comment after the article was published.

Dr. GALLAGHER responds: Greetings to all. Since this essay garnered such enormous interest, I will add some context. I was asked to write this piece by the Post, not the reverse. As the superb editor made clear, it was NOT to be a scientific article about the evidence for or against possession, but rather my experience as a psychiatrist involved with suffering people. Yes, many of these individuals presented to me with paranormal and tormenting symptoms — and one is free to believe me or not, but I KNOW that to be unequivocally true. These cases are rare and they are not patients of mine. Further, despite the misleading title (which I did not assign the piece), I do not “diagnose” possession, as I stated, but just inform pro bono various clergy (not all Christian btw), as also stated, that as a very experienced physician these features may (or may not) go beyond medical pathology. I make no apology that I am expertly trained to do so (unlike some armchair experts). An article arguing for the reality of demonic possession, a complex and highly controversial subject, would require a much longer essay and a very different way of marshaling the evidence; I was not asked to do that. I thank the many readers who appreciated the piece and I predicted others would react with (many juvenile) ad hominem and sometimes ignorant and anti-Christian vitriol. What else is new?…


54 thoughts on “Is it crazy to believe in the devil?

  1. “certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.”

    I feel like Mulder and Scully should be involved

  2. When I read the article, it definitely reminded me of a story by Oliver Sacks or a savant story.

  3. I certainly believe in a robust spiritual or perhaps more exactly non-corporeal realm full of all sorts of entities or energies that impinge on the corporeal or on human consciousness.
    I am not convinced about classic demonic possession – a fully aware non corporeal being taking control of a living corporeal being.

    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

  4. I have family members with mental illness and the contrast with and without medication is astonishing. If I had not known them prior or with the medication, I would believed them to be possessed.
    I come from a religious family and a priest who was a far off relation was designated as an exorcist (very few are). He was known to have helped people. I was quite skeptical of his powers. In a society where help for people suffering mentally is limited I felt he was performing the role of a psychiatrist.

  5. “Most of the people I evaluate in this role suffer from the more prosaic problems of a medical disorder. Anyone even faintly familiar with mental illnesses knows that individuals who think they are being attacked by malign spirits are generally experiencing nothing of the sort. ”

    We thought our dog was either possessed or suffering from some type of mental illness. He would randomly run around in fits and yelp at the air behind him. The vet even suggested pet psychiatry, but not an exorcist. It turned out he had an adverse reaction to a flea and tick topical treatment. He was apparently very itchy and his skin became generally sensitized. This is a documented effect as we discovered from YouTube. Thank goodness it wore off in about a month.

  6. Hmmm…I guess I don’t really worry about the type of people he is describing. He isn’t describing some one, or Im not reading carefully enough, who is going out and doing evil things as the result of their “possession”. I worry more about people who think it is appropriate to harm other people on purpose.

  7. Justice Scalia was ridiculed by a journalist for his belief in the Devil but, as he pointed out to her, it is an article of faith in the Catholic Church. The rare but not non-existent cases of possession are extreme examples of how the devil works, according to Church teaching and my own experience. It is interesting that many possessed people mostly harm themselves rather than others.

  8. I do believe in a robust spiritual realm

    What does that involve? Angels, ancestors, and spirits and such?

  9. I love the idea that anything we can’t explain must be super natural. Like we are sooo smart that if we don’t have an answer, it must be God or the devil. If you look back at the evolution of medicine there are things the scientific community absolutely believed to be true that we now know as false. We laugh at the idea that people thought leeches were healing but I am certain that some day someone will look back at the way we treat cancer and say “Can you believe they used to poison people to kill cancer. So silly.” FWIW, I don’t believe in God or the Devil. Oh and I believe that miracles are also just stuff we haven’t figured out yet.

  10. I do not believe in the Christian lore of a devil, but I do believe in God and existence of a soul.

  11. I do believe that sometimes people are hospitalized because they think the law is going to get them because of secret knowledge they have, and it turns out to be true.

    Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. -Kurt Cobain

  12. I equivocate on the phenomenon of possession. But if I do believe in souls left in limbo because of their evil life before death, then I guess there is a possibility of a possession.

  13. do you think there has to be a yin yang balance to the world?

    if there is a heaven, a hell?
    a God, a devil?
    angels, demons?

  14. Dear Totebaggers: I have found your “secret weakness”: undue pride!

    I don’t think that was a secret.

  15. In other news, I had to turn the light in the hallway on when I went to the bathroom because I got spooked. Thanks WCE.

  16. If I can believe in the potential of the existence of God, I can’t see how I could argue against the possibility of a devil. Not because there needs to be balance, but just because we can’t possibly totally understand what is going on if we are correct in our belief in God.

    In the day-to-day, I kind of think attributing things to the devil is a lazy way out. We should try to figure stuff out. Or at least want to figure stuff out. Similarly, it really bothers me when people attribute specific good things to God.

  17. I’m a skeptic who tries to remain a Catholic, so I guess I am supposed to believe in the devil but I rarely give him any thought.

    If he reads the Totebag, I’m doomed….

  18. “if there is a heaven, a hell?
    a God, a devil?
    angels, demons?”

    Action, equal and opposite reaction?

  19. “But what am I supposed to make of patients who unexpectedly start speaking perfect Latin?”

    I suppose if the patient had taken Latin previously, e.g., MS, that would not be unexpected? Perhaps it would be unexpected from a lousy student.

  20. The Evil eye is a big thing in the home country, no matter your religious belief. When kids are little there are talismans tied to their wrists or ankles or some type of black dot to ward off the evil eye. I was asked if I wanted this for my kids. I said no, I would take my chances.

  21. The current Mennonite Confession of Faith says

    The enslaving nature of sin is apparent in the powers of evil, which work through both individuals and groups and in the entire created order. These powers, principalities, and elemental spirits of the universe often hold people captive and work through political, economic, social, and even religious systems to turn people away from justice and righteousness.

    I’m inclined to get a little handwavy and metaphorical about these things, but that description isn’t wrong.

  22. Moxiemom, I hate to tell you, but we still use leeches. My sister is a nurse and has dealt with them with “skin flaps” (skin grafts?). She says they can be a pain as they tend to escape when done feeding. I also wonder how they get sterile ones.

    I’ve dealt with some persons with mental illness and I found it interesting that their apocalypse scenario only only involved their immediate world (~100 mile radius). Can’t watch supernatural shows on TV….freaks me out.

  23. WCE, I was so young when I read Screwtape that I bet my impressions of it are all wrong. I should reread it. Right now I’m working on Sue Klebold’s book and I can’t take anything else heavy.

  24. seems like this is really about ” is it crazy to believe in demonic possession?”

  25. I know they still use leeches for finger reattachment and the like but we don’t use them on people with the flu!

    Does anyone wonder why the demons always speak Latin? Like are they all from Rome? There’s no devils from like Amsterdam or Guam?

  26. Demons don’t always speak Latin. Most of the stories I’ve heard are associated with missionaries from Africa, where African dialects are spoken. But a physician would likely interpret a demon speaking an obscure dialect as gibberish, where Latin would be recognizable to the observer.

  27. “Does anyone wonder why the demons always speak Latin?”

    They don’t. I can’t find the source, but I have a vague recollection of a possession story where the possessed spoke Aramaic. And I think I’ve read that they’ve spoken other ancient (or dead) languages. Or speak in tongues.

    Roman Catholic Mass was celebrated in Latin (and only Latin) from its inception until the 20th century I believe. Only recently has Mass been said in the local language. So it’s not a far stretch to think that the demons would speak Latin.

  28. “How is believing in the devil any more crazy than believing in God?”

    I don’t think it is. I don’t really believe in either of them, although I don’t emphatically disbelieve either. I’m a lapsed Protestant or an agnostic I suppose. I refuse to say emphatically that there is no higher power of any kind once you start discussing the origins of the universe, but I don’t really believe any of the stuff I learned in church growing up either. And I don’t want to take anyone’s faith from them. My mother is very religious. It brings her comfort and leads her to help lots of people who benefit from her service in the name of the church. I respect that.

  29. I have healthy skepticism for true possessions, ghost photos, stories I read, etc., but I do believe in souls, ghosts, demons, shadows, angels, God, the devil, miracles, and things we cannot explain.

    I’ve had too many experiences to not believe that there’s more to this world.

  30. John Cleese recorded a wonderful audio version of the Screwtape Letters. Now I can’t read it without hearing his voice. Though some of the references are dated, it’s still a fun read and even more fun to listen to Cleese. Not a heavy book but thought-provoking.

  31. I’m willing to believe that unexplained spiritual experiences will later be fully explained by science. Maybe science is at the root of spirituality.

  32. Following up on the AirBNB talk, there was a big crackdown in Iceland yesterday:

    I have contacted the three hosts we have booked for our trip. One confirmed they are fully licensed – this is the one we are looking forward to the most, so that’s really good. One said she will get back to me tomorrow (it sounds like she doesn’t have a license). And I still have not heard back from the third, whom I have been trying to contact since Sunday. I am getting very concerned about that one. I did book hotels to cover the two nights, but I would much prefer to stay in the airbnb.

  33. When I went to catholic school in the early 80s, there was a lot of talk about the devil and purgatory. It was kind of scary to me as a kid and contributed to turning me off of religion in general. However, I still love a good ghost story. My son said something creepy the other night. He’s 3 and has a hard time settling down at bedtime occasionally. I was putting him to bed and he said, “can you tell the little girl not to come tonight?” I said, “what little girl?” and he said, “the little girl in the pink dress that wakes me up at night.” Shut up, you creepy kid!

  34. From DD’s link:

    “According to a study published in November last year only a fraction of properties in Reykjavík had been registered with the authorities as being rented to travellers. Only 13% of the properties had been issued necessary permits.”

    My guess is that %age of permitted rentals is pretty close to what it is here.

  35. For the DC folks. Just getting up from dinner at Brabo in Old Town Alexandria. I recommend it wholehearted to the locals for a splurge

  36. GFM – are you going to sleep in his room tonight? That would totally freak me out!

  37. “So it’s not a far stretch to think that the demons would speak Latin.”

    Come on, they’ve had eternity. You don’t think they had time to pick up another language or two – then again, maybe its more about having opportunities to use it so maybe that explains it. THen again, I’m guessing that possession would be more effective if you were able to communicate with the person that is possessed and those around them, so maybe its all just kind of a lack of branding strategy and communications strategy. THings to think about.

  38. GFM- I love that! I’m waiting for my kid to say stuff like that.

    Moxie- you’re probably right. Which is why I’d think that they’d speak Aramaic or Phonecian. But then we’d call that gibberish. I’ve always thought that if they had eternity most of our modern languages would be a blip on their radar so why learn a new one when it will change.. Though this conversation implies that demons are sentient.

  39. The Carholic Church teaches that the devil is a created being. Therefore, not equal to God, but also more powerful and intelligent than man. I don’t know whether it is true that people under a demonic possession often speak Latin, but if the goal is to convince an educated person (clergy or doctor) of the demonic possession of an uneducated person, Latin is a pretty safe bet. Also, as someone pointed out above, Latin is the language of the Church, which the devil hates and wants to destroy.

  40. “That would totally freak me out!”

    As others have said, I definitely believe that there’s more to life and death than a random assortment of carbon atoms. And I wish I could share the same level of faith as my DW, but I’m reluctantly skeptical of some of the historic specifics that the Church teaches.

    But one thing I absolutely believe is that children under the ages of about 4.5 are definitely able to see, feel, interpret, and understand these visits or appearances in a way that older children and adults have become blind to. Call me crazy, but I personally know of too many examples of this not to believe it.

  41. Is there a recording of this Latin speech? I ask because he said, “perfect Latin.” As in the same pronunciation and diction as Pliny the Elder? With Latin being a dead language, the most “perfect Latin” spoken today would have the accent of whatever the first language is of the person speaking it. Presumably, the demon would speak with the accent of a native Latin speaker of which none exist today.

  42. Around the world, those Catholics who went to church pre 60s would recognize Church Latin as the masses were held in Latin. Even for these people no recent exposure to Latin means they could confuse it with some other European language.

  43. Rhett – most priests are still taught Latin in the seminary. And a priest who works with demonic possessions most likely has a deeper knowledge of Latin (and other dead but relevant languages) than my local priest (who looks like he’s about 25).

    Also, the idea of an American breaking into Latin would be more amazing than someone who speaks a truly Latin-based language. In the example you cited yesterday, the man broke into French – a language close to Italian AND one he had studied briefly. Most Americans only study Latin in high school English when prepping for the SATs and going over etymology. Therefore, no true study of structure and cadence. And American English is a Germanic language – the sentence structure is entirely different than Latin.

    What’s more interesting is that some people completely change under possession. Some of the stories I’ve read describe how the mannerisms, cadence, voice pitch, and accent all changed. That’s how the priest knew the person was under possession. Basically, the possessed person became like your story above – went from an Italian man to a French man – mannerisms and all.

  44. Meme – I have never been there but have heard good things. Maybe for our anniversary. If you are looking for a good lunch spot, check out Society Fair. It is from the same people who own Restaurant Eve. Try to stay cool. This weekend is supposed to brutal.

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