Sunday, 5 April 2015

Gavin Ashenden and the Devil

Gavin Ashenden and the Devil

Parson: Didn't I warn them this would happen?
Be on guard, I said.
For the Evil One never rests.
I said exorcise the devil.
But no, they wouldn't listen.
The demons inside them grew and grew.
Until Satan gave his signal.
And destroyed the world we knew.
- Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds

Gavin Ashenden's comment that Satan could be behind the airline co-pilot who committed suicide shows an appalling lack of respect for the relatives and friends of those who died in the air crash.

He seems to suggest a "Satan of the Gaps" - if we cannot understand the co-pilot's motivation, it was the work of Satan in him. This is like many fundamentalist websites, who say that “thoughts of suicide is a demonic influence, a sure sign that an evil spirit is messing with your life”.

I really fear for the future of the Church of England if there are Ministers (and Queen's Chaplains) who spout such pop-demonology in the Jersey Evening Post and not once gives condolences for those grieving.

Indeed, I know some people who have been further turned away from Christianity by the rantings of Reverend Ashenden. While not sending people quite into the Dawkin’s camp, it is doing the Church no favours.

Gavin Ashenden has already given a lunchtime talk on the subject of possession, and why he believes there are real possessions by real demons. He mostly answered critics by saying they were locked into their world views. 

My comments on that talk are here:

I wonder if he has read the best recent book on the subject of possession which is “The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West” by Brian P. Levack, which explores how world views influence possession states.

Levack himself finds the explanation inadequate that all of those afflicted with demonic possession or cursed by witches were actually suffering from various physical and mental illnesses. He notes that this kind of generalisation suffers “from the assumption that pathological or abnormal behaviour in all societies and at all periods of time can be attributed to the same psychopathological syndromes or complexes.”

Instead, he suggests that “a more comprehensive understanding can be gained by viewing demoniacs as well as all those who participated in the effort to cure them as performers in religious dramas. Whether unconsciously or not, they were playing roles and following scripts that were encoded in their respective religious cultures.”

But how do we know there is a genuine difference? As Colin Dickey notes, “Protestant possessions looked markedly different from Catholic ones, which suggests that demoniacs were culturally conditioned to act in certain ways, depending on which behaviors were most transgressive in their respective religions.”

This is the strongest point of Levack’s thesis. Painstakingly, with accounts of possession states, he shows a clear distinction between Catholic and Protestant possessions. For the Catholic demoniciac, rather like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, holy objects such as the sacrament or a crucifix provoked negative reactions. But as Levack points out, by contrast, Protestantism “considered such material objects magical and sources of false worship; what was sacred in Protestantism was the Word of God. Protestant demoniacs, therefore, reacted negatively to the presence or the reading of bibles; not so much the physical books themselves, but to the Word they embodied.”

And he notes that:

“Whereas Catholic demoniacs often entertained sexual fantasies, made sexually suggestive gestures, and accused the witches who caused their possession of enticing them sexually, Protestants rarely described sexuality as a central aspect of their possession experience.”

And he suggests that:

“The key to understanding this phenomenon is to recognize that all demoniacs, either consciously or unconsciously, were following scripts that were encoded in their religious cultures. They were, in a sense, performers in a sacred drama. Demoniacs learned their scripts from observing other demoniacs or by reading the many published narratives of other possessions or by hearing sermons that related the details of famous possessions. Some of them acquired knowledge of possession scripts from their exorcists, who suggested what they might say or do while in the state of possession.”

That is in some ways like the use of hypnosis to uncover past lives or alien abductions. These were once believed to be factual, because hypnosis was believed to rewind the tape-recorder of memory. That notion of memory as something fixed and static was extremely prevalent, and also influenced Dianetics, Scientology and Harvey Jackin’s “Co-counselling”. It still remains a common sense view of memory, but unfortunately it is completely false.

Hypnosis opens up a door in the mind, which creates a narrative script from materials present to the individual, as well as to the prompting of the hypnotist. False memory syndrome, and the experiments of Elizabeth Loftus also show the ability of the mind to construct narratives which seem plausible, but are in fact false.

It seems very probably that possession states are very similar in many ways, and the diversity of them, depending on whether they are Catholic or Protestant – or indeed come from other religions (and I've examined that) – suggest something more cultural than actually demons are involved.

If anyone is locked into a world view, and unable to see beyond it, it is surely Gavin Ashenden.


Póló said...

Thank you Tony for blowing both Ashenden and his demons out of the water.

A sabbatical in the USA perhaps?

Join his mate out there.

TonyTheProf said...

In answer to correspondents, I have no idea why Gavin Ashenden appears to have a regular JEP column. Perhaps it is secretly sponsored by Richard Dawkins.