Does it really help, or is this reinforcement of an antiquated belief system harmful? Therein lies a tricky question for religious officials, psychologists, and the skeptically-minded about the value of exorcism. Most rationalists would not condone an exorcism, likely feeling that the potential for harm that could occur is unethical or the endorsement of belief in demons is nonsense. What once was a given fact - evil spirits can possess people, and had been usurped by modern medicinal practice, has recently been re-embraced by the Catholic Church and endorsed through rejuvenation of the exorcism ritual.
The church sees exorcism as something of a last resort and repeatedly notes that the cases are carefully evaluated by medical professionals to address medical or psychological problems. Who does these evaluations? Are the psychiatric evaluators Christian? What are their criteria for concluding that, yes, this person can not be helped by Western medicine and must be treated spiritually?
Professor Christopher French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit of the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London has studied the psychology of possession. He also thinks that, under certain circumstances, people can benefit from exorcism.
“As I believe that "possession" is a purely psychological phenomenon, any psychosomatic symptoms might be cured by any form of treatment that the victim believes in. Also, adoption of the "possessed" role sometimes allows people to let off steam without being held responsible for their actions.”
This is not to make light of the several downsides to exorcism. There have been several cases of families who subjected “possessed’ elders, women, the handicapped, and children to abuse. In some cases, this has resulted in death.
Exorcism is widespread in many different religions and belief systems. We most often encounter stories associated with Roman Catholic dogma, Charismatic Christian sects and Islamic belief.
There is a difference between Catholic church-sanctioned exorcism, as exhibited in the Czech church, and any ritual undertaken by family members, faith healers or even paranormal investigators. But in general, a person is aware of the expectations of what it means to appear possessed and what goes on in an exorcism. Members of the sanctioned International Association of Exorcists may be more careful in their use of the highly emotionally charged, controversial ritual.
When individuals steeped in belief in the devil and demons face a troubled person, whom they interpret as possessed, tragedy has resulted. Many afflicted people around the world are unwillingly subjected to brutal exorcism rituals that result in injury or death. The danger lies in the belief that the person is not their right self, but an “other” that must be removed to free the person to return to a normal state.
In less developed nations with lower levels of education and far less access to health care, people still interpret epileptic seizures, Tourette’s syndrome, or other known disorders, as spiritual afflictions. But not all cases may be medically definable. Priests report that victims appear to be harboring another personality of an evil or destructive nature. They exhibit a different demeanor, a foreign voice, and uncommon actions. Those with a scientific worldview would point to the possibility of dissociative identity disorder (previously called multiple personality disorder), or a call for attention, even faking. There can be cultural benefits to the individual who claims to be possessed, following the “script” of what the rest of their society thinks possession looks like. Socio-cognitive factors likely play a part in many modern possession and exorcism cases.
Professor French notes that possession of the holy spirit is encouraged by some religions. If you are possessed by an evil spirit, it, not you, are deemed responsible for actions. As in the case of women in repressed societies, they can act out taboo behavior in public without repercussion. Children and workers may act possessed in order to gain some sort of control of situation that seems desperately stressful and out of their control - strict school rules or difficult working conditions, for example.
There is no easy answer to the question of how to stem the growth of belief in possession and how to respond to the increasing requests for exorcisms. As hard as it may be not to dismiss concepts of possession and exorcism out of hand as archaic and unenlightened, there are modern elements to it - facets of culture that recognize and accept it as real and incorporate it strongly into their framework of the world. Many people have little opportunity to fight against beliefs in which they are immersed and trapped. Therefore, they will use whatever outlet that they can, even extreme behaviors that seem excessive to rational people. Even though the idea of demons seems like nonsense, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. In order to address scenarios labeled as possession and treated via exorcism, we need to gain greater understanding.