Nov 1, 2011

Demons & the function of the idea of demons in America

How strange is belief in demons today?

How obscure is this, in the America we live in?

Not very.

There are, roughly calculated, 150,173,800 American Christians who believe in demons*. That's 150 million-plus self-identified Christians in America, who, when asked by pollsters, said they agreed with the idea there were evil spirits, demons, etc., at work in the world in such a way that they could control or influence a person.

150 million plus is not, it feels necessary to point out, a small number.

That's slightly more than 48% of Americans**.

This, of course, is not even counting people who don't self identify as Christians but who also believe in demons. It's not like demons are unique to Christian theology, after all.

In short, lots and lots of Americans' experience of the world and explanation of the world includes reference to demons. Demons, for them, serve an explanatory function, sometimes, and are part of the furniture of the cosmos, one of the types of entities that inhabit the world.

So: not obscure.

So: while you may think it's strange, and maybe objectively it is strange, and while there may be really good arguments for why people shouldn't believe in demons, maybe shouldn't even be able to believe in demons, what with science today being what it is, people do. Lots of people.

It's actually quite, quite common.

It's also not something to be freaked out about. Not only is belief in demons not that rare, sociologically speaking, it isn't really as freaky as it's made out to be, and, really, the more you know about it, the less important it seems.

Demons keep coming up, in the news, because of Rick Perry's (loose) association with the New Apostolic Reformation, a (loose) group of pentecostals who split with most other pentecostals and all evangelicals on a number of theological issues. People associated with the group talk about demons, and have a developed demonology. This is not what's distinctive about them, but it comes up anyway.

Like blinking Vegas lights: SCARY! DEMONS! SCARY!

The Associated Press recently had a story, e.g., that drops in, without context, the statement: "These preachers believe demons have taken hold of specific geographic areas, including the nation’s capital."

This statement comes after brief mention of the NAR belief that there are still Apostles and Prophets appointed by the Holy Spirit today, which is where they parted ways with other pentecostals and charismatics. It's dropped in with several beliefs that are actually fairly common among evangelicals, and not distinctives of the NAR, like the nearness of the end of human history, that American culture is collapsing and decaying, and that the signs of the falling apart of America are things like same-sex marriage. Then, after demons and homophobia are unleashed in the article (never to be heard from again), we get to what it's really about, which is the question of whether or not these pentecostals loosely associated with Rick Perry want a Christian theocracy in America. Dominionism, etc.

The statement about demons is true, more or less, but lacks context. It's offered up as evidence of weirdness, when really it's not.

More of this oh-my-God-they-believe-in-demons, without any explanation of what that means or how that works, can be seen in Terry Gross' interview with C. Peter Wagner, an apostle of the NAR and an author of a number of books on spiritual warfare. I'm a fan of Gross' Fresh Air, but she does not -- does not -- understand religion. Nor does she seem interested in actually learning anything about it, and so, cyclically, she displays embarrassing ignorance. She often doesn't seem to understand the answers she elicits.

In her interview with Wagner, she spends a lot of time on demons, though this isn't what is unique about Wagner's theology. She pushes him to name people or types of people who are demon-controlled. Gross apparently believes there is a kind of one-to-one correspondence between things Wagner doesn't like and where he sees demons at work. He repeatedly tells her it's more complicated than that -- we're talking, here, about a cosmology, after all -- but she acts like he's being evasive.

One example of this exchange:
Gross: Do you believe that there are people in American politics who are possessed by demons?
Wagner: We don't like the word, to use the word "possessed" because that means they have any power of their own. We like to use the word "afflicted," or, technical term, "demonized." But there are people, yes, who are directly affect by demons. Not only in politics, but also in the arts, in media, in religion, the Christian church. Yes ...
Gross: I don't know if you're comfortable naming names, but is there anybody, are there any people in American government today, that you would single out as having been afflicted with a demon.
Wagner: No, I wouldn't want to do that.
Gross: You wouldn't want to do that. Let me ask you this, and I know you don't want to name names, but, if somebody, say in congress, was a homosexual, and was out about that, would that necessarily mean that they were demonized?
Wagner: I don't think so. It might. Or it might not. There are plenty of heterosexuals who are demonized. I mean, adulterers ...
Gross: I ask that only because I know you are very opposed to homosexuality. And I think ... Would it be fair to say that you see homosexuality as a satanic expression?
Wagner: Well, I don't think -- let me put it another way -- I don't think homosexuality is the will of God. It's not God's plan A.
Gross: [Long pause] OK.
She further asks him if he thinks Democrats are demon-influenced (yes, he says, but so are Republicans), if Hinduism and Shintoism are demonic (well, he says, "they're not a part of the Kingdom of God"), and if mosques in America represent the advancement of demon power ("We would like Muslims to become Christians, but, in the meantime, if they're here in America, we don't oppose them").

Gross seems bewildered by the idea that a Christian would want to convert non-Christians, or that they might even think religion was important enough that someone would be concerned if people held to the wrong religion. She acts like she wants Wagner to confess to demonizing, in the most literal way, those he opposes in cultural or political conflicts.

This is a simplistic understanding of the function of demons in the thought of those who believe in them. It's not what they believe, and it misses the whole point of demons in the thought process of those engaging in spiritual warfare.

You see this in Daniel Radosh's book Rapture Ready!, too. These are people, Radosh cracks, in a chapter on Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker, who literally demonize their opponents.

"[C]ommon ground will never be possible," Radosh writes, "because they don't object to specific ideas that can be reframed or adjusted. They object to Satan, whose bidding we are doing."

This is exactly backwards. Common ground is not made impossible because of the idea of demons at work in the world, but actually made possible by the idea of demons. Opponents are not demonized when there's this conception of demons at work. Rather, the point is that opponents themselves are not evil. The perceived evil is displaced, in a sense, onto the demons. Opponents are then, themselves, understood as good. They're well meaning, well intentioned, good hearted -- but deceived. People who see demons at work in political and cultural battles believe they have common ground with those they oppose in that both sides want the best for everyone, want good things, and those they oppose aren't evil, just mislead about what that "best" and "good" is.

The abortion provider, the feminist, the Muslim, etc. are each conceived of as natural allies, as sympathetic, as wanting, in their hearts, the same thing that the conservative Christian "prayer warrior" wants. If only they could be made to see what is really in their best interest, there wouldn't be any opposition.

This shouldn't seem strange to liberals or cultural critics. This is exactly the same move as is made with the idea of "false consciousness."

When someone like Thomas Frank asks "What's the Matter with Kansas?", he's making the same move as the people who talk about demons. When anyone on the left asks why working class and low income people vote against their own interests by voting Republican, they're positing that these people -- opponents -- should be supporting liberal programs, are naturally and would naturally be on the side of social welfare and environmental regulations, except that they've been misled and deceived. I.e., that they've been corrupted by some evil force external to themselves, deceiving them to the point they desire their own destruction.

Consider, here, how a Marxist would explain why people believe in demons, and how that explanation functions identically to how a person who believes in demons would explain a person who believes in Marxism.

The Marxist would say, as Louis Althusser*** writes in On Ideology, "men represent their real condition of existence to themselves in an imaginary form." Karl Marx follows Ludwig Feuerbach, here, in finding "a cause for the imaginary transposition and distortion of men's real condition of existence," the cause being "material alienation." In simple terms, this just means that people can't stand reality, and thus make up a fiction, which is sufficiently similar to reality to kind of overlay it, and work as an explanation and an account of reality, while actually hiding and disguising what the reality really is.

This is the same structure as would be used by those who believe in demons: i.e., Marxists and liberals can't stand the idea of reality, which is, in this conception, the reality of the supernatural, the cosmic battle between forces of good and evil (including demons), and so they make up a fiction, embrace an imaginary conception of the world and history.

Leaving aside entirely the question of whether there really are demons, or whether there really is such a thing as "false consciousness." The point is just that the theoretical functions, here, are equivalent.

In both cases, sympathy towards opponents is established. The other side is simply deceived, which is why they don't see that they really should be supporting exactly the opposite of what they do support. Why don't women see that feminism is harmful to them? Why don't ranchers and farmers see that environmentalism is in their best interest? Because they've been blinded by an outside evil.

In this sense, "spiritual warfare" is a form of consciousness raising, of helping people break through the self-apparent reality that's really a mask to the real reality. Which is, the demon-fighters would say, that "our war is not a war of flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers."

Look at the dual function of something like the last panel of some Chick tracts, where two cartoon demons urge the reader of the tract to burn it. Of course Jack Chick "really believes" in demons, and that they're at work in the world, influencing and affecting people, but the way the concluding panel of the proselytizing pamphlet works is more prosaic than that.

It functions, first, to make the non-Christian readers question their own response to the tract. If they find it laughable and reject the cartoony message, they find here that it's already been assumed that that's what their response will be. I.e., the author foreknew their rejection, their assertion of rationality and independence, but then, how independent is it, really, if was foreseen so easily. If the author can know this is what the readers will do before the readers could have even had a chance to come into contact with the tract and come to the decision that this is the response they would choose, how free is that decision? Readers may think, before this panel, that they are just suspending disbelief to entertain this story of cosmic forces and eternal consequences. Disbelief has merely been suspended, not overcome with a conversion, and the readers read presuming (as is always the case with fiction) that they can put down the story, toss out the tract, cease the suspension, and end the story at anytime. Here, however, with two cute demons, they find that escape from the story is already written into the story. Rejecting the story is also already a part of the story, so the story persists. Ceasing to suspend belief doesn't get readers out of the scenario by suspension of disbelief.

It's structured to function like a metafictional trap. It doesn't matter if readers belief in demons or not: the question is, isn't it possible that the choice not to believe in demons is caused by demons.

Is it possible, the panel asks, that that decision isn't the readers' own? What if -- and the fictional form of the tract doesn't need to push anyone past just the hypothetical "what if" -- what if that free and independent and rational decision isn't any of those things, but is actually being done "under the influence" of outside evil forces? Is it possible to question, here, the motivations and the forces at work behind the self-apparently free decision? The problem, for the reader who wants to reject the ideas of the tract and the tract itself, is that of course it is, as evidence by the fact it was just imagined in the act of reading.

The panel also functions, second, in a quite simple way for the Christian passing out the tract. It explains the rejection.

Why don't people see they need Jesus? Why don't they accept? Why do they persist in pursuing that path to destruction? Answer: they're being deceived.

It's easily to think of demons and the idea of demons as strange, obscure theology, a disturbing hold-out of primitive thinking in the modern world. It's easy, too, for people who don't believe in demons to hear talk about spiritual warfare, especially in the context of politics, and to find it really disturbing. It can be unsettling, and very foreign, very alien. You can see, especially with the way the NAR has been in the news, these waves of "oh my God they believe in demons!", and then, "Do you really believe in demons? Oh my God they really believe in demons!"

But the content of that belief and the functions of that belief, when they're examined a little bit, when they're laid out in a clear fashion, aren't that different than a lot of commonly accepted ideas. They're not that strange. It's silly to be freaked out and find appallingly weird something that more than 150 million Americans treat as common place, as part of the natural order of things. In numbers, it's not that rare of an idea, and in practice it's not that different from a lot of other ideas. If one can put the "oh my God" on hold long enough to get a good understanding, there'd be a lot less freaking out.

And sure, it may be the case that people who are outspoken about their ideas of demons and the activities of demons may not really be good at more theoretical, analytical explanations that people who don't believe in demons could find comprehensible or palatable. That doesn't justify not even trying to understand, though.

Gross, for example, asked Wagner the question:
Demons feature prominently in your religious views. You and other people in the New Apostolic Reformation have described demons as if they are alive and functioning in American and in other countries around the world. So, do you believe that there are actually like living demons, like Satan's representatives, who are functioning in American now?
Wagner said, "Absolutely. As a matter of fact, in Oklahoma City, there is an annual meeting of a professional society, called the International Society of Deliverance Ministers, which my wife and I founded many years ago..." and went on to talk about exorcists. Gross didn't ask -- didn't either stop him and ask or come back to it and ask -- "what do you mean by alive?" There's an assumption they both agree on that term, but demons aren't "alive" in the sense of being physical entities that eat or breathe or grow. They don't reproduce or have genes. They don't die. If they "alive," what does that mean? What does Wagner think it means and what does Gross? How are demons aline in comparison to an id?

If one is worried about or appalled by this idea of demons, it's really worth it to push through the simplistic questions, like "demons, really?" and "OK, who's possessed."

You have to push past the surfaces.

When you do push past the salaciousness, though, it turns out it's really not all that important, it's really not all that different, and it's not as big of an issue or as scary as it seems at a glance.

*Back of the envelop math: 64% of American Christians believe in demons. There are 308,745,516 Americans, as of the 2010 census, and 76% of Americans self-identify as Christians. So: 76% of 308,745,516 = 234,646,592 American Christians. 64% of 234,646,592 = 150,173,819 American Christians who believe in demons.

**Another reference says only(!) 41% of all Americans self-report belief in demons, but I can only find the citation second-hand, via not-exactly-reliable sources. Wording differences could account for the difference. It's also worth noting that fewer Americans believe in demons, apparently, than believe in hell, meaning there's 11 percent or so who hold to an idea of eternal damnation that's demon-less.

***Though a Marxist, Althusser actually is criticizing Marx here. He thinks Marx's idea is circular, as the idea that "men make themselves an alienated (= imaginary) representation of their conditions of existence because these conditions of existence are themselves alienating" presupposes its purported conclusion. One should always be aware of the too-many vastly over-simplified accounts (and esp. criticisms) of Marxism.