I came across a July 1 article from the Washington Post this morning in which a psychiatrist named Richard Gallagher talks about helping to identify when people are actually possessed by demons, as opposed to just having mental illnesses.
No, you didn’t read that wrong. If you like, go ahead and read the above paragraph once more, just to be sure. I’ll wait.
My favorite part of the article is when Gallagher describes meeting a young witch who claimed to be a priestess of Satan in the late 1980s. Somehow, he jumps from believing this girl had some kind of mental disorder to believing that she was actually possessed by Satan himself. At no point does he seem to consider the possibility that perhaps she was just exercising her First Amendment right to worship in the manner of her choice. It would be interesting to find more details about this case, but somehow I think it would just piss me off to no end. Many events that took place during the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s have a way of making me want to try punching holes through sheet metal with my fists.
To his credit, Gallagher goes on to discuss how most cases of so-called “possession” really are just a matter of severe mental illness, which can be treated through medication, therapy, and other conventional medical means. But he goes on to say some fairly alarmist things about how the number of authentic possessions has been rising, and how demons are much too clever to let themselves be proven to exist scientifically. (I’d really like to see the raw data he’s using to support all of this.) He even states that he’s never seen a possessed person levitate, but that some of his colleagues have, and that he accepts their claims as true.
Psychiatrists are supposed to be scientists, right? You know – professional researchers who doubt claims until they are sufficiently tested through enough controlled experiments to substantiate theorizing that they might be true? (As opposed to simply accepting hearsay as 100% absolute gospel truth?) Knights in Setheus, preserve us!
Look; I believe in the existence of dangerous spirits, and I believe that such entities can be repelled from our reality through the use of apotropaic magic (of which exorcisms are just one example). However, I fully accept that from a skeptical perspective, the art of execration is merely a psychodramatic way of subjugating one’s inner demons (at best). Whether it’s really anything more than that is a matter of subjective interpretation, and I’m always quick to advise that apotropaic magic is best used as a supplement to psychiatric help, not as an “alternative.” I take issue with anyone who insists that magic or prayer is all one needs to stop feeling suicidal, struggling with an addiction, or hearing voices. In my opinion, people who peddle lies like that are being extremely irresponsible and should be brought to task.
But in many ways, people like Richard Gallagher are even worse. When you have an “M.D.” following your name, people assume you’re an expert in whatever it is you’re talking about. And if you insist that some psychiatric problems are really paranormal – without presenting any scientific evidence, no less – you’re not just making yourself look like a lousy scientist. You’re encouraging people who don’t know any better to just seek spiritual help for their problems, and to not seek any medical help at all. This, in turn, makes those people vulnerable to spiritual predators – and I’m not talking about demons. I’m talking about assholes like Bob Larson, who just want to take advantage of people’s mental illnesses and fleece them like sheep. Perhaps Gallagher himself isn’t a bad person, and perhaps he really believes what he’s saying in this article. But he’s nevertheless opening a very dangerous door that only makes it more difficult for people to get the help they really need.
Also, I’m surprised that a paper like the Washington Post would choose to publish something like this. I’d expect it from the Weekly World News, but not from the newspaper that made history by investigating the Watergate scandal back in the 1970s. I’d think the Post would be much more skeptical of a licensed psychiatrist who makes paranormal claims without any scientific evidence. Were the editors slamming Manhattans made with Robitussin that day, or what?