Why I changed – the psychology of demon possession

This is part of a series, and is continued in Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5.

Do you ever question what you believe and why you believe it? I grant you that this is a hard thing to do, in fact it’s so hard that most people on this planet live their whole lives without questioning their dogmatic assertions. Billions of people have died holding very strong beliefs that they never questioned. This includes: Greeks who believed in a mythological plethora of gods, the Persians who held to an ancient form of monotheistic Zoroastrianism, the many Near East cultures who worshiped multiple gods such as Baal, Dagon, and Marduk, and the Egyptians who believed their Pharaohs were gods, among many other fictitious deities. As well as the Romans who, like the Greeks, held strong beliefs in a whole pantheon of many gods and many forms of Eastern religion from Buddhism and Confucianism all the way down to Shintoism. Even in our own lifetime, there are billions who believe in all manner of various things. In your lifetime millions of Chinese will have died thinking that their indigenous faiths were the true faith. Millions of Indians will die, fully expecting that they will continue in a vast cycle of reincarnation.  Likewise, millions of Muslims will die, fully confident that the Quran holds the recorded words of Allah, rather than mere human scribbles.

The vast majority of people since the beginning of time have inherited and never questioned their strong beliefs. And yet all of those beliefs contradict one another. They most certainly cannot all be right, but many can definitely can be wrong. And yet, every person who holds these dogmatic beliefs would argue that they are indeed utterly correct. That should tell you that something is wrong. Real truth is not simply a dogmatic and unquestionable assertion, it is a reality that can be confirmed. If truth is indeed truth, no amount of questions, inspections, reviews, and examinations can falsify it. However, false statements, those that rest on ‘hearsay’ or ‘tradition’ cannot stand when under scrutiny.

Now think about those beliefs that you hold dear, are you confident enough to fearlessly and honestly expose them to the most difficult questions available? If your answer is no, why not?

Have you merely inherited your beliefs and without question dogmatically assert yourself to be always true and always right? Does that not cause you to fear? I think it should. I too did exactly that, until a few experiences radically changed my life and caused me to question. They broke the radical closed-mindedness that I once espoused.

And so this blog series will chronicle some of the experiences that led me to admit I was wrong on one thing or another, and therefore I had to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance and disillusionment, and forge an updated understanding of the universe. I will be honest, some of these shifts were the hardest things I have ever done in my life. I didn’t want to do admit I was wrong, but I was honest enough to know I had to. It was very difficult, because each time I encountered evidence which forced me to evolve my views, I lost friends, respect, belonging, affirmation, and affection. I didn’t make any of these paradigm shifts because I wanted to, I did it because I wanted truth with integrity, no matter the cost.

I hope that for you too. Here are my stories.

Grandma isn’t possessed, her brain is just stressed 

I grew up believing in demonic possession as the cause of behavioral and mental problems. Of course I didn’t personally know of any people with mental issues at the time, but my firmest convictions were that those “voices” people hear when they’re crazy, were literally demons talking to them. I had heard such stories and sermons of voices telling mothers to kill children and others horrible things, and the implicit and explicit explanation was: demons. I had also knew that the only solution was to cast out those demonic voices by prayer. Slogans that simplified this were very popular, something akin to “you don’t need psychology, you need Jesus!” We believed that a brain disease could never lead to immoral behavior, only a spiritual disease of the soul could do that.

I remember watching a movie in class about epilepsy, and arguing with classmates afterwards that seizures were actually caused by demons, and a medical/surgical cure was impossible. That is because within my inherited worldview  the source of consciousness, decision, memory, and feeling was not a material brain, but an immaterial soul. The questions a physical view of the brain would entail were very strange: if someone could hit their head and lose memories, what if they forgot about Jesus, were they still saved? It just didn’t make sense that a person’s brain disease could make them crazy, because that would mean they may not have a fair chance to accept Jesus!

Then one day my beloved grandmother, who was living with us at the time, started to talk about the voices of “the Jews in the attic.” I think I was around 15 at the time and remember a dreadful fear came over me. The events that unfolded over the next few days were a frightening blur. They were filled with deeply moving Pentecostal prayers to save her, including attempted exorcisms. The first time she spoke of the voices, I tried to convince her, using logic, that there were no voices upstairs. Deep down I was utterly frightened but I really hoped that she would understand my persuasive rhetoric and realize it was all a big mistake. When she refused and became aggravated, we were certain it was demonic. I literally believed there were demons surrounding my grandmother (in my childish ignorance, I even considered the possibility that there were demons living in the attic and she was hearing voices from there.) As the days wore on, the voices kept talking, and the prayers continued to be unanswered, and my grandmother continued being nice and loving, except when I tried to disprove her voices. I began to realize this did not fit into my theology. How could a demon possessed woman be so kind and loving? How could she continue to pray and profess to love Jesus so much? Why did all these pastors and elders praying for her cause no effect? How could those prayers that apparently took seconds in the Gospel narratives, not work on her after weeks and months?

It didn’t make any sense.

Eventually I recalled that epilepsy video in class, and began to admit that diseases like Schizophrenia, Epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and many more were caused by defective brain chemistry, not demonic infestations. My dogmatic worldview about mental health and demonic infestation shattered. I discovered the fields of psychology and neurology, and just how much of an effect they have on human behavior. I learned many facts about mental illness. Later on, I read about so-called demoniacs, who were raised in a Catholic culture, acted “possessed” in a specific Catholic way. In fact, they only responded to holy water and Latin prayers, but not to the prayers of  Pentecostal or Baptist preacher. Likewise, so-called demoniacs raised within a Pentecostal culture, acted out in their unique Pentecostal way, and only responded to glossolalic prayer or Pentecostal “in Jesus name” statements, but were not responsive to Catholic Latin rituals. In fact, BuddhistsShamanistsHindus, and Muslims also have their own versions of “demonic possession,” and each religion has their own exorcism rituals, that are equally effective on their own version of the disease, which leads psychologists to assume it is a form of “multiple personality disorder” (today this is D.I.D.) wherein people have an alter ego that plays out a role created in their culture.

Besides the fact that some people have been killed in some cases of so called exorcisms there are psychological treatments that are effective. In addition many modern Christian medical professionals reject demon possession as a supernatural phenomenon, and treat is as a broad holistic issue that involves mental health. Whether it’s a case of dissociative identity disorder or a monomania there are better answers for mental health issues than “you must have been a really bad person, so you let magical creatures into your brain.”

Through this learning process I realized that some dogmatic propositions are not truthful. People that act like they know, don’t always know. Those that are confident they have the truth, don’t always have it. Truth is not defined by what authoritative teachers say, but by what simply is regardless of what people say or teach.

My grandmother is still alive today, and I love her, and there is no shame in her being old and fragile. To this day she doesn’t know it and probably wouldn’t understand, but she taught me one of the biggest and most important lessons in my life. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and admit that you were wrong.

(Continued in Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5)

Here are some related posts

Life after faith – how do atheists think about death? I recently spoke with a former spiritual mentor and inevitably the conversation wound its way past the trivial pleasantries to the deeper questions about our existence. After an hour of stimulating debate, he looked me squarely in the eyes and said “...
Why do I write? An overly sentimental open letter to religious believe... After years of blogging/talking/dialoguing about religion, I am ashamed that I have not been able to clearly communicate my “heart.” In the last few years I have seen so many responses riddled with spite & condescension. I have heard dozens of st...
Talking to God – five questions from an agnostic ex-preacher I’m often asked “what if you’re wrong? What if you stand before God? What would you say?” I believe the expectation is that I would fall down and feel utterly shameful for vehemently hating God. Except that I don’t and never have hated God, I’m simp...

16 responses

  1. Interesting post! I’m just curious, what is your current philosophical or religious position? If you could, please make it as specific as possible :)

  2. I agree with that question below, Yura: What is your current position on demons? I personally have see demon possessed Christians only. Roots of that: people never been cleansed from the past problems. They accept Jesus as their Lord & Savior. then stopped at the point of Salvation. Nobody told them what to do next. Jesus told us clearly in his Great Commission: Go & Make Disciples of all nations. Are we doing it or just make converts telling them that Jesus saves You?

  3. Interesting Post.

    Moniz has developed lobotomy in 1935 to treat mental illness. He believed that this was the effective way to treat mental illness, but was he correct? No. Yet, he was an educated man in his times.

    Luckily for us, this procedure is not routinely performed, if even performed, and mental illness is treated with medications, ECT, etc.
    Are people with mental illness currently cured? No. They are on lifelong medications. Once they are off their medications, they are back in the psych unit.

    Are some of them possessed? Who is to say?

    We still have a ways’ to grow and learn more about mental illness and how we can treat it. I’m grateful for the hundreds of people devoting their lives to research. There is much more unknown than what is known. What was once thought to be the truth is often disproven. That is why science is fascinating because it is always changing and there is much to learn!

    So, who are we to say that demons do not exist, just because it has not been proven by science? Is truth defined by what we know and see? Is truth defined by science? Can science disprove the spiritual world?

    So, best to keep an open mind. Maybe one day, you’ll have a visitor.

    • Hi Inna, thanks for your reply.

      I will quickly add two things.Believing in spiritual beings like demons requires that a spiritual soul be thing that drives our decisions and behaviour. Our soul should be the thing we use to make choices, like whether we want to serve God or sin. Yet the evidence shows that these kinds of things are peformed the physical brain.

      1. Performing lobotomies has shown tremendous changes, both positive and negative, in the way human beings behave (if our soul, not our brain, was in charge of human behavior, why would a lobotomy change things?) “In some cases, there were improvements in behavior; in others, there was no noticeable difference; and in yet others, the symptoms being treated became markedly worse. In all, Moniz and Lima operated on approximately 50 patients. The best results were obtained in patients with mood disorders, while the treatment was least effective in schizophrenics.” (http://scienceblogs.com/neurophilosophy/2007/07/24/inventing-the-lobotomy/)

      2. Various medications and chemicals alter the way the human brain functions, inducing desires, feelings, memories, actions, and hallucinations. If our souls (or various spiritual beings) were in fact in charge of our decisions, why would physical matter, drugs, affect these spiritual entities? See more on this here:http://yuriystasyuk.com/the-lost-soul-8-reasons-why-we-do-not-have-a-spiritual-soul/

      • Thanks for your reply.

        Yes- Our heart is created to pump blood and our brain for multiple other functions. It is also not a surprise that our body reacts to chemicals.
        Our creator has created us in a way that our physical body can respond to chemistry. Through science and chemistry, we, humans, can expand an individuals’ life. A person who would have died after a major accident, can now live. A person who would have lost their limb, is now able to walk. The whole universe has sets rules that it follows. A stroke can cause hemiplegia. Science. Beautiful.

        As humans, we are in no place to be the judge of whether an individual is going to hell or heaven. Imagine having to judge a person who is mentally ill person, developmentally delayed or with traumatic brain injury, dementia, or a person on medications etc. That is where we can trust our Just God to judge rightly. After all, he has created us.

        Just as Jesus used parables, and illustrations to speak to the Israelite’s and for his teachings, God uses different words such as the inner person, spirit, soul, heart, and mind. All those words are used to describe the spiritual being in all of us. The majority of the population understands that a pumping heart means that life, and that we can thank a person from the “bottom of our heart”. For a person who takes things literally-I can imagine how difficult it can be to understand. All in all, the bible was not created to be used as a handbook for constructors, physicians, or as an anatomy and physiology book. However, the bible was written very poetically.

        Is our spirituality defined by our physical abilities, illness and science? I don’t believe so. You have had good comments of why you don’t believe there is a soul, but you were unable to disprove the existence of the spiritual world (Soul etc).

        I believe the sole base of your argument was: The soul vs physical body.
        The physical body (brain (mood/emotions) and heart) is affected by medications and medical illness. (stroke, traumatic brain injury, medications).
        Despite our physical limitations, it does not mean that that our God cannot understand that our physical body has MANY limitations. It does not disprove the spiritual world.

  4. Oh and one more thing- our brain has many thoughts. It has many desires, but ultimately, we make a final choice. Is it a good or a poor choice? We make a decision.

    Your argument may come to an end conclusion as:

    The murderer with the mental illness on medications was not in control. It was his body’s fault.

    No soul. Just an animal/species with instincts and desires.

    Is that all we are?

  5. A man will believe what he wants to believe. It is the sorry state of believing his own unbelief that puts him into turmoil. Yuriy, God still spares and considers you, why will you not consider Him?

    • If there were a God, I would love to meet him. I’ve looked sincerely, with an open heart, and found nothing.

      Our predicament is that there is no evidence, where we would expect to see evidence. There may be an unapproachable deistic God out there, but the evidence against a personal God who intervenes is not merely severely lacking, but completely absent.

      Thanks for your comment though.

      • You meant to say the evidence FOR a personal God is completely absent, right? As in there is no evidence suggesting the existence of such? Just wanted to make sure I understood you correctly.

  6. “People that act like they know, don’t always know. Those that are confident they have the truth, don’t always have it”

    Great post. I grew up in fundamentalism, and in my journey out of it, this realization liberated me from the fear of hundreds of sermons that replayed in my mind.

  7. I’m not a Christian but I used to be, and I know how I reconciled the obvious role of the physical brain in behaviour, personality and moral/immoral actions with my belief that people had a soul and were ultimately guided by either the Holy Spirit or their own sinfulness. I would have argued that we live in a fallen world, and because we live in a fallen world, people are affected by brain disorders. I would have said that these people weren’t bad people, and there may be no particular reason why their brains were affects and not somebody else’s; it’s just that we live in a fallen world where we are ALL affected by the fallenness of it, “good” people and “bad” people alike, Christians and non-Christians alike.

    I realise these days that not only is that a weak answer (I won’t go into what the weaknesses are because that’s not the point of my comment), but that even if it were not, the fact that your faith-based beliefs CAN potentially be reconciled somehow with some scientific facts, doesn’t mean they SHOULD be. If you can make sense of the facts without conjecture and assumptions, then do it. Adding a soul/demon possession/etc into the mix to explain human behaviour that we know from science to be brain-based, is pretty much the same as saying “OK, gravity exists, and things fall because of it, but also unicorns are involved somehow.” Or “My car started this morning because I turned the key to start the engine. But none of that would have been able to happen without fairies deciding that they would allow the car to start.” In other words, it just introduces a new and unnecessary element that in itself requires evidence and explanation much more than it proves or explains anything (it proves/explains nothing).

  8. Hi Yuriy,

    Thanks for your blog – it’s been an immensely helpful resource for my personal journey out of Christianity.

    As an ex-Christian who’s occasionally bothered by supposed miracle claims (exorcisms, answered prayer, healings, etc.), I’m doing some more research into naturalist factors that could explain that.

    You wrote this paragraph, mentioning that:

    “Later on, I read books that mentioned so-called demoniacs, who were raised in a Catholic culture, acted “possessed” in a specific Catholic way. In fact, they only responded to holy water and Latin prayers, but not to the prayers of Pentecostal or Baptist preacher. Likewise, so-called demoniacs raised within a Pentecostal culture, acted out in their unique Pentecostal way, and only responded to glossolalic prayer or Pentecostal “in Jesus name” statements, but were not responsive to Catholic Latin rituals.”

    Do you happen to remember which specific books mention that? I’d like to read into it a bit more.


    • Hi J,

      I think the book was Hidden Memories: Voices and Visions from Within, by psychologist Robert A. Baker. But its been a while, I wish I would have cited it here when I wrote the original post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *