Experiences in charismatic churches in Africa, where demons are regarded as real, inspired this column by Stanford anthropologist T. H. Luhrmann. The essay is concerned primarily with the widespread belief in dark spirits that characterizes much of evangelical Christianity in Africa. But Luhrmann concludes her piece by bringing the issue closer to home.
One way to think about demons (if you happen not to believe in supernatural evil) is that they are a way of representing human hatred, rage and failure — the stuff we all set out to exorcize in our New Year’s resolutions. The anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere, who grew up in Sri Lanka, got a Ph.D. from the University of Washington and, eventually, a job at Princeton, once remarked that all humans deal with demons. (He was quoting Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” — “In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden.”) The only question, he said, was whether the demons were located in the mind, where Freud placed them, or in the world. It is possible that identifying your envy as external and alien makes it easier to quell.
But it is also true that an external agent gives you something — and often, someone — to identify as nonhuman. In West Africa, witches are people, and sometimes, other people kill them or drive them from their homes. In an April poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, over one in 10 Americans were confident that Barack Obama was the Antichrist — and the Antichrist is, as it happens, associated with war in the Middle East. If those people think that demons are real, they don’t mean that Obama is misguided, confused or mistaken. They mean that he is real, inhuman evil.
Do you believe in demons? In the devil?