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Religion and Culture | The fallacy of Spirit possession

Published:Sunday | December 11, 2016 | 12:00 AM
A common scene at deliverance services.
A woman being delivered from pestering spirits.


Belief in evil spirits wreaking unspeakable horrors on unsuspecting victims is played out weekly in deliverance services across the globe.

It is a curious, if not troubling phenomenon that robs Christianity of its existential freedom.

This primitive, destructive religious canon continues to hold court despite advances in psycho-synthesis, neurology, hypnotherapy and psychiatry. The role of demons in biblical exegesis as man's ubiquitous nemesis has led to untold psychosomatic pathologies and even death during rites of exorcism.

It presents a picture of human beings as automatons, void of determinism, free will and will power. With no basis in spiritual law it encourages abuse of the gullible and the most vulnerable among us.

Peddlers of this falsehood have created a world of polarity with diabolical fiends on one end and angels of light on the other. Expectedly, every problem, discomfort, pain and sickness is attributed to hovering spirits that find abode in and around us.

Alarmingly, those charged with pastoral care and counsel have recycled the gobbledygook of witches, demonologists and animists.

Evangelicals' obsession with demons subverts authentic spiritual enquiry and growth. Their focus on a laundry list of demons that drive the passions and fate of man is a throwback to the days of the Inquisition and Salem.

Credence is given to spirits of bondage, lethargy, lust, sexual perversion, anger, murder, insanity, rebellion, and infirmity. Every human misstep is blamed on these legions of infamy. Every mental and physiological cause of illness is stripped of relevance, even existence. Alas, ephemeral healing caused by the power of belief (placebo effect) assumes supernatural quality.

Here, a great psychological crime is perpetrated on the spiritually naive. And what of the good spirits, - the good guys - our much-touted guardian angels who, for some inexplicable reason allow this venomous assault on innocence?

And, using the same modus operandi as their evil counterparts, why don't these good spirits possess the heart of evil men and make them model citizens?

Clearly, reason is sacrificed at the altar of biblical literalism. The greatest of mystics, Emmanuel Swedenborg, said that human life must be lived in freedom and in accordance to reason.

Displays of spirit possession are caused by the overarching power of hysteria where an array of emotions is released in tandem.

Hysteria is rooted in the socialisation that takes place in church settings where expectations and rewards are well seeded. Individuals are subconsciously compelled to validate prescribed teachings.

Congregants, many of whom are also highly suggestible, are offered the safest environment to release their emotional, psychological, and physical perturbations. This takes the form of cathartic outbursts where individuals lose control of their motor and sensory functions.

Interestingly, this kind of behaviour can be reproduced in a clinical setting where the hypnotist artfully uses suggestion on a client to create a desired response.

In the religious setting, group prayers, chanting, hymns, the persuasiveness of the leader, music, clapping and the power of expectation create the climate for hysteria.

Writhing bodies and contorted faces follow as the drama of good versus evil unfolds. It is a time for attention seekers, victims of their insatiable need to be loved; and a time when others out of real fear, fall prey to the idea of possession.

The pioneer of depth psychology, Carl Jung, described hysteria as "a state of mind marked by an exaggerated rapport with persons in the immediate environment and adjustment to surrounding conditions that amount to imitation."

Jung called hysteria "the most frequent neurosis of the extraverted type, a constant tendency to make (oneself) and produce an impression is a basic feature of the hysteric."

That spiritual deliverance is a carefully crafted hoax does not negate the existence of spirits. Surely, spirits exist but not as perfidious shadows that orchestrate our downfall. There are natural laws that spirits must learn and master before they can make themselves 'known' in this world.

Further, an individual must be mediumistic to be harassed by a disembodied being. This means that only a fraction of us are subject to the promptings of spirits.

Finally, there must be sympathy, adaptation and cooperation - wittingly or unwittingly between spirit and possible victim. Explained differently, there must be some kind of invitation on the part of the mediumistic individual for possession to be likely.

Still, the human will, the greatest of divine gifts can sever any contact with the spirit world. In 'The Human Will: It's Functions and Freedom,' Thomas Hughes explained that, "[t]he human will can resist influences as forces great and mighty; is conscious of its own activities; possesses attributes of moral character; and (as such) man can justify and condemn his own choices."

But those who insist on the ubiquitous snares of the devil and his minions refer to the Bible, a book that is littered with tales of evil. Understandably so, for the Bible as every other sacred book, is a product of its time and culture.

Spirit possession is extraordinarily rare, like snow in August, with only a handful of contestable cases recorded after impartial investigation.

Spirit possession only approaches credibility, if ever, when the victim demonstrates the most bewildering of feats, such as, the ability to effortlessly and flawlessly speak (in native tongue), a language to which he or she was never exposed (not glossolalia or gibberish); precognition or the ability to reveal the most hidden of secrets; and the demonstration of superhuman physical strength. Now I ask: Has such been ever witnessed at a deliverance crusade?

And to many who bestow on themselves the titles of minister or prophet at these deliverance services, the pronouncements of Jeremiah (5:30-31) ring true: " (A shocking) and horrible thing is committed in the land. The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so; and what will you do in the end thereof?"

- Dr Glenville Ashby is a certified hypnotherapist and author of Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity now available as an audiobook. Feedback: or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby