Demonologists are the True Christians
“WHILE religion, as far as popular adherence in this country is concerned, has dwindled rapidly in the past few years, we cannot claim this as a total victory for freethought,” Barbara Smoker declared in her presidential address at the annual general meeting of the National Secular Society, which took place in London on 12 December, 1976.
“Unfortunately”, she went on:
Its place has largely been filled by a sudden upsurge in occultism, covering a wide range of superstitious beliefs and practices, some of which are far more dangerous than the general run of orthodox religion was – at least, since it gave up burning heretics and terrifying children with lurid descriptions of hell.
Ms Smoker told the meeting that superstition declined in the 18th century, but had a surprising revival in the late 19th century, with all the nonsense of astrology, hauntings, seances, clairvoyance, automatic writing, ouija boards, numerology, faith-healing and so on. It declined at the turn of the century, but has suddenly become fashionable again in the past decade, and all the same old nonsense has come back (except for such completely discredited frauds as table-rapping and muslin ectoplasm), but with pseudo-scientific additions such as ufology and the “Geller effect“.
The NSS President continued:
The mainstream Christian churches, having played down Satan and Hell since the turn of the century, have destroyed their raison d’etre and seen their congregations melt away, while the fundamentalist and charismatic wing of the Protestant churches has retained its hold on more people. Being now proportionately the strongest wing of Protestantism, the evangelicals have become more influential than formerly, and have forced the hierarchy to condone more primitive practices and beliefs.
The orthodox Christian churches, which stood aloof from spiritualism and Christian Science during their Victorian heyday, have now started jumping on to the present bandwagon.
A Church of England clergyman, the Rev Trevor Dearing, who recently published a book on demonic possession and exorcism, combines what he calls ‘the two ministries’ of exorcism and faith-healing.
He was eager to demonstrate both in a Birmingham television studio last month. I was invited to appear on the programme with him, as token opposition, and I found his performance, at a distance of three or four feet even more sickening than I had expected.
In the hospitality room before the programme began, I listened to his female disciples chattering about him like lovesick schoolgirls. In the studio, I was amused to see that the camera crew had marked the floor not only with Mr Dearing’s standing position but also with the spot on which the exorcisee, in a re-enactment, was to writhe and the candidates for faith-healing, in actuality, were to swoon.
Mr Dearing has the advantage of good looks, which he enhances with eye-catching clothes and a carefully casual hairstyle. But his greatest asset is his long, sexy fingers. While he presses the forehead of a client with the fingers of one hand and the back of her neck with the other hand, his congregation, well represented in the audience, sing, to an affective tune, “He touched me, he touched me!” No doubt, if asked, they would insist that “He” is Jesus. But the sexual connotation could hardly be more explicit.
During the past few years the entry of many clergymen, of various denominations, into the demon business has given considerable impetus to belief in demonic possession, and is the chief cause of recent tragedies, the most publicised of which have been two horrific murders.
There was the murder of Christine Taylor by her husband after he had been subjected to a night of mind-bending medieval ritual presided over by C of E and Methodist clergymen. More recently, there was the murder of eight-year-old Samantha Read by her father, while her mother and five-year-old brother looked on – because they believed that she was possessed by a devil that threatened the salvation of mankind as the end of the world drew near. A similar case occurred in 1891, and was reported in the Freethinker at the time.
Although 65 leading theologians last year denounced the practice of exorcism today, there was only one bishop among them, and most C of E bishops merely counselled stricter rules for carrying out exorcisms. This implicit endorsement by the Established Church fans the flames of popular credulity.
The cinema may also bear some measure of responsibility, with such films as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen. Films, however, would be unlikely to be accepted as anything more than spine- chilling entertainment if they were not backed up by institutional Christianity, which people may still take for real.
It should not be forgotten that, despite the denials of more sophisticated theologians, belief in demonic possession is crucial to the Christian faith. The one justification for Christianity is its fight against the wiles of Satan and his wicked angels, from whose power souls must be redeemed by baptism and faith in order to gain eternal bliss.
The demonologists are really the consistent, true Christians. So, perhaps, after all, it is still religion in its most basic forms that is the chief enemy of rationalism and of humanity.
• This slightly edited report appeared in the December, 1976, edition of the Freethinker.