When I was a kid, I harbored a deep and sincere fear of being a parent. It wasn’t because I was afraid of commitment. It wasn’t even because I didn’t like the idea of changing dirty diapers, late night feedings, temper tantrums, or staying up late at night wondering where your teenager is. The real (but generally unspoken) reason that I feared becoming a parent was because I didn’t want to have Siamese twins. The thought of helping to bring two infants still fused together into this world struck me as the stuff of nightmares.
But it wasn’t until I became an adult that I discovered an even more nightmarish reality that dozens of parents1 have actually faced, and it goes by the name of Harlequin Ichthyosis. It is a skin disease that occurs in infants while they are still in the womb. The keratin layer of their skin becomes far denser than it ought to, and as a result the babies are often born with hard, scale-like plates all over their bodies, separated by deep cracks (somewhat resembling dry ground when it is cracked from dehydration). Their facial features and appendages are contracted, and their eyelids are often flipped inside out. Because of this, the baby’s eyes are vulnerable and often bleed during birth. The mouth and lips are pulled back into a harrowing grimace or smile, and because it is frozen in this contorted state the child cannot nurse. Essentially, the poor baby is born into a painful and hellish reality. Her skin has become a torturous prison. She cannot move, she can barely breath, her body aches all over, and mother’s milk is all but unattainable. Usually, the child would live in this unimaginable agony for anywhere from a few hours to a couple of months before dying, either of hypothermia, dehydration, malnutrition, exposure, or hypoventilation and respiratory failure (suffocating). Even with advances in modern medical practices, the situation for victims of Harlequin Ichthyosis remains uncertain.
And all of this doesn’t even touch on the anguished parents who, unable to caress and comfort their child, are forced to watch them endure unbearable suffering. Imagine the torment of seeing your baby trapped in her own cracked skin, and not being able to so much as kiss her on the forehead for fear that your loving kiss might cause her a life-threatening infection.
And why? What could possibly be the cause of this? This has got to be evil. It’s not just unfortunate. It isn’t just nature doing its thing. Ask any parent who has lived through this nightmare or something similar and (if they’re honest) they will tell you that what they experienced is nothing short of evil manifested. When stuff like this happens, something inside us screams out that this is not how things are supposed to be!
And now we’re faced with a very difficult dilemma. What is the cause of this evil? It’s too heinous to be just disinterested and dispassionate nature running its course. And it’s too disconnected from anyone’s decisions for it to be caused by misused human freewill (after all, what sane person would cause such a thing?). Which often leads people to assume that God must be the one causing these nightmares. I mean, who else is there to blame?
Which reminds me of a time I wandered into Barnes & Noble. Standing there in the philosophy section (which is one of my favorite places on earth to stand), I picked up a copy of Philosophy for Dummies, by Tom Morris. “Oh,” I thought. “Morris taught at Notre Dame, which is a Catholic school. I wonder what his take on the problem of evil is.” Thumbing through it, I followed the flow of thought until it came to this very point – from whence cometh evil uncaused by human freewill? While giving due consideration to other notions, when it came to the idea that such evils are the cause of evil spirits (demons, Satan, and the like), Morris’ response was simply that this is ridiculous. I believe “preposterous” was the word he used.2
But, why? Why is that preposterous? I am honestly baffled by how often this seems to be the response given by atheists to the idea of demonic spirits. Atheist scholars and academics will give enough credibility to the idea of a supreme spiritual being to have public debates over it; but when it comes to the notion that there might be more than one spirit out there, well that’s just ridiculous! However, rarely (if ever) do they even bother trying to support this indictment. So, I’d like to present a few reasons why I think the belief in malevolent spiritual beings is not only tenable, but actually intellectually preferable.
In Defense of Demons
First of all, our world is an incredibly mysterious one. For instance, consider this: What if I told you that once upon a time there were giant bugs the size of buildings on the earth? Preposterous, right? Now what if I change the word “bugs” to “lizards”?
Well, then you’d be an unscientific, unenlightened, ignorant imbecile not to believe me. And not only did creatures this size use to exist, but there are creatures this size around today.
Or consider for a moment that quantum physics is a very well established, very well respected discipline in the sciences. And yet, quantum physics deals with a realm of the universe (the subatomic) that is almost entirely invisible. The only way we even can know it exists is because it can be represented by numbers on chalkboard. Or consider the fact that for as much as the human eye can take in, on a clear day we can only see an infinitesimally small percentage of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Now take a moment to stop and really think about this. You. Yes, you right now. At this very moment as you have your computer in front of you or you’re holding your mobile device, there are radio waves (both voices and music), ultraviolet rays, low-frequency and high-frequency sound waves, cell phone calls, text messages, Wi-Fi signals, satellite transmissions, electromagnetic fields, radiation, gravitational forces and a whole gamut of other forces all passing right through you, and you don’t even notice it. In fact, until just now you were probably unaware of this. There is a whole world going on around and through you, and you are completely oblivious to it.
The truth is that rather than showing us a world that makes sense, advances in science and technology have revealed to us a world that is weirder than we ever imagined it could be. For all we know, science could very well lead us into contact with a whole race of creatures that are entirely invisible to the human eye.
Secondly, the way that modern-minded atheists and naturalists assume offhandedly that there is no supernatural realm of spiritual beings is, in a word, arrogant. The truth is that every culture throughout human history has assumed that there is a spiritual realm. In light of this, our culture that assumes a naturalistic perspective is really rather odd. Take, for instance, the Shuar people of Ecuador, who believe so much in the spiritual realm that they would see the natural world as merely an illusion. So, if a man and a woman have sex and nine months later there’s a baby, a westerner might say something about the human reproductive system and science. A Shuar, on the other hand, would say all that sciency stuff is a fantasy, and the birth of the child was the result of activity in the spiritual realm.
Not only has every other civilization believed in the supernatural, but also they’ve all believed in malevolent spirits. A great example of this is the Wemale people of Ceram, Indonesia, who even have their own taxonomy of different types of evil spirits. There are the Halite, demonic spirits who abduct and eat people, especially children; the Waitete, sky spirits that specialize in causing disease and sexual problems; and the Weddu, which are evil spirits incarnate in enemies from other tribes that must be properly killed, otherwise they will seek other bodies to inhabit.
And the Wemale are just one example of such people!3 It really is arrogant, ethnocentric, chronocentric, and myopic to assume that all of these people are just dumb, ignorant, and superstitious. You would be hard pressed to find anyone outside of our culture that doesn’t assume a priori that our world is populated by spiritual forces.
And thirdly, the naturalistic presupposition that belief in spiritual beings is so much hokum is actually dying off, even here in our culture. Not only are there several sociological factors for why religious views are overtaking atheistic ones4 (such as reproductive rates and propensity to proselytize), but believe it or not, advances in academics are actually causing the pool of atheists to shrink.
“That can’t be right,” you say. “All modern people know better than to believe in such fairy tales.” Not so, actually. The vast majority of people around the world even today don’t share our culture’s atheistic presupposition.
“Well, yeah. But those are Third World bumpkins. People in developed countries don’t buy into such fantasies.” Unfortunately for the naturalist, this is simply not true. The vast majority of people in the First World West (approx. 80%) believe in God, angels, demons, the devil, and so on.
“Okay, okay, okay,” you might say. “So the uneducated masses will believe anything. But academics, people with a proper education, would never dare indulge in such foolish notions.” And in so saying, you would be wrong. As scholars and researches have ventured outside of our ivory Euro-centric tower, particularly in the disciplines of anthropology and ethnography, we have come to the startling conclusion that other people around the world are not as dumb as we use to think. Not only do they have perspectives that are just as valid as our own, but their perspectives often involve a belief in the supernatural. What is more, as ethnographers spend more and more time steeped in these cultures, they soon learn that these people have very good reason for the beliefs they hold. More than one Ph.D.ed academic has changed their naturalistic presuppositions when faced with the reality of supernatural events happening right in front of them. Smarts or no smarts, when the unexplainable is staring you in the face, the perfectly rational thing to do is accept that there are unexplainable things. As a result, a sizeable (and growing) percentage of the intelligentsia is abandoning their naturalistic presuppositions.5
And if it’s true…
When all the evidence is weighed, there really is no definitive reason why there couldn’t be demonic forces at work in the world around us. What is more, given the overarching human experience, it is actually most reasonable to believe that there are malevolent spirits influencing our world. And once we allow this realization to have its full effect, an unnerving awareness begins to occur. We are no longer able to see our world as just a series of dispassionate causes and effects.
If we are willing to open ourselves up to what science and academic research are starting to figure out, and what “primitive” cultures have always assumed, we have to face the very real likelihood that those “natural evils” that are uncaused by human freewill nevertheless have a freewill of some sort driving them. Those nightmares that leave us with nobody to blame are not the result of random happenstance, but the outcome of nightmarish beings that we cannot see and who actively cause the kinds of unimaginable evil we see in cases like Harlequin Ichthyosis. Far from being figments of an overactive imagination, or the remnants of a superstitious and unenlightened era, the presence and influence of demonic beings is a reality that is all too evident.
And as uncomfortable and terrifying of a thought as it might be, ignoring it won’t make it go away.
1: at least, that we know of
2: Don’t quote me on that. I didn’t end up buying the book, and I couldn’t find it again in time to write this post.
3: For more examples of this, be sure to check out Greg Boyd’s fascinating book, God at War, Introduction, “The Normativity of Evil Within a Warfare Worldview.”
4: See Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity, chapter one, “The Twilight of Atheism: The Global Triumph of Christianity,” 1.
5: For more on this, see Boyd and Eddy, The Jesus Legend, chapter one, “Miracles and Method: The Historical-Critical Method and the Supernatural,” 39.