One of the most prevailing questions directed toward scientific skeptics who criticize religion, paranormal beliefs, and pseudoscientific quackery is “What’s the harm in allowing people to believe in what they want, even if their beliefs are not evidently true?” This question is often asked rhetorically by believers or those who sympathize with the believers’ cause. But when expressed honestly, the question reflects a concern for the well-being of oneself and for other people, and is thus an important question to address.
When popes sanction the rite of exorcism, there is potential for great harm to be done in the lives of any of the 1 billion people on this planet who affiliate or otherwise associate themselves on some level with the Catholic Church. One out of every seven people in the world believes that demons, angels, devils, and other fantastical creatures actually exist now or did exist. Not only that, but most of these people rigidly follow the tenets and doctrines of the Church as a guide to daily life. This means that the medieval belief in the legitimacy and effectiveness of the violent, abusive, tortuous and sometimes fatal practice of exorcism is still alive and well even in the 21st century. And as we will see, the belief in and practice of exorcism occasionally finds its way into Protestant and other non-Catholic denominations.
In Germantown, Maryland, which is located about 20 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., 28-year-old Zakieya Latrice Avery and an accomplice are being held on charges of first-degree murder for the stabbing death of Avery’s one year-old son Norell and two year-old daughter Zyana. The deaths were the result of an exorcism the two women performed on the toddlers. Avery’s two other children, 5 year-old Taniya and 8 year-old Martello, were injured in the same incident but managed to escape with wounds.
According to John McCarthy, a Montgomery County prosecutor, the mother “believed that demonic spirits were jumping from one child to the next and that she had to keep attacking them.” The preferred tool for the exorcism was a knife:
During the stabbings, the women would later tell detectives, they saw the children’s eyes turn black and a black cloud over at least one of the children.
The women appear to have washed the bodies of the youngest two children before wrapping them in blankets, believing that they needed to be clean when they reached heaven and saw God, McCarthy said.
The prosecutor also testified that Avery allegedly founded a four-person group called “Demon Assassins” and assumed the title of “commander.” Her accomplice, 21 year-old Monifa Denise Sanford, was the group’s “sergeant.” Avery and Sanford believed that by forming the group, they were ensuring that evil would not take over their lives. Their purpose and goal was to rid themselves of devils and evil spirits.
Captain Marcus Jones of the Montgomery County police department told The Baltimore Sun, “This was all about what was in their minds. They felt like there was something bad going on with the children, and they were trying to release it.” Montgomery County police are currently searching for two men who are believed to be the other members of Avery’s group.
The latest word on this story is that the two accused women are scheduled to undergo court-ordered psychiatric evaluation to determine if they are competent to stand trial. But regardless of what the determination ends up being, Avery and Sanford should not be the only people held to account for this tragic incident. We should ask how thoughts of demonic possession enter a person’s mind in the first place. And to answer that, investigators should be asking the local churches what they have to say on the matter. Should the church these women attended be deemed partially responsible for their actions?
Maranatha Brethren Church
Some news outlets did make the effort to visit the church Avery and Sanford attended to get answers. Credit is due to Maryland news outlet WHAG for uncovering the following:
The disturbing story has a local tie. The woman accused in the incident used to attend a church in Hagerstown.
Germantown resident Zakieya Avery and her four children used to attend the Maranatha Brethren Church on Scott Hill Drive. On Friday [January 17], Montgomery County Police say the 28-year-old stabbed two of her children to death and wounded two others while attempting to perform an exorcism. . . .
WHAG reached out to the Maranatha Brethren Church in Hagerstown on Monday who did not want to speak on camera, but said they were shocked and horrified by the murders.
The Maranatha Brethren Church in Hagerstown, Maryland is a member of the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, a larger set of congregations that exist in the country. The Fellowship is very conservative theologically, which means that strict adherence to doctrine is expected of members. Article III of the FGBC Constitution declares that their congregations “are united in accepting the Holy Scriptures as the sole guide and authority in all matters of faith, doctrine and practice.” According to the Fellowship’s Statement of Faith, they believe that Christians are called to a “life of righteousness, good works and separation unto God from the evil ways of the world.” This life of righteousness includes “maintaining the sanctity of the home.” They also believe in the literal existence of Satan as “the great adversary of God and His people,” and that humankind has fallen into sin.
Natalie Sherman of The Baltimore Sun reported on another development regarding Avery’s church community, writing, “A pastor at the Maranatha Brethren Church in Hagerstown told The Washington Post that members of the church drove her to mental health sessions during the time she was living there.”
So apparently, at least some of the members of Avery’s church were aware that the woman had serious mental issues. Why else would they be driving her to mental health sessions? I contend that Maranatha Brethren Church shares at least some level of responsibility for the exorcism murders of January 17, 2014. While the church is certainly not to be blamed directly, they have done Avery a grave disservice by exposing her to concepts such as demon possession and encouraging her, if only latently, that present-day exorcisms are something other than what they are: a modern form of medieval torture.
The Blurry Line between Mental Illness and Religious Belief
Any interaction between preexisting mental illness and belief in the efficacy of exorcism is combustible and sure to be disastrous. As far as consequences go, there may be no difference in telling a mentally ill person that demonic possession exists and handing the same mentally ill person a loaded gun. Professional psychologists and psychiatrists will affirm that telling a person with a delusional disorder such as schizophrenia that his or her delusions are real is a potentially devastating mistake. The doctrines espoused by Maranatha Brethren Church may not constitute the sole cause of the murderous actions Avery took, but they did exert an influence on her that was not healthy. Otherwise sane people in positions of religious authority who believe in demonic possession and exorcism are guilty of reinforcing and sanctioning the delusions of people who really do suffer from psychotic disorders.
This raises an important question: Is there a clearly-drawn line separating the person who merely adheres to a religious belief system and somebody who has an independently diagnosable mental illness? These conditions are situated differently, but only by a matter of degree. The otherwise-sane religious believer in exorcism and the schizophrenic who applies that belief in practice both suffer from the same delusion. The only distinction is that one applies belief to life situations while the other does not.
There are clear similarities between the case of Zakieya Avery and that of Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who in June of 2001 drowned her five young children in the sincere but delusional belief that it was better to kill them while young and below the age of spiritual accountability. The unacceptable alternative, in Yates’ mind, was to risk allowing them the opportunity to grow up and potentially reject God as adults, causing them to end up in torment for all eternity. Yates took her belief to its consistent and logical conclusion, and this is the only difference between her and any other Christian who shares Yates’ delusional belief in the reality of eternal hellfire for all spiritually-accountable unbelievers.
The Avery exorcism murders case is still in its early stages, and we do not know the full details concerning the specific diagnoses that will be made and the extent to which mental illness on the one hand and religious belief on the other played a role in the women’s behavior. But it is reasonable to predict that mental illness and religious belief will turn out to be closely intertwined in this case. Even if a line of demarcation can be drawn between the two conditions, this incident undeniably demonstrates that great harm to innocent people can occur when superstitious beliefs are instilled in a community. There will always be unstable people in the world who will respond the way Avery and Sanford did.