Demons and Heathens: Mental Health is an Atheist Issue

During spring quarter, which happened to also be the final quarter of my program, I took a class called Sects, Cults, and New Religious Movements. As with most of the classes in my Methodist seminary, we didn’t really spend much time on the non-Christian point of view, even though a pretty sizable percentage of cults and new religious movements are non-Christian. Instead — as was typical for at least 80% of the courses I took in graduate school — we spent time talking about how uncomfortable the Christian students are made to feel by non-mainstream Christian beliefs, non-Christian beliefs, and (non)believers themselves. There was a lot of…how should I put this? Well-meaning liberal Christians feeling the crap out of their feelings. (The one evangelical Christian in the class was my buddy, but that’s a different post about how sometimes an honest enemy is the best friend you can have.)

I’ll be honest, it was boring. Until it was infuriating.

One day, a student got up on his little soapbox to talk about his time interning as a hospital chaplain. Both the internship and the soapbox are extremely common experiences in seminary; it wasn’t at all surprising that this man — let’s call him Gus — had worked in a clinical setting and wanted to preach about it. It was a little bit unusual for Gus to discuss working with psychiatric patients, though. Seminarians share the biases of the wider culture, and in general, we’re all terrified of talking about mental illnesses.

Gus, as it happens, had a different point of view. He had been counseling a patient who was being treated for, in his words, demon possession. It was her third hospitalization and medical science was obviously not helping because it was not treating the underlying spiritual cause. According to Gus, this patient believed (and he agreed) that there was no point in continuing hospitalization when the needed treatment involved getting right with God. Brimming with righteous anger, Gus told the class that the doctors ignored him or laughed at him when he brought the need for an exorcism to their attention.

In the discussion which ensued, I learned that perhaps only 25% of our classmates believed in demons; probably fewer believe in actual possession. But it turns out that they all fervently believed in spiritually-integrated care that addressed the possibility, however remote it was seen to be, of demonic possession. Mainline Christian conclusion: Doctors have no business telling a patient with psychosis that the symptom can be treated with biomedical interventions if the patient would rather go to a priest or a faith-healer.

My contribution to this discussion was sadly limited by my classmates’ general disagreement with the facts I tried to offer, such as the correct medical definition of psychosis or the fact that types of religious preoccupation can very often be manifestations of an underlying disorder (which is not to say that having religion is a mental illness; it isn’t, and atheists need to stop saying it is). My experiences as a mental health advocate were voted down in the low democracy of the graduate classroom.

Looking back, I regret not taking a more aggressive stance. My diplomacy got us exactly nowhere. I should have said: Demons are fiction. Your mental illness is no more caused by demons than it is caused by a tiny troll living in your stomach.

I don’t have a romanticized view of medical science, and I certainly have no illusions about involuntary hospitalization, which is the least effective way to combat a mental illness. Involuntary treatment is and should be the treatment of last resort, and only should be used in cases where there is obvious risk to the self or to others. The fact that patients with mental health conditions are trapped in the jaws of a medicolegal system wherein psychiatric advance directives — one of the few ways to anticipate how one will be treated in the case of involuntary hospitalization — are abrogated at the whim of the clinician is nothing short of a crisis. Defensive medicine is not helping anybody, and neither is the 17 year lag it takes for new research in mental health to make its way into medical practice. In short, we’re talking about a very serious, very complicated problem.

But…let’s talk about adding demons to this mix. We’ve spent the last 300 years trying to get demons out of medicine. Evidently we haven’t had much success with the church-going rank-and-file, but, thank the God I don’t believe in, we’ve had better luck with the doctors. We know we’ve had better luck with the doctors because, as just one example, an anticonvulsant is the first treatment for epilepsy (or, if you live in a civilized place, you can try MMJ), and skull trephination to let the demon out is not.

To say that we — as graduate students, as doctors, as religious leaders, or whoever — should treat mental illness as though it is spiritually different from other bodily maladies is, to say the least, infantilizing. To say the most, it is criminally irresponsible and will lead to unnecessary human suffering. In extreme cases, you will continue to see children killed by their parents by either neglect or by smothering/stabbing/beating to eradicate the “demon.” Those of us who know that demons aren’t real have no business tolerating this belief, damn that it’s “sincerely held.”

Because I realize that demons aren’t real isn’t the argument that will carry the day with mainline Christians, let me make the Christian argument as well: Jesus of Nazareth came so that you may have abundant life. People who are suffering are not living abundantly. People who claim that their suffering is in the service of Jesus are misinterpreting the Gospels they hold so dear.