Exorcism and demons of stereotyping
Social and legal challenges arising from religious stereotyping, on the one hand, and issues around exorcism, on the other, might not a first glance appear to be natural bedfellows. Nevertheless, the two frequently come together in an unholy alliance to breed problems.
Firstly, and to many people’s surprise, exorcism is a phenomenon on the rise in the UK. There are a variety of reasons for this, and the growth of faith and cultural diversity and the migration of persons are just some of the myriad factors at play. Of course, as would be expected against such a complex backdrop, the term “exorcism” encompasses a vast range of different practices and beliefs, but this concept can be distilled down to mean some form of ritual or practice aimed at expelling malign spiritual forces which occupy or oppress a person, place or object.
However, exorcism comprises many shades of belief and meaning. Are the evil forces or (in Christian parlance) demons part of the background spiritual fauna of the world, which need to be cleansed from time to time to avoid problems? Or are they something more rare and sinister, lying in wait for an opportunity to attack? Do they deliberately prey on humans? Are individuals whom they attack innocent victims, willing conspirators in evil, or somewhere in between? Are such people a threat to others, and if so, are they culpable for any harmful or deviant behaviours they engage in? Can evil spirits be transferred from person to person, person to object or person to place, and if so by what means? What form of prayer, ritual or other activity is required to remove the spirits when they have taken up residence? Are the spirits in fact more metaphorical than real? Are they avatars for feelings and character traits which those seeking exorcism wish to transform, or do they have a true and independent existence? Obviously, different religious traditions have different answers to this plethora of questions and the picture is far from monochrome.
All things considered, it is unhelpful when those outside of the faith tradition involved in any given situation make assumptions based on their worldview, rather than that of the people actually involved. Equally, it is both damaging and frustrating when newspapers like the Guardian make statements such as ‘Exorcism is intrinsic to Christianity’, and justify it with the apparent assumption that Christianity means accepting the literal truth of all stories contained in biblical texts. This is simply inaccurate and misleading, and even in opinion pieces, such assertions are damaging. Exorcism is intrinsic to some branches of the Christian tradition, but there are many other people and groups self-identifying as Christian who would resolutely reject it, along with any belief in evil spirits.
Irrespective of the context or target group, careless stereotyping is damaging on many levels. It tragically undermines the dignity and identity of individuals who are stereotyped, and it hampers dialogue, because conversations are based on a skewed perception of reality. Furthermore, a lack of religious and cultural literacy has implications for law and justice, because it has a negative impact on the quality of decision-making about when and how state authorities should intervene in religious practices. The stakes could not be higher here because individuals seeking (or in the case of children, receiving but not seeking) the intervention of exorcists, are frequently very vulnerable. Only this year, a Nicaraguan woman was murdered in the course of an exorcism ritual, and Europe is by no means immune from such incidents. In fact, adults and children alike have been hurt, traumatised and even killed undergoing exorcisms in the last decade in Britain.
If we are to strike a balance between respecting religious freedom and diversity of worldviews on the one hand, and protecting those at risk of abuse and exploitation on the other, public authorities have to have a handle on what is actually happening. It would neither be possible nor appropriate to intervene in every case of exorcism, as most of the time these practices involve consenting adults manifesting their faith in a manner which is neither dangerous nor abusive. However, it is important that appropriate agencies can identify when this is not the case and sensationalised media reporting is counterproductive. Crucially, not all activities described as exorcism are the same, nor have the same impact on participants.
For example, it is now acknowledged that police and social workers minimised and misunderstood practices relating to exorcism and belief in witchcraft amongst African communities in Britain, as was evidenced by the inquiry into the murder of Victoria Climbié. Children were allowed to suffer unimaginably because abuse was wrongly regarded as simply a manifestation of cultural difference. To make matters even worse, as groups like Africans Unite Against Child Abuse convincingly demonstrate, labelling children as ‘witches’ and subjecting them to harsh ‘treatment’ in an effort to cure the deviance is not a long-established part of African culture by any means. To the contrary, it is a recent aberration and often driven by individuals deliberately misusing power. For this reason, police officers and social workers who had attempted to show cultural sensitivity fell into a stereotyping trap, mistakenly imagining behaviours to be normal in a community of which they were generally not a part, when in fact nothing could have been further from the truth. Fortunately, public authorities have made a great effort to learn from past mistakes in this regard, but being mindful of the pitfalls in negotiating other cultures will remain crucial in the future.
As a society, we have a serious commitment to “balancing beliefs” and assessing competing rights and needs in a fair and compassionate way, and as a result we are bound to reject intellectual shortcuts and simplistic assumptions. To put it simply, rather than assuming that we know what is going on from the perspective of outsiders looking in, we need to be prepared to take the trouble to find out.
Exorcists are back-and people are getting hurt The Guardian (6/3/18)
The exorcism that turned to murder BBC News (28/2/18)
E Stobart ‘Child Abuse Linked to Accusations of Possession and Witchcraft’ 2006
The Victoria Climbié Inquiry (2003)
Victoria Climbié Timeline BBC News (28/1/03)