“God Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder,” the satirical magazine The Onion has proclaimed, citing “His confusing propensity to alternately reward and punish His creations with little rhyme or reason.” Given His omnipotence, it’s hardly surprising that God often drives people crazy: His affliction becomes our own. Consider the violent mood swings, between ecstasy and despair, that characterized historic religious revivals. As eighteenth-century evangelist Jonathan Edwards attested, “Those who are saved are successively in two extremely different states–first in a state of condemnation and then in a state of justification and blessedness.” There is method to this madness, Edwards explained. God wanted us to appreciate the “evil from which he delivers us, in order that we may know and feel the importance of salvation.”
More than 200 years later, Americans are still wrestling with evil, quite literally, according to sociologist Michael Cuneo. In American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, he examines popular notions of demonic possession and rituals of deliverance from evil. Exorcism is a “booming business” (if not a highly visible one), Cuneo claims, particularly among charismatic Protestants and Catholics. The Catholic Church has been skeptical of demonic-possession cases, he notes, but “maverick priests” began performing exorcisms during the 1970s and ’80s. Meanwhile, Pentecostalism, an ecstatic form of worship institutionalized in the early 1900s, involving spirit baptism and speaking in tongues, began to influence mainline Protestant churches, contributing to the rise of charismatic “deliverance ministries.”
What inspired a cultural preoccupation with demons? Tracing the apparent rise of demonology in late-twentieth-century America, Cuneo attributes contemporary interest in exorcism partly to popular entertainments (the 1973 film version of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is often cited for inspiring belief in possession). He also sees in the demand for exorcisms a stereotypically American quest for reinvention. Cuneo attended “dozens” of exorcisms and talked to “hundreds” of people (Catholic and Protestant) who believe that demonic possession (or the lesser evil of demonic affliction) are routine occurrences in contemporary America. “Untold numbers” of ordinary middle-class people believe that they have been possessed or afflicted by demons and have undergone exorcisms, he asserts.
It’s difficult to evaluate this claim: You can’t substantiate, much less confirm, a number that’s “untold.” According to Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, there was a surge of interest in exorcism in the 1970s, but ministries that practice exorcisms or deliverance rituals constitute a very small, almost imperceptible subculture of conservative Protestantism today. Cuneo’s evidence of exorcism’s entrenched popularity is mainly anecdotal and circumstantial. In addition to accounts of the exorcisms he’s witnessed and the exorcists he’s interviewed, he relies on cultural indications of a widespread belief in demonism, like hysteria about satanic cults that emerged in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
But whether exorcisms and an underlying belief in demonic influences are practically mainstream or merely fringe phenomena, they’re worth considering, partly because they demonstrate the connections between religion and therapy in America. Cuneo is both a skeptical and sensitive observer; if his work does not stand up as social science, it includes some astute social criticism. As he observes, these outré religious rituals and beliefs mirror the preoccupations of popular therapeutic culture (partly because some popular therapies are rooted in religion). The notion of addiction promoted by the recovery movement resembles possession: Addiction is a disease of the will that takes control of its victims and can be cured only by surrender to the will of a Higher Power. The notion of demonic affliction promoted by some deliverance ministries, according to Cuneo, resembles addiction: Sometimes people are delivered merely from unwanted habits and impulses–like gluttony or lust (what a twelve-stepper might call a sex or food addiction). And, like familial dysfunction, demons can apparently be inherited: Some people, it seems, suffer from “congenital demonism” or “transgenerational evil.”
As it made its way into American culture, demonism became rather banal, Cuneo observes: Exorcism “was converted… into a kind of suburban home remedy,” and by the early 1980s, middle-class charismatics were seeking to expel their “demons” of anger, resentment, frustration, lust and addiction. Like co-dependency, demonic affliction was apt to be blamed for a multitude of “symptoms” from which everyone was bound to suffer, or simply for a sense of discontent or unease. “I felt there was something inside me, holding me back, dragging me down,” one woman says, describing her affliction. An exorcist recalls delivering a woman from “seventy different demons–demons of lust and violence and duplicity–they just kept manifesting.” It’s not hard to imagine the same woman being diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, had she been in recovered-memory therapy instead of church. Meanwhile, people engaged in psychotherapy talk about exorcising demons.
Some of the exorcists Cuneo interviews lament the trivialization of demonism and advise some people demanding exorcisms to seek counseling instead. Others who are less honorable or more certain of their own righteousness, as well as their ability to identify demons, engage in “blatant emotional manipulation,” Cuneo writes: Just as recovered memory therapists supplied their patients with incest stories, some prayer groups pressure people into acknowledging that they’re demonized. A belief in your own affliction may be hard to resist, Cuneo surmises, if you want to participate in the agony and ecstasy that deliverance provides. And once delivered, you can be part of an elite, like someone who has survived co-dependency or been enlightened by therapy.
Of course, a sociological analysis of exorcism or any form of therapy seems uninformed, unenlightened and insulting to people who believe in demons (literal or metaphoric) and consider themselves saved by an exorcism, a twelve-step group or some other curative ritual. Cuneo suspects that exorcisms conducted with compassion and humility can be genuinely therapeutic, whether the demons they expel are real or imagined. But, as he observes, the dearth of hard data makes it impossible to know whether exorcisms are generally helpful or hurtful. There are no longitudinal studies of people who’ve undergone exorcisms (just as there are virtually no reliable outcome studies of various pop therapies). All we have is the personal testimony of believers.
Cuneo seems surprised that exorcism can flourish in contemporary America; despite his sympathy for the possessed and the exorcists who try to help them, his book has the tone of an exposé. But the news is familiar. According to a 2000 Gallup poll, some 79 percent of Americans believe in angels. Why shouldn’t they believe in demons as well? There’s less virtue in going to heaven if you haven’t been tempted by hell.