Irreverent Skeptics Podcast Episode 14 – Get Some Exorcise!

On March 15, 2014, we called upon the power of the Great Cosmic Juju to cast out the digital demons from our show. Oh, and we also talked about exorcisms throughout history and across religions! Join us, for WE ARE MANY AND OUR NAME IS LEGION BBLUGHGAHGLAGGUHGUDHGKJDLGK

Show notes:

What is exorcism?

Catholicism (Jon)

According to’s Catholic Encyclopedia: “Exorcism is the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice; the means employed for this purpose, especially the solemn and authoritative adjuration of the demon, in the name of God, or any of the higher power in which he is subject.”

Protestantism (MM)

Most protestants who believe in exorcism also believe that true Christians are filled with the Holy Spirit and therefore can’t become possessed. The ability to sense that someone is possessed and in need of “deliverance” from an evil spirit is said to be a gift conferred upon a spirit-filled Christian by the Holy Spirit, as per the list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. (Can I possibly use the word “spirit” more times in a sentence than I just did? -MM) Protestants often attribute specific behaviors to being possessed by spirits. Drunkenness, homosexuality, depression, promiscuity, etc. – these are often blamed on diabolical influence, either as a result of possession by an actual spirit or as a result of a lack of faith allowing the devil to tempt you into sin. (I was once in a church service where a friend tried to get the pastor to deliver her from a spirit of jealousy. For reals. -MM)

In some churches (especially the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church), a person’s failure to respond to medical treatment can be attributed to demons, and the congregation will respond by attempting to exorcise the demon and allow the healing to proceed.

There are some parts of the Methodist church that practice exorcism. They’ve exorcised more than just people, though – they believe that dwellings can become possessed by evil spirits.

Lutherans also officially promote the practice of exorcism, stating explicitly that God gives the devil permission to possess people. According to a Pastoral Handbook of the Lutheran Church:

In general, satanic possession is nothing other than an action of the devil by which, from God’s permission, men are urged to sin, and he occupies their bodies, in order that they might lose eternal salvation. Thus bodily possession is an action by which the devil, from divine permission, possesses both pious and impious men in such a way that he inhabits their bodies not only according to activity, but also according to essence, and torments them, either for the punishment or for the discipline and testing of men, and for the glory of divine justice, mercy, power, and wisdom.

Hinduism (MM)

Beliefs and practices pertaining to the practice of exorcism are prominently connected with Hindus. Of the four Vedas (holy books of the Hindus), the Atharva Veda is said to contain the secrets related to magic and alchemy. The basic means of exorcism are the mantra and the yajna used in both Vedic and Tantric traditions. Vaishnava traditions also employ a recitation of names of Narasimha and reading scriptures, notably the Bhagavata Purana aloud.

In the case of hauntings involving a human ghost, according to Gita Mahatmya of Padma Purana, reading the 3rd, 7th and 9th chapter of Bhagavad Gita and mentally offering the result to departed persons helps them to get released from their ghostly situation.

Islam (MM)

IIn Islam, exorcism is called ruqya. It is used to repair the damage caused by sihr or black magic. Exorcisms today are part of a wider body of contemporary Islamic alternative medicine called al-Tibb al-Nabawi, or the Medicine of the Prophet.

Islamic exorcisms consist of the treated person lying down, while a sheikh places a hand on a patient’s head while reciting verses from the Quran. The drinking of holy water may also take place.

Specific verses from the Quran which glorify God and invoke God’s help are recited. In some cases, the call for daily prayers is also read, as this has the effect of repelling non-angelic unseen beings or the jinn.

Judaism (MM)

Largely a Kabbalistic (mystical) tradition nowadays, though there are records of mainstream Jewish exorcisms in antiquity (e.g., the writings of Josephus   and the Dead Sea Scrolls).

Key to any Jewish exorcism is having a truly pious man, an abba, baal shem, rebbe, or a rabbi, conduct the ceremony. The process usually starts with the exorcist ritually purifying himself, either according to traditional Jewish practice, or by special means, such as anointing himself with water and oil. Some exorcists may invoke the presence of a maggid, or beneficent spirit, to assist them.

Jewish exorcisms are mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many were public events, either performed in a synagogue, or at least requiring the presence of a minyan, a minimum of ten men that normally makes up a ritual quorum. Various somatic symptoms (swellings, paralysis, markings, and bodily sensations) were sought in the victim for diagnostic purposes. Most techniques include interviewing the demon and/or dybbuk (which is a malicious possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person), in which the exorcist will take a personal history of the entity in order to understand what is motivating it and thus better effect its removal.

Many possessing spirits are evidently quite forthcoming and loquacious. At times cooperation was coerced from the demon by “fumigation,” exposing it to smoke and sulfur, a sympathetic invocation of the infernal realms. The goal of the interview is to eventually learn the name of the evil spirit.

The exorcist then uses the power of the demonic spirit’s own name to “overpower” it, by round after round of scripted ritual actions involving threats and rebukes, getting more intense and invasive with each effort. A few ceremonies on record reached the point of actually “beating” the demon out, but most simply involved verbal coercion.

Jewish exorcisms are usually “liturgical,” using protective passages from the Psalms and other sacred texts. Anti-demonic psalms have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, though whether they were used in actual exorcism is impossible to know.

I.T. (Jon)

In the technology field, an exorcism is removing the cause of end user frustrations. Methods include: Defragging, Malware/Virus removal, hardware replacement, destruction of the offending device (smashing the motherfucker to bits, for instance) and even baptism… And by that I mean throwing the device into a body of water and walking away smugly content.

Real life reported possessions/exorcisms: (Jon)

  • Anneliese Michel: a German Catholic woman who underwent an exorcism and died in the same year. Diagnosed at 16 with temporal lobe epilepsy, she developed depression and was treated in a psychiatric hospital. Despite medication, her condition worsened and she became suicidal. Her family became convinced that Anneliese was possessed. They sought and were initially denied an exorcism by a Catholic priest. In 1975, after much hesitation, two priests got permission from the local bishop and performed exorcism rites on her secretly. Anneliese died from malnourishment and dehydration. Her parents and the priests responsible were charged – and convicted – with negligence, receiving six months jail time, three years probation, and a fine.
  • Clara Germana Cele: 1906, Umzinto, South Africa. Clara Germana Cele was a 16 year-old orphan who reported to her confessor, Father Hörner Erasmus, that she had made a pact with the devil. Clara was said to have a violent aversion to holy symbols, speak languages previously unknown to her, fling nuns across the room and beating them up, crying with a “savage bestiality”, and attending nuns reported about her voice: “No animal had ever made such sound. Neither the lions of East Africa nor the angry bulls. At times, it sounded like a veritable herd of wild beasts orchestrated by Satan had formed a hellish choir.” I bet they were at least synchronized.
  • Robbie Mannheim” / “Roland Doe”: The inspiration for the famous William Peter Blatty novel, The Exorcist, which became a staple of demonic possession movies afterward. In 1949 Robbie was supposed possessed after using a Ouija board during the months following his aunt’s death. From “The possession started with strange sounds, like dripping water, that no one could place. Eventually, religious artifacts began to quake and fly off the walls, and unexplained footsteps and scratching noises could be heard around the home. Scratches began to appear on the boy’s body, including words that seemed to have been carved into his flesh by unseen claws. The boy spoke in tongues in a guttural voice and levitated in the air, with his body contorted in pain.” Robbie’s parents asked Reverend Luther Miles Schulze to observe Robbie. The reverend observed in one night: Robbie’s bed vibrating, a large armchair turned on its side, and heard scratching noises on the room’s walls. The reverend referred the case to Father Edward Hughes, who performed an exorcism on Robbie. During the exorcism, Robbie pulled a spring from the bed’s mattress and stabbed Father Hughes with it. He required 100 stitches to mend the wound. Some time later Robbie was exorcised again in a ritual that lasted SIX WEEKS. In that time witnesses reported seeing the bed shake and objects thrown about the room. Robbie was magically cured and lived happily ever after…
  • Arne Cheyenne Johnson: Convicted of murder in 1981, Johnson’s case was the first known court case in the United States where the defense claimed innocence due to demonic possession or coercion. Who wants to guess now how well that worked out for him? The house where Johnson lived was plagued by a number of supposedly unexplainable events throughout the year (hence demons, of course). 11 year-old David Glatzel allegedly played host to the demon that forced Johnson to murder his landlord and friend, Alan Bono. After a days-long exorcism, the demon who inhabited David fled and took up residence in Arne Johnson. Several months later, Johnson killed Bono during a heated conversation. Johnson’s defense attorney claimed demonic possession. The presiding judge ruled that such a defense could never be proven and was therefore infeasible in a court of law. Johnson was subsequently convicted and served five of a 10-20 year sentence.
  • David Berkowitz’s (AKA Son of Sam) neighbor’s dog?: Not much to say on this other than Berkowitz had claimed that his neighbor’s dog was possessed and had ordered him to perform the 6 murders and 7 attempted murders before he was apprehended. Notably, he released a statement in the 90s claiming to have been a member of a Satanic cult and that the murders were part of ritual murders.
  • Kamille Seenauth: from “In 2005, Patricia Alvez was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the murder of Kamille Seenauth in Georgetown, Guyana. Alves ran a “Spirit Church” and many people, mostly women, would come to her for African- or Hindu-style exorcisms. During these exorcisms, prayers and ritual beatings were often used to drive off the invading spirits. However, when Kamille Senauth came asking for exorcism, Alves beat her with an iron bar until she died from her injuries. She buried the body to hide her mistake, but neighbors alerted the police after seeing a foot sticking out of a mound of earth in her backyard.”
  • Janet Moses: In October of 2007, in New Zealand, during a Maori exorcism, known as a “makutu”, Janet Moses was drowned by her family who poured water down her throat. A three-day ritual in which incantations failed and the family took to throwing water in Janet’s face. Reports stated that so much water was used that it flooded the kitchen.
  • Anna Ecklund: Born in Iowa in 1882 and raised Catholic, Anna Ecklund developed an aversion to holy object at age 14. This of course meant demonic possession. *eye roll*. Anna was sent to live with her aunt who was suspected of being a witch and having advanced her possession by adding herbs to her food. I guess tasty food meant evil in the days of yore. A Capuchin monk, Father Theophilus Riesinger, from Wisconsin, performed the first of two exorcisms in 1912. In 1928, Father Riesinger performed another exorcism on Anna which lasted 23 days. During that time she was reported to have been so strong that it took 6 nuns to restrain her. She spoke without moving her lips, urinated “buckets”, insulted and taunted the nuns about their personal lives, and predicted that one of the priests present would die in a car accident. That prediction was incorrect. Her exorcism was considered a success and on December 23, 1928, the possession of Anna Ecklund was proclaimed to have passed. Just in time for The Baby Jesus Birthday Bash of ‘29!!!

A Series of Unfortunate Events…(Brandi or anyone)

Famous-ish Exorcists:(Jon)

  • Father Gabriele Amorth:the official exorcist for the Diocese of Rome. Father Amorth claims to have performed over 160,000 exorcisms. In the year 2000, he performed an exorcism in which he was assisted by then Pope John Paull II. Fancy!
  • Bob Larson: This useless meatsack plays at poor…very very poor theater for dollars. Oh, and to alleviate tortured souls of their demonic possessions. A radio and television evangelist from Scottsdale, Arizona. Larson has a pretty much lifelong obsession with music lyrics from Satan, Satanic cults, satanic rock music (which is all of it to him), UFO’s from Satan, rock music’s evil hold over people and of course demonic possession. Oh yeah, and for $295 he’ll exorcise you via Skype. Techno-woo in action! *let’s discuss this douchenozzle shall we?*
  • Father Gary Thomas: Dubbed “America’s Top Exorcist”, Father Thomas was the inspiration for the 2011 film, The Rite. A couple of quotes from Father Thomas:
    • “A lot of folks dabble in the occult, or they will be involved in practices that … classical Christianity at least would consider to be idolatrous.  People can get themselves involved in Wicca, or people will go see some sort of fortune-teller, or people will go to a séance, or they can go and they can learn how to channel spirits. …”
    • “I have a particular situation now, where I think this particular person is suffering from a very unique psychological disorder, but she’s also been exposed to satanic cults, and I want to make sure that what we’re dealing with … is satanic or if it is psychological.”

Talking Points:

Satanic Panic

  • Most of us will likely recall the “satanic panic  (1980s mass fervor/delusion related to widespread belief that the USA was rife w/ devil -worshipping sleeper cells who promoted their subversive ideas by embedding them in rock music/children’s TV shows/toys and various games, (ie Dungeons and Dragons). Judas Priest, Ozzy Ozborne, The Beatles, and sooooo many others were repeatedly accused by televangelists/pastors/obtuse white lame ass middle-aged closet cases, throughout the 80s.  Though the 80’s seemed to be the peak for Satanic Panic, the ignorance (willful and circumstantial) and credulous promotion of the idea  that popular music is the “devil’s music”, that can easily spread it’s insidious memes, and therefore needs to be destroyed, marked like nuclear waste, carefully avoided, and marginalized, if not banned, still occurs today.
  • The fevered pitch of the SATANIC PANIC, reached depths of depravity and injustice when children were led to believe/report/remember false narratives about ritualistic sexual abuse, graphic scenarios involving numerous adults and other children. Therapists, social workers, and parents consciously or unconsciously colluded to shape children’ memories/reports/interpretations of events, such that INNOCENT adults were arrested, charged, convicted, and IMPRISONED for crimes they could NOT have committed.  Many children recanted, some reversed their stories immediately, which failed to reverse the judicial rulings/sentencing/sex offender status of INNOCENT defendants.
  • Reminiscent of various authoritarian regimes, the 1980s devil-obsessed (mostly right-leaning Christians) throngs, held book burnings, cd burnings and other forms of mass destruction of alleged “evil”.  Some churches held demonstrations of reportedly “subliminal” pro satan messages, which would be revealed if one were to play a vinyl record backward.  Once primed by whomever was explaining the taboo phrase, even skeptical ears can be influenced to ear the anticipated words and messages.  For a very entertaining and much more thorough exploration of the Satanic Panic, listen to  THE THINKING ATHEIST .com “The Thinking Atheist” can be found on Stitcher, iTunes, and at
  • Psychological comorbidities (relationship between advances in psych & neurology, and decreased reports of demonic activity), mental illness, secondary gain, professional interventions, motivations for malingering, (poor) reliability of self report as a means of accurately identifying pathology (damn near impossible)
  • The placebo effect/potential for ritualized unpleasantness to SEEM to alleviate symptoms, especially when performed against the backdrop of social priming/support/pressure/
  • Prevalence of belief/reports of demonic possessions exclusively within populations where the belief in a Judeo-Christian worldview is pervasive (no Catholic style possessions of Hindus or Buddhists?Huh.. that’s odd)
  • Correlations between education/SES/ and acceptance of possession/legitimacy of exorcism

“What’s the harm?” you say?

MANY harms become evident when considering the underpinnings of Exorcism/demonic possession

  • Absolute power corrupts absolutely!
  • Solutions are external/blame is internal – which lends itself to avoiding responsibility/rendering the “possessed” person a passive victim who likely brought the demon into her life, but is (according to dogma) unable to resolve it’s unwanted presence/influence, by herself.  She (or he) requires not only priestly intervention, but the grace/favor/blessing from the God that allowed the possession (and all other forms of suffering) to befall the vic in the first place.  It would be laughable if it were not something so many cultures regard in earnest, and were it not the cause of death for countless victims every year.
  • The medical/biochemical/social/psychological source of clinically significant distress remain unaddressed/untreated (exorcism is a cock block to evidence-based courses of treatment/professional assessment/treatment
  • Victim-blaming (one has to have a weakness of faith, have involved one’s self in demonic activity/sinful activity in order to invite/allow/become vulnerable for possession to occur)
  • The potential for financial/sexual/social exploitation is fostered in hierarchies in which lower members yield power/decision making/identity-formation to more powerful/authoritative clergy/elders/higher status members of the cult/religion/”in group”
  • Exorcism and related rituals/mythical underpinnings become normalized over time and repetition, furthering faulty thinking/superstition and a magical world view
  • It is not harmless to hold/promote/ magical world views (including belief in demonic possession/exorcism as a means of problem solving)
  • Appropriate guilt/legitimate self regulation is a moot point when maladaptive behaviors can be attributed to demons et. al.


Evangelical Christians want access to more corpses … to hone their ‘raising the dead’ skills

Guest post: ‘God is Done with You’: Pensacola Christian College and Sexual Violence

Links and attributions

Catholic Encyclopedia – Exorcism

The 5 Creepiest True Exorcism Stories of Our Time

10 Modern-Day Exorcisms

10 Terrifying Cases of Demonic Possession

Audio of Anneliese Michel’s exorcism

Wikipedia – Clara Germana Cele

Wikipedia – The Demon Murder Trial

Family accused of killing Janet Moses during exorcism

Bob Larson exorcises gay demon!

Yet another gay exorcism

Wikipedia – Exorcism

Wikipedia – Exorcism in Christianity

Wikipedia – List of Exorcists

Meet America’s top exorcist, the inspiration for ‘The Rite’

Jewish Exorcism

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