Believing In Evil

Piercarlo Valdesolo reviews research into the psychological and behavioral consequences of a belief in “pure evil” (BPE):

According to this research, one of the central features of BPE is evil’s perceived immutability. Evil people are born evil – they cannot change. Two judgments follow from this perspective: 1) evil people cannot be rehabilitated, and 2) the eradication of evil requires only the eradication of all the evil people. Following this logic, the researchers tested the hypothesis that there would be a relationship between BPE and the desire to aggress towards and punish wrong-doers.

Researchers have found support for this hypothesis across several papers containing multiple studies, and employing diverse methodologies. BPE predicts such effects as: harsher punishments for crimes (e.g. murder, assault, theft), stronger reported support for the death penalty, and decreased support for criminal rehabilitation. Follow-up studies corroborate these findings, showing that BPE also predicts the degree to which participants perceive the world to be dangerous and vile, the perceived need for preemptive military aggression to solve conflicts, and reported support for torture.

Meanwhile, Father C. John McCloskey reviews an updated version of True or False Possession: How to Distinguish the Demonic from the Demented, a 1960s guide by French neurologist Jean Lhermitte:

Written primarily for health professionals, True or False Possession is nonetheless of interest to any educated Catholic, in that it recounts from a Catholic viewpoint genuine suspected demonic possession and helps the layman, priest, psychiatrist and even family members to distinguish the real thing from mental illness and fakery.

However, when and if it is necessary to bring the victim to an exorcist for treatment, [editor] Dr. [Aaron] Kheriaty points out, “This author knows the permanent limitations of his science: This book does not attempt to detail cases of what may be considered true possession, for these by their nature would be outside the scope of the author’s clinical expertise. In such cases, the physician and priest need to collaborate responsibly and with respect for the insights of both science and theology.”

Not surprisingly, given the profession, the medical emphasis of the book is paramount, yet the author writes as a convinced Catholic and, as such, gives what is almost a short history of diabolical possession from the time of Christ’s exorcisms, as recorded in the Gospels, up to his own time. The author recounts examples of saints to whom the devil appeared, such as doctor of the Church St. Teresa of Avila: “She depicts the evil one as possessing hideous form, with a terrifying mouth and a regular proteus, able to transform and to multiply himself.” …

Many seeming cases of diabolical possession were in fact cases of simple insanity or mental illness, as Lhermitte explains. And many more were simply frauds that, in turn, caused mass hysteria in others who simply suffered from neurological illnesses that produce symptoms having nothing to do with the devil or hidden demons.

(Hat tip: Books, Inq)