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.

As priests begin to pray, the woman slips into a trance-like state, and then snaps back to life. First she speaks in a deep, masculine voice. Then she becomes high-pitched; next, she speaks only Latin.

This is no movie cliché. This was a real exorcism performed by a 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.

In its broadest sense, exorcism means freeing a person, place or object from some form of negative spiritual influence. In the West they are encountered most frequently in Christianity and Islam.

Some voices in Catholicism and Anglicanism deny the idea of demons altogether. Meanwhile, in Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism, exorcism is often seen as routine.

But many oppose them vehemently, fearing that exorcisms keep people from accessing medical 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 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 very convincing. 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?


  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.

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.
What do we not know?
The big question. Whether the devil — or indeed God — can actually possess you.

Word Watch

2013 poll
YouGov’s poll found that 57% of Americans said they believed the devil exists.
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 with no therapeutic effect that is prescribed to make a patient feel better.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.