The Miraculous and Mental Illness

Louis Hoffman & Marika Kurzenberger. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

Anomalous experiences and intense forms of mental strife are always interpreted in the context of culture and an epistemological paradigm. Throughout history, the same type or category of experience has been interpreted in drastically different ways depending upon the dominant paradigm of the time. In a premodern paradigm, it would have made little sense to interpret anomalous experiences as mental illness or brain dysfunction; this was not part of their understanding. In contemporary times, it is equally odd to interpret many behaviors classified as mental illness in spiritual terms, such as demon possession, which was common in the premodern period.

Over the past 100 years, mental health and religion competed for the right to dictate the correct understanding of many anomalous experiences. Despite impressive improvements in cooperation between religion and psychology, many points of highly contentious controversy remain. This is particularly true of scientism, representing the extremists of the modern paradigm, and religious fundamentalists, representing the extremists of religious and premodern paradigms.

In this chapter, we examine many aspects of anomalous experience and intense mental strife in the context of how they are interpreted differently in the three major philosophical paradigms of premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism. For the purpose of this paper, we are defining anomalous experience as “an uncommon experience … or one that, although it may be experienced by a substantial amount of the population … is believed to deviate from ordinary experience or from the usually accepted explanations of reality.” Intense mental strife is understood as intense forms of emotional discomfort, such as sadness, depression, anger, or grief, that are more than transient or beyond what is typical given the context.

Major Historical Paradigms and the Influence on Psychology and Religion

Western thought has often been divided into three primary philosophical epochs: premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism. As is evident, any attempt to classify the history of intellectual thought into three periods or categories requires many oversimplifications and overgeneralizations; however, this project is not without utility. These are not discrete periods; nor did any of these periods exist without many important dissenters. However, they reflect a dominant paradigm influencing all of Western society, even the dissenters.

Although another oversimplification, we focus mostly on the epistemological aspects of these periods. The epistemologies form into dominant paradigms of how knowledge is understood, approached, and attained. Kuhn, who coined the language of “a paradigm,” described paradigms as having an active role in shaping how people interpret and understand sensory data and information. Paradigms shape knowledge; but this also means that all knowledge is contextual. As Kuhn was aware, this has both positive and limiting connotations.

Without paradigms, people could not make sense of the world. If one were to try to imagine approaching each moment in life with a completely blank slate, it quickly becomes evident how impossible it is to live without a frame of reference for interpretation. Paradigms also delimit understanding and knowledge by preventing creative perspectives and interpretations on knowledge outside of what is conventional at that time. Today, most people take for granted that paradigms exist, even if their paradigms are different from Kuhn’s basic understanding and structure of paradigms. For example, the very common discussions of worldview could be understood as a derivative of the paradigm concept in laymen’s terms.


Premodernism is generally understood as encompassing the history of time through the transition to modernism in the mid mid-1600s. The basis of premodernism is that ultimate truth is attainable through revealed knowledge. Initially, this epistemology was rooted in direct revelation from God or the source of truth. Over time, as claims of direct revelation became less frequent and were viewed with greater suspicion, more formalized ways of determining and understanding revealed knowledge developed.

The development of premodern epistemology is rooted in controversies. Gradually, competing revelations that did not fit together emerged. Furthermore, competing interpretations of the meaning of the revelations emerged, particularly as the original receivers of the revelation were no longer alive to interpret the meaning. This forced religious leaders to find ways to deal with these controversies. The Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible began addressing these questions. There are examples in these sacred texts of how to determine what is from God and what is from another source, such as the devil. Over time, these discussions led to heresy trials and other forms of prosecution of those labeled as false prophets.

Distance between us and the original receptors of revealed knowledge forced religious leaders to develop ways of interpreting prior revealed knowledge, generally seen as contained in the scriptures. Early forms of dealing with this question were rooted in positions of power, such as appointed church leaders.4 Based on their position of power and proximity to God, these leaders were believed to have special insight into interpretation. Over time, as religious leaders were trusted less and there were an increasing number of disparate viewpoints, more formalized approaches to interpretation, or hermeneutics, emerged. In the late premodern period, systematic theologies were derived based upon hermeneutic principles as cornerstones of beliefs. These theologies often were considered pure interpretations of scripture; however, later interpretations conceived of these as paradigms that shaped the way religious knowledge was understood.

Other important developments from the premodern period are worth noting. First, Christianity has become the dominant religious force in the last 1,500 years of the modern period. Because of this, Christianity became the vehicle for much of intellectual thought. There were also a number of other influential perspectives, some of which had an important impact upon Christianity.

St. Paul, who wrote many of the books of the New Testament scriptures, is one of the most influential Christian figures. Paul is also highly controversial in many circles of religious thought. Having received a classical Greek education, Paul was exposed to Plato and other Greek scholars. This is evident in much of Paul’s writing and represents a major shift from Hebrew thought and the theology reflected in the Gospels. Plato, through Paul, introduced dualism to Christianity. Prior to Paul, Jewish and Christian thought was monistic. Through Christianity, dualism became so intertwined with Western thought that later it became difficult to separate the two.

Christianity, after assuming its position of power, was the most significant roadblock to modernism. Influential, and potentially influential, late premodern scholars were often persecuted, jailed, or even killed because of their challenges to modernism. It was not until Aquinas began to integrate a basic aspect of modern epistemology (i.e., reason) with faith that the door began to open for modernism to develop. Early modernism, too, often was Christian in nature. Although Aquinas was extremely influential in the transition to modernism, what was later to develop as more formal modern philosophy was far from what he intended.


The transition from premodernism to modernism occurred in the mid-1600s. The transition was not quick or without conflict. The signs of the time included the crusades, witch trials, and persecution of scholars, such as the famous trial of Galileo. Modernism started with two basic epistemological platforms, rationalism and empiricism, that would eventually be synthesized into one.

At first, each of these rudimentary epistemologies was far different from how they are understood today. They were much more basic. Today much of the academy, except some philosophical circles, interprets the word empirical as equivalent to quantitative or scientific research. Oftentimes, this means the utilization of paper-and-pencil survey measures. Originally, empiricism referred to knowing through the senses or sensory information. The evolutional end meaning of this word often shares little similarity with historical origins.

Rationalism developed more than it evolved to a different perspective. Early rationalism was rooted in knowing through reason; however, there was little to determine what was rational from what was irrational or pseudorational. Rationalism was assumed to be a basic aspect of being human that all people had access to.

Over time, the early simplistic epistemologies of rationalism and empiricism required the development of more complex understanding of the nature of truth and how to know it. In empiricism, it was necessary to identify real experience and what experience means, or to distinguish between genuine experience versus distortions of sensory information, such as hallucinations. Empiricists varied, too, on how much they believed that sensory experience was a representation of the external world versus being more concerned with experience regardless of the real world, if it indeed existed. Rationalists developed logic, the formal methodology of rationalism. Rationalism was understood as lying above cultural influence. In other words, rationalism was beyond culture and there existed a pure form of logic that rational people could discover or identify through natural means.

As modernism matured, rationalism and empiricism were integrated into science and the scientific method. In many ways, science can be understood as applying reason and logic to empiricism. Positivism, logical positivism, and scientism are products of the modern period that represent the more extremist forms of the modern period. Modernism assumed that science would solve the problems of the world, similar to premodernism’s assumption that God or religion would save the world. The modern period produced many utopian stories, such as Thoreau’s Waldenand Skinner’s Walden Two. These utopian myths were modernism’s version of heaven and were believed to be achieved through the perfection and accomplishments of science.

As science failed on its promises to end war and violence, create eternal youth, and achieve perfect mental and physical health, critics of the modern paradigm emerged.8 The twentieth century emerged with waning trust in science, eventually leading to alternative ways of viewing the world. As will be demonstrated, postmodernism’s first task was to complete the discrediting of modernism through deconstructing it.


Postmodernism has successfully eluded a concrete definition, which is part of the nature of postmodernism. Just as there were many versions of premodernism and modernism, there are many postmodernisms. Part of the confusion about postmodern theory is that too many, especially those clinging to the greater apparent clarity of modernist definitions, attempted to create a master definition of postmodernism that clearly articulates its many essential tenets.

We propose a different understanding of postmodernism that is much less specific, but also offers greater hope at unifying what makes a theory postmodern. In essence, postmodernism is better understood and identified rather than defined. Using epistemology as the foundation, postmodernism can be understood as a collection of philosophies united by a belief that truth as an ultimate truth cannot be known.

Much of the confusion around postmodernism emerged from attempts to understand this emerging paradigm outside of the context of history and apart from an understanding of how paradigms often shift. The early stages of postmodernism were a reaction to the limitations of modernism. These early postmodern theories were deconstructive in nature and primarily focused on critiquing and deconstructing modernist theories. These theories tended to be extremist in their critiques and negligent on offering alternative constructive ways of building knowledge or understanding.

Definitions of postmodernism froze it in its early stages. Critics, along with the many major contributors and proponents, reinforced this inability to evolve. Other theorists encouraged an evolution of the theory as well as diversification of postmodern approaches. What remains central in these is the belief that truth in an ultimate sense cannot be known.

Stating that truth cannot be known is not the same as saying truth does not exist, although many theories rightly labeled as postmodern adhere to this position. Several other options for truth remain open to the classification of postmodern. For instance, postmodernism can claim that truth that exists cannot be fully known or comprehended. In general, these theories often maintain that much, or most, of what is often construed of as ultimate truth is not truth at all. In other words, many realms identified as ultimate truth are more correctly understood as local truths. The postmodernisms that allow for the existence of an ultimate truth maintain that the ultimate truth that exists cannot be known and believe that which falls under the realm of ultimate truth is much smaller than typically maintained by modernists and premodernists.

A couple of clarifications of common objections may help clarify the matter. Gravity is often used as proof that postmodern theories, which deny the ability to know truth, could exist as proposed. Gravity, after all, is very certain. However, this also reflects an important limitation in the ultimate sense. Prediction, even perfectly consistent prediction, is not the same as knowledge. Since Newton’s original discovery of gravity, the common understanding of it has undergone several changes. For instance, Einstein’s theory of relativity demonstrated that Newton’s original proposal was flawed. Even the so-called hard sciences are always based upon limited knowledge, even in the presence of 100 percent accurate prediction.

Second, postmodernism often is accused of requiring an absolute relativism when it comes to ethics and morality. This critique can be more simply dismissed as a naïve and defensive reaction to postmodernism. One would be hard-pressed to find a postmodern thinker who would claim such an extremist view. Rather, postmodernism recognizes that morality and its understanding are always embedded in culture, and thus culture limits relativism. How right and wrong are defined is culturally dependent. Although there are some universal tendencies in morality, there are few absolutes and no consistencies in how those universals are understood.

The prohibition against murder has been used as an example of the dangers of postmodernism, but this is easily clarified. In the United States, it is proclaimed that killing is wrong. However, the United States allows for preemptive wars and the death penalty. Many other countries view the United States’ understanding of prohibiting killing as inconsistent and soft on preventing people from being killed. Even if there is some type of universal innate understanding that killing is wrong, how this is interpreted is undeniably localized.

Several central themes of postmodernism can be identified; however, consistent with postmodern thought, these should always be understood as localized understandings that are conceived of differently in the various forms of postmodernisms. In other words, for postmodernism to remain internally consistent, it must allow for different localized understandings of these central tenets. Here is what we propose as postmodernism’s central tenets in epistemology:

  1. Truth in an ultimate sense cannot be known.
  2. Local truths are often, or always, more important than attempts to define ultimate truth.
  3. There is a central concern with language, narratives, and how language shapes reality.
  4. Postmodernism seeks to integrate multiple ways of knowing, or what is called epistemological pluralism, epistemological holism, and methodological pluralism. It values and encourages different ways of interpreting the world.

This fourth point needs some further elucidation. One position purports that the best way to approach truth is through using multiple epistemologies and methodologies to better approximate ultimate truth. For example, in psychology the move toward mixed methods research, a form of methodological pluralism, is often thought to be a postmodern approach to research. Through using various ways of approaching it, truth can be triangulated and better approximated. Although postmodernism would applaud the mixed methods approach in general, it would advocate caution in how this is used in regards to focusing in on truth. When one gets to the point that truth is thought to be obtainable through this process, or when it is assumed that this metaphor works for all areas of study, then it is a more complex modernist approach, not postmodernism.

Postmodernism adds the qualifier that many truths cannot be approximated because they are not universal in nature. Furthermore, most truths, even universal truths, are less stationary and more fluid in nature, making them elusive even to the best mixed methods approaches. Finally, even with the mixed methods approach, truth will always remain elusive, and pursuers of truth must remain cautious about their biases. Although the idea of approximating truth may fit with some forms of knowledge, it should be evident that many more localized and subjective forms of knowledge do not fit with this understanding.

The nature of truth is also significantly different in postmodernism as opposed to premodernism and modernism. Premodernism and modernism both functioned from a foundational approach to knowledge in which all knowledge was built on certain universal and stable knowledge foundations. If the foundation is challenged, everything built upon it is also challenged. Postmodernism conversely interprets truth as more variant. Some truth is purely subjective, located within the individual, while other truths are local, within the community. These truths take on a narrative or story format. Broader truths can be compared to a web in which all truths are understood as interdependent upon each other. Each strand of the web, representing a point of knowledge, is connected to other truths and impacted by all the truths in the web. No truth is foundational, or necessary, and a change in any one truth impacts the entire web of truth. Truth is fluid, ever-changing, and a mixture of different types of truths. Although there are many limitations to the web metaphor, it does emphasize the paradoxical independence and interrelatedness of truth.

Before ending the discussion of postmodernism, it should be noted that we recognize that many postmodern thinkers, including influential leaders, would be critical of this broad conception of postmodernism, at least partially because too many theories with significant differences can fall under this umbrella. To this we say, “Yes!” If postmodernism is going to be a major philosophical epoch and paradigm on the same level as premodernism and modernism, it must defy overly restrictive definitions. The often urged criterion that there is no ultimate truth is simply too restrictive, particularly for many religious individuals drawn to postmodernism. It is better to understand it as a broad, inclusive paradigm with many subparadigms, some of which are more restrictive in their understanding of postmodernism and of truth.

Conceiving The Miraculous

Miracles, one form of anomalous experience, have been claimed throughout history but interpreted differently. In this section, we will take a very brief look at how miracles are understood in each of the three philosophical epochs.

Premodernism: Miracles as Unexplainable Miraculous Events

Cobb and Griffin maintain that the understanding of miracles gradually changed over time. In traditional religious thought, everything was believed to be caused by God or an “act of God.” It was a later development that miracles were separated out as specific acts of God.17 This allowed for differing views of miracles to emerge through the premodern and modern periods.

Literal Interpretations

Many miracles in the premodern period were believed to be literally true. For example, most early Christians believed that Jesus literally turned water into wine and healed many sick individuals. Many religious individuals today function as if this was the only understanding of miracles and miraculous stories; however, from a historical perspective, there is little support for this. At the very least, there were multiple approaches to understanding the miraculous.

Stories as Teaching Myths

The ancient Greek understanding of myths was that these were stories that were not literally true but represented a fundamental truth or meaning. Rollo May furthers this distinction in stating that myths are not false, but they cannot be proven true. Throughout much of history, stories were interpreted as teaching tools and not intended to be interpreted literally. The literal interpretation of stories is a later development with important consequences.

An example of religious stories as myth is the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. In the literal story, God caused many plagues to persuade the Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt. After they left, God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart and he sent his army to bring the Israelites back. God, then, separated the Red Sea for the Israelites to cross, but when the Egyptian Army pursued, God closed the Red Sea, drowning the Pharaoh’s army. The moral of this story is that God provides for his people and so provided salvation from their oppression. The meaning of this story is the same regardless of whether a literal or mythical understanding is taken.

These two approaches to understanding the miraculous coexisted, which can mean two things. First, similar to today, it is likely that some people adhered primarily to literal interpretations while others viewed stories of the miraculous as mythical and symbolic. Second, these views coexisted within the same individuals. In other words, it is likely that many of the stories were seen as literal truths while others were interpreted mythically.

If many, or most, religious stories were intended to convey a truth, but not to be interpreted literally, then the dominant religious views that rely on literal interpretations of most stories in the sacred texts have misunderstood the basic intended message. For much of the modern and postmodern periods, it has been assumed that premodern views were almost exclusively literal; however, this misrepresents the way that many people in premodern times understood truth, stories, and myths.

Modernism: Two Uses of Science

The understanding of miracles changed in the modern period. Although many continued to adhere to premodern interpretations of miracles, within the academy, intellectual circles, and many areas of the general public, premodern interpretations of miracles became more suspect. Two dominant modernist approaches replaced the premodern views.

God’s Use of Science

Many scientists of the modern period attempted to reconcile their faith or religious belief with science. These scientists used different approaches to accomplish this, two of which were influential and are pertinent to our discussion. Some scientists used science to try to prove biblical truths. They employed archeology, historical methods, and many sciences to try to prove the existence of God and the accuracy of the Bible (most of these were Christian approaches). Although this sounds premodern, they elevated the modern epistemology, therefore slighting the premodern epistemology, reflecting a momentous change.

Other scientists took a more philosophical approach, declaring that God first created the laws of science, then worked within that framework, or the constraints of science, to accomplish His intentions, maybe with insight into how to manipulate them in favor of desired goals. Through understanding science one would come to better understand God.

Christianity and science increasingly became unified. Through this, Christianity continued as a vehicle for the development and spread of modernism, even beyond the West. Kim, discussing the role of Christianity and science in China, stated, “Christianity was first welcomed [in China] because of the impressive power and advantages of modern science that those missionaries brought with them. For this reason, in this non-Christian world, science has been viewed as an inseparable part of Christianity.” In the end, modern Christianity was very different from premodern versions.

Explaining Away Miracles

Modernism signified the death of miracles for many who could not reconcile them with science. As Sponge states,

When people say today, for example, that “the age of miracles is over,” what they mean is not that miracles no longer occur, but that they never did—the age when we perceived events as miraculous is gone. The things that our ancestors called miracles and even magic are explained today without appeal to the supernatural because we understand so much more completely the way the universe operates.

Many scientists sought to disprove the miracles and other religious propositions while other scientists just seemed to stumble across them. For example, Galileo never intended to contradict religion, but many of his discoveries ran contrary to popular religious belief. Similarly, many other scholars never set out to contradict religion, but routinely seem to discover inconsistencies between science and religious belief.

The accidental discoveries provided more fuel for scientists who sought to disprove miracles and the Bible; however, much of their energy was also used to develop alternative explanations for the miracles. For example, over time scholars have sought to develop alternative explanations for the Exodus story discussed previously. One approach is to maintain that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea during a drought and then it was an ensuing flood that caused the Pharaoh’s army to drown. In this, God worked within the miracle.

Other miracles also were explained away with modern science. For example, the miraculous healings were reported to be a misinterpretation of what happened. Scholars maintained that it was not a miraculous healing that occurred in the healings of Jesus, but rather a placebo effect, a psychological healing of a conversion disorder, or a psychological healing based more on personal, not metaphysical, factors. Support for this emerges from scientific investigation of contemporary faith healings. Using the modernist paradigm, many faith healings have been disproved as shams or as having an alternative explanation.

Postmodernism: Unconceiving the Miraculous

Postmodernism allows for a return of old explanation in a new context as well as alternative explanations. We will discuss two possible postmodern explanations of miracles.

Renewed Premodernism

In modern times, there was a strong movement away from indigenous and alternative approaches to health and healing. Although many of these appear similar to premodern understandings of miracles and anomalous experience, when set in the postmodern context they get a different interpretation. There is also a renewed interest in classic premodern interpretations that emerged in the context of the failures of science.

Postmodern perspectives recognize that multiple causes often account for what is purported to be miraculous, while premodern and modern interpretations take a more linear or narrow approach. For example, there tends to be a small positive correlation between being religious and psychological health; however, there are many factors that can explain this relationship. Premodern approaches emphasize the direct benefits of being religious, or attribute the better mental health directly to God. Modernism focuses on the intervening variables, such as the benefits of social support, often part of being religious, as the cause of improved mental health. Postmodern approaches recognize that there are both personal and systemic factors, as well as direct or indirect means, through which religion provides physical and mental health benefits.

Additionally, cultural factors play an important role in determining how religion is related to mental health. Krippner and Achterberg report on research that suggests that the efficacy of spiritual or religious healings is often dependent upon the culture. In other words, if an individual is in a culture that believes in a particular approach to faith healing, it is more likely to have a positive impact. As a second example, symptoms of mental illness are often exacerbated when they are experienced in a cultural context in which they are pathologized. In summary, postmodernism emphasizes the role of context and individual differences in the miraculous, whereas premodernism and modernism emphasized the universality of experience.

A New Understanding of Myth

Rollo May, as discussed previously, interpreted myths as something that cannot be proven to be true. However, this does not mean myths are false: “There can be no stronger proof of the impoverishment of our contemporary culture than the popular—though profoundly mistaken—definition of myth as falsehood.”

As myth is extended, many implications emerge. First, there is a renewed interest in the ancient Greek interpretation of myth as not literally true, but representing truths nonetheless. Second, there is greater recognition of the cultural constructions of what is deemed miraculous. For example, Krippner and Achterberg distinguish between healing and cure in elucidating what constitutes an anomalous healing, such as a spiritual or faith healing. In their account, cure represents a biological or material change, whereas healing is much broader, constituting a related attitudinal change incurred. Healings may coincide with cures or facilitate cures or improvements through their psychological impact; however, they remain distinct.

In summary, postmodernism emphasizes that physical and psychological health, healing and cures must all be interpreted in the context of culture: “Because health care systems are socially constructed, they are most usefully studied in relationship to their cultural and historical contexts,” as indicated in Krippner and Achterberg. Additionally, both premodern and modern ways to understanding contribute to the broader understanding, but they must always be understood as partial truths and in context.

Constructing Psychopathology and Mental Illness

Conceptions of anomalous experience and mental strife now classified as mental illness changed through each emergent philosophical paradigm. Demon possession became a brain disorder, and spiritual weakness became biologically determined mental illness. There are strengths and weaknesses of the different models, but what stands out more is the power of the paradigm in determining how various forms of mental strife and anomalous experience are understood and classified. Additionally, consistent with Krippner and Achterberg, the cultural and paradigmatic context provides useful information as to which approach to treatment may be most successful with different individuals.

Premodernism: Faith Corruptions and Tests

Two dominant conceptions of mental illness in premodern times were spiritual weakness or a lack of faith, and demon possession. Much of what is now in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) was once explained by these two spiritual explanations. Many people still cling to these views as a plausible interpretation for what causes mental illness, at least some of the time. However, when spiritual weakness and demon possession are used today, they often are understood very differently than in premodern times.

Spiritual Weakness

All of the major world religions seemingly have contradictory messages about the role of religion in happiness, positive mental health, or blessings in life. Often, these are difficult to interpret because the historic religious language is not consistent with the contemporary language for various forms of strife and mental health. It is consistent within the major world religions to promise benefits, often including emotional benefits, to being religious. Similarly, all the major world religions acknowledge that suffering is inevitable and, at times, may even be caused by being religious. Although this appears paradoxical, it is not. Religions tend not to make an all-or-nothing distinction between positive mental health and suffering, made by many people today, particularly in Western cultures.

The implicit thesis of the mental strife position is that most of what is considered mental illness occurs due to a lack of faith, to immoral behavior (i.e., sin), or to spiritual weakness. Suffering in these forms, then, is a form of punishment from God, either in that God caused the suffering or structured reality in such a way that these sins and spiritual weaknesses necessarily cause suffering. This continues to be a popular perspective espoused by many religious leaders in the modern and into postmodern times.

The Devil, Demon Possession, and the Creation of Evil and Mental Illness

In Christian and Islamic traditions, the devil is a commonly cited cause of evil and human suffering. Although human cooperation, either intentionally or passively, is often necessary for the devil or demons to accomplish their goals, these external metaphysical realities are the origin of most suffering. This metaphysical position locates evil within external origins.

Fascination with demon possession continues, or more properly reemerged, in postmodern times. Several movies depict demon possession and the controversy between scientific viewpoints and religious perspectives on demon possession. Within psychology, some authors have discussed the differential diagnosis between demon possession and mental illness. M. Scott Peck, for example, writes of his experience with exorcisms and with what he believes was demon possession. However, Peck also maintains that demon possession is rare and that it is more common to experience other forms of human evil and pathology: “Genuine possession, as far as we know, is very rare. Human evil, on the other hand, is common.” Similarly, Friesen, in his book on multiple personality disorder (now dissociative identity disorder), cautions that misdiagnosing this mental illness as demon possession can be extremely harmful, especially when this is followed with attempts at exorcism. Like Peck, Friesen maintains that both are real and that differential diagnosis is what is important.

Modernism: Deconstructing Demons and Internalizing Mental Illness

Modernist views focused on debunking these premodern “superstitions.” The medical model became the dominant viewpoint, focusing on genetic and biological explanations for mental illness. The medical model had minimal tolerance for the spiritualizing of mental illness and sought to debunk it through research and science.

From Metaphysical to Personal Explanations: Individual Responsibility

As discussed, evil spirits and demonic influences historically have been a way to understand and explain deviant behavior and physical maladies. External evil spirits and metaphysical forces were believed to inflict themselves on human victims and cause misery and suffering that could only be alleviated by religious intervention. Historically, the concept of mental illness was based on interpretations from religious doctrine and the dominant culture of the time. Individuals whose behavior, beliefs, and physical abnormalities differed from the established norms of society were viewed as mentally and morally defective, not as the result of their free will, but as the result of evil and tormenting spirits.

The realization that social deviance and psychological problems could be chemically and biologically explained changed the societal approach to mental illness. Having a scientific explanation for social deviance, physical maladies, and mental illness meant individuals were predetermined by nature to mental illness, deviance, or criminality. Mental illness transformed from having an external origin to having an internal and biologically based origin. The focus turned to the internal workings of the individual and his or her physical structure, which predetermined his or her psychological and physical health. The modernistic view of mental illness was that it was a sickness that afflicted the body like other medical diseases and thus could be cured. It also excused the behavior of the individual because he or she was deemed sick and had no control over his or her actions.

Darwin’s theory of evolution in 1859 significantly contributed to the modern period and the scientific view of biological importance. Darwin connected human beings to animals on a single continuum, which meant humans were “influenced and controlled by the same biochemical and physical forces and motives inherent in all creatures.” Darwin challenged the Christian belief system by asserting that the biology and genetics of the human being determined behavior, not God.

Freud also challenged the ideology of Christian doctrine with his theories of mental illness. Freud’s explanation for mental disorders and his conceptualization of the conscious and unconscious broke from the strict biological justification for mental illness. Freud’s determinism was biological, but it also took into account the important role of early life experience, therefore adding a second force in determinism.

Reinterpreting Mental Illness

The scientific recognition of psychopathology logically explained away mysteries that had defied explanation, and gave names and labels to afflictions. Although these explanations were not always accurate, not all were without merit. The impetus to find cures for these disorders created medical treatments, some of which were cruel and torturous and others that were useful. Some are still used today but remain controversial. Psychopharmacology developed during this time, as well as the use of lobotomies, electroshock therapy, sterilization, and blaming mothers for schizophrenic children.

Using the medical model for categorizing mental illness had advantages. Classifying and defining mental disorders gave practitioners a structure to work from and allowed for articulation as to the manner and method of a particular mental illness. Human experiences that fell outside the spectrum of “normal” were pathologized, and definitions of mental disorders set the boundaries for normality; however, they were arbitrary and not absolutely scientifically based. Medical conditions, such as pregnancy, can clearly be defined; mental disorders, such as anxiety or depression, cannot be precisely defined since the level or degree determines what is considered normal and what constitutes impairment.

Categorizing and classifying mental illness also had disadvantages. Labeling individuals as damaged or defective occurs in a social, cultural, and political context and therefore discriminates against those not in the mainstream. Defining a mental disorder as an individual’s internal and predetermined illness corresponds to the medical model of physical disease. It places responsibility and blame on the individual and rejects outside influences. Biological predeterminism means cures may not be possible and dysfunction may be permanent.

Pathologizing behavior that is different or considered outside normal limits has had detrimental results in the past; pathologizing normal behavior has had the same effect. Masturbation was demonized during the modern period, and various contraptions and treatments were devised to prevent individuals from participating in a behavior that was thought to cause mental illness, blindness, seizures, and other maladies. Children and adults alike were punished and blamed for a sexual behavior that is now considered biologically normal. Some cultures and religions still consider masturbation deviant; some professionals do as well.

Pathologizing and labeling individuals and groups encouraged discrimination and marginalization for those who deviated from societal norms. One of the best examples of this is homosexuality, which was classified as a sexual deviation diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-II (DSM-II) in 1968. It was finally removed as a disorder in 1973 after much debate. Ironically, in moving away from the medical model of mental illness and the significance of biological and genetic influences on determining behavior, homosexuals continue to be discriminated against and demonized by many.

Homosexuality remains a controversial subject regarding nature versus nurture. Homosexuality has changed over the years from being viewed as a sin, to a crime, to a mental illness, and now a difference in lifestyle. The social desire or need to “cure” homosexuals and make them “normal” heterosexuals has persisted into the twenty-first century. Reparative therapy is still available and encouraged by some even today. Similar paths may be seen for other psychiatric diagnoses such as gender identity disorder. Currently, the DSM-IV-TR identifies gender identity disorder as the stated desire to be a member of the other sex and has been described by some transgendered individuals as being born in the wrong body. The biological basis for gender identification disorder has also been widely ignored.

Miraculous Healings and Somatic Disorders

The existence of miracles and miraculous healings long has been the source of suspicion, disagreement, and debate. Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) refuted the existence of miracles, saying in order for a miracle to occur, it must violate the laws of nature. According to Hume, a miracle could be “considered true only if its falsehood must be more miraculous than the reported miracle itself.” According to Krippner and Achterberg, miracles are events that can be known by the senses but are outside the laws of nature and are brought about by a force or power external to those natural laws. Miraculous healings are described as recovery, remissions, regenerations, or uncharacteristic changes in a direction reflecting improvement in physical or psychological health.

Somatic disorders are subjective physical complaints that have no medical explanation or are beyond the normal scope of symptomology. They are “recurring, multiple and clinically significant” complaints that defy medical relief and cause impairment. Somatic disorders are currently classified in the DSM-IV-TR as being a combination of pain, gastrointestinal, sexual, and pseudoneurological symptoms that result in medical treatment and impairment and occur over the period of several years. Historically, somatic disorders were aliments believed to be caused by demons and evil spirits, and ridding individuals of demons resulted in the individual being healed. As somatic disorders are psychological in nature, they were used in the modern period as a plausible scientific explanation for miraculous healing; the psychological, not biological, cause went away or was “cured.”

Demon Possessions, Exorcisms, and Dissociative Identity Disorder

Historically, deviant behavior, physical deformity, medical problems, or a simple accusation could cause an individual to be suspected of demonic possession. Because individuals were not responsible for their behavior due to external influences of evil, methods were developed to physically rid individuals of their demons. During the Crusades and Inquisitions, torture was commonly used to extract confessions. There is little doubt that the scientific understanding of these events today could have prevented many horrific events.

Dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly multiple personality disorder (MPD), is an example of a mental condition that it is considered psychologically based or spiritually based. DID is defined as “the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states, that recurrently take control of behavior.” Individuals with different but distinct personalities were thought to be possessed by demons or evil spirits, and some still subscribe to that belief. The Bible describes Jesus confronting a man who is thought to be possessed; when Jesus asks him his name, he replies, “My name is Legion for we are many” (Mark 5:9, New International Version). This same section of the Bible describes Jesus casting out devils, along with engaging in other types of healing.

Demonic or satanic possession seemed an appropriate explanation in most cultures to describe individuals who appeared to be taken over by another entity. There are many historical examples from various cultures of evil spirits or demonic possession. In ancient Egypt, classical Greece, and events from the New Testament, people believed demonic possession occurred when evil spirits acted upon an individual to cause distress or sickness. Many of the disorders that were thought to be demon possession can be explained in modern times as mental illness. Epilepsy, diabetes, cancer, and other diseases explain what was once believed to be demonic possession and are now cured or relieved with medical interventions.

Exorcisms, the healing intervention for demonic possession, are not completely obsolete. Exorcisms can be seen as “the primeval prototype of modern psychotherapy” and are based on the idea that the person is possessed by external and evil forces that have entered and altered the individual. The only way to rid the person of the evil spirits is to drive them out and cast them away. The ability to cast away spiritual evil entities lies with righteous spiritual forces represented by the religious or spiritual.

There are modern references to dark forces of the mind; Freud referred to psychological demons and the unconscious in his works, and Jung referred to the shadow. Both were describing dark places in the human psyche where dark emotions are found; however, they were not referencing an external entity but the internal struggle of individual. According to Diamond, “Modern psychiatry and psychology have sought to provide a scientific alternative to demonology.”

The Biological Revolution, the Medical Model, and a Return to Irresponsibility

As noted, the medical model focused on scientific and biological explanations for mental illness. As with any body part or body function, the brain could become sick or diseased. No longer were demonic influences causing social deviance or physical maladies. Physical conditions and social behavior were genetically determined, which removed the elements of individual responsibility, cultural influences, and social perspectives. Individuals could be labeled into neat categories and treated by empirically based remedies.

The modernistic period saw a shift from external dominance of personality, behavior, and deviance to an internal individual, biological, genetic, and predetermined cause. Mental illness was seen as an internal process that occurred inside the person, thus dismissing social, situational, or relational events that could cause or contribute to mental illness. The focus moved from external and spiritual influences to the individual’s inner liability for illness, disease, and dysfunction. Responsibility was redefined and moved from one end of the pendulum swing to the other. Originally, people were not responsible for their behavior or mental illness if they were possessed or influenced by evil spirits outside of their control. Individuals then became solely responsible for their illness and disease based on their predetermined genetics and biology. There remained, however, a new form of irresponsibility. Now, an individual’s genes and biology became responsible for his or her behavior, removing it from consciousness. On one level, people were hyper-responsible in the sense that they could do no other than what they did because it was biologically and historically determined. On the other hand, free will was gone, therefore freeing people of any responsibility.

Postmodernism: Constructing and Deconstructing Mental Illness

Postmodern scholars developed many alternatives to the premodern and modern constructions of anomalous experience and mental strife, often integrating aspects of both. A staple in postmodern understanding is that it does not necessarily disregard premodern and modern knowledge, but it places it in a different context that changes the meaning. As Walter Truett Anderson stated, postmodernism “has to do with a change not so much in what we believe as in how we believe.” Shades of the old are recast in a new context bringing new understandings.

Deconstructing Hyper-Responsibility and the Medical Model and Postmodern Constructions of Mental Illness

Modernism produced various forms of hyper-responsibility, some of which have roots in premodern times. The development of individualism in the West, along with the frontier myths of America, idealized the independent person and overestimated personal power. Some of the extremes of the humanistic psychology movement of the 1970s and the later cognitive revolution, set in modernist tones, further the belief that people could create their own destiny.

Postmodernism debunked the fallacy that mental illness could occur in isolation; it is always a product of culture. Furthermore, the cultural appraisal of mental illness further impacts how it is experienced. As an example, during the age of science depression increasingly was pathologized, whereas in premodern times it often was seen as normal, as a personality style, or as a combination of the two. Now that it has been labeled a mental illness and people with depression are portrayed as pathological, the experience of depression for the depressed person has changed.

Culture determines what mental illness is, and then it creates or influences the consequences, often resembling a punishment, for being mentally ill. In this context, mental illness is better understood as a social and systemic problem, not an individual one. However, the individual should not be lost either. Although the culture and system create the context and define mental illness, from a postmodern perspective the therapist ought to be primarily concerned with the individual’s subjective experience, taking into account the contextual or communal influences. The therapist should not impose upon a client the cultural norms or views of mental health; rather, the therapist should work with the client to help him or her define and achieve the outcomes the client desires.

Demon Possession and Daimonic Possession

Postmodernism’s relationship with ideas such as demon possession is complex. In general, it is more sympathetic toward demon possession; however, it still tends to be skeptical. This skepticism is not out of necessity, but rather is a general tendency. In other words, there is nothing in the nature of postmodernism that would stand against the idea of demon possession; however, most postmodernists remain skeptical of most or all purported cases.

Stephen A. Diamond provided one of the most thoughtful critiques of demon possession written to date. He argues that demon possession is better understood as daimonic possession. The daimonic, which resembles Jung’s idea of the shadow, was first developed by Rollo May. May defined the daimonic as “any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person.” This places the daimonic squarely in the realm of depth psychology. Aspects of the psyche that are denied or repressed form the primary power of the daimonic.

Daimonic possession, according to Diamond, resembles demonic possession. Because that which is exerting control over the self is repressed or otherwise kept from consciousness, it feels as if the controlling force is external. Demons, in this sense, can be a mythical language for the daimonic aspects of the psyche. The utilization of symbolic language brings the classic ideas of demon possession into contemporary light, giving them a very different meaning. It honors the experience of feeling as if one is possessed, and recognizes this language as valid, in a sense. However, it continues to remain skeptical of the metaphysical basis of classical interpretations of demon possession.

From Szasz to Critical Psychology

The most disturbing aspect of contemporary constructions of mental illness, such as those represented in the DSM-IV-TR, is the blatant lack of awareness of the values imposition that is part of diagnosing. In a very real sense, the writers of the various versions of the DSM have created a value system that has been adopted by the majority of the mental health field in the United States and then imposed upon people with little consideration of disparate views, clients’ views or therapists’ views. This view has been imposed on other cultures living in the United States and exported to other countries to be imposed upon them, too. This usage of the DSM is ethnocentric, narcissistic, and immoral. This is a strong and harsh statement, but not made without reason.

Three examples of harm should sufficiently demonstrate the danger of missing the values judgment component of diagnosis. First, homosexuality was considered a mental illness until 1973 when it was finally removed from the DSM.The harm of labeling homosexual as mentally ill or morally wrong is fairly evident in the literature. American Psychiatry and Homosexuality: An Oral History includes many stories of gay, lesbian, and bisexual psychiatrists who underwent significant suffering because of their sexual orientation leading up to the 1973 change and even afterward as the judgments continued.62 Recent research exploring the impact of religious judgments of homosexuality suggested that even religious statements intended to be tolerant of homosexuality often cause harm.

In a second example, Krippner and Achterberg report on several professional articles that associated shamanism with mental illness, particularly psychotic and dissociative disorders. The research, however, finds that there is no association between shamanism and mental illness and that it may even be correlated with better psychological health than the general population. The biases against alternative ways of approaching health often are prone to being unfairly pathologized despite evidence to the contrary.

Third, many religious experiences, such as glossolalia (i.e., speaking in tongues), dissociative and mystical religious experiences, and believing that God talks to an individual, are often viewed as signs of mental illness, particularly psychotic or dissociative disorders. Within the religious community and cultural context, these are normal, and potentially even normative. Oftentimes, these experiences are associated with healing potential within many religious groups, and there is some support for their healing potential.

Many critics of mainstream psychology point out other problems with the dominant paradigm of mental health, which generally assumes that one should be happy or comfortable, normal, and stable over time. Existential approaches, conversely, point out the value and redemptive qualities of suffering. Providing comfort too quickly or in certain situations can be destructive. The more evident form of the destructive aspects of providing comfort connects to comfort that facilitates repression; what is uncomfortable is pushed from conscious awareness, but not resolved. Several critics have also voiced concern about providing comfort at times where it may be more appropriate to incite discomfort and even anger. For example, when therapists help minority groups and other targets of oppression to become comfortable with their situation, they are reinforcing a system of oppression. A more appropriate response is often to help clients use their pain, suffering, and anger as motivation to engage in appropriate activism against these discriminatory forces.

A Postmodern-Premodern Alliance

Postmodernism, at times, seems to be aligning with premodernism more than modernism. In many ways, this is true; however, it tends to recast premodern ideas into a more contemporary understanding. Drawing from previously cited examples, postmodernism defends the understanding of indigenous healing; however, it suggests that this may be because it is a culturally derived truth, not a universal one. The premodern understanding would claim a universal truth where postmodernism would claim a local truth; both would agree on the power to change.

Making Sense of Disparate Voices

A valid critique of this chapter to this point would be to maintain that the differences between premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism are largely linguistic. For example, demon possession, dissociative identity disorder, and daimonic possession can, at times, be referring to the same experience. It is simply using a different language to describe the experience. In all of these, the subjective experience is as if something external to the self is taking over control, or partial control, of the individual. We agree with this critique.

The limitation of this critique is that it can be taken to imply that the specific language used and cultural beliefs do not matter. To this, we strongly disagree. First and most obvious, the language used will determine whether spiritual means (i.e., exorcism), biological means (i.e., psychopharmaceuticals), or psychotherapy will be used for treatment. Postmodernism would maintain that because mental illness is socially constructed, all of these treatment approaches would likely be successful at times, and unsuccessful at other times. Success may be more dependent upon the individual’s belief system than the technique. However, there are still consequences to each treatment, and some of those consequences cause harm.

Second, we would maintain, consistent with the postmodern perspective, that language has impact. How the anomalous experience is put into language impacts how it is experienced. In other words, although there are similarities in the subject experience of all three (demon possession, dissociative identity disorder, and daimonic possession), how the individual conceptualizes the anomalous experience will change his or her experience. Additionally, how the culture around the individual understands the anomalous experience will also have an impact on the broader experience. The redundancy of the word experience in this paragraph should be taken to emphasize the various levels of experience and the complexity of it.

It is possible to log the varieties of anomalous experience across the different paradigms, noting how each paradigm brings a different language and understanding to the experience. Mental strife, miracles, and other anomalous experiences are existential realities in the sense that people have experienced them as long as humans have existed. What has changed is how they have been interpreted, understood, and treated (or not treated).

Conclusion: Where Are We Now?

We conclude with no clear answers regarding the reality of the nature of mental strife and anomalous experience. It is now up to the reader to develop his or her conclusions about the reality of these events. If we could end with a caution, it is to be careful of how these conclusions are used and to take into consideration the applicable variations and cultural differences. The various types of spiritual, religious, and mental health practitioners should be aware that culture is more than a construct or something that should be approached sensitively. Culture creates or impacts reality for individuals. So treatment, intervention or guidance should always be conducted with careful attention to the cultural context in which it is provided.