Fear of the devil prompts exorcist shortage

Terror: The Exorcist follows the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl.

Can people really be “possessed”? The Catholic Church has announced a new training course to remedy a global shortage of exorcists amid rising demand. Their practice is highly controversial.

A group of nuns and priests meet a woman in the chapel of a house one evening.

As the priests begin to pray, the woman slips into a trance-like state, and then snaps back to life. First she speaks in a guttural, masculine voice, shouting at the priests to “leave her alone”. Then she becomes high-pitched; next, she speaks only Latin.

This is no movie cliché. This was a real exorcism performed by an Ivy League-educated psychiatrist, Dr Richard Gallagher. He calls himself a “man of science”, yet he is sure demonic possession is real.

He is not alone. According to a 2013 poll, over half of Americans believe humans can be possessed by the devil.

The number is rising. So much so that the Vatican has announced that it is setting up a new training course to meet increased demand for exorcisms.

If you have seen The Exorcist, this might sound terrifying. But depictions of exorcisms on screen disguise a serious, complex reality.

In its broadest sense, exorcism means freeing a person, place or object from some form of negative spiritual influence. Customs that could be called “exorcisms” are found all over the world, but in the West they are encountered most frequently in Christianity and Islam.

But there is a wide range of opinions on the use of exorcisms in the 21st century. There are some who deny the idea of demons altogether. Most simply do not think about them. Meanwhile, in Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism, exorcism is often seen as routine.

In reality, even in these churches, exorcisms are only performed by specially trained priests and almost always happen in private.

In liberal, democratic societies, it would take a lot for the state to intervene against exorcisms. But many private individuals oppose them vehemently.

Many people who have been exorcised feel that they were subjected to rituals to which they did not properly consent. They might also have been kept from accessing medical or psychological treatment, prolonging their suffering.

Is there any value in these medieval practices?

Be gone!

None at all, comes the humanist answer. Bar a few dubious anecdotes, there is absolutely no evidence for exorcisms working. What used to be considered being “possessed by the devil”, we now understand as mental illness, and any pseudoscientific justification only stops people addressing their problems in useful ways.

Don’t be too certain, reply others. If belief in God is reasonable, then so is belief in the devil, and therefore the idea that the devil can get inside you. Some stories of exorcisms are too convincing to be ignored. And even if they are not real, exorcisms can act as a placebo: if you believe it can cure you, then it might.

You Decide

  1. Can people be possessed by the devil?
  2. Is religion more of a help or a hindrance for people suffering from mental illness?


  1. Find an example of an alleged exorcism in the Become An Expert links. Write a paragraph on whether you believe it was a real exorcism.
  2. Research a representation of evil. It can be from religion, literature or an artwork. Give a five minute presentation about it to your class.

Some People Say...

“‘Tis no sin to cheat the devil.”

Daniel Defoe

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Exorcisms, where priests try to force some kind of evil spirit out of a person, are on the rise. This might simply be because world populations are rising. Whatever the reason, however, the Catholic Church has felt compelled to set up a new training course for specialist exorcists. We know modern-day exorcisms are not as scary as they are portrayed to be in films, but that many people strongly object to them nonetheless.
What do we not know?
The big question. Whether the devil — or indeed God — can actually possess you. We do not have explanations for some of the more extraordinary things that happen during exorcisms, such as the woman speaking Latin, apparently unprompted.

Word Watch

Ivy League
The name given to a group of eight elite universities in the northeastern United States, namely Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale.
2013 poll
YouGov’s poll found that 57% of Americans said they believed the devil exists. While a most believed that people can be possessed by the devil, the majority of those thought that it was rare.
The Exorcist
A 1973 horror film based on the novel by William Peter Blatty. It became one of the highest-grossing horror films in history, grossing over $441 million (£315 million) worldwide, and was the first horror film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.
In Islam, exorcism is called ruqya. Islamic exorcisms consist of the “possessed” person lying down, while a sheikh places their hand on the patient’s head and recites verses from the Koran.
A movement within Protestant Christianity that places emphasis on direct personal experience of God.
A medicine or procedure prescribed for the psychological benefit to the patient rather than for any physiological effect.

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