January 14, 2019

Christian Belief in Demons

demonic candles

Some Christians will tell you that they believe in the existence of literal demons. They think that demons are real, that they are capable of possessing people, and that they do sometimes possess people. These Christians worry that straying from the path of righteousness in various ways (e.g., playing with an Ouija board, listening to the wrong kind of music, dancing, doing yoga) may make one more vulnerable to demonic possession. Do they really believe this stuff? Many Catholics and evangelical fundamentalist Christians probably do. But whether they believe in literal demons or only metaphorical ones, I have long suspected that the belief in demons is designed to serve at least two important goals.

The first and most obvious goal involves a combination of maintaining fear which can only be alleviated through their particular solution (i.e., Jesus). Atheists are fond of pointing out that Christians invented a problem (i.e., sin) in order to sell you a cure (i.e., salvation). That is exactly what is going on here. Believing in demons, Satan, hell, and the like helps to keep Christians in a state of fear. This makes it easier for them to be influenced by clergy who wish to maintain power over them. If they stray, demons will get them. To make sure that doesn't happen, they need to do what their clergy ask of them. Without the threat of demons and hell, salvation seems a bit less important and control becomes more difficult.

The second and less obvious goal is that belief in demons provides Christians with an excuse to treat others poorly without needing to worry about the moral implications of doing so. After all, none of the nice stuff the Jesus character was depicted as saying about the treatment of others applies to demons or those we decide are possessed by demons. This is one of the reasons I cannot ignore the reports we regularly see from Right Wing Watch about the latest Christian extremist to claim that his or her political opponents are demons or are under the influence of demons. This is a prime example of dehumanization, and history offers more than enough examples of how dangerous that can be.

It is tempting to point and laugh when one encounters a Christian who seems to genuinely believe in demons. I suspect we have all given in to this temptation from time-to-time. I know I have. But while this is understandable, I think it is important to remember that belief in demons and demonic possession have real consequences. Again and again, Christians have demonstrated that nothing is too cruel or inhumane when it comes to those they have effectively demonized. Those of us who are concerned with human rights should pay close attention when the demonization starts.