Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Vade retro satana

The Yahoo! news yesterday ran a story about Father Jose Francisco Syquia, a Catholic priest in the Philippines, who claims he has been going around exorcising demons.  The reporter who wrote the story was shown videotapes of people thrashing about, speaking in "unearthly voices," sometimes with "inverted crosses appearing on their foreheads."  Syquia and his assistants go through a dramatic ritual, and the demons leave.

He has a 100% success rate.

Syquia, in what the reporter calls "a rare interview," states, "There is a great dramatic increase of possessions right now.  More and more the demons are gaining a foothold into this society."  He clearly wishes us to see him, and his practices, as being the spearhead of good against evil.  Pope Benedict XVI, for his part, agrees; he recently released a new set of guidelines and encouraged trained priests to perform more exorcisms.

I find this whole thing bizarre and not a little appalling.

I suspect that any of my readers who are inclined to believe in demons and exorcisms will probably accuse me of doing what I so often criticize in others, namely, declaring a belief without providing any evidence.  Nevertheless:  I simply don't believe that Syquia and his ilk are casting out demons.  No, I haven't seen the videos, which are kept under lock and key in Syquia's office in Manila.  No, I haven't talked to Syquia myself, nor to anyone he's "exorcised."  No, I have no concrete data of any kind.  By my usual standards for understanding, I should have no right to make a statement one way or the other.

But I am going to anyway.  I think Syquia is a charlatan, his claims are nonsense at best and outright fraud at worst, and the people who believe him are dupes.

The idea of demonic possession has been around for millenia, and the belief that certain people can cast those demons out isn't new, either.  Cuneiform tablets from the Sumerians record the possession of people by "gid-dim" (sickness demons).  Medieval European history is rife with accounts of demonic possessions.  The belief is still widespread in many parts of Africa and Asia, amongst both Christians and followers of traditional religions.

My reasons for disbelieving the whole thing are nebulous enough that I can't call them an argument, but I think they carry enough weight that they should be given some consideration.

First, there are legitimate psychological illnesses, especially schizophrenia and dissociative personality disorder, that resemble the symptoms alleged to occur in demonic possession.  Interesting that modern medicine and therapy can identify organic causes for these disorders, and reduce or eliminate the severity of symptoms in many cases, isn't it?  You wouldn't think that a demon would be quelled by antipsychotic meds. 

Second, the force of belief is a powerful one.  You probably have heard of the placebo effect, a well-documented phenomenon in which a person who believes he is receiving an effective medicine will often show improvement even if he is given a sugar pill.  Less well-known is the nocebo effect, in which a person who believes he is being targeted for supernatural harm will actually grow ill and die.  This has been documented in cases of voodoo "curses."  How the brain actually alters to change a person's state of health in either case isn't understood, but it clearly happens -- no supernatural agent necessary.

Third, I find it curious that demonic possession doesn't seem to occur amongst atheists.  You'd think we'd be sitting ducks, wouldn't you?  All of the cases I've read about have been either amongst people who "invited possession" (i.e. worshiped Satan or the like) and had second thoughts, or amongst people who believed devoutly in demons and were terrified that they'd become victims.  In other words, belief comes first.  And again, if you have to believe in a demon to be possessed, it kind of calls into question the believers' definition of what a demon is, and what it is capable of doing.

Last, it is simply too easy to fake "evidence" these days.  Any sufficiently talented film editor could make an absolutely convincing exorcism video.  And when a person is in a position of power -- as Father Syquia is over the people he works with -- the temptation to increase that power by duping those who believe in you is all too strong.  The number of "faith healers" who have been exposed as frauds is long -- more than one has been caught "healing severely ill individuals" who later turned out to be perfectly healthy actors hired to play the part of the sick.  Faith healers are, I think, nothing more than talented magicians (of the David Copperfield variety) -- clever at misdirection and sleight of hand, but no more capable of curing disease through paranormal means than I am.  I have no reason to believe that exorcists don't fall into the same category.

It takes no presupposition of the existence of the supernatural to believe in purely human evil.  People do horrid things, sometimes.  Convenient though it might be to blame such acts on temptation (or possession) by the devil or his minions, there is usually an earthly explanation that is sufficient -- fear, psychosis, abuse during childhood, hunger for power, envy, a desire for revenge.  Taking advantage of those who believe in supernatural evil for your own ends, however, is itself evil -- and I am very much afraid that Father Syquia and his ilk are guilty of exactly that.


  1. ...the videos, which are kept under lock and key in Syquia's office in Manila.

    Isn't the burden of proof really on the person making the claims? Or to put it another way, don't you have rational reasons to doubt and no rational reason to believe?

  2. Ann is right - you bear no burden of proof at all because you're making no claims about supernatural incursions into the natural world. THEY'RE the ones who need to prove it, and they can't.