Professor Patricia Casey & the Iona Institute: The Rantings of an Atheist to a Religious Psychiatrist

abraham

“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test and said to him: Abraham! “Here I am!” he replied.Then God said: Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.Early the next morning Abraham saddled his donkey, took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac, and after cutting the wood for the burnt offering, set out for the place of which God had told him.

On the third day Abraham caught sight of the place from a distance. Abraham said to his servants: “Stay here with the donkey, while the boy and I go on over there. We will worship and then come back to you.” So Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two walked on together, Isaac spoke to his father Abraham. “Father!” he said. “Here I am,” he replied. Isaac continued, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” “My son,” Abraham answered, “God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.” Then the two walked on together.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. Next he bound* his son Isaac, and put him on top of the wood on the altar.Then Abraham reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son”. Genesis 22; 1-10.

 

Abraham’s willingness to slaughter his first-born son Issac, to appease god, was seen as a highly honourable and virtuous characteristic in the book of genesis.  God is so pleased with the readiness of Abraham to make this sacrificial offering that he sends an angel to intervene and tell Abraham that the killing of his son will no longer be necessary. Instead, a ram that has been caught in nearby bushes is deemed to be an acceptable substitute and is slaughtered in the place of Issac.  Abraham was to take a central position in the establishment of Judeo- Christian tradition and subsequently is mentioned in the Koran as a prophet within Islam. Indeed the Koran states that Allah (god) had picked Abraham to be a leader of all nations for having excelled in the challenges that god put before him. The book depicts Abraham as representing the embodiment of what it is to be a perfect Muslim.  In approximately 2000 BCE, the offering of one’s first-born to god as a ritual sacrifice was deemed to be a devout and noble act worthy of god’s greatest blessings.

Julia Lovemore

History would not be so favourable to UK woman Julia Lovemore or her six week old daughter Faith. In October 2012 she was convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of the baby on grounds of diminished responsibility at Cambridge Crown Court and was sentenced to be committed indefinitely to a psychiatric institution for the criminally insane. Baby Faith was deemed to have suffocated from having pages from the bible forced down her mouth. British NHS employees had entered the house a few hours before the incident in June 2010 and had witnessed Lovemore’s husband David praying that the devil would leave his wife alone. Both of them were Christian fundamentalists and Julia Lovemore was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder and being prone to extreme religious delusions as well as delusions of harbouring supernatural powers.

 What is a delusion?

delusion

Encyclopaedia Britannica defines a delusion as:

Delusion, in psychology, a rigid system of beliefs with which a person is preoccupied and to which the person firmly holds, despite the logical absurdity of the beliefs and a lack of supporting evidence. Delusions are symptomatic of such mental disorders as paranoiaschizophrenia, and major depression and of such physiological conditions as senile psychosis and delirium. They vary in intensity, extent, and coherence and may represent pathological exaggeration of normal tendencies to rationalization, wishful thinking, and the like. Among the most common are delusions of persecution and grandeur; others include delusions of bodily functioning, guilt, love, and control.

If we were to use the definition of delusion as encompassing the first two lines of the above, then it is more than apparent that religious belief would fit comfortably within its limits. Even believers in such things as transubstantiation within Catholicism, ie the belief that a communion wafer literally becomes the body of Jesus Christ, would for the most part agree that this is illogical and that such belief lacks supporting evidence. The word delusion doesn’t refer to the truth or otherwise of any given belief: it merely holds that the belief that is sincerely held lacks supporting evidence and that the believer’s conviction is unfaltering, despite this absence of evidence. If one is of the opinion that they will be struck down by lightning and live their life in a state of fear as a result of this, then they would be suffering from a delusion in the psychological sense of the word. This diagnosis would not change if they were through a case of sheer misfortune to actually realise this event occurring; unless of course they could prove that they were privy to such knowledge by rational means.  Thus when non-believers state that religious people are suffering from a delusion, it is not meant to be offensive. It is merely referring to the fact that they hold a sincerely held unshakable conviction in the absence of supporting objective evidence. Neither the psychiatric profession nor I am suggesting that moderate religious delusion (that doesn’t involve the harm of others) should be considered a psychiatric condition warranting medical attention. On the contrary cultural and religious delusions are the norm within society.

Evolution as a driver of delusional belief

 evolutionary psychology

Human cognition evolved as much a product of social bonding as much as any method of empirically establishing what is real and what is imaginary. If an ancient group of people could rally together around a belief that their leader had magical powers; this would enhance social cooperation, in a time where the ability to establish reality through the scientific method was not yet a possible alternative.

Evolution would drive pre-scientific nomads and other vertebrates towards superstitious belief, a phenomenon that has been demonstrated again and again in psychological experiments (most notably those carried out by B.F Skinner on pigeons). It is well understood that natural selection favours superstitious belief in outside agents and has endowed us with what is known in psychology as a type 1 bias. The analogy given by Richard Dawkins of the crocodile or log conundrum is exemplary. Imagine early man going to the lake to fetch water. He sees what he thinks is a crocodile in the water. Fearing for his life, he goes to another part of the lake to get his fill. It turns out that what he thought was a crocodile was in fact just a floating log. Despite this error of judgement i.e. false perception of an outside intervening agent, the man survives and is able to pass on his genes. (This false perception of intervening agency is known as a type 1 bias) The opposite situation where a crocodile was mistaken for a log would have resulted in the man’s death and the elimination of his genes from the gene pool (type 2 bias refers to a failure to detect interventionist agents when they are present). Natural selection universally favours type 1 bias. The downside of this, in an age of science and reason, is the tendency towards superstitious belief patterns that it generates. Thanks to the advances of science, we no longer require this psychological vestige of our early ancestors. Of even greater concern is the fact that our innate psychological hardware puts us at odds with scientific predictions of agency and all too often the advice to trust our gut instinct lead us on a path of rampant evidence denial with type1 biases giving rise to such things as belief in the power of prayer or alternative medicine, when all the scientific and empirical data run contrary to our basest instinct. Richard Dawkins also eluded to the fact that children are naturally less skeptical than their parents, as natural selection would not favour children that lacked the requisite life knowledge, to be skeptical of adult advice. The child who doubted its parent’s advice not to go near the lake because of crocodiles would be more likely to be eaten and thus have its genes removed from the gene pool. Thus the Jesuits claim of getting the child before the age of seven to achieve the best level of indoctrination is more than scientifically accurate.

Cognitive psychology offers a more than adequate explanation as to why populations en masse have embraced superstitious and thus delusional thinking. These include our predisposition to follow and believe the rantings of influential or charismatic leaders, our weakness for being more likely to believe stories that comfort us, especially when told by those in authority, as well as an innate burning desire for knowledge and a fear of death. Despite the robust lack of evidence for any intervening invisible beings in our life, the vast majority of humans on the planet believe in the power of prayer and in the concept of an external force capable of delivering justice to wrong doers, as well as the concept of eternal life. It is worth noting that among the tenets of religion that are most commonly held among all religious traditions, not one of them involve a belief that is contrary to wishful thinking. Who among us would not wish to have eternal life free from suffering? Who would wish that those who harm our loved ones go unpunished and that their suffering was for no discernable reason? Who would wish to be ignorant of how the Universe operates and our place in it (a question that the holy books of the vast majority of religious traditions attempt to answer)? If the theory offered by cognitive psychology isn’t enough to convince you then how about the regimes created by secular equivalents of religious psychology? How were Stalin and Hitler able to garner the support of millions of their countrymen while taking them to the abyss? Why is Kim Jong Un able to command the support of the army and his people and motivate his military to commit such heinous crimes, the like of which have not been seen since Nazi Germany? Examples both theoretical and those witnessed by political and religious events in the real world lead me to believe to a point of almost certainty, that humans, when placed in the wrong environment can be socially conditioned to believe what in an individual would be tantamount to the worst possible case of psychiatric delusion.  It is this observation that drives me to promote rationalism and my Atheism is merely a by-product of such endeavours. Anthropological history has shown that our capacity for evidence denial and cultural delusion exceeds that of conventional psychiatric illness.

The above observations lead me to pose a question to the psychiatric profession. Do we need to redefine the concept of delusion in the pathological sense and if so can we take preventative measures or offer suitable treatment at national or international level for the problem of cultural and religious delusion?  I believe that defining pathological delusion as being a delusion that is outside the cultural norms in which the person is living is a woeful and dangerous misclassification and as such is turning a blind eye to religious and cultural delusions that are infinitely more harmful than any psychiatric condition that is currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  I will emphasise yet again that I do not believe cultural delusions that are non-harmful need to be addressed, so long as they are not actively promoted. I am merely referring to harmful religious delusions.

I am currently of the opinion that 1) we should not promote any activity that embraces evidence denial while simultaneously respecting the fact that such pursuits are an inevitable part of human existence for many people. This opinion is based on the fact that I do not know of any society that has prospered by engaging in evidence denial. Such societies have achieved nothing that hasn’t been attained by communities grounded in respect for evidence. Superstitious and religious societies are much more associated with poor governance and underachievement in many areas of scientific endeavour and in areas of human rights. No society that I know of has underachieved as a result of valuing empirical evidence in their decision making.  2) I believe we need to treat evidence denial that results in real or potential harm to others. In 2014 it is no longer acceptable to label certain groups of people as mentally ill because they have an organically based and medically treatable form of mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar depression while ignoring the malignant and unsettling religious and cultural delusions of others. Yes the prevention and treatment of the latter group maybe radically different to the first (or perhaps maybe not so different).  Radical preventative measures might include the teaching of critical thinking skills in school and possibly courses in human behaviour alongside civics classes. Most people are completely unaware and lacking in knowledge with regard to the biological forces that govern human cognition and subsequent behaviour. We spot the elephant in the room when it comes to the religious and cultural delusions of others but dangerously assume that because the majority of our own tribe believe something in the absence of evidence that it is somehow different. Without doubt evidence denial affects some cultures more so than others but it is a problem that no one can ignore as even within the borders of the most secular and rational cultures on earth, lie individuals and communities steeped in potentially dangerous superstitious world-views. Whether it be female genital mutilation in Sweden or the deaths of infants due to botched exorcisms in Britain, the psychiatric profession must step up to the plate and radically change its standpoint on what it currently views as psychiatric illness worthy of treatment. Until this is achieved no amount of government rhetoric on the subject of religious fundamentalism will achieve much.

As Sam Harris once stated “The problem with Islamic fundamentalism are the fundamentals of Islam”. I believe the same can be said about Christianity. The fact that most Christians in the west have managed to ignore most of the nasty parts of the bible doesn’t mean that everyone else will automatically have the capacity to do this. Many people including some secularists are of the opinion that promoting non-vengeful religion is a good thing and ask what’s the harm in people believing in such things as the resurrection of Jesus etc? The problem is not that such beliefs in their own right pose a danger to others but rather societies that show such a poor regard for examining evidence appear to always go on a downward trajectory. While religious delusion on a personal level undoubtedly makes some people feel good about themselves and some forms of religious belief may even be beneficial to certain peoples wellbeing (while others being positively detrimental such as a belief in hell being correlated with an increased risk of anxiety and depressive illness), the cumulative effect of societal evidence denial is never positive.

I will now give some examples of how insidious cultural and religious delusion can be and the toll it can take on society. In particular I would like to address Patricia Casey (a practicing psychiatrist) of the Iona Institute, an organisation dedicated to promoting religion in Ireland, or indeed any other psychiatrist of a religious persuasion and ask them how exactly can they justify promoting religion on a societal level, as opposed to tolerating non-harmful religious belief on a personal level, which may indeed give comfort to some people?  Of the cultural case studies I am about to show you, can you give me one example of a case study of a conventional delusion in psychiatry that poses the same risks to society as cultural delusion?  Do you believe that the psychiatric profession should ever attempt to treat or prevent what I am about to show? I cite Sweden, Denmark and Finland as examples of countries that value evidence and the separation of Church and State. Can you suggest any dangers of such rational cultures that equal or surpass the dangers posed by societies steeped in religious culture? If not then could your attempts to promote religion in the public sphere be a delusion on your own part that is potentially dangerous to society?

The outsourcing of State Institutions to the care of religious

magdalene

Was the Irish State engaging in a cultural delusion bought about by fanatical religious fervour in believing that the Catholic Church and other religious institutions could do no wrong even after decades of reported abuse of children and young women in schools, orphanages and laundries? Why did these abuses only begin to come to light as Ireland embraced secularism? While abuses of this sort are not limited to religious institutions, secular equivalents such as the Jimmy Saville case in Britain would certainly not have been stopped if Britain was a more religious society. Jimmy Saville was awarded a papal knighthood. On the contrary had Britain embraced an evidence based culture even more so, its citizens could have been taught about the dangers of uncritical hero worship which are essentially the same dangers posed by devotion to religion and people in religious authority.

 The edicts of the Taliban

Taliban

Afghanistan under the Taliban would arguably be better off being governed by a parliament entirely consisting of people with untreated psychotic illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar depression.  Among the items banned by the Taliban as stated on Wiki include:

pork, pig, pig oil, anything made from human hair, satellite dishes, cinematography, and equipment that produces the joy of music, pool tables, chess, masks, alcohol, tapes, computers, VCRs, television, anything that propagates sex and is full of music, wine, lobster, nail polish, firecrackers, statues, sewing catalogs, pictures, Christmas cards.

Men had to grow their beard to a certain length and beards were arbitrarily measured by religious police. If it was not of sufficient length to be clasped by the fist, the men were beaten. Women were banned from being employed, with the only exception being in health care, as men were not allowed to examine women. Home owners were commanded to blacken their windows so that men could not see the women inside. This resulted in an increased number of suicides as women were not getting enough exposure to sunlight. Afghanistan under the Taliban had one of the highest rates of female and infant mortality in the world.

The regime destroyed statues, museums and cultural artefacts and any semblance of non-Islamic heritage within the country.  However the grizzliest act of the Taliban was the massacre at Mazir-i-Sharif on August 8th 1998. The inhabitants of this city were mainly Shia Muslims. The Taliban arrived in an early morning raid in pick-up trucks loaded with armed militias who shot indiscriminately left and right along the narrow city streets killing men, women, children and animals. The death toll is believed to have exceeded 8000. The Taliban would not allow the dead to be buried in accordance with Islamic tradition that involves the bodies being covered before sundown. Instead the bodies were left on the street for the dogs to eat. Patricia Casey if you as a psychiatrist are in anyway familiar with psychopathy you will know that approximately 1-5% of the population could be considered psychopathic. The figure of psychopaths that have a propensity toward violence is significantly less. Yet this attack is beyond the capacity of the worst serial killers in America. It was sanctioned by the acting government of a country. Afghanistan under the Taliban was about as religious as any country on earth. Patricia Casey, can you give a single example of such evil happening in a genuinely secular country? (I’m not referring to countries based on communist or fascist regimes that worship charismatic leaders such as the dictators of Europe or China but countries that embrace evidence and are less swayed by emotional rhetoric)? Why do we rarely hear bad news coming from the Nordic countries? The only mass murders committed on Nordic soil in my living memory are those carried out by Anders Brevik who was deemed to be indeed psychopathic. Despite killing several people, the treatment of him was an exceptional demonstration of humanity on the part of Norwegians. By his own admission his only complaint is not being granted access to a greater amount of video games in prison. The prison population of these countries is small by international standard which speaks volumes about the delusion that religion has a positive influence on moral behaviour.

 Nigerian and Papua New Guinea Witch Accusations

witch children

In parts of Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and many other less enlightened regions of the world, sickness, disease, death and misfortune are often attributed to members of the community who are perceived to be dabbling in witchcraft and sorcery. In one such account in The World Post, a 9 year old boy was subject to such accusations by a pastor in the Eket region of Nigeria. The boy’s father tried to remedy the situation by performing an exorcism that involved forcing the boy to drink acid. The pastor involved had been associated with the Mount Zion Lighthouse church. These churches take the bible literally on the command “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” Exodus 22:18. The abandonment of a sibling of a child who died prematurely is all too common and in many cases is ordered by religious leaders. These poor unfortunate children are deemed to have been the cause of the family’s tragedy. The UNICEF document below identifies the extent of this problem throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

http://www.unicef.org/wcaro/wcaro_children-accused-of-witchcraft-in-Africa.pdf

The accusations appear to be levelled more against boys and appear to be more common among Christian believers as Islam doesn’t accord the child with having the ability to attain such evil powers. Christians in the west will say this is a warped version of Christianity yet these practices have been prevalent in the west for most of the history of Christianity. It is not sufficient to say that it is delusional to believe that the bible promotes the killing of suspected witches, while being of the belief that this book is anything other than the writings of pre-scientific humans from as far back as 4000 years. To seek to promote a lifestyle or national culture based on a belief in the authority of the bible is delusional and potentially dangerous. It is more than ironic that a professor of psychiatry would encourage society to engage in mass delusion. While we in the west are somewhat able to accomplish the mental gymnastics necessary to ignore the insidiously malevolent parts of the bible, it is not rational to believe that everyone else can be taught to do the same. Religion and religious fundamentalism are part and parcel of the same thing. Cultures that engage in a greater degree of evidence denial and mass religious and cultural delusion, when combined with unfavourable political, cultural or economic circumstances have throughout history led countless civilisations on a path of self-destruction.

The Church of Christian Science & deadly lack of medical intervention due to religious faith

Christian Scientist

There is a deeply concerning trend among a small but significant minority of Americans right now with yet another case being publicised last week. That is the belief that prayer can cure disease and the perception that attempting to receive medical care is a sign of spiritual weakness. The Church of Christian Science is the most notorious proponent of this extremely dangerous and potentially deadly world-view. The Church was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in Boston Massachusetts in 1879 as a result of the belief that prayer and biblical recitations cured her from the ill-effects of a fall. While the church is in decline in the US right now, as a result of many scandals, it still remains relatively strong in Africa. Worldwide membership is believed to be in the region of 80,000 people. Last week a Pennsylvania couple Catherine and Herbert Schaible were jailed for 20 years for the death of their 8 month old son Brandon as a result of untreated pneumonia. Brandon was the second son of the couple to die as a result of not seeking medical treatment due to their Pentecostal religious faith. The death of their first child Kent resulted in a court judgement of 10 years probation on the condition that if any subsequent child was to become ill they would seek medical care. Their pastor had told them that the first child’s death was due to their lack of faith and ordered that they were not to seek medical treatment if another child fell ill. Unfortunately, heeding this advice, led to the death of the 2nd child.  While tragic cases like this thankfully only account for a tiny minority of religious believers, they are nonetheless an inevitable consequence of societal delusion. If beliefs like this were not considered as group-think they would be considered delusional in the psychiatric sense. If such belief has nothing to do with genuine religion then why are cases like these more prevalent in religious societies? While personal religious belief may indeed benefit certain religious individuals, the idea of promoting mass delusion coming from anyone is a frightening concept. When it comes from a professor of psychiatry it is truly terrifying.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/19/herbert-schaible-catherine-schaible-sentencing-faith-healing_n_4813638.html

Religious Snake Handling in the Bible Belt of America

snake

Last week we were reminded yet again that religious delusions can have deadly consequences.  Pastor Jamie Coots, the star of National Geographic reality TV show Snake Salvation died shortly after refusing to receive medical intervention following a bite from a rattlesnake that he was handling in a church service at his Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church in Kentucky.  After being bitten he dropped the snakes, but shortly after picked them up again. He died within an hour of turning away an offer of assistance by medical services. It was not the first death of this kind at his church. In 1995 Tennessee woman Melinda Brown died after receiving a bite from a timber rattlesnake at the same Church.  As if two deaths were not enough tragedy to bring this lethally delusional behaviour to an end, the pastor’s son Cody aged 21 vowed to continue the practice, even promising to handle the same snake that killed his father at his funeral. As someone who has a passionate interest in human behaviour and skepticism, I am not shocked by stories like these.  Below are the two verses of the bible that are responsible for a number of snake bite deaths among religious believers in the US.

Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.      Luke 10:19

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.                        (Mark 16:17-18)

 

To Conclude

I believe the psychiatric profession need to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate what it means to suffer psychotic delusions in the pathological sense of the word.  For far too long we have branded and marginalised the mentally ill and discriminated against those who suffer delusional symptoms as defined in the narrowest possible sense of the word, while simultaneously promoting cultural delusion that is every bit as pernicious and worthy of investigation as the worst case studies within psychiatry. Cultural delusion accounts for an infinitely larger number of deaths and crimes than those carried out by people who have been committed to institutions for the criminally insane.

Skeptics of deeply held religious and cultural beliefs are often accused of being insensitive for pointing out the elephant in the room that religious belief in magical books is a delusion and that promoting delusion within society has inevitable and predictable consequences. Anthropology has shown that it is almost impossible for societies to universally embrace healthy delusion while not becoming prone to its destructive form. While it may be true that certain religious beliefs give comfort and meaning to some people who are unable to live in a world where random things can happen for no reason; promoting religion and any other form of evidence denial, to those who do not need this emotional crutch has always led to a downward spiral. All the evidence shows that religious societies cannot curtail their delusion to the confines of belief in god etc.

Delusional false hope both within conventional religious settings and that disseminated by quasi-religious political leaders give rise to a predictable cycle. Firstly they are more likely to come to prominence in times of economic and social stress. Secondly the church or political leader/party develops a cult like status within their community by making claims and promises that are far-fetched and unattainable. They are the rock stars of their day and those who criticise them become outcasts within their society. Thirdly this leads to corruption and abuses that ultimately result in their downfall, either by revolution or popular dissent. Fourthly anyone or anything associated with the offending regime is often pilloried and society asks the question how could people have been so stupid to fall for the claims that now seem patently absurd?

This is exactly how leaders that once oozed charisma within the Arab world suddenly toppled like dominoes during the Arab Spring. It is why people like Charlie Haughey were able to rise to power while living a lavish lifestyle, without question from the media, while the rest of us tightened our belts as a result of his now infamous TV appearance. It is exactly the fate of the Catholic Church and the organisations that support it.

Patricia Casey will psychiatrists in the next century deem you to be suffering from delusional thought processes that are every bit as severe as that of the patients you treat? You cannot solve society’s problems by encouraging people to seek solutions that are not based on evidence. It is one thing to acknowledge that people have the right to freedom of belief, whatever that may be and that some people may indeed require a religious crutch. It is a different matter entirely to promote evidence denial as an instrument of public policy.

The Iona Institute led a billboard campaign last year stating that there is scientific evidence that prayer works. This is delusional thought and represents a complete inability to deal in evidence and rationality. The recent controversy concerning the Pantigate/RTE affair show that your organisation has indeed an irrational fear of granting gay people equal rights. This is demonstrated by the fact it devotes so much time attempting to fight against gay marriage. The fears of the Iona Institute in relation to this matter amount to a collective paranoid delusion as they are not expressed by the vast body of scientific evidence on the matter. These are just two examples of how a deeply steeped religious world view can creep into mainstream politics and scientific pursuit. I ask the question, if a professor of psychiatry with several years of experience can succumb to this level of evidence denial then what hope has the ordinary individual who you are trying to indoctrinate under the false guise of an academic institution? I leave you with the words of Friedrich Nietzsche.

“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

patricia casey

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The Exorcisms of Latoya Ammons: Demonic Possession or Mass Hysteria?

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Imagine a force so potent that it could convince you to put your life in danger, a force so malevolent that it could convince you to kill. What if this force was so devilish that it could result in physical illness as extreme as seizures or even blindness? What could cause 6 highly trained medical staff to collapse in a busy emergency room in a Californian hospital, while routinely treating a patient for cervical cancer, who later died that same day? What if this force was so malignant and lethal that it could drive people to jump to their death off a high rise building in a frenzied panic?  Imagine a force so terrifying that it could affect anyone, anywhere at any time and no country or people were immune to its rage. I believe such a terrifying phenomenon does in fact exist.

Last week the world’s media woke up to the story of Latoya Ammons. This mother of three from Gary, a suburb of Indianapolis, claimed she and her three children became possessed by multiple demons in March 2012. This was to be the start of a long string of sensational claims. The Indianapolis Star newspaper first reported that her physician Dr. Geoffrey Onyeukwu became convinced of the possibility that her story might be true when medical staff at his clinic claimed to witness one of her children being lifted and thrown against a wall by an invisible force. This incident had been documented in an almost 800 page report by the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS). One DCS employee Valerie Washington and registered general nurse Willie Lee Walker claimed to have seen the child become violent, his eyes roll back in his head and place his hands around his older brothers neck threatening to kill him while speaking in a strange demonic like voice. They then claimed to witness the most bizarre incident of the boy walking up a wall backwards and onto the ceiling before then flipping back to land on his feet. They go on to state that the experience caused them to flee the building in a state of terror. Latoya Ammons and her mother Rosa Campbell claimed to have witnessed her 12 year old daughter levitate above her bed unconscious, only to suddenly drop back down without having any memory of the event. DCS eventually took temporary custody of all the children on grounds of neglect due to poor school attendance.

With her children in custody, DCS and the Gary police division conducted an investigation into the property. Even DCS chief Samantha Ilic claimed to be struck by panic while conducting an investigation at the property. She also attested to having a string of bad luck including the breaking of ribs in the following weeks. Gary Police officer Charles Austin claimed that the new batteries in his radio drained out while in the property and that one of the pictures taken on his iphone showed a silhouette figure in the window of the property. He claimed that although he always believed in ghosts, he now very much believed in demons. Local Catholic priest Father Michael Maginot claimed to perform three exorcisms on the premises, the last one said in Latin. This was the last disturbance that was recorded in the property. After a period of six months Latoya Ammons was reunited with her children under the strict condition she was not to discuss demons or use religion as a punishment for her children and they were to receive therapy to deal with past issues. She has since moved house and has had no more untoward experiences. It is also worth noting that no one else reported unusual phenomena at the property either before or after this incident.

The original article in the Indianapolis Star

http://www.indystar.com/story/news/2014/01/25/the-disposession-of-latoya-ammons/4892553/

Ammons was sent for psychiatric evaluation and no obvious signs of psychotic illness were reported but the team noted that she appeared guarded. The clinical team wondered whether her intense religiosity could mask “delusional ideation”. Her youngest son was examined by clinical psychologist Stacy Wright and the two other children were assessed by Joel Schwartz.  They both came to the conclusion that the children appeared to be mimicking the delusional behaviour of their mother. They found no evidence of supernatural ability and Stacy Wright noticed that the youngest boy only reverted into the role of being possessed when the conversation became confrontational or when asked questions that he did not wish to answer. Her notes state that the boy was rational until such questions were asked, then his account became bizarre and illogical and that his answers were inconsistent every time he was questioned. In the days following the original publication of this story in the Indianapolis Star, media from Australia to Ireland also published the story.  Reporters from the Daily Mail wrote that the Chief of Police in Gary believes her house was a portal to hell. They sensationally reference the statements of DCS agents Valerie Washington and her boss Samantha Ilic. If high ranking police officers and a chief from child services can be convinced of the claims of Latoya Ammons then could they be true? Is it possible that malevolent forces were at work at the house on Carolina Street in Gary Indianapolis?

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” Carl Sagan

While the assertions made by high ranking officials are indeed stunning and genuinely disturbing, skeptics will be immediately concerned at the lack of credible evidence for any of the claims made. The story boasts claims of witnessing levitation and a child walking up a wall backwards. Samantha Ilic, chief of DCS testifies to having witnessed the presence of an inexplicable oil like substance on the window of Ammons’ house. Police claimed that after removing it and locking up the house, it returned again. Ammons’ mother, Rosa Campbell, claimed that while an exorcism was being performed, the blinds in the living room started to shake as if being lifted by a storm but the room was not windy. Given the series of bizarre events documented by all concerned, I am extremely questioning as to why no one decided to place a video recording device in all rooms. Both the police and child service authorities are presumably trained in how to gather evidence. Why did Samantha Ilic not take a sample of the strange liquid that was believed to be appearing on the window to have it tested?

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Outside of the house depicting human like shadow in the right window

The only evidence that is offered is a photo of the outside of the house with a shadowy image that appears to be human like and an electronic voice phenomenon recording (junk science). While I am not accusing any police officer of creating a hoax picture, this image or others like it can easily be created using photograph software. There is even an android app for creating ghost photographs. An alternative explanation (and possibly more credible) would be the phenomenon of pareidolia. This refers to our bias for facial detection. Evolution has conferred us with a bias towards facial recognition which is why we automatically identify a face when we see two horizontal dots with a vertical line in the middle. We see faces in clouds and images of Jesus in slices of toast. This is not nature playing a practical joke on us. It may have been a useful trait in our early history to enable babies to identify human help, thus giving them a better chance of survival. The Daily Mail UK received an EVP recording that was taken by the police in the property that supposedly had a segment where a demonic voice utters the word “hey”. EVP has been thoroughly discredited as a science. It is just our mind creating patterns out of background noise. If you look to the tree on the right of the picture, it looks as if its branches and leaves could generate the shadow that we see in the window. Apart from this photo and the less than impressive recording of demons supposedly saying the word hey to a Gary Police officer, there is absolutely no other evidence of anything going bump in the night at this Carolina Street family home.

The interview of Father Michael Maginot by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News depicted a man that is quite possibly very prone to suggestive baloney. He was quizzed by O’Reilly as to why he performed an exorcism on the house without actually seeing any of the children who were in DCS care at this stage? His belief was based on Ammons becoming uncomfortable when he placed religious objects on her face. Given the extreme lack of substantial evidence in this case, what could drive people of high authority to lay their weight behind the extraordinary claims of the family at 3800 Carolina Street?  Here is Father Maginot being interviewed by Bill O’Reilly on the O’ Reilly Factor.

Could the whole story be an elaborate hoax involving many individuals wishing to cash in on fame and fortune? It is a possibility. However I believe there may be an element of human nature at play that is almost as sinister and terrifying as the concept of the devil himself and that is mass hysteria and mass delusion. In the next part I will document just how terrifying mass hysteria can be and how it can have disastrous consequences for society. It can bring about temporary symptoms that mimic psychosis in people who are otherwise mentally sound. It can even result in physical illnesses such as temporary blindness and epileptic like seizures (psychogenic seizures) in what is known as conversion disorder and even lead people to do the unthinkable. Just as fire needs the essential ingredients of heat, a fuel source and oxygen so too does mass hysteria. For its fires to ignite, we need the three elements of credulity, fear or other overwhelming emotions and people sharing a common belief system. Just like a raging inferno that has gone out of control, it can continue unabated before finally dying out when eventually reason prevails.

What is mass hysteria?

 

The term is used to define the escalation of irrational anxiety and fear affecting more than one individual who share a common belief and is usually the result of exposure to what is perceived to be a strange, threatening, alarming or overwhelming situation. The term relates to a phenomenon whereby this irrational fear spreads like an epidemic through the population. Both mass hysteria and conversion disorder have also been used as terms to identify the development of physical symptoms that occur as a result of irrational fear among a group, that lack an organic component. This is also referred to as mass psychogenic illness. Collective delusions are most common during times of societal stress or economic recession. They are most common in women under 35 but as these cases will illustrate, it can affect anyone anywhere at any time.  In the absence of physical illness, mass hysteria is sometimes referred to as mass delusion. One can leave it to the medical profession to debate the terminology of this bizarre and poorly understood condition, but it is important that the general population understand just how pernicious this condition can be and why it is almost always associated with cases of exorcism.

Documented cases

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Irish Moving Statues:  In 1985 Ireland became consumed in the belief that statues of the Virgin Mary, and occasionally other saints, were moving inexplicably.  The country was hit by a wave of reported cases, the first and most famous case being in the town of Ballinspittle in Cork in July 1985. The precipitating factor is believed to have been an optical illusion, but once the idea became established, a tsunami of mass hysteria engulfed the country.  Similar sightings were quickly reported at up to 30 locations around Ireland before finally dying out later that year.  A tiny minority of believers remained with one such group even going to Russia to attempt converting the people there. The statue at Ballinspittle was later vandalised by a Pentecostal group who believed it was a form of idolatry. Anthropologists attribute social and religious repression, alongside economic hardship, and a deeply engrained religious culture for these occurrences.

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Delhi Monkey man: The biting of individuals in East Delhi in May 2001 sparked an outbreak of so called “Monkey man” mass hysteria across the Indian capital city. Several claims of biting and clawing by a mysterious monkey like entity raged across the city for about two weeks. The city zoo confirmed that no animals had escaped. The monkey is believed to be sacred in Hindu culture and believers attributed supernatural causes to the phenomena. Some believed it to be an avatar of the Hindu god Hanuman. The descriptions given were so radically different that police quickly came to realise that the simian entity was nothing more than the product of overstressed and credulous minds.

The Indian Express reported that one person declared “It was as small as a cat” It bit her fingers, and two of her husband’s teeth were knocked out by a “metallic hand.”

Another person on the same street gave this description “It was a monkey alright, and about four foot tall, but as soon as I grabbed it, it turned itself into a cat with tawny, glowing eyes,”

A local newspaper reported that a 4ft Hindu mystic was beaten up by terrified locals who mistook him for the monkey demon.  A number of people were believed to have been killed from jumping off buildings and falling down stairwells trying to escape from their perceived attacker. The wave of panic resulted in the police being unable to call out to all the reported cases due to a lack of vehicles.  Psychologists attributed the outbreak to strong cultural superstition among a largely uneducated population. Electricity shortages and sweltering heat may have also contributed.

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Satanic ritual abuse in day care centres 1980s-1990s: An astonishing and extremely disturbing wave of moral panic swept the western world turning into mass hysteria that would have devastating consequences for many individuals. As more working mothers were leaving their children in day care, alarming theories without any foundation began to develop. These were fuelled by Christian fundamentalists and some law enforcement authorities and psychotherapists. The first such case happened in 1982. Debbie and Alvin McCuan were accused of ritually abusing their children and forcing them into prostitution and being used in the manufacture of child pornography. The charges were bought by the children’s step grandmother Mary Ann Barbour, a woman with a history of mental illness. Coercive interviewing strategies by the authorities extracted statements of abuse that would later prove to be false. As hysteria deepened, the defence witnesses of Alvin and Debbie, Scott Kniffin, and his wife Brenda were also charged with involvement in the abuse. In 1984 the McCuans and Kniffins were sentenced to 240 years in prison. After serving 12 years, all charges against the defendants were dropped.

Probably the most significant of the so called satanic ritual abuse trials was the McMartin Preschool trial in California. In 1983 a teacher at this preschool, Ray Buckley, was accused of sexually abusing a 2 year old boy in a series of bizarre satanic rituals. As the idea became established, the accusations increased, eventually implicating his sister and other teachers at the school. Children accused the Buckley family of torturing and mutilating animals in secret underground tunnels beneath the school.  In 1984 Ray Buckley was arrested along with his sister Peggy Ann, his mother, grandmother and three other teachers.  In 1986 charges against most of the accused were dropped however the trial of Ray Buckley and his mother Peggy would become the longest and most expensive criminal trial in US history. A retrial in 1989 resulted in an acquittal of all charges against Ray Buckley’s mother and several charges against Ray Buckley himself. The jury declared that although some believed abuse may have taken place, the videos of the children being interviewed were deemed to have shown that police employed highly suggestive interviewing tactics. A retrial in 1990 resulted in the jury being deadlocked. After spending 5 years in prison all charges against Ray Buckley were dropped.

The following Wikipedia article shows how this mania spread across America, Europe and Australia.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_satanic_ritual_abuse_allegations

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Mumbai Sweet Water:  In August 2006 the BBC reported that hundreds of people arrived at Mumbai beach to drink the sea water that they believed had miraculously turned sweet.  They attributed this perceived miracle to Makhdoom Ali Mahimi, a 13th Century Sufi saint. The crowds congregated to drink and collect this water even as plastic bottles and other obvious waste floated by. Officials attribute the sweetness to either the influx of fresh water or pollutants. Parents were seen bathing their children in an area that was highly contaminated with several tonnes of raw sewage.

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Gloria Ramirez – The Toxic Lady: Gloria Ramirez from Riverside California became known as the toxic lady when several workers at Riverside General Hospital, who were treating her for cervical cancer, became sick themselves after becoming exposed to her body and blood. They complained of symptoms such as nausea and dizziness which eventually resulted in many fainting. In all, 6 medical staff passed out before the ER was evacuated. Her body appeared to produce a garlic and fruity type odour and her blood contained trace amounts of a paper like substance. Gloria Ramirez died that same day and was buried in an unmarked grave. Hospital staff noticed that more women than men who were treating her succumbed to fainting. When blood tests on all affected staff returned normal, the incident was put down to mass hysteria. Despite the official hospital finding, the incident became a hotbed for conspiracy theorists and featured on an episode of the X files and Grey’s anatomy.

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Koro Syndrome: This is the belief in some Asian countries that the genitalia are shrinking into the body. Sufferers believe that the penis will shrink back into the body  (in women it is the nipples) and that when this happens it will result in death. The intriguing thing about this condition is it seems localised to Asian countries such as China, India, Japan and Singapore. Many sufferers have gone to extreme lengths to try and prevent what they saw as the shrinking of their genitals. Some have resorted to tying string around their penis and many suffered with the condition for years before being finally diagnosed.

Possible role of mass hysteria in those treating Latoya Ammons and her children

The account given by the Indianapolis Star in relation to Ammons would not be out of place in Salem Massachusetts during the witch trials of 1692-1693. It is worth noting that Dr. Geoffrey  Onyeukwu is one of the first high ranking medical professionals to show a potential belief in Ammons claims, following his initial notes describing her as showing signs of delusion. I looked up Dr. Onyeukwu’s profile in an online physician directory. He appears to have been educated in Obafemi Awolowo University in Osun State Nigeria. He later completed an internship residency at Murtala Mohammed Hospital, Kano.  Nigeria has a rich history of religious and cultural superstition.  This may be an important element in a possible lapse of judgement on the part of Dr. Onyeukwu. His apparent endorsement of the possibility that supernatural as opposed to psychiatric forces as the cause of the disturbances at the Carolina Street family home may be the spark that ignited this possible case of mass hysteria. He said he had not seen anything like it in 20 years and that he was scared.  Could it be his inexperience in this branch of psychiatry, coupled with having been bought up in a society that embraces superstition, both religious and cultural, that caused him to make an embarrassing error of judgement as a medical physician? I have no doubt that what he witnessed was disturbing but nothing about what he describes requires anything more than a professional knowledge of psychiatry. He never claims to have witnessed levitation. The account from the Indianapolis Star states that medical staff witnessed the boy being thrown inexplicably by an invisible force against a wall but not that Dr. Onyeukwu witnessed this himself.  Even if he had claimed to witness such an occurrence, this feat could easily be accomplished by the boy himself without the aid of a supernatural malevolent agent.

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Dr. Onyeukwu told The Indy Star 

“Twenty years, and I’ve never heard anything like that in my life,” he said. “I was scared myself when I walked into the room.”He said he would not speak in more detail unless Ammons had “psychiatric clearance” for the waiver of confidentiality she had signed.In his medical notes about the visit, Onyeukwu wrote “delusions of ghost in home” and “hallucinations.” He also wrote “history of ghost at home” and “delusional.”What Ammons and Campbell say happened next also was detailed in a DCS report of a family case manager’s interviews with medical staff.Chaos erupted.Campbell said Ammons’ sons cursed Onyeukwu in demonic voices, raging at him. Medical staff said the youngest boy was “lifted and thrown into the wall with nobody touching him,” according to a DCS report.

 

The account mentions the boy becoming aggressive and using foul language and disturbing tones.  Again the failure of Dr. Onyeukwu and his medical staff to video record any unusual or supernatural behaviour leads me to believe that he was indeed terrified and may have been of the opinion that the children exhibited behaviour that was not of this world. Medical staff could have used their smartphones to document the strange and disturbing behaviour of the boy they claimed to have observed. This lack of rational evidence gathering leads me to believe most of the staff were indeed hysterical and quite possibly suffering from temporary psychotic like symptoms borne out of genuine terror. The detailed examination of the youngest boy by clinical psychologist Stacy Wright and the two older children by Joel Schwartz, found no evidence of anything paranormal and the clinical psychologist who examined Latoya Ammons questioned whether her extreme religiosity could be masking delusional ideation.

The levitation of the 12 year old girl was not witnessed by either Dr. Onyeukwu or Officer Charles Austin. It is not clear whether Dr. Onyeukwu claims to have witnessed the throwing of the boy by an invisible force at his clinic either. Most of the claims of supernatural phenomena appear to be made by women. (the only exception being the case of the boy walking up the wall which was made by DCS employee Valerie Washington and corroborated by nurse Willie Lee Walker). The article in the Indy Star states that Willie Lee Walker had a history of belief in ghosts and demons. Women are considerably more likely to suffer from hysteria of this sort. In the case of the levitation episode, the claims were made by Latoya Ammons and her mother Rosa. Latoya Ammons’ 12 year old daughter described how she would go into a trance and have no memory of the events. She also described the sensation of being choked or something pressing down on her chest.  This is a common testimony of those who suffer a condition known as sleep paralysis. The fact that Latoya Ammons and Rosa Campbell claimed to have witnessed the girl levitating may be due to the girl having what is termed a psychogenic seizure. This would also explain the girl’s account of going into a trance and losing memory. A psychogenic seizure is usually bought about by extreme stress and hysteria that is without an organic cause. While the patient is unconscious there is often an arching of the back, which in some cases is so extreme that it could be mistaken for levitation phenomena. This may be one of the reasons for the levitation myth in demonic possession.  As the seizure comes to an end, the muscles relax and the body would appear to drop. This would be all the more convincing if the body was covered by bed clothes. Add a pinch of extreme terror and one has the making of a Hollywood blockbuster!

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Artist’s drawing of a patient undergoing a psychogenic seizure while unconscious

In the case of the child walking backwards up the wall, again the witness was DCS employee Valerie Washington. Neither Officer Charles Austin, Dr Onyeukwu or indeed Fr. Maginot claim to have witnessed anything definitively supernatural in this story. During the exorcism on the property, Rosa Campbell shouts to tell Fr. Maginot that the lamp is flickering but by the time he arrives it has stopped. She again shouts to the priest to tell him the blinds are shaking but again the priest performing the exorcism does not testify to witnessing anything that amounts to damning evidence of paranormal activity.

The real heroes of the story are clinical psychologists Stacy Wright and Joel Schwartz

When the children were taken into DCS custody, the youngest was examined by Stacy Wright and the other two by Joel Schwartz. This is what Stacy Wright had to say according to the Indy Star.

 “The boy tended to act possessed when he was challenged, redirected or asked questions he didn’t want to answer. In her evaluation, Wright wrote that he seemed coherent and logical except when he talked about demons. It was then that the 8-year-old’s stories became “bizarre, fragmented and illogical,” Wright said. His stories changed each time he told them. He also changed the subject, quizzing Wright on math problems and asking her about outer space.” Can you die if you go to space?” he asked. “How do you get to space? Do you have to wear a helmet and suit?” Wright believed the 8-year-old did not suffer from a true psychotic disorder.” This appears to be an unfortunate and sad case of a child who has been induced into a delusional system perpetuated by his mother and potentially reinforced” by other relatives, she wrote in her psychological evaluation”.

Joel Schwartz who examined Ammons’ daughter and older son give a similar verdict

“There also appears to be a need to assess the extent to which (Ammons’ daughter) may have been unduly influenced by her mother’s concerns that the family was exposed to paranormal experiences,” Schwartz wrote. Ammons’ daughter told Schwartz that she saw shadowy figures in the Carolina Street home. She also said she twice went into trances. Ammons’ older son told Schwartz that “doors would slam and stuff started moving around.”

 

Wright documents how the youngest boy gave differing accounts of his perceived paranormal experience each time when questioned.  If we look back at the Delhi monkey man case, this is exactly how the authorities became convinced that the story was a figment of peoples imagination, bought about by a case of mass hysteria. There is disparity between the nature of supernatural claims made by men and by women in this story. The only definitively supernatural event claimed to be witnessed by a male was initially made by DCS employee Valerie Washington. Nurse Willie Lee Walker who corroborated her claim, is documented with a previous history of belief in ghosts and demons. When the boy started to speak in a menacing tone and threatened to kill his older brother with his hands around his neck, it is quite possible that this event triggered hysteria in Valerie Washington that then spread to her male nurse companion Willie Lee Walker. The fact that both attested to fleeing the building in a complete state of fear show that they were not thinking or acting rationally. It is quite possible, in fact almost certain, that the boy never walked up the ceiling and that the backward walk up the wall was simply accomplished with the help of holding onto his grandmother, Rosa Campbell’s hand. Mass hysteria can alter our perception of the simplest mundane occurrences making our mind interpret them in fantastic and sometimes terrifying ways.

US law enforcement and critical thinking.

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Images like this will continue to flood the global media until US Police Chiefs and media outlets learn how to critically evaluate extraordinary claims.

The apparent willingness of some high ranking US police officers such as Charles Austin to go public with his claim of believing Latoya Ammons’ story illustrates the need for critical thinking skills to be promoted within some elements of US law enforcement. A number of police departments across the US have been bamboozled into carrying out investigations on the basis of the supposed evidence of self-proclaimed psychics. One of the most prominent cases of this had disastrous consequences for Texan land owners Gena and Joe Bankson, when they were accused of harbouring a mass grave on their land. In 2011 Liberty County Sheriff’s department arrived at a rural property in Hardin Texas, about an hour outside Houston, with a search warrant and cadaver sniffing dogs. They were acting on the basis of a phone call by Rhonda Gridley. In the phone call she made a statement that up to 30 dismembered bodies of men, women and children were buried in a mass grave on the Bankson’s property. Gena and Joe Bankson were later shown to be innocent of any involvement in the macabre claims, but not before the story had reached the global news media. Gena Bankson later went on to tell reporters that she believed that the self-proclaimed psychic Rhonda Gridley, who goes by the name Angel, who made the claim, was mentally unstable. It is very concerning that law enforcement officers in the 21st century would act on the word of those who claim to have psychic powers. In June 2013 Rhonda Gridley was hit with a $6.8 million defamation verdict at 193rd State district court in Dallas for making false and libellous claims to the police. No disciplinary action was taken against officers who acted on the misinformation.

As a society we are all too willing to assume the claims of those in high office are genuine. This case goes to prove the old adage that you should not believe all that is said in the newspapers.  Such unreasoned hysteria is not without harm. It is the fire that caused the witch hunts of the dark ages and that go on to this day in less enlightened parts of the world such as Nigeria and Papua New Guinea. Deaths due to botched exorcisms are on the increase and are no longer just a concern for impoverished countries with low educational standards. Deaths have been reported across Europe and America and some have received much media attention such as the case of Latisha Lawson yet again from Indiana.  Court evidence showed how she and another woman believed her four children were possessed and tried to force them all to drink a mixture of olive oil and vinegar in which she believed would force a demon by the name of Marzon to leave. When one of her children, 2 year old Jezaih, vomited after being forced to drink the mixture, she held her hand to his mouth and forced him to swallow the concoction. It did not go as planned and an autopsy report later confirmed the cause of death to be forced compression of the neck. She was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Despite the Vatican citing such things as (1) levitation (2) speaking in unfamiliar languages and (3) the presence of superhuman strength as evidence for demonic possession and the need for an exorcism to be performed, I have yet to see any credible evidence that such phenomena even exist, let alone, the opinion that certain people have the unique power to cast out malevolent agents from such possessed people. Superstitious belief is an extremely potent catalyst of mass hysteria. Perhaps the greatest metaphorical demon of all is our very belief in such entities.

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