What Happened When Atheists Attended a Talk on Exorcism, by Tom Nash

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The First Commandment, by David Warren
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Andrea di Bonaiuto, “Descent of Christ to Limbo (detail),” c. 1365

Evaluating Evidence for Evil Spirits with Atheist and Agnostic Collegians

By Tom Nash, EWTN News, 2/28/19

In speaking on “The Devil: Fact or Fiction?” recently at Minnesota State University-Mankato, I learned that members of the University’s Secular Student Alliance (SSA) would attend my talk.

At the St. Thomas More Catholic Newman Center, the Diocese of Winona-Rochester has a vibrant college ministry serving the faithful and others at MSU-Mankato. A good sign of this is the respectful interaction between Catholic students and members of the SSA, who are atheists and agnostics. They serve as an inspiring example for how older adults can and should interact when discussing their differences. The students periodically attend each other’s events, and a number of SSA members listened to my presentation. Afterward, we spoke for more than an hour debating evidence for the demonic.

It was a lively but charitable discussion, as I was impressed by the SSA students’ questions and arguments—but even more by the virtue they exhibited. In that light, I was heartened to learn they are not big fans of HBO comedian Bill Maher and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, both prominent atheists who have reputations for dealing with their opponents in a harsh and condescending manner, instead of with charity and humility. And yet these SSA members exemplified that charity need not mean sacrificing zeal for their cause, nor a sense of humor, as they further illustrate with their online self-description as “The Best Damned Group on Campus”(emphasis original).

One member expressed disappointment that my video clips were from the cinematic classic “The Exorcist,” as well as “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” instead of footage from actual exorcisms. I reaffirmed that both movies are based on real-life cases, and that my clips demonstrate the Catholic Church (1) rules out medical causes before administering the Rite of Exorcism, and (2) seeks evidence that points to demonic involvement, including fluency in unstudied languages; clairvoyance; and sustained preternatural strength.

The SSA members countered that the quasi-ubiquity of smartphones should make recording such alleged phenomena convenient in modern times, and yet there is a noted lack of video evidence for scientific examination. I said that that filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who wrote and directed “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), has made a similar argument regarding the paucity of evidence for extraterrestrial beings over the last four decades. In contrast to information-gathering for alleged UFOs, however, Church officials rarely video-record exorcisms, including out of respect for the persons treated.

In addition, there is other credible evidence. In my talk, I note the work of Dr. Richard Gallagher, an Ivy-League-trained and board-certified psychiatrist who also serves on the faculty of Columbia University. One of the SSA members said he had read that Dr. Gallagher admitted he had never observed the phenomena of levitation, another preternatural sign that demonic forces can be present (although saints like St. Joseph Cupertino exhibited the same by divine providence).

I clarified that levitation was reported in a Gary, Indiana, exorcism case, yet also noted that Gallagher has reported other extraordinary evidence, including observing objects flying off shelves in a possessed woman’s home, the woman’s knowledge of private information in Gallagher’s life that she couldn’t have known on her own, and a demonic voice that inexplicably interrupted a telephone call that Gallagher and the woman’s pastor had one evening, a voice which had emanated from the woman during exorcism sessions—and which both men testified they heard on their phone call, even though the woman not present with either man at the time, nor near a phone otherwise.

“I don’t believe in this stuff because I’m Catholic,” Gallagher summarizes. “I try to follow the evidence.”

Regarding the Indiana case, SSA members took issue with the testimony of a Department of Child Services (DCS) case manager and a male nurse, who reported that a 9-year-old boy glided up a hospital room wall backward, continued his gravity-defying movements on the ceiling, and then flipped over and landed on his feet—all the while never letting go of his grandmother’s hand. The frightened DCS case manager and nurse ran out of the examination room.

The SSA members cited scholarly work in which eyewitness demonstrated faulty recall about events they had observed as few as five minutes before their examination. I responded that both the DCS case manager and nurse immediately reported what they had seen to a hospital doctor, that they didn’t recant their testimony when the doctor wouldn’t believe them, and that the DCS case manager entered her testimony into court records, falsification regarding which is both a criminal offense and would also cost the case manager her job.

In addition, I said, cases involving possible possession often don’t originate within a Catholic context. Instead, the Church’s assistance is often sought when other attempted remedies have failed, as took place in the Gary, Indiana, case.

One SSA member argued that the Church should permit skeptical medical officials to observe exorcisms, and that it would be “ethically irresponsible” for the Church not to share the information gathered from ministering to those it believed possessed. I replied with a smile that the Church is happy to share her findings from administering the Rite, but the problem is incredulity on the part of those with whom she shares, since the exorcism of evil spirits transcends the purview of medical science.

In addition, I told them, I cannot speak on behalf of dioceses and exorcists who administer the Rite of Exorcism, yet I agree that collaboration with credible medical officials who want to observe an exorcism could be fruitful. The resultant observations may not resolve their skepticism, but hopefully they would observe phenomena that would at least give them pause in assessing the reality of evil spirits.

Finally, because I had noted a Ouija board had been used by a Lutheran boy in the real-life case upon which “The Exorcist” is based, and because I also counseled against any use of the popular board game in which players attempt to engage the spirit world, one of the SSA members asked me if I would even go near a Ouija board. I told him I don’t avoid the toy aisle at stores, as I’m not fearful of spiritual harm from simply being in close proximity to the board game. And when he told me he owned the game, I told him his owning a Ouija board would not stop me from visiting his apartment, in contrast to some of his relatives.

On the other hand, I counseled him to not use the Ouija board, which he said he and his friends periodically play for fun. If he still chose to play, though, I advised at the very least not to invoke Satan by name, nor directly call on other evil spirits. To fail to give him this counsel, I added with a smile, would be “ethically irresponsible.” He responded with a smile, saying he would refrain from doing so.