Exorcism Rituals for Everyone

Exorcism rituals have gotten a really bad name, at least here in the United States where they are stereotypically associated with “demons” or spirits who are believed to be possessing a psychologically perturbed or socially disordered person. Alternatively, these spirits are believed to be infesting homes that are occupied by people who, in other contexts, might be considered psychologically perturbed or socially disordered. The etiology of these disturbances can be quite varied, ranging from the real to the imagined. While physical or mental illnesses and intoxicant usage are obvious candidates, social factors may play a larger role. If a family member is mentally ill, socially perturbed, or suffering from drugs dysfunction, it can afflict the entire family and create severe tensions, including violent and bizarre behaviors. All this can create a feedback loop in which one disturbance leads to another and an exorcism is prescribed.

In the United States, the exorcism almost always proceeds along Christian lines. This is not surprising, given that most Americans are Christians and thus are predisposed, by virtue of cultural transmission and social reinforcement, to construct and construe these experiences through a Christian lens. When seen through this particular lens, the whole thing becomes a high-stakes and spooky affair. God and Satan battle over a person’s body or family’s home, playing out in provincial microcosm their macroscopic struggle for cosmic supremacy. Because good always triumphs over evil, the story always ends the same. In other contexts, fairy-tale endings might be seen as a defect, but in America it’s the journey that counts. We like to watch our heroes struggle and suffer before overcoming all obstacles and achieving the inevitable victory.

Given all the Manichean gravitas and Linda Blair ghastliness surrounding Christian exorcisms, it’s nice to know that exorcisms need not be so damned serious. Exorcism rituals are a worldwide phenomena and widely spread in both historical time and geographic space. This makes them highly variable, though the variability is culturally constrained and empirically regular: it always correlates with any given society’s worldview or dominant religion.

Given this cross-cultural fact, it’s not surprising that Shinto exorcism rituals in Japan differ from Christian exorcism rituals in America, and that exorcism rituals in shamanistic societies differ markedly from those in monotheistic cultures. Other than the fact that invisible agents (“spirits”) are allegedly involved in all these, the differences in exorcism rituals are so significant that one wonders whether the supernatural world is divided along national, cultural, or religious boundaries. Do these invisible agents need passports? Do they declare allegiance to one kind cultural or religious construct and decide only to work within those parameters?

These curious questions aside, some exorcisms strike me as more salubrious than others. Consider, for instance, Andrew Solomon’s “Notes on an Exorcism” which just appeared in Esquire. Solomon, who suffers from clinical depression, traveled to Senegal for a cure. An exorcism was prescribed and performed. The ritual, known as an ndeup, was communal, intense, and absurd. But there was a therapeutic point, which Solomon initially felt and later understood:

I felt so up! It had been quite an astonishing experience. Even though I didn’t believe in the animist principles behind it, all of these people had been gathered together, cheering for me, and it was very exhilarating.

And I had a very odd experience five years later, when I was working on my current book, and I was in Rwanda doing something else altogether. I got into a conversation with someone there, and I described the experience I had had in Senegal, and he said, “Oh, you know, we have something that’s a little like that. That’s West Africa. This is East Africa. It’s quite different, but there are some similarities to rituals here.”

He said, “You know, we had a lot of trouble with Western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide, and we had to ask some of them to leave.”

I said, “What was the problem?”

And he said, “Their practice did not involve being outside in the sun, like [the exorcism ritual] you’re describing, which is, after all, where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again when you’re depressed, and you’re low, and you need to have your blood flowing. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgment that the depression is something invasive and external that could actually be cast out of you again.”

This, in a profound African nutshell, tells us everything we need to know about exorcism rituals and psychosomatic efficacy. I sometimes think that Catholic rituals may succeed in spite of themselves. As non-Christian exorcists around the world have long known and still know, you can do the rituals and achieve results without all the hellish drama and damnation stuff.


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14 thoughts on “Exorcism Rituals for Everyone

  1. Cris Post author

    I understand that if you are a Christian and have Catholic involvement with one, then an exorcism ritual can be “damned” serious.

    My point, however, is that exorcism rituals are performed around the world in non-Christian and non-Catholic contexts, and these rituals are quite different. Indeed, the spirits themselves are quite different.

    So how do we account for these differences?

    Do you have to be Christian or Catholic to be involved with an exorcism that is all about “good” and “evil”?

    What about all the other exorcisms that happen around the world that have nothing to do with these concepts?

  2. Anonymous

    Good question Cris,

    I’ve spoken with a number of Christian missionaries who worked in both Africa and Central America where “Shamans” are part of everyday life. These “holy men” (or women) are seen as portals into the spiritual world (as you know). As I’ve been told (believe it or not) it’s the spirits themselves that recognize the difference, as reference is made to the “white spirit” associated with the missionaries.

    I once did graduate research as to why American slaves became Christians. I always believed that they were forced to do it. However, I read numerous testimonies by slaves that as they had been used to praying to, and seeking help from the world of the spirits, they all immediately saw a difference between their traditional spirits and this “white spirit” – (not to be confused as the spirit of the whites, but actually being white.)

    I can recall one slave stating that he was told by a shaman that if he wore a particular root around his neck that he would not be beaten. He obviously was. Then he found that if he prayed to the “white spirit” his circumstances changed dramatically. Thus many of slaves stated that they began to worship the white spirit with fervor, not because they were forced to, but because praying to it in fact “improved their circumstances in bondage.” Their Shaman also apparently could not deal with this white spirit. (You can read all of this yourself if you like.)

    So there seems to be a division in the spirit world that divides different types of spirits.

  3. Cris Post author

    The parsimonious explanation is that these various imaginary spirits are being socially constructed along syncretic religious and cultural lines. I also have serious doubts about the factual accuracy of these assertions.

    Where did you do this graduate work? Do you really think that Christian missionaries are reliable sources of information about this? Can you cite ethnographic sources for these (Christian) allegations?

    But since you have mentioned, in a previous post under your name (Bob Cranmer), this whole “why did American slaves become Christians” thing, why don’t we just drop the “anonymous” posting?

    All this aside, traditional African religions are not shamanic, in the constrained ethnographic sense of that term. Traditional African religions, and their colonial and post-colonial encounters with Christianity, is a massive topic with a huge literature. Are you familiar with any of it, or are you just relying on anecdotes gleaned from conversations with your missionary friends?

    There is also a huge scholarly literature on American slavery and its complex relationship with Christianity. While I’m no expert in this literature, I’m certain that conversion to, or adoption of, Christianity by slaves was not powered by your God’s (obviously ineffective) ability to “stop beatings.”

    When you mentioned this in a post from last year, you justifiably got blasted by several commenters on this blog, so it’s best to just drop this ridiculous assertion.

  4. Bob Cranmer

    Cris, I didn’t make the assertion, multiple former slaves did and if your were as informed as I am on the subject (I don’t claim to be an expert) you’d wouldn’t criticize me. It’s “primary source” and not opinion or speculation. It comes from an eighteen volume record currently held by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Homewood Branch. (I have other references as well.) I did my research in 1997. If you want to question or criticize don’t aim it at me, aim it at the former slaves for it’s their claim not mine. I suppose that they are just misguided like me, – for I believe them.

    With my respect and friendship.

  5. Cris Post author

    So assuming for the sake of argument there is such a primary source, you are inferring (and generalizing) from these few slaves that their limited testimony explains why American slaves converted to or accepted Christianity? Okay.

    I suppose one could ask where this god was and what it was doing for the hundreds of years that American slavery existed (and during the Jim Crow era thereafter), during which beatings and killings routinely occurred.

    What happened to all those slaves who cried out for this particular god when being brutalized, bought, sold, raped, beaten, and murdered at the hands of their Christian masters?

  6. Bob Cranmer

    To be clear Cris, it was more than a “few”, as I entered into it with a completely open mind as it didn’t make sense to me. Why would these people, brutalized and oppressed as they were become such fervent believers in Jesus? Likewise abandoning their former beliefs. That is the answer I found. If you can find another be my guest, as this is your life’s work. Respectfully,


  7. Bob Cranmer

    By the way, in reading the rest of your previous post – as the slaves put it “the gun-men” came and put an end to it all. As well the KKK and the Jim Crow south is also history, being torn down by prayer. I’m certain Martin Luther King could add more than a few valid comments as well.

  8. Cris Post author

    Only first generation slaves would have been “abandoning” their former beliefs; so if your claims are limited to those, you might have a case. That case, however, is exceptionally weak without any sources and also without any explanation of how you go from a few or even a hundred people who might have said this to all or most slaves.

    This aside, there is a difference between etic and emic explanations. Your anecdotes are emic and there are many other good explanations for why first generation slaves might ostensibly convert. We can start with the fact that most were wrenched away from their societies on Africa’s slaving coast, and were thrown into new (Christian) societies where their languages were not spoken and their traditional leaders were not present.

    Under these disruptive and disorienting conditions, all kinds of things are possible, including the idea that if you believe in some kind of god, the beatings might stop. Of course there are statistically predictable probabilities that beating will or will not stop, but your supernatural premise doesn’t acknowledge these.

    I’m amazed that it took 400 years of prayer for this god to take action and the make things right in the Americas, especially given that those doing the enslaving were Christians. That god sure works in some mysterious and dilatory ways.

  9. Bob Cranmer

    “Only first generation slaves would have been “abandoning their former beliefs” and why would that be I ask you?

    Again Cris, you are the one with no evidence to speak from, I suggest you go back and do your homework before entering into a discussion so obviously unprepared. Then present your explanation.

    I also suggest you do a field trip and attend a four hour Africa-American worship service, which by the way are based upon the all day services slaves would conduct on their own out in the bush, in many cases unauthorized by their overlords. (Do the research and you’ll learn that too.)

    You have a blessed and joy filled day Cris, I do admire your determination to be heard.

    My regards, admiration, and friendship!

    PS – the one post as “anonymous” probably was because I typed it from my office computer and not with my thumbs on my handheld, as is usually the case. I certainly wasn’t trying to hide my identity, as I love jousting with you Cris. :)

  10. Bob Cranmer

    Sorry, I didn’t see this comment you made but should have anticipated it:

    “given that those doing the enslaving were Christians.”

    My reply, “and Jesus said, depart fom me for I never knew you.”


  11. Cris Post author


    At this point, may I suggest that you find another blog or someone else to argue with? I’m not interested in debating Christians about their beliefs. They are what they are, and empirical evidence is of no concern to Christians. This is not a forum for debating Christian doctrines or theology.

    It is also not an “atheist” blog and I’m not interested in pursuing these issues. I’m not interested in promoting your book or contributing to nonsensical debates about all that pabulum.

    You believe what you believe and I’m fine with it. I’m speaking to an entirely different audience, and thinking out loud for those who give a shit about trivia like evidence, data, methods, testing, logic, etc.

    Nothing I say here is going to change your supernaturally and mystically inclined mind, so why don’t you find another place to argue these points? This blog is not about atheism, and if you don’t like what I have to say, then either counter it within empirical parameters that we can all accept, or just leave this blog alone. Seriously.

    So just stop.



    Finally, since (in typical Christian manner) you accuse me of being an atheist, keep in mind that you are also an atheist. You just happen to believe in one more god than I do. The rest can go to hell, if I’m not mistaken.

  12. Bob Cranmer

    Well said, and as I didn’t start the discussion – I yield the field to you.

    With my admiration and regards,

    “Lighten up Cris” :)


  13. Sabio Lantz

    Superb post. It was exactly insights like this that start my journey out of Christianity. Seeing similar patterns across cultures dressed in parochial behaviors and explanations. I’ve seen it with sexual behavior, ghost stories and compassion motivators.

    Anyway, your writing is amazing and this was superbly told.

    Oh, and reading Bob Cranmer’s sanctimonious ending about a blessed day cracked me up and reminded me of my post “Metta-mucil”.

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