Many years ago, I, like many other Pentecostals, endured a phase in our religious subculture when ministers and lay people alike blamed every unhappy event, great or small, on direct attacks by the devil.
Lose your job? Satan had robbed you of your financial blessings.
Develop a nagging cough? The devil had afflicted you with a spirit of sickness.
Battling the blues? The prince of darkness had stolen your joy.
Surely it had nothing to do with the fact that, oh, you’d skipped work a half-dozen times to go fishing and your boss finally caught on. Or that you’d picked up a respiratory bug from your kids. Or that you were suffering from depression and needed an antidepressant.
Nope. All problems were the dastardly work of Old Slewfoot himself, or at least one of his lesser spiritual minions.
Maybe the final straw for me was when a fellow churchgoer decided that everyone in our congregation who owned animal- or amphibian-shaped knickknacks should destroy them, because they were nesting places for demons.
A friend of mine collected glass likenesses of frogs. Frogs, our alarmist declared, were the worst. Satan loved frogs.
You might trifle with a ceramic elephant or bird if you were reckless — but buy a frog figurine? Never! Why, you’d just as lief fling open the portals to Hades and hold up a hand-lettered sign inviting Beelzebub to materialize in your living room.
I finally got so fed up with the Satan-is-everywhere hysteria that I went the opposite direction.
I got where I didn’t look for the devil anywhere. I decided he was probably a biblical literary device, a personification of the generic evil that infects our world. Even if he were a real being, I didn’t want to waste my energy on him.
Basically, then, for a long time I’ve not been the type of Christian who blames public or personal mayhem on the evil one.
I tend to think we live in an imperfect world where humans make squirrelly decisions, after which regrettable results ensue. Or, on a larger scale, tectonic plates shift and then a tsunami crashes into a coastline.
Now I’m wondering whether I threw out the Damien with the holy water.
Belief in Satan and his demonic toadies has long been part of mainstream Christian faith. In fact, a lot of people who aren’t practicing Christians believe in a devil, too. The demographics are interesting. If you think Satan is real, most Americans are with you.
A 2013 survey by YouGov found 57 percent of us still believe in the devil. That includes 61 percent of women, versus 53 percent of men.
Fifty-five percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans believe in the devil.
Seventy percent of Protestants believe, 66 percent of Catholics — and even 20 percent of “nones,” those with no religion.
More Southerners (59 percent) believe in the devil than those from other regions.
More blacks believe (72 percent) than whites (54 percent).
Even among Americans with postgraduate college degrees, a surprising 51 percent believe in the devil and 44 percent believe in the power of exorcisms.
Partly what what got me rethinking all this — besides a madman in Nice purposely running over children with a truck and the Republican Party crowning Donald Trump as its presidential nominee and the planet generally spinning out of control — was a Washington Post op-ed early in July written by Richard Gallagher.
He’s a board-certified psychiatrist and professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College, a “man of science and lover of history,” in his own description.
About 25 years ago, a Roman Catholic priest asked Gallagher to consult pro bono on an exorcism, to determine whether a woman being examined for possible demon possession might instead be suffering from a medical illness.
Since then, Gallagher said, he has conducted several hundred such consultations, across several denominations and faiths. By far, most suspicions of demon possession turn out to be false. Mental disorders are the typical culprits.
“But I believe I’ve seen the real thing,” Gallagher declared.
In some detail, he described frightening manifestations that could not result from any known ailment. He said he’s talked with many psychiatrists and other mental health professionals who believe as he does: that there are demons, and they do afflict some people.
So, how real is the devil?
This is one of those thorny theological questions for which I, your lowly scribe, have no definitive answer.
I’ve never seen Satan. And I’d just as soon not.
However, that doesn’t mean he’s not real. I’ve never seen God, but I believe he exists.
I don’t think the devil inhabits your ceramic frogs. But I’m willing to consider that he inhabited the guy who hurtled his truck through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day.
I’m still thinking this mystery through.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.