Why so many Christians still believe in demons and Satan

Harvard's black mass controversy is far from an anomaly, and reveals how unreformed the Catholic Church remains

Topics: AlterNet, Satan, Christianity, demons, Harvard, black mass, ,

Why so many Christians still believe in demons and SatanSculpture created by the Satanic Temple (Credit: MSNBC)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet If there’s anywhere in the U.S. where you’d expect aggressively conservative, domineering religion to be a relic of the past, it’s tolerant and culturally liberal Massachusetts. But even in that blue enclave, the theocratic impulse is still surprisingly powerful. We found this out when a student group at Harvard University, the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, ignited a furor by announcing that they were planning an educational program of ceremonies from different belief systems around the world, and that one of these ceremonies, in partnership with the New York-based Satanic Temple, was going to be a Satanist black mass.

Because this is an easy mistake to make, it should be emphasized that most Satanists don’t literally worship the devil. They’re atheists who treat the figure of Satan as an inspiring piece of mythology, a symbol of individual freedom and resistance to oppressive orthodoxy. (One of their current projects is a campaign to end corporal punishment of children in schools.) And, it has to be said, there’s also an element of conscious satire in Satanism, a cheeky attempt to shock the easily shocked.

In spite of this, Satanism has always drawn hysterical fright from religious believers who seem terrified of the mere concept, even though they claim to worship a god who’s infinitely more powerful. True to form, the announcement of the black mass provoked immense outrage and fear among Catholics in Boston and beyond. Harvard facultychaplainsalumni and students, as well as the Archdiocese of Boston, demanded that the black mass be canceled, or that Harvard step in and prevent it from happening. Some prominent Catholic bloggers expressed real fear that the students, without meaning to, would summon the literal devil and lose their souls (shades of the famous Jack Chick comic which claims Dungeons & Dragons teaches teenagers to cast real black magic spells).



But what drew the most outrage is that, in a true black mass—to the extent that such a thing exists, and isn’t just the invention of medieval heresy hunters—there’s a prop representing a Eucharist wafer that’s symbolically desecrated, perhaps stepped on. A rumor, subsequently denied by the Satanists, that they’d be using a real consecrated wafer drove Catholics to new heights of frenzy. Some commenters urged that the Satanists be arrested and charged with hate crimes (I hate to break it to these people, but holding a religious ceremony that offends members of other religions is not actually a crime in America). Another proposed a Mission: Impossible-type commando raid on the Satanists’ meeting place to rescue the imperiled wafer from harm.

Faced with these protests, Harvard grudgingly announced it respected the principle of free speech and wouldn’t forbid the event, but the administration made it clear where its sympathies lay. Harvard’s president, whose actual name is Drew Faust, announced she’d be attending a Catholic-organized protest against the black mass. Harvard’s dean of students, Robert Neugeboren, also said, “We do not agree with the student group’s decision to stage an event that is so deeply disturbing and offensive to many in the Harvard community and beyond.”

Although Harvard publicly claimed it wasn’t forcing the Satanists to move, it seems likely that behind-the-scenes pressure was applied. The night it was supposed to happen, the club announced it would be moving the event off campus as a show of good faith. But even after this, Boston’s Catholics continued to hound them, making apparent it wasn’t Harvard’s sanction that was at issue, but their belief that Satanists should have no right to assemble or practiceanywhere. In the end, the event took place, though apparently in an informal and scaled-down way, at a local restaurant.

The Harvard Satanist fracas shows the immense hypocrisy of the Catholic church and its spokesmen. In their battle against the contraception mandate, they’ve made religious liberty their watchword, arguing that a believer’s right to follow the tenets of his faith is sacrosanct and must never be infringed, even if it causes harm or inconvenience to others. But when it comes to a belief system that the church doesn’t like, they claim, two-faced, that those beliefs can and should be stifled and their practice barred.

The other, more surprising thing it shows is how unreformed this faith still is. Catholic apologists claim theirs is a rational religion shaped by the light of philosophy, but scratch the surface and you’ll find that the ancient, superstitious fear of the dark is very much alive. Several hundred years after the scientific revolution, the church still subscribes to the belief that the cosmos is swarming with evil spirits, ready to harm human beings who attract their attention.

And the Harvard case is far from an anomaly. As another recent story shows, the Boston believers who spurred this Satanic panic were quite possibly getting encouragement from the very top. Specifically, the pontiff himself—the allegedly progressive and kindly Pope Francis—is pushing a major resurgence of belief in a literal Satan and literal demonic possession. Before he became pope, when he was the Argentinian archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, he called same-sex marriage “a move by the Father of Lies,” and subsequent evidence suggests he didn’t mean it metaphorically.

For instance, Francis has backed a renewed belief in exorcism, including by apparently performing one himself on a mentally ill man who claimed to be possessed by demons, although his spokesman later backpedaled on this (for the record, the man himself claims it didn’t work and that he’s still possessed). The Catholic church still has several hundred professional exorcists, and they’re reportedly thrilled with the recognition and encouragement Pope Francis is giving them.

Some observers have speculated that Pope Francis is doing this because he comes from a culture that’s more open to supernatural claims. But I have a different explanation: it may well be that the church’s newfound emphasis on the demonic is a purely political calculation, a bid to shore up its earthly authority.

In other areas, that authority looks increasingly tattered. Their insistent teachings forbidding contraception, divorce and abortion are almost universally ignored by Catholic laypeople. The bishops’ claim that employers should be able to dictate their employees’ access to reproductive healthcare is likewise rejected by wide margins, as is their claim that terminally ill people should have no right to assisted dying. Same-sex marriage rights continue to spread, despite the increasingly shrill and futile opposition of religious conservatives. And church attendance rates among the young continue to decline, a fact that’s caused much consternation among church apologists.

With the church struggling to maintain its relevance, there’s an obvious appeal to reviving the claim that people are menaced by supernatural evil. Like the best advertising agencies, it’s a case of inventing a problem so that it can sell the solution. That said, they clearly still have some work to do to fine-tune their message. You may have heard this bizarre story in which one church exorcist recounted a harrowing experience on a flight:

During the conference, the Rev. Cesar Truqui, an exorcist based in Switzerland, recounted one experience he had aboard a Swissair flight. “Two lesbians,” he said, had sat behind him on the plane. Soon afterward, he said, he felt Satan’s presence. As he silently sought to repel the evil spirit through prayer, one of the women, he said, began growling demonically and threw chocolates at his head.Asked how he knew the woman was possessed, he said that “once you hear a Satanic growl, you never forget it. It’s like smelling Margherita pizza for the first time. It’s something you never forget.”

We may laugh at stories like this, but we shouldn’t forget that that this belief has real and serious consequences. Demonic possession and exorcism aren’t quaint superstitions of a bygone era; they’re alive and active in the world today, causing immense harm. The hounding of the Harvard black mass and the threats and vitriol directed against its organizers are just the tip of the iceberg.

In the name of fighting off demons, mentally ill people have been falsely imprisoned and subjected to torturous exorcisms instead of getting the medical care they need, and children have been tortured, abused and even killed, sometimes by their own parents. In the name of fighting absolute evil, church authorities have granted themselves the right to seize absolute power, and in the process, trampled on the lives and liberty of others. The inquisitors, witch hunters and exorcists may claim they’re working for good, but the fact remains: Fear of demons does far more harm than worship of demons ever did.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...