Belief in God is declining, but belief in the devil remains strong

Satan, the Fallen Angel is flung from Heaven and nears the confines of the Earth on his way to Hell. An engraving by Gustave Dore from Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. (Getty Images)

The BBC website carries a lengthy article about the current course for exorcists taking place in Rome. Why the interest? In a secular and sceptical age, why do people want to read about exorcism, and why do they want to watch films about it, the best still being The Exorcist, the 1973 cult movie, based on a gripping and memorable book by William Peter Blatty, dating from 1971. I don’t think there are many seventies films and novels that are as immediately recognisable as they are.

Just as detective fiction comforts us with the illusion that there is a solution to every problem, and that the evil-doers will be brought to justice in the end, so tales of exorcism present us with a struggle between good and evil, which evil is doomed to lose, though the price of victory may be high. Every exorcism movie or book starts with this basic plot device, and it is a gripping one. On the way to resolution there is plenty of scope for spine-tingling moments, for there is nothing we like more than a good scare. But horror films work on the basis that the object of horror is safely contained within the bounds of the screen or the pages of the book. However, the exorcism-themed horror makes this comforting border permeable. While we are never going to meet in vampire in the home counties, we can never quite dismiss the reality of demonic possession as just another fiction.

Religious practice has declined in recent times, as has belief in God; but belief in the Devil seems to be pretty buoyant, which is strange. God is fading from the popular imagination, but the enemy of God and Man not so much. Why is this?

Those least likely to be fixated with the Devil are religious professionals such as theologians, among whom were the first to advance the idea that Satan did not exist, or was a purely symbolic figure. People who go to church, too, seem uninterested in the diabolical. My impression, based on my own experience, is that those most likely to be interested in the Devil are those who never go anywhere near a church. Perhaps with the decline in religious literacy, and the collapse in educated and nuanced talk about God, what survives is superstition in the strict meaning of the word, that which hangs over from a previous age, which predates the age of faith, namely belief in evil spirits.

Evil spirits were once considered a powerful reality in Northern Europe, and they still are in parts of Africa, Latin America and the West Indies. No one quite knows what the religion of the ancient Druids was all about, as they left no written records, and they were brutally suppressed by the Romans, but it does seem likely that they practiced human sacrifice as a way of propitiating the gods, the sort of gods that Christianity was quick to identify with demons. Is our interest in exorcism and the Devil a throwback to our remote past?

On a more serious note, the course in Rome is to be welcomed, because if anyone is to undertake an exorcism, they do need to be properly trained, as well as ordained. This is not something amateurs should get involved with. The Lord help some poor person who falls into the hands of amateur exorcists. As recent research has suggested, a significant number of people in non-Catholic churches claim that they have been subjected to “spiritual abuse”. Indeed this could be a serious and widespread problem. However, some have cautioned that the term may well be unworkable and misleading. One thing is for sure: any priest who is approached by people worried about demonic possession needs to tread cautiously, and I am confident that the course in Rome is emphasising precisely that point.

Let’s not let our imaginations run away with themselves. As the BBC article tells us, out of 180 cases he has seen, Father Gary Thomas, who is the exorcist for the diocese of San Jose in California, has carried out just a dozen major exorcisms. That is less than ten per cent of presented cases. Fr Thomas seems to have his finger on the pulse. As the good father reminds us: “The good news is that from the moment Jesus died on the cross, Satan lost. The battles go on, but the war’s been won. Christ is the exorcist.” That’s a comforting thought!