Thursday, March 13, 2008

Demonic miracles?

Some of the Church Fathers take quite seriously historical reports of marvelous events associated with pagan temples and pagan sorcerers, and attribute these events to demons. The non-occurrence of such events in their own time they then take to be evidence of the power of Christ, who vanquished the devil by dying on the cross and rising again.

My natural tendency is to dismiss reports of magical and like phenomena. But on reflection, if I accept Christianity, shouldn't I take the hypothesis offered by these Fathers to be at least as probable as a sceptical hypothesis about such marvels? After all, if one accepts this hypothesis one needs to dismiss fewer reports by historians, which seems a good thing. Shouldn't I take it to be at least as likely as not that ancient sorcerers really were able to do strange things on occasion by the power of demons and that marvels happened in pagan temples? If I accept Christianity, this isn't an arbitrary hypothesis, like that of someone who thinks that Relativity Theory was false before 438 BC (a randomly chosen date), since as a Christian I independently (a) take Christ's death and resurrection to have been an event of cosmic significance, the great victory over the forces of darkness, and (b) believe that demons do exist.

6 comments:

Drew said...

Against this, the atheist argument is that a) these events either do not occur any more or b) when examined on scientific grounds, there is a better scientific explanation for the demonic. I was just discussing this with my class last night to explain the power of what Peter Berger calls a "plausibility structure".

Say two people see a man frothing at the mouth and convulsing. One person is an EMT, the other is a vou dou shaman from West Africa. Each will have radically different sets of analyses for the same event based on the contingencies of the plausibility structures in which their knowledge of the event is constructed. Let's say the EMT gives a dose of Haldol to the person, but the shaman performs a ritual. Both actions take produce an effect that calms the person down and the man regains rational control of his faculties.

The effect seems to be independent of the plausibility structures of the persons involved. In this case would it be true that the man was both possessed and having a seizure with no demon present? Or does the plausibility structure adjudicate a reasonable belief since the outcome seems to validate the proposed cause for the man's behavior?

Christianity therefore seems to form such a plausibility structure in which saying that demons do exist is a rational belief.

Heath White said...

One thing at stake in how one thinks about this question is how one thinks about pagan religions generally. Are they more or less demon-worship, as many church fathers, and some contemporary fundamentalists, would say? Or are they worship of God, though in inadequate ways, as much contemporary Catholic theology would claim? Or are they merely human social constructions, a la Durkheim and Freud and Marx? I myself don't have a solid opinion on these questions.

Drew said...

Heath, this is where I think Berger is helpful. There our ideas about God are legitimated through social constructions, but the existence of God is not predicated on those constructions. His social constructionism leaves room for the reality of God in my reading of it...

Alexander R Pruss said...

Heath:

How about reconciling the more optimistic contemporary ideas with the more pessimistic patristic and biblical ones by saying that pagan religions involve some inchoate worship of the one true God, but also suffer from some demonic influence?

One might also hold that the demonic influence is severely reduced as of approximately AD 30.

Michael said...

I would point out that there are many credible reports of putatively false (demonic) miracles today. I have a missionary friend who has seen monks levitate, etc. There are also accounts of shape-shifting and other such things. All this, of course, is compatible with the post. I simply want to emphasize that there is good evidence for the continuation of such things into the present day (though most are unacquainted with this evidence).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Reports of Christians levitating at prayer are not uncommon.