Exorcism seems like a remnant of the dark ages — an outdated, archaic ritual reserved only for horror films. The fact is, however, that exorcisms are on the rise once more, with many turning to the Catholic Church to help rid them of their literal demons. (Or, at least, what they believe are literal demons.)
Upcoming movie #Incarnate is putting a new angle on this classic setup, focusing on a scientific perspective regarding exorcism. Incarnate is the story of a scientist (Aaron Eckhart) who exorcises demons by accessing his patients' subconscious minds through technology.
You might assume all scientists believe that demons are a discredited fantasy, but a small branch of the scientific community is actively researching exorcisms, examining the phenomena with rational methods and rigor. With exorcisms experiencing a sudden increase in popularity, now is the time to examine where modern science stands on it.
A niche field of research, neurotheology is a behavioral science that demonstrates the physical change in people who encounter a religious or spiritual experience. It examines changes in the brain — such as hippocampal atrophy and increased levels of dimethyltryptamine in the brain's pineal gland — when the body goes into a trance state.
According to neurotheologist Andrew Newberg, who teaches at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Pennsylvania:
"The main reason God won't go away is because our brains won't allow God to leave. Our brains are set up in such a way that God and religion become among the most powerful tools for helping the brain do its thing — self-maintenance and self-transcendence. Unless there is a fundamental change in how our brain works, God will be around for a very long time."
The God Gene
Similar to neurotheology, this theory proposes that people who have spiritual experiences were born with the vesicular monoamine transporter 2 gene, or VMAT2. It isn't so much an explanation for religious experiences as a way to scientifically examine a specific neurological feature that may be crucial to understanding spirituality.
Dr. Richard Gallagher is a certified psychiatrist who received his education at Yale. An expert at diagnosing mental illness, his skepticism towards exorcisms was completely shaken when he witnessed a case of supposed possession firsthand. The encounter involved his patient reportedly going into trances, speaking in a demonic voice and even supposedly levitating in the air for 30 minutes. (That would certainly make even the most objective observer question his or her beliefs!)
In 2008, Gallagher wrote:
"Possession is very rare, though not as exceedingly so as many imagine. ... For our purposes here, a truly 'possessed' individual exhibits so massive and unequivocal an assault that we will use it as the paradigmatic example of a genuine demonic attack."
The Exorcist's Need For A Scientific Worldview
Although he believes in demonic possession, Dr. Gallagher strongly cautions against confusing it with medical "psychotic conditions — that turn out to have a purely natural explanation," which "should be more widely recognized as such by religious practitioners." He adds, "This need is especially great among the many laymen now in deliverance ministries, a rapidly growing worldwide phenomenon."
Indeed, many exorcism cases were made famous for their disastrous and tragic endings due to misunderstanding psychology and psychiatry. For example, 15-year-old Kristy Bamu died in 2010 after an attempted exorcism at the hands of his family, who tortured him until he drowned in a bathtub. The family members responsible for the exorcism were later convicted of murder.
Bamu's tragic death could have been easily avoided by placing him in the hands of qualified medical professionals, who would have ensured his safety and wellbeing. Approved scientific research, such as a neurotheological study of nuns at the University of Montreal — which measured their brainwaves during mystical experiences — is only conducted within strict ethical guidelines, and would never employ the violent methods that resulted in Bamu's drowning.
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Likewise, "Roland Doe" — the real-life inspiration behind The Exorcist — was the pseudonym given to 14-year-old Maryland boy Robbie Mannheim, who underwent 30 exorcisms in the late 1940s. Nowadays, it's entirely possible that there would be no need for such an excessive amount of rituals. A team of neurotheologists could run a series of tests on the teenager and pinpoint the exact area of the brain being affected by his religious experience; from there, an appropriate psychiatric treatment could be determined without the need for excessive and stressful rituals at the hands of priests.
In essence, our spiritual side is hardwired to our biological side. That doesn't necessarily mean any specific demons or deities are real, but it does imply that we're predisposed to the concepts — and that's why Incarnate, even with its sci-fi/horror premise — may be the most realistic movie about exorcism yet.
Check out the terrifying trailer for Incarnate here:
Do you believe exorcisms can be explained by science or only by faith? Share your thoughts in the comments below!