I will be discussing here Gavin Ashenden's recent talk in Church House, which can be listened to here:
One of the arguments that Gavin Ashenden produces in his talk on demons is that everyone has a "world view", even atheists. It is not a question of belief or unbelief. The Christian understands the world from his world view, and the atheist from his.
He uses this later in a discussion with Mike Dunn, when Mike describes what we might loosely describe as "possession states" in terms of mental illness manifesting in behavioural symptoms. "That's your assumptions from your worldview" is one of his rejoinders against Mike.
I'm not sure this is a good way of arguing. It seems to buy into a kind of philosophical relativism. You are speaking from your world-view, I am speaking from mine. If I choose to speak of demons, and you speak of mental problems, behavioural problems, you are choosing to pick stuff from your world view. How does one actually measure one world view against another? At times he seems to believe you can, when he measures his scientific world view and a religious one against a "possession state", but at other times, he suggests that people are locked in world views, and don't notice that - and that's what comes out when he answers Mike Dunn.
And he is also rather disingenuous when he mentions a scientist saying that string theory was a "faith position" without a shred of evidence. Scientific hypothesis may be a matter of faith, but unless they turn out to be testable and true, like Einstein's theories of relativity, they are theoretical dead ends. He himself acknowledges as much when he says it may not turn out to be true. For it to be scientifically true, it must be provable or falsified. Some things may turn out to be untestable, or beyond the reach of testability. They may be dead ends, and forgotten. Others, like the Higgs boson fit into a complex model of physics, as an important keystone, and have been the subject of a 40 year search culminating in a tentative discovery.
The theory comes first, as anyone familiar with Karl Popper will know, but some theories like Freud's theories of the human mind, turn out to be largely untestable dead ends, others, which as Einstein's general theory of relativity, which was posited without a shred of evidence, were tested by making observations of an eclipse of the sun, and turned out to be true, displacing Newton's model of the universe - although Newtonian physics still provided a good enough approximation on a smaller scale, for instance with trajectories, and motions of moving objects on earth.
As an aside for what follows, a brief digression - I use this term "possession state" as about the closest I can get to a value neutral description, and while it is behavioural, it is not making assumptions about what is happening inside the woman, in the case he describes, except that it is a state which would be traditionally described as possession.
It is interesting that he describes his first encounter, at a Eucharist, with a woman who displayed a "possession state". He says he went through a number of hypothesis, and he couldn't find anything from his more scientific world view to explain the "possession state" , and in fact the New Testament stories of Jesus encountering demons was something which actually fitted the evidence and explained it. This was a woman who when offered the communion wafer, fell to the ground, writhing about, and using what Ashenden describes as "vulgar language". She could also not say the words "Jesus is Lord". She responded to prayer and exorcism.
Those are all the factors which come in the New Testament descriptions of possession by evil spirits, but before we assume that this is therefore the best fit, the most appropriate worldview, as Gavin does, let us cast our net wider.
We find that possession states - and explanations for those states - occur in all kinds of religious beliefs. The way in which the possessed person responds, and how they are treated successfully is also explained within those beliefs.
Here is a description from a Buddhist:
"I have witnessed spirit possession in my original hometown in the Himalayan foothills among the common village folk. At that time I was fairly young but I still disbelieved in these things (because I grew up in cities where nobody believed in it - at least those whom I knew) but after reading about spirit possession I have come to the conclusion that there could be some truth to it."
And a Buddhist commentator says of "possession states" that:
"Full spirit possession is very rare but partial possession or influence is quite common. Both types involve considerable damage to an individuals 'internal body', which is all but incurable. Most protective of all is a strong Buddhist devotional practice involving daily offerings and prayers. You should have both the Buddha on your shrine at home, and the smaller copy you carry about your person blessed by a Buddhist holy man."
L. S. O'Malley describes (in his book "Exorcism") how Hindu temples in Sri Lanka attract thousands of Buddhists for exorcism. Buddhist exorcists use sacred words - words from the Buddhist scared texts- to frighten spirits and drive them away.
We can see therefore that "possessions states" and their cure by some kind of exorcism are not unique to Christianity. And there's a fascinating look at Japanese Fox Spirit Possession - http://www.koryu.com/library/dlowry12.html
Anthropologist Raymond Firth describes spirit possession as ""abnormal behaviour which are interpreted by other members of the society as evidence that a spirit is controlling the person's actions and probably inhabiting his body.""
There is also a means of exorcism, which again varies according to the religion involved. Mircea Eliade has described this as follows:
"Exorcisms may comprise little more than simple prayers or incantations sung over the possessed, as happens in Christian and Islamic contexts. Sometimes exorcisms involve torturing the possessed (pulling his ear, flagellating, or burning him) until the possessing spirit has revealed its identity and demands or has released the patient. In many societies that support possession cults, the exorcisms are semi-public or public occasions. Such ceremonies tend to be highly dramatic. There is music, most frequently drumming, but also music of woodwind, reed, and string instruments, and dancing, which may be simple or quite complex. In Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, comic or other dramatic interludes often play a role. The exorcist, the possessed, and other performers may don masks, wear special costumes, and take on the part of well-known mythic and legendary figures. The ceremonies are often accompanied by sacrifices and communal meals, and last through the night"
Gavin also describes how - apart from what he calls "high octane possession", there are also more subtle forms of possession. He makes the distinction between influenza and a mild cold. This kind of distinction is also known elsewhere, and a shaman - from a shamanic healing perspective -makes precisely this distinction in her discussion of possession states:
"I actually think possession is more common than most people realise. I'm not talking about possession in The Exorcist kind of 'crab-waling on the ceiling' sort of way. I'm not talking about 'completely losing your mind, time and starting to say I'm SATAN' over and over again either. But the sort of spiritual possession where you pick up hitchhikers; other spirits, people, living people, dead people, etc. over your lifetime. You can still function, but probably not as healthily as you'd like. Most people, yup - most - have had at least some soul part of them which isn't actually their own, at some stage. And this is because most people, at some point, have experienced some form of soul fragmentation."
Medical metaphors are not unique to religious belief, of course, and Richard Dawkins is well known for his depiction of religion as a kind of "virus of the mind" which infects people. For myself, I'm not too happy with these kinds of views of human behaviour. They seem to provide explanations for aberrant behaviour which differentiate between the authentic person - the way they should be - and the way they are because of these spiritual infections. If I was talking to someone, and they were unknown me to be attributing my foibles to something possessing me, I'd be rather annoyed that they were not actually listening to me, or taking me seriously. It seems to engender a kind of distrust of fellow human beings; a sort of spiritual dishonesty in which the real person is ignored, and an ideal one substituted.
Gavin Ashenden describes talking to someone, seeing a glaze in their eyes - a spiritual cold - and praying, and seeing that go. That fits his explanation of her behaviour, because she "comes to her senses", but I'm not sure I'd be happy talking to him with all these undercurrents of how he viewed me going on in the background. I'd be inclined to ask stop and ask him every few minutes what he was really thinking rather than just saying. It's a kind of dissembling, and I don't find that very pleasant, whether it is done by a politician who says one thing, and is thinking another, or by a Minister of the Church of England.
I'm giving different accounts of "possession states", and exorcisms because one thing I think we should consider - that they are diverse, and they occur across a range of very different belief systems, but there is a commonality to them. They are states when the individual appears to be taken over by something malevolent, they are have been acknowledged since ancient times within those belief systems, and the treatment of them makes sense within those belief systems.
What that shows, I think, is that methods have been developed to deal with possession states which work within the different cultures. Just because they work, however, it does not mean that the theoretical underpinning must therefore be true - although we may need those for practical purposes to cope with "possession states".
As Douglas Adams noted in a discussion on "Fen Shui"
"Apparently, we need to think about the building being inhabited by dragons and look at it in terms of how a dragon would move around it. So, if a dragon wouldn't be happy in the house, you have to put a red fish bowl here or a window there. This sounds like complete and utter nonsense, because anything involving dragons must be nonsense - there aren't any dragons, so any theory based on how dragons behave is nonsense. What are these silly people doing, imagining that dragons can tell you how to build your house? Nevertheless, it occurs to me if you disregard for a moment the explanation that's actually offered for it, it may be there is something interesting going on that goes like this: we all know from buildings that we've lived in, worked in, been in or stayed in, that some are more comfortable, more pleasant and more agreeable to live in than others.
"We've never seen a dragon but we've all got an idea of what a dragon is like, so we can say, 'Well if a dragon went through here, he'd get stuck just here and a little bit cross over there because he couldn't see that and he'd wave his tail and knock that vase over'. You figure out how the dragon's going to be happy here and lo and behold! You've suddenly got a place that makes sense for other organic creatures, such as ourselves, to live in."
His conclusion is that these kinds of explanations may provide a practical end result, even if they are scientifically suspect - "even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them"
That's a rather more nuanced point of view, and it moves the debate away from the kind of shallow scientific reductionism that tries to find explanations that fit. In fact, if we look at a world view like a map, it is entirely possible to live with a world view with gaps in it, to say there are areas which are, at any rate at present, beyond our understanding.
That's not to say that there will be an explanation in terms of the material world either; I think we should keep an open mind on the subject that the present scientific paradigm may be limited in all kinds of ways, not least in how assumes that all explanations will be of the same sort. Anthony Swindell, Rector of St Saviour's church, was talking in the JEP about the need for "transcendent space". That is itself a metaphor, but it suggests an open rather than a closed universe where materiality is all that there is, and it isn't perhaps too fixed in coming down on one particular explanation as the truth.
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