Preliminary response to Michael Cuneo on exorcism

February 12, 2011

I recently ordered a copy of American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty by Michael Cuneo, who teaches anthropology and sociology at Fordham University in the Bronx, here in New York City. According to various reviews (listed near the bottom of this post), Cuneo’s book is an in-depth study, from an open-mindedly skeptical point of view, of exorcism as practiced by both Catholics and Protestants here in the U.S.A.

Below, I’ll briefly discuss Cuneo’s views and suggest some areas that Cuneo might want to research further, if he ever decides to write a follow-up study.

Cuneo’s stance on exorcism

Michael Cuneo maintains a carefully neutral stance on the validity of the exorcisms he has seen. For example, in an interview in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today:

Have you witnessed an exorcism or a deliverance session in which you were convinced demons were really cast out?

I always go on site and interview people directly and take situations seriously. But still there’s so much I don’t know. I attended more than 50 exorcisms and never once did I walk away convinced that the person being exorcised was really demonized. I always thought that medical, cultural, and psychiatric explanations could have accounted for what was going on. But I could be wrong. And people would always say to me, “But Michael, you should have been here last week.”

You just missed it!

But that might be true. And some would say to me, “The reason you haven’t seen really powerful and dramatic symptoms of demonization, such as bodies levitating and so forth, is that you’re a writer, and the Devil is trying to disguise his activity and hide it from you.” I would find that strange but, nevertheless, it may be a possibility. A psychiatrist friend told me that, in his estimation, 999 out of 1,000 claims of demonic possession are false claims. But he believes that there’s always that one out of 1,000 which isn’t false. I never happened across that one.

According to a review in the Skeptical Inquirer, Cuneo’s book debunks various claims by Malachi Martin, a writer whose book Hostage to the Devil helped popularize Catholic exorcism back in the late 1970’s.

The Skeptical Inquirer review says that Cuneo’s neutrality will disappoint many skeptics: “Cuneo reserves judgment on many matters for which skeptics will see a clear verdict.” It must be kept in mind that Cuneo works at Fordham University — a Catholic university. That being the case, he really can’t dismiss the existence of demons or the efficacy of exorcism outright, lest he contradict official church teaching.

The Exorcist vs. the evangelical subculture

I haven’t yet received my copy of Michael Cuneo’s book. I look forward to reading it. But, in the meantime, I’ll go ahead and respond to one opinion of Cuneo’s that I’m inclined to disagree with.

According to several of the online reviews of his book, Cuneo thinks the exorcism revival of the past several decades happened mainly because of the popularity of the movie The Exorcist. Admittedly I haven’t yet read Cuneo’s arguments for this opinion, so perhaps I’m judging it unfairly. But, for now, I think it’s very likely that Cuneo may have overlooked some often-overlooked social realities.

Certainly The Exorcist did help to popularize exorcism and did influence the development of the exorcism revival. But I don’t think the movie was the sole or main source of the exorcism revival. I think the main source was the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement, together with the Charismatic movement’s spread into many older, more mainstream churches, both Protestant and Catholic. I think there would have been a significant exorcism revival even without any help from Hollywood at all, although it might have taken longer.

Cuneo himself acknowledges that there were already some Pentecostal/Charismatic/evangelical deliverance ministries way back in the 1960’s, long before The Exorcist. Admittedly. there weren’t very many of them yet. But the idea of “casting out demons” — if not the actual practice — was already very commonplace, not just in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles but also among evangelical Christians in general. Usually, “casting out demons” was talked about as something missionaries did overseas, especially when converting people with animistic beliefs. It was only a matter of time before a practice widely perceived as working very well for missionaries overseas, as a way to win converts there, would be adopted by many evangelists here in the U.S.A., as a way to expand their own flocks too.

I wonder whether Cuneo has read the books of evangelical authors Kurt Koch and Merrill Unger, who were popular in the evangelical subculture back in the early 1970’s. I also wonder how deeply Cuneo has delved into the evangelical subculture in general.

I suspect that Cuneo, like many journalists and academics, might be underestimating the social power and significance of religious subcultures, especially the evangelical/Pentecostal/charismatic subculture. Many mainstream folks, including journalists and scholars, aren’t fully aware that devoutly religious people are often more strongly influenced by their religious subcultures than they are by the mainstream mass media.

A Catholic scholar, like Michael Cuneo, could easily underestimate the power of the evangelical/Pentecostal/Charismatic subculture for the following two reasons:

(1) The Catholic Church hasn’t managed to build a similarly cohesive subculture here in the U.S.A. For example, the vast majority of “Christian” radio stations and TV networks are evangelical/Pentecostal/Charismatic, not Catholic — even in those parts of the U.S.A. where Catholics outnumber evangelicals. Ditto the vast majority of “Christian” bookstores, “Christian” musicians, etc. Therefore, most Catholics don’t have first-hand experience of what a well-developed religious subculture is like.

(2) At the same time, evangelicals/Pentecostals/Charismatics aren’t as obviously isolated from the mainstream as, say, ultra-Orthodox Jews or the Amish.

So, it’s easy to mistake them for ordinary mainstream consumers of the mainstream mass media.

The new mega-exorcisms

Judging by the reviews, it would appear that Cuneo’s book is almost entirely focussed on exorcisms in the classic sense of expelling alleged evil spirits from individual people.

If Cuneo ever decides to do a follow-up study, he might want to delve deeper into some totally new forms of exorcism, on a much grander scale, that were invented only in the 1980’s or so: the “strategic level spiritual warfare” doctrines of C. Peter Wagner, Ed Silvoso, Thomas Muthee, and the like. Apparenly Cuneo has already looked into this topic at least a little bit, since his book is referenced in the “Further reading” section of the Wikipedia article on “spiritual warfare.”

As Jane Lampmann explained in “Targeting cities with ‘spiritual mapping,’ prayer” by Jane Lampman, Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 1999:

C. Peter Wagner, head of Global Harvest Ministries in Colorado Springs, Colo., … defines three levels of spiritual warfare: “Ground-level” involves casting demons out of individuals; “occult-level warfare” involves more organized “powers of darkness” [They target here New Age thought, Tibetan Buddhism, Freemasonry, etc.]; and “strategic-level warfare” directly “confronts ‘territorial spirits’ assigned by Satan to coordinate activities over a geographical area.”

“Stategic level spiritual warfare” and “occult level spiritual warfare” are commonly preceded by “spiritual mapping.” This involves doing research on a geographicl area to pinpoint alleged locales of demon infestation, including the houses of worship of any and all non-Abrahamic religions, and in some cases even the houses of worship of rival forms of Christianity too. It also includes anything having to do with the gay community and other sexual minorities.

“Spiritual mapping” has often led to witchhunts — in the most literal sense — and other severe harassment of people deemed to be enemies of the kingdom of God.

For an example, see Soldiers of Christ: Insider America’s Most Powerful Megachurch by Jeff Sharlet, Harper’s Magazine, November 2, 2006, in which former megachurch pastor Ted Haggard is paraphrased as saying: “He sent teams to pray in front of the homes of supposed witches — in one month, ten out of fifteen of his targets put their houses on the market. His congregation ‘prayer-walked’ nearly every street of the city.”

An even worse example is Repent Amarillo’s harassment of swingers. According to a news story in the Texas Observer, “He Who Casts the First Stone” by Forrest Wilder, Wednesday, February 24, 2010 :

Perhaps the most insidious tactic Repent uses is trying to destroy the reputation of the swingers. In Amarillo, people can be ostracized over a whiff of impropriety. On one tape, Grisham directs followers to get the license-plate numbers in the Route 66 parking lot. “A new couple can be here three or four hours,” says Mac. “Whenever they leave, the Repent Amarillo group will call them by first and last name, know where they live, know where they work, just within a very few hours.”

Randall Sammons says he was fired from his job of 13 years in August after his boss learned Sammons was a swinger from another employee, a Repent member. He believes he’s now as good as blacklisted in Amarillo. “I’m screwed at finding a job,” Sammons says. Russell Grisham, David’s 20-year-old son who has a conviction on his record for hacking the computer system at his high school, has posted the names, photos and workplaces of swingers on the Internet, including one man whose wife works for a school district. (“Family-wise, it will kill both of us,” the man says.) In at least two instances, Repent members called swingers’ employers.

“David” is David Grisham, leader of Repent Amarillo. He’s a pastor who also has a day job as a security guard at a nuclear-bomb facility.

Repent Amarillo has targeted non-Christian religions too. For links to more information, see the thread harassment of non-Christians by “prayer warriors” on the message board of New Yorkers Against Religion-Based Bigotry.

Worst of all, the new “spiritual warfare” doctrines, with their general inducement of paranoia about demons and witchhunts, have had the effect of sparking full-blown witchhunts in many parts of Africa. For details and sources, see my post about American Connections to African Witchhunts on the blog of New Yorkers Against Religion-Based Bigotry.

Also noteworthy is that many “spiritual warfare” leaders also advocate the “seven mountains mandate” — the idea that Christians (of their particular stripe) should aim for dominance over seven spheres of power in society including government. Thus they aim for de facto theocracy.

There is currenly a prayer-walking campaign going on in Newark, New Jersey. For more information and links, please see the thread Police-endorsed (!) mega-exorcism (!) in Newark, NJ (and many other cities around the world).

Online reviews of Cuneo’s book

(P.S., February 14, 2011: I just now found an excerpt from Cuneo’s book, An ‘Impressively Civilized’ Exorcism, on BeliefNet.)

Other recent posts of mine on exorcism and related topics

Recently I’ve written the following blog posts:

I’ll post a follow-up after I read Cuneo’s book.

10 Responses to “Preliminary response to Michael Cuneo on exorcism”

  1. Raul Gil Says:

    So Cuneo’s review “debunks” Malachi Martin’s “Hostage to the Devil” book? That’s absurd. Just because he is unable to see or confirm the things in that book doesn’t mean that the content of this book is not accurate. In fact, I’ve never met a priest that would allow a writer to participate in an exorcism. This is not a game. The only ones that are allowed are assistant priests, a medical professional, and assistants, who are usually lay persons.

    What I do like about Cuneo is that he does not dismiss the possibility of demon possession. All he really states is that he hasn’t been convinced. I’m sure that one day he will, if he can find an experienced priest that will allow him to attend.

  2. Raul Gil Says:

    Several years of study under the Las Vegas, Nevada diocese. One entire course was dedicated to this very dark subject. One thing has come clear to my mind, and that is, every exorcist experiences slightly different occurrences, but the gist of exorcism remains the same, and that is, extreme aversion to things that are holy (consecrated), knowledge that is beyond the possessed individual, languages spoken that the possessed did not know, and well…you get the picture.

    Now, according to Malachi Martin, many individuals have tried to discredit him by saying that he had an affair with a woman from New York. Malachi Martin covers this piece in one of his publications, and of course, vigorously denies this. So really, it is up to the reader to believe either Malachi, or his accusers, of which some were religious as well. So when someone says that Cuneo debunks Malachi Martin’s scholarship by repeating an unsubstantiated claim, I take that accusation with a grain of salt.

    Now, to answer your question, my direct experience with an exorcism is nil. However, I have befriended two exorcists in my life, and I have read and heard many recorded sessions that they have so graciously provided to me. And let me emphasize that hearing personal experiences with the demonic from men who are in the trenches of this spiritual warfare everyday has a far greater effect on a person than any book. These men have have read Malachi’s screed and have corroborated that the content of his book, “Hostage to the Devil”, is essentially correct.

    So, you see, even though I am not an exorcist, my opinion about this rite and what it entails does have some foundation. But, like I said, Cuneo does the responsible thing and says that he has not seen anything to make him believe, but he will remain open to the possibility. Now, that is a professional thing to say.

  3. Diane Vera Says:

    Cuneo says (on page 264) that he was present at about a dozen Catholic exorcisms. He says he saw nothing that couldn’t be explained in terms of psychology.

    As for Malachi Martin, I would be interested in your response to the following, which was quoted in the Skeptical Inquirer‘s review:

    According to the most popular account (which is the one usually favored by Martin himself), he felt morally compelled to leave the priesthood in protest over the new, decidedly more liberal, direction the Catholic Church was taking as a result of the Second Vatican Council. Unfortunately this stricken-soldier-of-conscience version of events hasn’t always squared with the facts. Far from being a tormented conservative during his years in Rome, Martin was actually a theological liberal, and while the council was in full swing, he was closely (and publicly) aligned with such leading liberal lights as Monsignor George Higgins and the eminent American Jesuit John Courtney Murray.

    Anyhow, I do know that at least some Catholic exorcists are people whose judgment I would definitely not trust. An example is Jeffrey Grob, now an exorcist in the Chicago archdiocese, about whom see my page on the murder case of Father Gerald Robinson in Toledo, Ohio (U.S.A.).

  4. Raul Gil Says:

    It is quite possible (and most likely probable) that what Cuneo saw in those 12 exorcisms could be explained by psychology. I wouldn’t disagree with that. There are cases, though, as difficult as it is to believe, that occurrences are so unnatural that there just isn’t any possible medical or psychological explantion for them. I recently spoke to one of the exorcists that I mentioned in an earlier post. His last exorcism (in December 2010) dealt with a woman who was cursed as a little girl by family members. During the exorcism, this woman (she was close to 30 years old) decided to urinate in the room. There was so much urine that the doctor present emphatically stated that it is impossible for the human bladder to hold so much urine. It’s kind of a shame that Cuneo did not monitor these types of phenonemon in his observations. It would have been nice to read his thoughts on things of this nature.

    Vatican II made some sweeping changes that made many priests upset or uncomfortable to say the least. For example, new tenets of the Church included, but were not limited to:
    1. Holding mass in the local community’s language, rather than in Latin;
    2. Publicly stating that there are many pathways to God, rather than just the Christian religion;
    3. Relaxing many strict rules and regulations during the vetting process in the seminary;and
    4. Slightly changing the wording of some age-old prayers, etc.

    The list can go on and on. Now, Martin Malachi received a dispensation from the Pope in 1960 and was released from most of his vows, except the vow of celibacy. Why did he receive a dispensation? Because his new vocation was to become an author to promote and disseminate Christian doctrine. And he served his new vocation very well.

    As for the paragraph above stating that Martin was a theological liberal, his writings do not reflect a liberal bias at all. In fact, his writing reflects a very conservative viewpoint. In his book, “Keys of this Blood”, Martin Malachi does a masterful job at explaining how Karl Marx, Antonio Gramschi, and other communist authors had great success in promoting their agenda in the 20th century. He traces there seeds to today’s liberal fruit, which includes the new tenets of Vatican II, the secularization of public life, the declassification of homosexuality as a disorder, the destigmatization of single parenthood, etc. These themes certainly do not sound like a liberal viewpoint.

  5. Raul Gil Says:

    In addition, I agree with you that I wouldn’t trust just any priest, or just any exorcist for that matter. The priesthood is a microcosm of society in general, which means that some priests (just like some people) you can trust, and others you cannot. I learned that a long time ago.

    As for the priests that I have communication with regarding this subject, I trust them completely. They are so learned, mature, and clear-minded. They can talk about any subject at a level that is remarkably competent. I am so fortunate to know them.

  6. Raul Gil Says:

    Whoa, Diane! I just read your link to the story Father Gerald Robinson. This requires a whole new thread. I am aware that there are Catholic Priests that are Satanic. the Vatican is aware of this as well. I’d be more than happy to share the limited knowledge I have in this subject as well, if you want to. This is an interesting subject. Sad, but interesting!

  7. Diane Vera Says:

    As for the woman who peed an allegedly incredible amount: It seems to me that the exact amount of urine would be difficult to estimate unless she peed into a container of some sort, which seems unlikely under the circumstances. Maybe her urine was just overwhelmingly stinky because she hadn’t consumed much in the way of fluids that day?

    You say that “Martin Malachi received a dispensation from the Pope in 1960″ — are you sure you have the year right? I was under the impression he was laicized later, sometime after Vatican II.

    Cuneo does not deny that Malachi Martin was very conservative in all his writings after 1970 or so. The question is whether he was a conservative during the Vatican II era, specifically, and whether that was the reason why he requested laicization.

    As you requested, I’ve created a separate thread for the discussion about “Catholic Priests that are Satanic.”

    • Raul Gil Says:

      It is true that it is difficult to judge what an excessive amount of urine would be without having some sort of container where it can be measured. However, in this case, I opt to believe that an adult priest could determine what an excessive amount of urine is without having any doubt in my mind that he is stating the occurrence truthfully.

      I checked the year that Martin Malachi received his dispensation. You are correct, it was 1965, after Vatican II. He was also ordained a priest in 1954. To answer your question regarding whether he was conservative during the Vatican II era, it would seem impossible to verify with what has been published since that time. I’ve not come across any reliable evidence showing his political and social viewpoints other than what he has written. I suspect Cuneo is using information from sources that were out to “get” Malachi Martin, which is tainted in my view. This occurs all the time–someone writes about a controversial subject, and then defenders of that controversial subject come out of the woodwork to undermine the scholarship of that individual. It happens in academia quite often as well, and in autobiographies and biographies of well-known celebrities. In Martin Malachi’s case, his accusers were both religious and non-religious, which must’ve caused him great sorrow, I’m sure.

      If you are not too familiar with his beliefs, I would suggest clicking on YouTube and type in ‘Martin Malachi’. It is quite obvious that he is very learned man and quite knowledgeable in this subject.


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