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
- The Exorcist vs. the evangelical subculture
- The new mega-exorcisms
- Online reviews of Cuneo’s book
- Other recent posts of mine on exorcism and related topics
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.
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.
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).
- A Sociologist’s Journey into the American Heart of Darkness by Kevin Christopher, Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 27.1, January/February 2003
- Powells reviews
- Good Reports reviews
- Good Reads Reviews
- atheism.about.com review
- Exorcism Therapy: An interview with Michael W. Cuneo, by Agnieszka Tennant, Christianity Today, September 3, 2001
(P.S., February 14, 2011: I just now found an excerpt from Cuneo’s book, An ‘Impressively Civilized’ Exorcism, on BeliefNet.)
Recently I’ve written the following blog posts:
- Exorcism and religious intolerance, Talk To Action, February 1, 2011
- Catholic exorcism and NYPD “experts on occult crimes”???, LiveJournal, February 6, 2011
- The Catholic exorcism trend and Italy’s Satanic panic, here on WordPress, February 9, 2011.
- Bill Donohue boasts: exorcism now mainstream, LiveJournal, February 11, 2011
I’ll post a follow-up after I read Cuneo’s book.