An official guide for demon hunters: helpful advice from philosophers and witch-hunters

tumblr_static_1373848412_demonicby Stephen T. Asma

Halloween is coming up, reminding us to confront the lurking evils around us, and to dispatch them to the sulfuric pits from whence they came. Up your game this year with real advice from history’s best demon hunters. These saints have been taking out the trash for millennia, and it’s time you had some of their mojo.

Anthony of the Desert

The story of Saint Anthony (c.251-356) had a huge impact on the development of demonology. He is sometimes referred to as the Father of Monks, having created a desert monasticism that drew Christian ascetics far away from the urban centers. But his famous fight with demons in the Egyptian desert also laid the groundwork for all subsequent thinking about demons and possession [1].

Questing after spiritual purification, Anthony left the pleasures of domestic life and moved to live in a tomb outside his village, where he was attacked by a “multitude of demons” who sliced him into a bloody mess. “For he affirmed that the torture had been so excessive that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused him such torment.” But his faith revitalized him and he rallied back. After throwing off the temptations of the flesh, Anthony was revisited by the devil many times – but the devil always shape-shifted to appear as some creature. “Changes of form for evil are easy for the devil,” Anthony explained, “so in the night they make such a din that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things.”

But most demons, Anthony assures us, have no real power in the physical world. They only seem to be causally efficacious. The trick is to acknowledge that you are having a frightening experience, but realize that the frightener is like a hallucination rather than a material creature. In fact, reading St. Anthony is like reading an early self-help treatise for schizophrenics.

In addition to demons who shape-shift into frightening phantasms – which are easily banished by a resolute sign-of-the-cross – Anthony acknowledges the phenomenon of real human possession. This is somewhat difficult to square with his persistent claim that demons have no real power. In the last half of the Life of Anthony, Athanasius tells of many terrible cases of people who have come into the custody of demon spirits. A man named Fronto, for example, had a madness that involved biting his own tongue and injuring his own eyes, a woman from Busiris had mucus fall from her nose that immediately turned into worms once it hit the ground, and “another, a person of rank, came to him, possessed by a demon; and … he even ate the excreta from his own body.” And this young man actually attacked Anthony, but the sage said, “Be not angry with the young man, for it is not he, but the demon which is in him.”

Anthony cured all these cases and many more, but it is unlikely that the man eating his own excrement would have agreed with Anthony’s refrain that demons are powerless. And, for that matter, if they are truly powerless, why would anyone need Anthony’s exorcising acumen? The answer is interesting: Demons do not have real power unless you become afraid of them, in which case you grant them entry into the cause-and-effect world. Our response to demon attack can either give them causal traction in our world or banish them from it. We are instrumental in the outcome of the encounter. The role of the demon hunter is to help us cognitively reframe the experience, thereby neutering the threat.


Anthony’s demonology was further refined by many Church Fathers, including Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Augustine, for example, took pains in his City of God to distinguish earlier positive uses of the term “demon” (by pagans like Socrates), from the only truly positive spirit beings – the “angels.” The pagans, he argued, were aware of angels and demons, but not as such. Heathens lacked the Christian truth and therefore misinterpreted their occasional encounters with the spirit realm – imagining a pagan theology where they should have seen a monotheism. But more interestingly, Augustine delved into the psychology or epistemology of the demon mind – arguing that demons have knowledge but their knowledge is not sanctified by a sense of charity.

Citing Corinthians, Augustine says “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity buildeth up,” and he uses this point to connect demonic psychology with pride [2]. In a tour de force of hermeneutics, he further shows that this is why human pride is empty of charity and indistinguishable (except perhaps by degree) from demonic psychology. Demons, he says, are capable of getting the outward shell of Christ’s message, but not the inner meaning. Demons have knowledge, but it is sterile. And the important difference between demonic and angelic knowledge is spelled out. “The good angels, therefore, hold cheap all that knowledge of material and transitory things which the demons are so proud of possessing” [3]. Perhaps the good news for humans in this picture is that because demons focus, like humans, on the transitory changing world, they can be deceived. They, like us, live in the world of shadows, and passions can agitate them as well. That means their own emotions can be used against them, by the clever demon hunter. Angels (and Saints), instead behold in the wisdom of God the eternal “cardinal causes” of things, and so they are never deceived.

Augustine instructs us about the imperfect minds of demons, but also offers some insight into their mysterious bodies. He asks the Christian reader not to feel envy about the demon’s amazing “aerial bodies” – capable of becoming invisible, floating, flying, shape-shifting, and even passing through walls. He points out that many animals too have greater bodily powers of strength, perception, and speed, but humans are more than compensated with the infinitely important faculties of rationality and virtue. Okay, demons have really impressive magical bodies, but “divine providence gave to them bodies of a better quality than ours, that that in which we excel them might in this way be commended to us as deserving to be far more cared for than the body, and that we should learn to despise the bodily” [4].

Thomas Aquinas

Writing almost nine-hundred years later, Aquinas is still refining Christian demonology and giving nuance to the ideas first formed by St. Anthony. In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas considers whether demons are inherently evil. He offers some standard theological and scriptural ways of thinking about demons and monsters. “Nothing can exist unless it has existence from the first being, and the first being is the sovereign good. But since every being, as such, acts to the production of its own likeness, all things that come of the first being must be good.” And he caps this theological claim with some scripture: “This is also confirmed by the authority of Holy Scripture: for it is said, Every creature is good (1 Tim. iv, 4): God saw all things that he had made, and they were very good (Gen. I, 31)” [5]. This means demons are not intrinsically evil, and Aquinas gives a philosophical argument for this surprising view [6].

He starts from an old premise about the way that conscious beings make decisions and act. Conscious beings, which would include humans but also aerial-bodied demons, and even angels (but not lower animals), always act for the sake of some perceived good. They may be wrong about it, but at least they are moving in a direction that seems beneficial to them in some way. Imagine, for example, that you’re late for an important event. You are pushing a crowd of people in the street in order to get to your destination, and some people are injured in the scuffle. Their suffering is not your intended goal or motivation. Their suffering is an unfortunate but unintended consequence of your over-zealous sense of punctuality. You are not guilty of knowingly and willfully hurting other people – but you are guilty of being careless and thoughtless about the safety of others. You’re not excused for the harm you’ve done, but you’re not an inherently harmful or intrinsically evil person either.

Aquinas thinks this point extends to the demons as well. The wider popular culture believes demons to be inherently evil beings that intentionally seek the pain and suffering of others as their only real goal and purpose. But Aquinas thinks demons are confused and weak-willed – accidentally evil, not essentially evil [7]. When those demons tortured St. Anthony, for example, they were motivated by their (admittedly selfish and wrongheaded) sense of good. Like other cases of evil and sin, the suffering of Anthony is the result of a “false judgment” rather than a “bad will.” The only other way, theoretically, for a demon’s will to be truly bad would be if it were tied to a faulty faculty of understanding – one that would always misjudge, always make a false judgment. But, according to Aquinas, “false judgments” (e.g., thinking heroin might be good for one’s children, or thinking hemlock would make a good snack, etc.) are actually freakish occurrences, not the norm. “False judgments in acts of the understanding” he says, “are like monsters in the physical universe, which are not according to nature, but out of the way of nature: for the good of the understanding and its natural end is the knowledge of truth.”

One suspects that Anthony, and other victims of demon torture, would have found this nuanced theory to be cold-comfort. This more sophisticated view of conscious agency hardly takes the sting out of the demon’s venom. A demon’s victim might retort: So, if they’re not intrinsically evil, then why are they causing me so much pain and misery? In fact, more crucially, if there’s no real “bad will,” then whence comes sin? The answers are interesting. With impressive consistency, Aquinas claims that the demon’s volitions are still only good (by definition), but the demon has failed to submit his own personal good to the higher, superior good (God’s will). The demon’s sin is the failure to restrict his own agenda of perceived personal goods to the cosmic perfect good of God’s benevolence.

Aquinas analyzes the fall of the prince of demons himself, Lucifer, and finds a perfect illustration of his general theory. Even the devil is not naturally or essentially evil. Referring to Isaiah (chapter xiv), Aquinas says that the devil did not properly impose the Higher Good upon his own. Lucifer’s will “was not regulated by any higher will, a position of independence proper to God alone. In this sense we must understand the saying that he aimed at equality with God, not that he ever expected his goodness to equal the divine goodness: such a thought could never have occurred to his mind. But to wish to rule others, and not to have one’s own will ruled by any superior, is to wish to be in power and cease to be a subject; and that is the sin of pride” [8].

Now we know what makes demons tick, so to speak. There is no evil “force” or “power” skulking about in the shadows of our world. Demons are not, contrary to popular opinion, embodiments of this imaginary evil energy [9]. They are instead, aerial-bodied agents with conscious volition who confusedly seek their own self-aggrandizement – in other words, they are meaner versions of ourselves, who can also shape-shift and turn invisible. Strangely, the issue of sadism (actually taking pleasure in another’s pain) does not seem to have occurred to Aquinas. At least he prefers to analyze demonic deeds in the context of prideful power struggles for recognition – the torture techniques of demons are just their means to the end of “conversion to the dark side” or their coercive attempts to get reverence, and other similar sins of pride. Aquinas does not seriously entertain the idea that the misery of the tortured human is the pleasurable end goal of the demon’s activity [10].

The Witch-Hunter, Institoris

In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII gave Dominican inquisitor Heinrich Institoris wide ranging legal powers to pursue and eradicate witches (Papal Bull Summis Desiderantes Affectibus). The Bull was used as a justificational preface for Institoris’ famous demon hunting guide Malleus Maleficarum.

The Malleus Malificarum argues throughout for a “middle-way” position between witchcraft that’s too real (and therefore in violation of God’s goodness and power) and that which is not real enough (purely imaginative and fictional). Earlier demonologists, like Aquinas and the authors of the influential Canon Episcopi [11], argued that the frightening visions and shape-shifting episodes associated with witchcraft were really just quasi-dream-like phantasms. If any mischievous manipulation is occurring to a man who thinks he’s a werewolf, or experiences aerial lift-off on a broom, then the cause would have to sneak in, according to these more skeptical demonologists, at the physiological juncture where his “imaginative faculty” meets his “interior senses.” The imaginative faculty is described as a “treasure house” in each person that stores or preserves visible shapes, like the images of animals for example. It’s a treasure house of memories. If some evil spirit were to trigger this storage faculty just right, then it would flood the perceptual senses and give the person the illusory experience of real external stimuli outside the body. A mundane version of this happens all the time, when bodily humors trigger the “treasure house” in sleep and we subsequently dream.

Institoris breaks with this more benign version of witchcraft, and offers a clever way to get demons back in their threatening positions. Works of evil, according to Institoris, are not just indigestion-like fabrications of the body. They are real and they are happening in the external world; children really are being eaten by demonic were-wolves, the witches are actually taking flight. But how is it done, if only God has true creative power like this?

Demons according to Institoris do not make something from nothing when they enact their transgressions – that would truly violate a cardinal notion of the monotheistic God. It may seem that demons and their witches conjure monsters and terrors from thin air, but they do not really create in such an absolute manner. Instead, the demons have an amazing understanding of the Book of Nature. They grasp the first principles, fundamental springs, and material trajectories of physical nature itself. Demons are manipulative “scientists” long before this term even existed. They are the ultimate alchemists [12].

When demons do shape-shifting and other seemingly supernatural marvels, they are not “creating” so much as “altering” nature. According to Institoris, the evil ones sift the matter of nature to find the seeds (semina) of transformation, and then use these micro-agents as catalysts for their own nefarious inventions [13]. Demons transform nature more by chemistry than by magic. Just as the form of the oak tree exists like a germ in the acorn, so too all of nature is filled with micro-seeds that when triggered alter the perceivable world in significant ways. Demons understand these mechanisms, which are invisible to humans, and they engineer outcomes in ways that look miraculous to us. By this subtle knowledge of nature, witches appear to predict the future, but they cannot really see the future (as God can) [14]. In this way, Institoris explains how demons and witches “create” mayhem in the world, but he avoids the heresy regarding ex nihilo creation. Demons simply alter nature in ways that scare and frighten us, and seem supernatural [15].

Nature is being altered by demons in ways that allow witches to kill their neighbors with effigies and pins. Of course, letting insignificant chump-demons and their paltry witch covens undo the beautiful divine cosmic plan would reflect very badly on an omniscient God, unless God was actually giving his permission for this suffering. Demons, then, are sometimes working as God’s henchmen. Whatever their agenda, however, the way to take them down is clear. Study up on the laws of “science” and use them against these Mephistopheles-types.

Those who were possessed, however, were considered differently than witches. In the case of possession, the person afflicted was not considered to be evil or malicious, but rather set-upon (not entirely responsible for their actions). In these cases, their demonic behavior could be exorcised and they could be restored to fully human status. Interestingly, Institoris notes that when exorcism fails after multiple attempts, then the victim may have been misdiagnosed and probably deserves their condition as a divine punishment.

If you come across a possessed person, a helpful exorcism is outlined by Institoris [16]. It’s best if a cleric performs the function but anyone of good character can do it if necessary. First, make the afflicted person give a confession. Next do a careful search of the home to detect any magical implements (e.g., amulets, effigies, etc.) and burn these. It’s important to get the afflicted into a church at this point, and make s/he hold a blessed candle while righteous witnesses pray over her. This should be sustained three times a week to restore grace, and the victim should receive the holy sacrament. In stubborn cases, you should write the beginning phrases of John’s Gospel on a tablet and hang it around the person’s neck – holy water should be applied liberally. If exorcism ultimately fails, then either the person is being punished by God and has to be surrendered, or your faith, as the exorcist, is not strong enough (and new administrators should be brought in).

In closing then, always remember to employ the three tried-and-true weapons of the demon hunting arsenal: prayer, fasting, and faith. Anthony first recommended these low tech strategies, and they remain the bread-and-butter of demon hunting. Thankfully, however, new armaments, especially the antipsychotics Clozapine and Risperdal, have also proven themselves crucial in twenty-first century demon management. This Halloween, go forth and mollify.


Stephen T. Asma is the author of On Monsters: an Unnatural History of our Worst Fears (Oxford University Press), and Against Fairness (University of Chicago Press). Asma is a Fulbright Scholar, a fellow at the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture, and professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago.

[1] Anthony’s marvelous episodes have also fueled the pictorial tradition, from the medieval period to the present. Paintings by Heironymus Bosch, Matthias Grunewald, and Salvadore Dali, for example, have helped to keep Anthony’s tribulations in the popular imagination. Anthony’s battle with monsters comes to us via his famous biographer Athanasius of Alexandria (c.293-373). Athanasius chronicled Anthony’s life in a work titled simply Vita Antonii, or Life of Anthony. The book was eventually translated into Latin and set the template for subsequent medieval monastic biographies. Athanasius is revered in all the major sects of Christianity as the first Church Doctor. He served under Alexander of Alexandria, until succeeding him as Patriarch of Alexandria, and may have accompanied Alexander to the First Council of Nicea in 325. Athanasius was adamant to stamp out the popular theory about Christ, called Arianism, named after another Alexandrian theologian named Arius (c.250-336). Arians believed that God created Christ – Christ is not the same substance as God. This was anathematized by the Nicene Creed, which made Christ, and the Holy Spirit, consubstantial with God the Father. Athanasius’ position, that the holy trinity is the same being (homoousia in Greek, or essentia in Latin) and all are eternal, became the orthodox theology for Christianity. But this orthodoxy was not established until after a sustained attack on Arianism as heresy, some of which occupies the later sections of the Life of Anthony.

[2] See I Corinthians, Chapter 8, 1.

[3] See Book IX, 22.

[4] See Book VIII, 15.

[5] See Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, Chapter CVII. Quotations are drawn from Joseph Rickaby’s, translation (London: Burns and Oates, 1905).

[6] The starting premise of this argument, indeed this entire way of looking at agency, is derived from Aristotle’s (and even Socrates’) view that conscious action is always teleologically arranged toward the perceived good of the actor. Aquinas, and most Christian theologians adopt this starting point, but also add unique considerations (that did not trouble the ancients) about the relevant mechanisms of sin.

[7] To get the full sense of Aquinas’ argument we have to understand his rather different notion of “causality” and the old essential/accidental distinction. Causes produce effects that are similar in kind to their causes. Conscious goals are causes of actions/effects. Since a conscious goal is by definition a kind of “good” (a perceived good at the very least), and since such goals are causes, then Aquinas thinks it follows that a person’s intentions can only cause evil “accidentally.” The cause is essentially good, and therefore no evil can flow from it – so any evil that results is incidental. Finally, he thinks, this proves that evil (which is always caused incidentally) is not a real metaphysical presence in the world (a real causal force), but only a kind of unpleasant epiphenomenon. “For no agent acts except with some intention of good: evil therefore cannot be the effect of any cause except incidentally. But what is caused incidentally only cannot be by nature, since every nature has a regular and definite mode of coming into being.” (Chapter CVII).

[8] See Chapter CIX.

[9] Here Aquinas tows a line first laid out by Augustine against the Manicheans. The Persian notion of evil is this idea of a cosmic metaphysical force or power – something outside of God and His control. In silencing this heresy, Augustine redefined “evil” to mean a “privation” or “lack” of a good. Evil is not a positive reality, but a purely negative adjective that people mistake for a “thing.” The word “evil” might be considered more like the word “shadow” in the sense that it picks out something particular, but in reality a shadow is just the absence of light. It is nothing in itself.

[10] Aquinas can counter the sadism point (and maybe even the more difficult masochism issue) by replying that the true telos (end goal) is the pleasure enjoyed, not the harm. But the modern mind finds this protest somewhat naïve in the sense that sadism means that a certain kind of pleasure is only attainable in the harming. To use his own lingo, there may be an essential causation between the harm and pleasure.

[11] The Canon Episcopi is probably a ninth century Frankish document (sometimes thought to originate in the fourth century), and its short text on witches had become Canon Law by the time of the Malleus. It characterizes the more “psychological” theory that I’ve been sketching, and that Institoris was reacting against. Roughly speaking, witches are just very confused about their own powers and experiences (delusions), but this still makes them dangerous heretics because they tend to infect other innocents with their promises of Satanic power; that betrayal is still real, even if the magical powers are imaginary. The Canon Episcopi famously formulated the scenario of groups of women (hallucinating themselves to be) riding through the air for great distances.

[12] Alchemy had been a positive part of Islamic scientia for centuries, but when the texts and ideas flowed into Europe (after the Moor expulsion) it came to be seen as a threatening alternative knowledge base (with infidel origins). Alchemy became associated with the black arts and heresy, but ironically many of the “research programs” of alchemy (e.g., the transformation of natural substances) became the foundations of later chemistry. Dominicans like Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, together with Franciscan Roger Bacon, originally tolerated alchemy, trying to submit its claims to rational criteria. But by the fourteenth century alchemy was outlawed in many places. See Chapter One of Roslynn D. Haynes’ From Faust to Strangelove (Johns Hopkins University, 1994).

[13] The idea that nature is filled with invisible seeds of transformation (rationes seminales) was very useful to theologians like Augustine, who used the concept whenever he needed to explain natural growth, development, or evolution in a monotheistic paradigm of “fiat creationism” that precluded such transformation. Ecclesiasticus 18:1 states that all things were created by God simultaneously (qui vivit in aeternum creavit omnia simul), but Genesis gives us a staggered creation over time. Augustine’s idea of “germs” of forms existing within other forms helped to make consistent the unrolling of creation and the simultaneous miracle of creation. Institoris seems to be drawing on this tradition to help him explain demons’ “creative” power.

[14] Institoris, in defense of his demonology, cites a gloss on Exodus 7 (when Pharao’s magicians also made serpents from staffs), which says, “When workers of harmful magic try to do something by chanting [the names] of evil spirits, they [the spirits] run off in different directions through the world, and in a very short time bring back the seeds of those things with which they stimulate this [process], and in this way, with God’s permission, produce new forms from these.”

[15] Institoris points out that such demonic “alterations” of nature can never violate the ways of nature (e.g., bring a dead man to life), but only speed-up, slow-down, mix or otherwise mutate changes that could happen anyway (theoretically).

[16] See Chapter 6, Part II.


64 thoughts on “An official guide for demon hunters: helpful advice from philosophers and witch-hunters

  1. In general I think that the “religion” tag is reasonable for this article, as it deals with the subject of demons and witchcraft as it applies to religious claims. If Stephen had been dealing more broadly with the subject as he does in his book (which is pretty good by the way) then the tag would not have been appropriate.

    The modern attitude to this among religionists is interesting. C S Lewis said that he believed in demons and yet he said of Jesus’ belief in demons that he might have simply been prey to the superstitions of the time. Christians do not think that the incarnate Jesus would have had a knowledge of quantum physics or any science beyond what was commonly known at the time and so he would presumably have not known anything about mental illness that was not generally known at the time. Lewis’ own Screwtape reads more like an allegorical account of the psychology of rationalising wrong actions than it does a story about real demons.

    As noted earlier the Catholic Church still holds that demonic possessions can be real, which is dangerous even though they insist that a full psychiatric evaluation is done first.

    Of course given a belief in God then it naturally follows that God might have produced other types of beings who might choose between right and wrong.

    Incidentally it is hardly surprising that Aquinas did not consider demons intrinsically evil – it would be surprising if he considered that God would have created something intrinsically evil.

    The common view of the time was that evil was simply a corruption of something good. Base curiousity was a corruption of the love of knowledge, lust was a corruption of love etc, which is in turn an adaptation of the Aristotlean view of virtues.

    My favourite demons in literature are the hapless fallen angels in Milton’s Paradise Lost and also the demon who snatches a soul at the last moment from an angel in Dante’s Hell, defeating the angel on a point of logic saying ‘you didn’t realise that I would be a logician’. Or the barely glimpsed demon in M R James’ “Casting of the Runes”.

    Hollywood, on the other hand, just doesn’t get demons.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Coel,

    “moderate religions give cover for extremist religions,by promoting the idea that religion overall is a Good Thing”

    I’m at a loss for words. How do you justify that? Couples who have sex for pleasure give support to rapists? Unitarians are unconsciously supporting the crusades? All gun owners give cover for serial killers?

    “For example, if one were to criticise communism as an ideology one could have a straightforward discussion on the facts of the matter. But anyone trying to criticise Islam as an ideology gets shouted down as an “Islamophobe”, based on the idea that religion is automatically a Good Thing and thus off-limits for criticism.”

    Having straightforward discussions depends also on venue and who you are talking.

    We can talk about religions and extremism, but every time that a discussion turns to the belief that there is an inherent link between religion and extremism and therefore religion in general should be commended the general tolerance to the start of any discussion on religion or extremism goes down.


  3. jarnauga111

    “And how is this tied to sports violence?” Organized religions and sports fandoms are similar in that they are self-segregating, usually familial, take up certain times of the week, have specific rituals and appurtenances identifying the adherent, compete for followers, are often marked by specific rivalries, and in one sense appear to the outsider as arbitrary choices that do not have any noticeable material interest or political agenda…yet the mere fact of separation can apparently lead to endemic violence in sports. Which is the disturbing implication for organized religions, even those purified of the supernatural. By the way, I think separation of the majority from the whole society can be very problematic for those excluded.

    “… why can we not take that kind of approach to religions, especially those whose texts have remained the same, while interpretations have evolved?” Texts whose interpretation have changed are no substitute for a personal memory. The living memory of family oral tradition hardly makes it back a hundred years. Most important, the social functions of any religion change with society. The purely verbal formulations may be retained but they are not meaningfully causal. I suppose if you are a reductionist who only accepts psychological “explanations” divorced from history, or an opponent of “scientism” who denies the possibility of social science, these reasons might be insufficient. But even so, the religions which have had the greatest continuity have been I think those that police their communities like nations or tribes or castes. I don’t think hereditary power structures are a good thing.

    “…what is irrational about children identifying personally…?” When older children personally identify with another religious tradition, that irrationality is quite obvious to the majority of their elders. Just because it is customary to obey the parents in religious matters does not make the practice somehow rational. Younger children do not even understand, thus rationality is not even an issue. Really the bottom line is that even an infant can be labeled Jewish or Baptist or Scientologist or Unitarian or Mandaean, and suffer for it. I don’t understand your objection to calling that irrational. And if your other comment about “trashing” kid’s religious identity is supposed to describe my position, I’m afraid this perception is a good example of what can be wrong with thinking religion with the supernatural cut out is a Good Thing.

    Socratic Gadfly

    “As for your claim that everybody accusing him of forgery is motivated by anti-gay bias?” I said that people claim Smith was gay and that was his motive, when they don’t even know whether he was gay. You don’t know what his plenty of other motives might have been. Given that no one knows of any way Smith could have prevented the original text from being proved a forgery by physical means, you have to give a motive for producing a forgery that could be exposed at any time, while yet being so skilled as to produce a forgery that cannot be refuted on philological grounds. Nor do you have any reason to refuse to consider the possibility that someone else forged the Secret Gospel and Smith merely found it. Which you do this even though there are many other forged Gospels! Scriptural forgery is not an outlandish hypothesis.

    The notion that personal incredulity is a genuine argument is far more outlandish than anything Smith wrote. Skepticism is the disdain of the conventional for the agreed upon wrong views, That’s why I’m not a skeptic. Even if you are not skeptical of the conventional wisdom about Smith forging the Secret Gospel of Mark, your problem is that this still has nothing to do with Jesus the Magician: Smith does not offer any personal testimony. Twaddle about “goes to character” doesn’t cut it. Also, your evident belief that the Josephus we have is reliable is wrong. New Testament scholarship is not historical scholarship. There is a reason that professional historians in the period do not write scholarly biographies of Jesus.

    Patrick G

    I have heard religious people denounce rationality.Evolution is commonly cited as causing evil consequences because it relies on merely human reason. Some of Paul’s comments should give you pause. Also, denunciations of “scientism” are attacks on rationality taken too far or misconceived as determinative.

    Mario Roy

    The religious who proselytize and preach against the neglect of church would disagree with you.

    Thomas Jones

    Insofar as philosophy is the exploration of the interconnections of theknowledge we have obtained with our emotional lives, it does appear that the better science fiction can do that job better?


  4. stevenjohnson:

    I’m getting really tired of your speeches about what my kid understands and whether or not it’s rational. You don’t know her or our family or community. Frankly, you’re talking out of your keister.

    My daughter is 12 years old. She is preparing for her Bat-Mitzvah next April. It represents her coming of age in our tradition and among our people and means a lot to her and to us.

    On a weekly basis she meets with the Rabbi and learns her Torah and Haftorah portions. This doesn’t just involve learning to read the words — without vowels — it involves learning to sing it — there are marks in the text that indicate musical notes and inflections — and also learning its meaning. Part of her early assignments were to write down her own thoughts concerning the Torah Portion — her own personal Midrash if you will. She has learned Hebrew and some Aramaic. When the day comes, she will essentially lead the service, for the whole congregation.

    At one point, the Rabbi will hand the Torah to my father, who will then hand it to me, whereupon I will pass it to my daughter. To me, this will be a powerful and profound moment — representing the link of our common identity, through the generations. My father is 87 years old and it will move him more than anything, other than her birth. My mother is 83 and a Holocaust and three times cancer survivor, stalked for her entire life by depression. To her it will represent love and hope and the fact that our family continues on, healthy and vital.

    This is what you describe as “irrational” and denigrate in a cloud of abstract and evasive criticism. You are talking about me and my family. So talk to us. Tell us what is objectionable in what I just described. More…tell us what isn’t good about it.


  5. I think I’ll use up my last comment to make a positive statement.

    1. Theism and atheism are both views on metaphysics, but what counts in everyday social life is how you treat people, that is, morals. We can’t see into other people’s hearts, so all we have to go on is their behavior, what they do.

    2. Those of us who believe there are right and wrong ways to deal with each other agree on the most important thing. It’s those who want to condemn other people for what they think rather than what they do who are doing wrong. It doesn’t matter whether they do this because they think they are holier than the others or because they think the others can’t do right as they are misled by a false God (or none.)

    3. Experience has showed that other people who don’t believe as we do can still do right as well as wrong. Acting on the assumption that people who have the wrong religion can’t do right by us is bigotry.

    4. Experience also shows us that people somehow disagree on what God says to do. If we want to deal with other people, we must acknowledge this disagreement in the only way that really matters: By reasoning together on common grounds. Facts, logic, cost and benefit, natural human sympathy are the basic tools of social intercourse between people, not religious commandments.

    5. It is natural that people want to act according to the religious commandments as they perceive them. Experience shows that making other people act according to your personal beliefs is militant bigotry and has caused terrible evils.

    6. Insisting that your personal ideas are mandated by God is effectively claiming you are holier than others. Perhaps this is so, but experience shows that people will disagree with you. If and when these people attack your opinions, that is nevertheless not an attack on you personally. Whining about being a victim when this happens is shameless bigotry. The decent way to disagree with people is with public arguments, not personal revelation.

    7. Experience has showed that the notion some people are better than others isn’t true. Therefore there is no reason why some people should get privileges others don’t. This is just as true when the people are claiming to be the true religion.

    8. Trying to be considerate of other people, to treat them well, also means trying to leave space for them to think differently. This means that in social life there should not be an omnipresent expression of a particular set of religious beliefs, not even the majority’s. Given the diversity of beliefs, it is impractical to mandate full representation. Besides, when the other’s religious beliefs get thrust into your life, it becomes very obvious this is an intrusion into personal space. The courteous and sensible code of manners in public is to avoid pointless contention and display of religion.

    9. Experience shows us that we are not necessarily aware of our biases, especially those we share with the majority. Therefore it is particularly incumbent upon us to be cautious about expressions of contempt, or support persecution of religious minorities (or the unchurched or those we perceive as unbelievers of any kind.) Attacking other religions and their believers as uniquely evil is bigotry.

    10. Inasmuch as our morals also include not just personal but public decisions about how to treat other people, that is, laws, it is our moral duty to abide by the just laws of the land. And we must engage in debate on justice on our common grounds, not our personal beliefs. In the most difficult cases, we as the public may assess a particular religious observance as contaminated by gross superstition. Laws against harm done by superstition are not religious persecution. Allowing harmful practices to continue under color of religion is special privilege, legal bigotry.


  6. Hi SocraticGadfly,

    Erm, NO, on [Jesus] mythcism

    I don’t think there is enough evidence to decide either way for sure, but to me the mythicists’ case is at least as strong as the historicists’ case.

    Hi Robin,

    I suppose that you will claim that Dawkins was doing science when he wrote that argument, but if so I think that you are trashing the term `science’.

    I think we understand each other here. I do indeed see Dawkins’s “almost certainly no God” comment as being an evaluation of the evidence and thus as scientific.

    … the new Atheism as espoused by Dawkins et al certainly fits the bill for a religion when you consider religion as an anthropological phenomenon, or as a common behaviour pattern.

    Only if you also apply the term “religion” to all political parties and all campaigning organisations such as Greenpeace and to charities such as Medicines Sans Frontiers, and lots else.

    Hi marclevesque,

    All gun owners give cover for serial killers?

    Yes; it is no concidence that the nation with the most gun-toting mass killers also has a rampant gun culture generally.

    … a discussion turns to the belief that there is an inherent link between religion and extremism …

    Any religion that says that humans morally ought to follow a particular god, and that failure to do so merits punishment (either in this life or the next), has an inherently totalitarian streak and can easily become extreme (as the history of Christianity and Islam shows). For this reason I don’t see any of the major strands of Islam as “moderate” (though of course there are plenty of moderate Muslims, who don’t go along with prohibitions on apostasy, etc). Are we allowed to discuss this issue, or is doing so “intolerant”?


  7. Hi stevenjohnson, you wrote:

    “The religious who proselytize and preach against the neglect of church would disagree with you”.

    So what? Firstly you claimed that the conceptual confusion between […] raise a serious questions about all religions, but now you regret it and emphasize the disagreement. I’m not neglecting the churches, I just describe them in a broad perspective. In other words, I distinguish two spheres regarding the spirit, the religious and the philosophical one. I prefer the later approach, but it doesn’t mean that I neglect the churches. I’m not atheist if it means the simple and flat negation of God, this is nihilism, in my opinion.

    But the inquiry that leads to acknowledge that the spirit is faceless, formless and not visible obviously requires a personal work that, among others, conducted Socrates, Epicurus, Antisthenes and Buddha. It has little to do with the churches but, at the same time, it certainly is a spiritual enquiry.


  8. Coel,
    I don’t think there is enough evidence to decide either way for sure, but to me the mythicists’ case is at least as strong as the historicists’ case.

    Then you clearly have not looked at the evidence. Serious Biblical scholarship is quite frankly derisive of the mythicist claims. Trying reading the work of Bart Ehrman and R Josef Hoffmann, both noted scholars and noted atheists. Please do your home work before making discredited claims.

    Dawkins’s “almost certainly no God” comment as being an evaluation of the evidence and thus as scientific.

    You are ignoring the small, inconvenient little fact that no one has found evidence that God does not exist. No, his statement is most definitely not scientific.

    If you disagree, I invite you to produce a peer reviewed paper that purports to produce evidence that there is no God. Add that to my earlier invitation for papers that show science solves moral problems(still waiting and waiting…).

    Yes; it is no concidence that the nation with the most gun-toting mass killers also has a rampant gun culture generally.

    With this throw away remark you have completely and utterly failed to engage with marclevesque’s central argument. (No, I do not support gun ownership, I have direct experience of the awful damage that guns do)

    Any religion that says that humans morally ought to follow a particular god, and that failure to do so merits punishment (either in this life or the next), has an inherently totalitarian streak and can easily become extreme

    Any person who can say that has not read the New Testament. Please go away and read what Jesus Christ has said about love, the pre-eminent Commandment. Please read the Beatitudes. If you did that you would discover that the central message of Christianity is love, tolerance, turning the other cheek and service to the suffering. That is most decidedly not a totalitarian message that encourages extremism.

    I wish you would check your facts before you made such statements. But let me help you out.

    What the facts say
    1) There were 1763 wars in recorded history and only 123 (7%) were religious.
    Sources: Charles Philips and Alen Axelrod, The Encylopedia of Wars.
    The Irrational Atheist, pg 104.

    2) “…[the result of] the audit of religious wars is to show that the overwhelming majority of wars and the overwhelming majority of the victims of such wars cannot be classified primarily according to religious causes or religious beliefs”
    Source: BBC War Audit, pg 16 (

    3) 6% of the wars listed in The Encyclopedia of War can be labelled religious wars.
    Source: Gordon Martel, The Encyclopedia of War.

    4) Of the 489 military conflicts listed by the Wikipedia, only 53 (10.8%) can be reasonably labelled as religious in nature.
    Source: The Irrational Atheist, pg 103.

    And yes, I do possess the massive tome by Philips and Axelrod, The Encyclopedia of Wars.

    Now lets look at the facts concerning Islam (

    According to the Suicide Terrorism Database at Flinders University in Australia, which accounts for all suicide bombings committed in the Middle East between 1981 and 2006, it is politics, not religious fanaticism, that leads to terrorists blowing themselves up. ”

    “The authors, Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman, examined more than 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to present. Their research reveals that more than 90 percent of suicide attacks are directed at an occupying force. Of the 524 suicide terrorists carried out in the past 30 years, more than half of the attackers were secular. Let that rock your worldview.”

    “More than 95 percent of all suicide attacks have a strategic goal in common—to compel an occupying force to withdraw from territory the terrorists prize. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to the West Bank to Chechnya, the central goal of every suicide terrorist campaign has been to resist military occupation by a democracy.

    Facts are such an inconvenient thing.


  9. This has been an odd discussion; interesting, but I’m glad I didn’t get too embroiled in it.

    I’ve currently been writing a semiotic critique of a Catholic icon, and had some pretty strong not-nice stuff to say of it. In the process, I rediscovered my own Catholic upbringing; within the context of a dysfunctional nuclear family, Catholicism had a profoundly negative impact on my life which it took me decades to overcome. So my attitude toward Western religions is one of deep suspicion.

    I’ve sympathy for the New Atheists (but being a secular Buddhist cannot join them). When I was growing up, an unofficial truce between various religions, and between believers and non-believers, seemed well in place, and it was easy to form alliances for good causes (e.g., civil rights). But that situation has changed, and conservative religions have had a severely divisive impact politically and socially, in some parts leading to outright violence. In such an atmosphere, a call to reason, with a concomitant rejection of theistic religion, seems warranted.

    (Also, I tire of people promising to reconvert me. If the New Atheism can convince them this is impossible, and they stop nattering at me, I’ll consider this success.)

    However, Aravis here reminds us that religion has a card to play that atheists have not yet properly addressed, which is a sense of community that assures the emotional well-being of its members across many generations. Remembering again my own experience, I must say that mainstream Catholicism never gave me any of that; even today I find the sense of community among Catholics strongest among those on the margins. But I can no longer join them, I’ve followed my own path too far. I suppose one reason I am happy as a secular Buddhist is because this allows me access to a rich cultural tradition apart from the one that plagued me in my youth.

    But what can non-believers offer those seeking such community? There have been various efforts to deliver alternatives, such as those found among some secular humanist associations. (Regarding this, attacking less god-centered liberal religions is probably a mistake, since community models secular humanists have developed largely derive from these, e.g., Unitarians.) But by and large, non-believers respond to this demand with reference to their local social environment, to their families and friends.

    Rational debate concerning the reasonableness of any theistic religion seems on its way to closure. One can believe, but we are getting to the point that there can be no rational argument for belief; one believes only by way of some sensitivity, some emotional experience one cannot fully articulate – ‘the ineffable.’ This seems ever more true, in science, in ethics, in philosophy.

    But it is not yet clear that we can develop or maintain social satisfactions that can replace those offered by religion. Without these, its unclear how we can move forward in the reconstruction of society without religion, if that is what we choose.


  10. Perhaps the two most dominant themes in modern cinema still striking primal fear in audience hearts for cathartic benefit (“whew! glad that didn’t happen to me!”) remain the invisible spirit and living dead consuming the living (zombies). (1)

    Rewinding the tape to the beginning of human pre-history, imagine (Roman death mask) what life must have been like. Imagine being the first human eye to open. What might we have seen? Shopping malls with fine apparel and smart phones. And restaurants and supermarkets removing us from the act of killing the “other” in order to eat. This sacrament is the origin of animal and human sacrificial religion and guilt emergence. One cannot eat stones, sun, moon and stars. As society evolved, dramatic re-enactments emerge around the idea of the sacred. (2)

    In the Athenian Buphonia (Ox-Murder), the guilty axe is put on trial. Religion must appease and come into right relationship with invisible powers that threaten to terrorize, because of guilt. Mimetic humans imitated and had kinship relationships with food animals (totemism). Yahweh gives king Nebuchadnezzar the psyche of a grass-eating Ox (Daniel 4) to show him who’s the boss. The memory of these experiences if not 100% causally linked to brain science, may remain in some “collective unconscious” (if there is such a thing) that sometimes breaks through (beyond Stoic control) into the mind of certain people. Pre-literate, indigenous and modern individuals continue to have emotional engagements (Participation Mystique) with sacred objects, monsters and the dead whether real or perceived.

    Every rational and irrational human experience and disagreement is an input into understanding holistic reality. What triggers our fears, thought provocations, moral indignations, and inducements to violence to exorcize (sanitize) the system (Inquisition, Crusade, Jihad)? Anticipation of death knowledge, horror of death memory witnessed by the living, bad dreams, hallucinations, bestiality and unresolved blood/guilt vengeance/justice requirements of the dead (Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy) are in the causal problem mix.

    Science and religion still have not fully identified the problem or solution for witch and demon hunting. They are still struggling with co-existence issues. The talking cure, science (surgery and drugs), and exorcism are all in the modern cure mix. We are an absurd pale blue dot in space suffering from amnesia, parsing words, passing gas and hoping to create a positive future. Ray Kurzweil (3) says science can see how our thoughts create our brains, and that we are due for an expansion in our neocortex. Humanity must confront and defeat its animal memory, its monster of the id (Forbidden Planet-1956) to celebrate Halloween with full humor going forward.

    (1) The Walking Dead in an Age of Anxiety – Michael J. Totten

    (2) Temptation, Tradition, and Taboo: A Theory of Sacralization – Douglas A. Marshall

    Click to access Mar10STFeature.pdf

    (3) Ray Kurzweil: Get Ready for Hybrid Thinking


  11. wtquinn, thanks for the link to the article on “The Walking Dead” tv series. I’ve been a regular viewer from season 1. Talk about your thought (no irony intended) experiments!

    I’ve also lived most of my life in New Orleans. So I get it, loud and clear. Hmm, wonder what will “mollify” the psychotics when the supplies of Clozapine and Risperdal are exhausted?


  12. Coel,

    Marc: All gun owners give cover for serial killers?

    Yes; it is no concidence that the nation with the most gun-toting mass killers also has a rampant gun culture generally.

    Well no, being one of the Innu hunters, or the very existence of Innu hunters, does not imply they are promoting the overall good of guns and if one was promoting the overall good of guns that does not imply one is giving support or cover to mass killers.

    moderate religions give cover for extremist religions, by promoting the idea that religion overall is a Good Thing

    The points you are advancing aren’t helping me understand how you justify that.

    Are we allowed to discuss this issue

    Of course. Clearer or like more scientifically framed propositions and definitions, would be helpful for me.

    or is doing so “intolerant”?

    Well no, but there is research related to the subject and from what I can see religion is not anywhere near a main cause of extremism or radicalization, it can participate in the problem for sure but so can pretty much everything else.


  13. Stephen T. Asma,

    Fun and interesting article. My first reaction before I even started reading was ‘oh no not Halloween stuff’ but i got over my prejudice, and I think I enjoyed it none the less.


  14. I tried to send a second comment, but it seems to have been lost in Cyberspace. Let’s make a different attempt with one more appreciated by the gods of Cyber (Greek kybernetes “steersman”).

    Although I will not quote many names, this comment is addressed to some above (Coel, Aravis, etc.). And especially those who claim that their elaborate religious rituals are innocent, because they represent a long tradition.
    Tradition to a great extent, is in opposition to “secular” (which means of the age).

    This meditation is about religion, it can only hurt those who feel it’s right, it is their right, to feel very strongly about the metaphysics they believe in. But metaphysics is never innocent. After all, it’s about the foundations of their minds one talks about. One can’t get more intimate than that. Or more penetrating and violating, should one get into them. Potentially.
    Religions tie people together. (Re-ligare.) This is what religious means. Religion does not have to have a metaphysical element. Some people practice an art or a sport, as if it were a religion. Many young people get tied together again only be activities such as being soccer supporters… And they seem ready to die for it. Zen, Taoism, forms of Yoga, nationalism, tribalism, are all religious in character.

    In other words religions generate tribes. Human beings are nothing, if not in a tribe. (Or then they are philosophers.) The religious instinct cannot be distinguished from the tribal instinct.
    Nice tribes, or nasty tribes, that is the question. Inclusive tribes, and inclusive religions, are nice. Those who exclude are nasty, and bring blood. Exclusivity, alienation, is always (ethologically perceived as) an aggression. That has been observed in chimpanzees.

    Tribes are not just about being strong together, they are about group selection. Deadly aggression, even war, was found “adaptative” in chimpanzees:

    Religion: often war according to the most fundamental means.
    It’s not a good sign, when a religion is full of demons. Or when it’s so nasty, it needs a god of evil (Hades, Satan, etc.)

    Another dichotomy is between rational religions, and irrational ones. That one is roughly equivalent to that between religions that are organized around superstition, and the supernatural, and those which are not.

    Nasty has to do not just be about mistreating others directly, but how they lead others to react.
    Often tribes get dressed in black, claiming to be somehow elected by god. Example: Catholic “men in black” of the Fourth Century destroying books and intellectuals, Jesuits, SS, etc… The alienation is deliberate.

    Another way to alienate is by advertise wildly irrational beliefs, constituting a religion, defining a tribe. The more irrational, the more flaunted, the more alienating to others, the more it leads to hatred in reply, and the more hatred one is submitted to, the tighter the tribe that creates the alienation will be.

    It’s this advanced calculus of hatred, fear and alienation which is at the root of all too many religions and their associated tribalizations.


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