Notes on Demons & The Powers: Part 2, Evil and Illness in the Modern World

Thinking over my post about how we, as modern Christians, should approach the biblical stories about demons, I'd like to make one other comment about why I think the label "demonic" is useful.

Psychology and psychiatry tend to frame mental and behavioral issues using what is called "the medical model." That is, we frame mental and behavioral issues in the language of medicine. Susan is diagnosed with depression (i.e., Major Depressive Disorder), which is a form of mental illness. If her symptoms get bad enough she will need to see a therapist, and even admitted to a psychiatric hospital where the mentally ill are treated by doctors often with medication.

Medical model language is so ubiquitous we often don't even notice it. But let's be clear, it is a model. And as a model it often obscures as much as it illuminates. For some disorders, such as schizophrenia, the medical model fits very well. But what about a child with ADHD? Is that child mentally ill? If not, why are they going to a medical doctor for a prescription? And what about gambling? Many people say gambling is an illness. Gambling is an addiction. But is that the best model for understanding gambling? Addiction is a physiological diagnosis (characterised by tolerance and withdrawal symptoms). So what is a psychological addiction? Does that concept even make sense? How is a "psychological addiction" any different from a temptation?

One of the concerns with the medical model is that what used to be framed in moral terms is now being framed in medical terms (e.g., addiction). This is worrisome for a couple of reasons. First, it undermines personal responsibility. I'm not bad, I'm just ill. I can't, because of this illness, be held accountable for my actions. Second, if I'm ill my treatment is in the form of a pill. But no pill creates virtue. In short, the medical frame causes us to look for "treatment" in all the wrong places.

And there is another side to all this. Given that the church has lost much of its moral authority to regulate behavior many have argued that the mental health industry has stepped in to take the place of the church. Psychiatry, then, like the church, becomes a form of social control, the stick that keeps us on the straight and narrow. Diagnosing people as "mentally ill" becomes a way of creating a warrant to effectively jail or "treat" social non-conformists. You see a version of this argument in the novel and movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Jack Nicholson's character isn't mentally ill. He's just a rebel and non-conformist. Psychiatry is portrayed in One Flew Over as a form of social control. The psychiatric establishment becomes a secular church, using Electroconvulsive Therapy as a modern form of exorcism. This argument is similar to the one made by Michel Foucault in Madness and Civilization and by Thomas Szasz in The Myth of Mental Illness.

The point in all this is that as we have moved from an enchanted to a disenchanted world the language of sin has been replaced with the language of medicine. We aren't bad, we are sick. We aren't evil, we are ill. This trend has had both good and not-so-good effects. On the good side we don't treat schizophrenics with exorcism anymore. On the bad side we've lost the language of evil and the demonic. The notion of evil is from an ancient enchanted world and it struggles to find a place in the world of psychology, sociology and biology. And yet, we still want to use the term. There are deeds and people who seem to warrant the label evil. For example, we want to apply the word evil to Hitler and to call the Holocaust demonic. But what, in a scientific era, do we mean by those terms?

Science seeks to explain things. To identify causes and reduce phenomena to underling mechanisms. To approach Hitler scientifically is to try to understand, sociologically and psychologically, why Hitler did what he did. We examine his family life, his genetic makeup, his culture. But in trying to explain evil, identifying its causes, we unwittingly tame it. To explain evil, to understand evil, is to lessen evil. True evil can't be explained by psychology or history. Evil is inherently inexplicable. That is the source of its horror.

It short, we don't want to hear about Hitler's family life. We don't want to be informed about the traumas in his life. Because even if we knew of such "explanations" (excuses?) for his behavior we would instinctively feel that Hitler's actions could not be reduced to these psychosocial causes. What Hitler did cannot be captured by the language of medicine, psychology, or sociology. What Hitler did was evil.

This is, in my opinion, one of the advantages of the religious worldview relative to a non-religious worldview. The religious worldview has language that can capture our intuitive feelings about Hitler, horrific murders, child sexual abuse, or genocide. The scientific worldview can only diagnosis Hitler. Most of us find that inadequate.

In short, even as a psychologist, committed to identifying the causes of behavior, I feel the need to keep this superstitious term, this term of darkness from an ancient enchanted era. A era of angels, devils and demons. A era of good versus evil.

On to Part 3

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4 thoughts on “Notes on Demons & The Powers: Part 2, Evil and Illness in the Modern World”

  1. Thank you for this. It eloquently expresses my own feelings on this subject. Evil can't be reduced to medicine. There's also a conundrum inherent in the medical view that most people probably don't think about: in a purely scientific world of mechanistic causes and explanations, what does it even mean for something to be sick? What does it mean for something to be DISordered if the order of the world is only an illusion created by human pattern-seeking animals?

  2. JD Walters,
    I like the questions you have asked, as they address them in the "worldview of the postmodern" of social constuctionism. Are we minds that propel behavior, or are we bodies that form minds?

    The "moral order" is or was understood to underwrite the universe, as "natural law". This was a "cause and effect" view of the world that worked in the physical realm in scientific experimentation. But, even though science does "work", science also knows that the world does not work always in a causal way, as we understand there is irreducilble complexity.

    Man is not just an animal to be trained. He is also not only a biological, chemical, sociological, psychological, historical or cultural "by-product". Science usually addresses only one aspect of "man" in a particular discipline.

    Whenever we attempt to "control behavior" as in social engineering, there is something lost in the 'ethical realm". We can breed robots that obey and do their duty, for fear of punishment, but can we develop human beings that propose, creativly imagine a "different world" and behave accordingly?

    One assumes that there is "ONE way" of imagining the world that is correct and presumes that "world" upon another human. The other views their world as a creative imaginitive invention for themselves to inhabit.

    One dissallows freedom of expression, such as any totaltalarian or authoritarian regime; the other allows the individual to be and become their "own person", taking personal responsiblity.

  3. I think this essay, though well intentioned, is just incredibly off point. We use "diagnosis" for all kinds of things that are not medical. It has moved into the realm of analysis and reflects a notion that the causes of some things can be understood, that a process can be broken down into its component parts, that things can be fixed, or handled, only once we understand their origin and nature correctly. Why is that harmful when we apply it to schizophrenia, ADHD, and also when my car breaks down?

    I don't see that it has anything at all to do with the problem of evil. The "problem" of evil and evil acts lies further back than the rise of Freudianism, or the discovery of the importance of chemical balance in the brain. Basically, when we talk about "evil" we are always talking about intended acts. Much of what we have learned about the workings of the brain in the past fifty years has shown us that many human behaviors are not, in fact, wholly volitional or intentional. That is what has shifted our notion of "evil" towards "illness"--because we know for a fact that people can committ acts that they never would do in their "right mind" when they are "out of their minds."

    Take something like Depression, or Tourettes, or Brain Damage? Perhaps we once thought that people suffering from these conditions (lets not call them illnesses if that's a problem) were cursed, or really inherently evil. Now we actually know better: we know better because we can plot the places in the brain where the disorder arises and we can (sometimes) ameliorate the damage with medicine or therapeutic intervention. But we never can with mere prayer, or pointing the finger towards the devil.

    People have been trying to pray the demon out of illness for a long time and its never succeeded. I just saw this elsewhere on the internet--supposedly a Yiddish expression exists "if prayer worked they'd be hiring people to do it..." That is exactly right. If the merely moralistic/religious view of the body, human morality, and illness worked even the atheists would be paying the religious to pray around the clock for us.


  4. I apologize for reading to hastily. I failed to address Richard's assertion that psychology, by offering an explanation of everything (historical, moral, social, criminal) was somehow silent in the face of Hitler's evil. I presume that is because, on some level, Richard is arguing that "to know all is to forgive all" so that precisely because (some) forms of psychiatric practice presume that one can uncover the original sins of childhood trauma that produce present action they must also function to deaden our anger over present action.

    I really don't accept that version. True Evil is perfectly easily recognized and understood, with or without religious mysticism. Lets take someone like Roman Polanski, not Hitler--Hitler's childhood traumas were too small to account for his evil acts as mere self defense. But what of Roman Polanski? Concentration camp survivor with murdered wife who then goes on to have a predilection for raping little girls? Certainly, his friends seem to have no problem balancing his evil acts against his tragic history and forgiving him. But I fail to see how psychiatry is at fault there. Most people roundly condemn him and find his acts evil despite his personal tragedies. They recognize that *absent real structural damage to the part of the brain that makes decisions* Polanski, like everyone else, always has a choice of whether to put his own needs and pleasures over the pain of others, or whether to sublimate or repress his desires when they conflict with that of others. To the extent Polanski not only refused to do that but refused even to grant his victim sufficient moral and social status to pretend to care about her suffering he's a moral monster.

    I don't see how psychiatry is at fault. Even if you think that it offers some insights into why he did what he did those insights aren't now, and don't function as, an excuse or a get out of jail free card.

    But, conversely, what is the function of the notion that only mystery/religious imagery or language satisfies our need to understand evil? I really, really, don't find religious notions of evil (other than buddhist ones) get me anywhere as a person. Plenty of truly evil people have been extremely religious, for one thing. And plenty of good people lack the religious language to tout their goodness. While the evil that men do to one another doesn't require, for me, God's curse or god's imprimatur to help me understand it.


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