What we don’t know about Demon Camp can haunt us

There’s no sight in nature more beautiful to me than the dance of epistemologies, but of late I’ve begun tuning out articles on “science vs. religion” and “atheism or faith” because the Death of God appears to have discharged more heat than light.  When the usual suspects make the usual points in the usual way to the usual crowd, a wise man is forgiven for playing “Flappy Birds” instead of taking notes.

I grant you that a subject like this dates back thousands of years and advances at a glacial pace, but it does advance.  The writing about it in much of the popular press does not.  It treats the clash of culture the way it treats celebrity outfits – an infinitely renewable source of the same old adjectives draping the flavor of the week.

I also have a problem with Flappy Bird.

So after a long scholarly winter I’m pleased to have some truly thought provoking works on how we navigate the search for divinity and our place in the world.

It’s hard to recommend Adam Gropnik’s New York piece “Bigger Than Phil” enough.  A subtle, nuanced, search not so much of the issues of theological epistemology (how do we know God does or doesn’t exist) but of the moment when our cultural switched from one default position (“of course there’s a God”) to another (“what kind of intellectual could possibly be a believer?”).  In that look at our history, of course, we discover a lot about our present that’s worth knowing, and Gropnik is an elegant cultural coroner.

“The problem is that godlessness as a felt condition is very different from atheism as an articulate movement,” he notes.  “(W)e are divided not so much between believers and non- as between what might be called Super-Naturalists, who believe that a material account of existence is inadequate to our numinous-seeming experience, and Self-Makers, who are prepared to let the human mind take credit even for the most shimmering bits of life.” … “Indeed, much of the argument against God works less well as argument and thesis than as atmosphere and tone. The sappers who silently undermined the foundations of the Church did more damage than the soldiers who stormed the walls.”

And then there’s this insightful section, which deserves to be quoted in its entirety:

“What’s easily missed in all this is something more important: the clandestine convergence between Super-Naturalists and Self-Makers. Surprisingly few people who have considered the alternatives—few among the caucus who consciously stand up, voting aye or nay—believe any longer in God. Believe, that is, in an omnipotent man in the sky making moral rules and watching human actions with paranoiac intensity. The ayes do believe in someone—a principle of creation, a “higher entity,” that “ground of being,” an “idea of order,” an actor beyond easy or instant comprehension, something more than matter and bigger than Phil. And they certainly believe in some thing—a church, a set of rituals, a historical scheme, and an anti-rational tradition. But the keynote of their self-description typically involves a celebration of mystery and complexity, too refined for the materialist mind to accept. Self-Makers often do an injustice to the uncertainty of Super-Naturalists, who, if anything, tend to fetishize the mystery of faith as a special spiritual province that nonbelievers are too fatuous to grasp, and advertise their doubt and their need for faith quite as much as their dogma. “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” not “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” is the Super-Naturalists’ anthem these days.

But, just as surely, most noes believe in something like what the Super-Naturalists would call faith—they search for transcendence and epiphany, practice some ritual, live some rite. True rationalists are as rare in life as actual deconstructionists are in university English departments, or true bisexuals in gay bars. In a lifetime spent in hotbeds of secularism, I have known perhaps two thoroughgoing rationalists—people who actually tried to eliminate intuition and navigate life by reasoning about it—and countless humanists, in Comte’s sense, people who don’t go in for God but are enthusiasts for transcendent meaning, for sacred pantheons and private chapels. They have some syncretic mixture of rituals: they polish menorahs or decorate Christmas trees, meditate upon the great beyond, say a silent prayer, light candles to the darkness. They talk without difficulty of souls and weapons of the spirit, and go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve to hear the Gloria, and though they leave early, they leave fulfilled. You will know them by their faces; they are the weepy ones in the rear.

If atheists underestimate the fudginess in faith, believers underestimate the soupiness of doubt.”


My only bone to pick with Gropnik is that as his argument goes on, he seems to lose sight of the fact that he began talking about our elite intellectual culture and instead draws too big a claim for the culture as a whole.  Because in fact many, many, members of our culture – indeed perhaps a majority (depending on which survey of who and when) DOES experience an active and engaged divinity tht interferes with their daily lives and is directly experienced.

One need look no farther for proof of this than Jennifer Percy’s extraordinary book “Demon Camp,” which I just devoured like ribs after a fast.

A look at soldiers who believe PTSD is caused by demons, and at one “exorcism” group, this book is an extraordinarily well written … if not to say viscerally terrifying … tour de force.  It also happens to reveal just how big the gap Gropnik has left for us:  the jury may have come back on an interventionist God for our intellectual elites, but maybe they’re not the judge that matters.

Men she profiles like Caleb may not have advanced degrees, but we turn to them to shoot our guns and repair our tanks and see those aspects of life that intellectuals find disagreeable … and then, when they complain of a traumas we do not understand, we write them off as delusional and ignorant.

To suggest that the men and women we contract with to fight our wars can’t possibly know something we don’t is the height of hubris.They do not see the world the way we do, but we write them off at our peril.

But what is it, exactly, that’s going on in their world?  T.M. Luhrman’s book “When God Talks Back” asks that question in a functional way – not to settle the big questions but to try to understand the experience of interventionist religion, not as a philosophical postulate … which it is fundamentally not .. but as an experience of reality.

That is exactly the right approach to take, because the religious impulse … whether of a divine being or a “Super-Naturalist” belief in an implicate order, begins as an experience.  Believers may very well not understand intellectually how the world can hold such wonders, but they know that whatever intellectual edifice we erect must leave room for them, because they are experienced.

That hasn’t changed very much over the millennia, but these three pieces do great work to advance the conversation.