Are demons real? The Bible presents Jesus as casting out evil spirits and quite often these passages are regarded with great skepticism. Science, we are told, disproves such fantastic stories. But not all “men of science” are skeptical of such accounts. Richard Gallagher is a board-certified psychiatrist and a professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College. His experiences with demonically afflicted individuals have convinced him that they really do exist. In The Washington Post, he described his experiences and explained his conclusions.
I’m a man of science and a lover of history; after studying the classics at Princeton, I trained in psychiatry at Yale and in psychoanalysis at Columbia... Is it possible to be a sophisticated psychiatrist and believe that evil spirits are, however seldom, assailing humans? Most of my scientific colleagues and friends say no, because of their frequent contact with patients who are deluded about demons, their general skepticism of the supernatural, and their commitment to employ only standard, peer-reviewed treatments that do not potentially mislead (a definite risk) or harm vulnerable patients. But careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.
What is that led Gallagher to conclude that "demonic possession" really does occur?
…I believe I’ve seen the real thing. Assaults upon individuals are classified either as “demonic possessions” or as the slightly more common but less intense attacks usually called “oppressions.” A possessed individual may suddenly, in a type of trance, voice statements of astonishing venom and contempt for religion, while understanding and speaking various foreign languages previously unknown to them. The subject might also exhibit enormous strength or even the extraordinarily rare phenomenon of levitation. (I have not witnessed a levitation myself, but half a dozen people I work with vow that they’ve seen it in the course of their exorcisms.) He or she might demonstrate “hidden knowledge” of all sorts of things — like how a stranger’s loved ones died, what secret sins she has committed, even where people are at a given moment. These are skills that cannot be explained except by special psychic or preternatural ability.
Gallagher is clear that there are plenty of fake and false accounts of demonic activity. However, he argues that it is irrational to accept the many credible accounts of individuals who attest to their reality.
…As a psychoanalyst, a blanket rejection of the possibility of demonic attacks seems less logical, and often wishful in nature, than a careful appraisal of the facts. As I see it, the evidence for possession is like the evidence for George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. In both cases, written historical accounts with numerous sound witnesses testify to their accuracy.
Richard Gallagher, “As a Psychiatrist, I Diagnose Mental Illness. Also, I Help Spot Demonic Possession.,” Washington Post, July 1, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/07/01/as-a-psychiatrist-i-diagnose-mental-illness-and-sometimes-demonic-possession/.