On January 17, 2020, the BBC reported on an exorcism in Panama:

They were performing a ritual inside the structure. In that ritual, there were people being held against their will, being mistreated. All of these rites were aimed at killing them if they didn’t repent their sins. Inside the makeshift church, officers found a naked woman, machetes, knives and a ritually sacrificed goat. The site was controlled by a religious sect called the New Light of God, believed to have been operating in the region for about three months. The kidnapping and torture started last Saturday after one of the members claimed to have received ‘a message from God.’ The victims were then kidnapped from their homes, beaten and killed.

In 1995, twenty-five years earlier, an exorcism happened in Cambridge, Ontario, on the same day, January 17.

The UPI reported that a two-year-old girl, surrounded by her mother, grandmother, and two neighbors, died in Cambridge, Ontario. The police labeled it exorcism; the public called it ritual murder. Whether the death was hers or that of hooded cult members secluded in Quebec, people clogged phones with queries: How many Canadians believe in the devil? How crazy do you have to be to commit ritual murder? Are there really Satanists?

No matter how many words the religious or religion professors spout, we understand very little about evil, death, and illness. Fools, we suffer it dumbly and blindly like everyone else. We don’t understand why a little girl died at the hands of relatives or a group died by its own hand.

Because we don’t understand, my impulse is to light a candle for the girl and to wash myself several times after hearing about communal suicide and murder.

The whole scenario, which included the Cambridge girl’s death and its cannibalizing by media and scholarship, is utterly ritualized.

When someone dies by exorcism or other ceremonial means, the police tell us fragments of a tantalizing story. The media boil the pot until it is red hot. Someone calls an expert; the expert offers an incantation (a vacuous but authoritative comment). The incantation is spliced into the evening television liturgy. We are attracted and repulsed by celebrating the great mystery of this ritualized death.

A few weeks later the story is given a pauper’s burial or memorialized in a speedily cranked out paperback.

Our vaunted objectivity and training notwithstanding, we who write and talk about ultimate concerns do not really stand outside this cultural ceremony. We are its acolytes, occasionally, even its priests.

It’s sad when a young person dies. I fear for my own two children. What if I accidentally killed my asthmatic son by mistakenly diagnosing serious croup as asthma? Would I be different from a grandmother who, in trying to exorcise her granddaughter, drowns the child instead?

The thought is horrifying, but is it more horrifying than other ways of dying? Is death by exorcism any more tragic than dying on the operating table at the hands of the medical priesthood? I doubt it.

If I had to choose between dying at the hands of a misguided grandparent or dying under the knife of an incompetent surgeon, I’d choose the grandmother. If Satanists wearing black robes take the life of a member while chanting diabolical canticles, is that worse than a scene of domestic violence in which a husband takes a woman’s life? I doubt it. Satanists pose less of a threat than drunk drivers.

Exorcism is an effort to excise a source of suffering by employing symbolic means, a ritual attempt to alleviate suffering. Like surgery, it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Like surgery, it can be done competently or incompetently. Like surgery, it can be fairly gentle or astonishingly violent. We understand exorcism less well only because we have such undying faith in medical religion.

Exorcisms may or may not cause people to get well, but insofar as rites are capable of realigning a person’s social, psychological, and spiritual resources, they can affect the course of illness, physical as well as mental. Speaking of destructive forces as devils is not altogether different from guided imagery exercises conducted in reputable hospitals and oncology centres. There people attempt to reimagine their cancers as benign tubers rather than malignant bulldozers. Construing an illness as demon-induced is not very different from speaking of a cancer as “devouring” or “invading” our bodies. In both cases we are taking metaphors with utter seriousness.

Surgery, like an exorcism rite, has symbolic dimensions. The very act of cutting people open and sewing them up has a placebo effect. Patients are sometimes healed by the act even when no additional procedure is performed. So “we” who excise by surgery aren’t very different from “those” who excise by exorcism.

It is not death that attracts public voyeurism but rather bizarre death. Children die all the time. “Regular” deaths are either threatening or boring; we pay them as little attention as we can get away with. But witchy and diabolical deaths stir a pornographic interest. They are fascinating and provide an excuse for feeling unbridled outrage or basking in a sense of superiority. We couldn’t possibly be that crazy or backward.

The fertile soil of witchcraft is narrative. Witchcraft thrives in the telling of stories. Most of what we hear about witches, demons, and devil worship is vicious gossip spiced with speculation and self-titillation. We don’t really believe the stories, yet we are desperate to believe them.

Remember when we were kids, telling each other ghost stories. We loved scaring ourselves to death. A much smaller proportion of witchcraft arises from actual secret ritual, or what the media like to label “cult” activity. Cultus means “to cultivate” and is related to “culture.” In religious studies the term refers to ritual activity. When we fear cults, we fear rituals that we don’t understand or rituals that are secret. It is not death but ritual death that we are incapable of comprehending.

I’m not claiming that there is no danger from cultic activity—ritual is a powerful tool capable of serious abuse—only that the danger is greatly exaggerated and that it is largely a blank screen upon which we project our own worst fears about ourselves and others. The danger of being brainwashed into accepting death from an overdose of cultic ritual is considerably less than the danger of being brainwashed into accepting death on the operating table.

For most of us, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are occult. Of course, it doesn’t seem that way because of our faith in the medical profession. But honest doctors readily admit how little they really know about how bodies, poisonous medicines, and deadly rays actually work.

We are abysmally ignorant about the ways people fall ill, get well, or commit those all-too-human acts that we label inhuman. What should we do? I confess that I don’t really know. But I’ve resolved to try out a ritual scenario different from the one we’re presently trapped in. It goes something like this:

Say less.

Listen more.

Commit repeated acts of radical self-examination.

Eschew expertise.

Exorcise arrogance and chant twelve times over,

“They” are not all that different from “us.”

Light candles.