Saturday, April 21, 2007

Q&A: I once heard demons in my room

Question
I am a Christian, and I have witnessed miracles with my own eyes. I have friends who have been healed by prayer and I have witnessed demon possession. How can you, as an atheist, deny that these events happen?

Answer
Despite the fact that I'm an atheist, I don't emphatically deny that these experiences happen, although I'm naturally skeptical of miracle claims as many of them are anecdotal in nature. I think I can get to a point of agreement with Christians over the existence of present day miracles and instances of demon possession. However, I will differ with Christians over the cause of these experiences.

When I was a Christian, I had two very strange experiences that could have been mistaken as supernatural occurrences. The first occurred when I travelling with a Christian drama and music team for a year after high school. One night while I was lying in bed, in the dark, I thought I heard strange, guttural voices in the room, talking in an unknown language (this happened during a week of intense 'spiritual warfare’). It was only for a few seconds, but it was quite spooky. Demons, perhaps?

A few years later, when I was at university, I woke up in the middle of the night and 'felt' a malicious presence in the room. I suddenly found that I couldn’t move, and although I couldn’t look around, I could 'sense' the presence moving around me. It was an incredibly frightening experience for me, and when I recounted the story to some of my friends the next day, they suggested that it had been a ghost or a demon.


I now know that it is highly likely that both these experiences were not supernatural, but had entirely natural causes. With regards to the voices: auditory hallucinations are normal and they happen to everyone at some time or another. In terms of my second experience: the symptoms were totally consistent with sleep paralysis, an experience that happens to some people just before they fall asleep or wake up. If I had lived in the Middle Ages, I would definitely have attributed both of these experiences to supernatural causes. In fact, witches or hags were once thought to have been the cause of sleep paralysis.

And this brings me to my point: our increased knowledge of the human body has enabled us to conclude that both auditory hallucinations and sleep paralysis are natural. And likewise with many other views of nature: humans once thought that lightening and thunder were caused by the gods – we now know that lightening is simply a movement of electrons; humans once thought that frothing at the mouth and spasms were signs of demon possession – we now understand what causes epilepsy, and how to treat it.

Humans seem to have the tendency to ascribe supernatural causes to experiences we do not fully understand. As someone once said: ‘magic’ or ‘the supernatural’ are simply synonyms for the word ‘unknown’. Present day miracle experiences that various religions describe might indeed happen, but is it premature to emphatically claim that they have a supernatural cause?

14 comments:

cobus said...

I agree with the problems you percieve with simply attributing everything we cannot understand to be supernatural. But I'm a bit wary of being too optimistic about pshychology. Pshychology is many times also simply attempts to explain that which cannot be explained.
Had a talk with a friend a few days ago, after some claimes of demon posession in there ress. I've never experiences demon possesion or anything similar to your experiences. And I don't like to attribute things to demons. I consider demons to be but a way that the writers of certain times tried to make sense about what they couldn't understand. But I also won't say that all we can ever experience is that which verifiable by empirical science.

Anonymous said...

@cobus

Psychology, in this case, is more neuroscience than psychoanalysis. With tools like MRIs and CAT scans neuroscientists have a better understanding of what is going on inside the head at a physiological level.

I have had the kind of experiences described in this blog-post, and a few more -- like "waking up" and seeing a skinny creature in a cowboy hat at the end of my bed going blaga-blaga-blaga-blaga. Pretty damn freaky if you ask me. A few years later I saw a documentary on alien abductions where a neuroscientist was able to induce these types of hallucinations in test subjects by inducing mild seizures in specific parts of the brain. The temporal lobe IIRC.

I believe the weird dreams I had are called hypnogogic hallucinations. Give something a scientific name and its not so freaky ;-)

Laughing Boy said...

Present day miracle experiences that various religions describe might indeed happen, but is it premature to emphatically claim that they have a supernatural cause?

First of all—at least from a biblical Christian perspective—a miracle is more than a supernatural occurance. A miracle is a supernatural event the primary purpose of which is to validate the miracle-worker as being from God and that the message the miracle-worker brings is truth. With that as the definition of a miracle I would say that there are no miracles occurring today, nor have there been for almost 2,000 years.

That said, I agree that to "emphatically claim" that a particular unexplained occurance has a supernatural cause is premature. To emphatically claim that it is not is likewise premature.

Walton said...

Good to see an your blog, with an honest exploration of your changing paradigm.

I was a Christian once too, and when I stopped believing in it, it was quite traumatic.

The mistake I made was to try to find a replacement belief. Don't bother - you'll have to ditch that at some stage as well.

I think the best you can hope for is 'best working hypothesis' rather than a belief system.

I have undergone a number of paradigm shifts since them and each one has been easier.

I'll be back...

Anonymous said...

I'm also an ex-christian and when I was a believer I also experienced 'demonic attacks'.

One morning I discovered a long, deep scratch on my arm. I tried to recreate the scratch with my nails but couldn't come close. I trimmed my nails and once again the same thing happened. Then, one night as I was going to sleep I noticed the arm that got scratched was hanging off my bed (in plain view for demonic shananigans). Unfortunately my spiritual battle ended up being a hangnail I'd missed. To my shame I passed this story on to fellow believers I'll probably never see again.

I'm amazed how much a belief can totally distort a persons thinking and world view.

I'm a fairly new atheist and it feels good to read from people who have come out of christianity and realize I'm not alone. It is tough when all your friends and family are christian.

Randall

Anonymous said...

Hello, another ex-Christian here.
I found your blog when I was looking up stuff on the book I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, which I am writing a review and rebuttal of here: http://headdoctor.informe.com/viewtopic.php?t=45

Anyway, nice blog. Keep up the great work.

Tone said...

Great blog! I too have experienced "night terrors". I have "awaken" during the night to the thought that someone is in my room standing by my bed. My mind is awake, but my body won't move. They are scary, but perfectly normal. Your brain is still dreaming and your body is still sleeping. One time I really did see movement outside my bedroom window, my husband had let my dog out to go potty. Scared the bejesus out of me.

Mark said...

Hey Kevin, as usual ,always food for thought.

Many times, when I am very tired and exhausted, will be disturbed by something when I'm sleeping(my fan being on, too cold, bump somthing), I would wake up, and see myself somewhere else. Most times, where I was before I came home such as a party. I would sit up in bed, conscious of what I was doing. Feeling really tired I would mumble things to people around me, then slowly my room would start to show through the images.

I have no doubt that a persons subconscious plays tricks on people, especially in the religious field.People who take LSD have bad trips now and again and see demons . Just because they see a unicorn when tripping does not mean it exists.

I will say though, when I was still a christian I had the chance to "caste out demons" out of 2 people. I realise now how much psychology actually plays a role in these situations and we just lack the knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Were you part of Jermihia's People, no matter you would have said. Any way am a Christian, But god has never spoken to me in a dream or other wise. But I have faith, And also believe in prayer. Although not for myself, because God may do what you ask, but it may not be how you want something. I know lost a child 16 year boy with ADHD,and had prayed to god to make all of the nonsense stop. Well it did. Some day gona ask him why.?

george said...

Dont for one minute think demons dont exist. I am an ex aithiest who holds down a very well respectable job and who is mentaly and physicaly fit. A few years ago i received a dream about christ upon the cross, this was the start of a very interesting journey. After my initial dream i was tourmented in my sleep by a demon, night after night, he was only about two feet tall with red eyes and twisted broken limbs, and most of the time he was dancing around my bed clawing and gnashing his teeth at me, this same demon visited me night after night. As time went on strange thing happened in my house, my four year old daughter was pushed down the staires by an invisible force, cupboard doors began flying open and windows began smashing without any contact, and as always this same demon carried on pissing me off at night. The final straw was a vision at 2 pm as i watched tv with my daughter, in this vision i played the part of jesus during the crucifixion. After this i saught advice from a preist, and having been consicrated and the house exorcised, all dreams and visions have stopped. Low and behold i am now a fully devoted christian.

ChuckB said...

Satan is real, the angels that fell with him are his agents, demons!
Satan and his demons know the scriptures, there goal is to do what it takes for you to loose your salvation, they cannot take it from you, but they can deceive you into throwing it away.
Christ will come to you if you cry out to him whole heartly, you have to give 100% of your heart, the demons will flee.
Satan wants you to perish with him, he is the father of liars and deceit and if he can get into your mind and get you to disbeleive in Christ he will if you allow that door to be open, please get on your knees and ask the king of kings to enter you heart, may God Bless you and you are being prayed for!

Marcus said...

The perspective you're espousing is a step beyond conventional Atheism, it's called hyper-realism.

Realism asserts that the world is how our senses perceive it, and any appeal to divinity or hokus pokus is poppycock.

Hyper-realism asserts that the world is NOT how we percieve it, but how science defines it. We sense solid objects, but they're mainly comprised of empty space; we sense objects as colored, when that's just a quality of light, etc. It works fine until you experience something science cannot define, like love, conscience, or divinity, and then you have to abdicate your own common sense for somebody else's story about reality.

Now, I have no trouble with conventional Atheism - if you've never spoken with an angel, I can't expect you to share my same faith in God. The problem is if you HAVE experienced the supernatural, and you have to deny the very world of what you see and hear, then you're beliefs are just as faith-based and un-Realistic as any common Christian.

I believe in the paranormal because I'm a realist, and I'm not going to let the dubious methodology of a patriarchal institution tell me what I can and can't experience.

One last thing, also said as a realist, Jesus isn't worried about your beliefs, if you're a good person angels will come to your aid. People who use the supernatural to spook people into joining their church are not doing God's work.

Anonymous said...

About 20 years ago, when I was 10 years old or so, I experienced one of the most frightening things that ever happened to me. I would lie in bed every night staring out through my bedroom door into my 2 older sisters' room watching little shadow children running around the bed. One night the feeling of absolute terror struck me and I was frozen in bed unable to move or ever scream out for help. I felt as if someone was watching me the whole time, and when I finally able to turn my head to look at the foot of my bed, there it was! A HUGE SHADOW LIKE FIGURE!

It was completely black and I could not make out a face or eyes anything. It stood about 6 feet tall and had a very pointed head, like it had on some kind of hood or cloak. It was there for about 5-10 minutes or so, and felt almost as if it had pleasure tormenting me. Then all of a sudden I heard a loud explosion, in my head of course, and felt a burst of heat flow throughout my face then body, and it was gone. I was to scared to get out of bed or cry out so I layed in bed until I passed out.

I recently told one of my sisters about this experience and it turns out that she would also see these shadow children running around. She even told my mother how they would follow her around the house. (I never new about this!)

So I have a hard time believing that this was all my mind playing tricks on me because we both saw the same things. Anyone care to expain how we could both have the same "hallucinations"?

gip-k said...

I think I will have to agree with you that your "spiritual attack" was most likely caused by the medical phenomenon that you described. I've read up about sleep paralysis, night terrors, et cetera on wikipedia. That having been said, I still can't come out straight and say that ALL cases of supposed demonic attack are not in fact actually caused by demons. It seems that these things cannot be adequately proved either way. (For example, look at the comments by Anonymous #1, and the ones by Anonymous #2)

Either way, it's interesting to note that paranormal experiences, both good and bad have been enacted by doctors/scientists through the stimulating of certain part of the brain. What the people saw in these studies was dependent on their religious background. Religious people for example had visions of heaven, or a "felt" a presence behind them that they thought was Jesus, while other people might see strange faces, see someone strange talking to them and such. So it's very interesting to note that the interpretation of these experiences is based on your religious bias.

Good post.