30 November 2012

On Using Demons to Explain Personal Struggles

[Warning: This is a ‘rantish wordy’ post, not a ‘pictures with amusing captions’ post]

Earlier I wrote a quick post about some fundamentalist loonies blaming demon sex as the cause of some people’s homosexuality. While I think it is easy to dismiss these particular arguments as the unfounded and misguided sputum that they are, it nevertheless got me thinking about how often demons are genuinely invoked as having an effect on people in the real world.

Like many of the things that I object to in religious thinking, the idea of demons as an explanation for any problems we have appears too easy and convenient an answer. It seem to clearly human in its motivation. Sure this kind of explanation may have held water when our species lived in the ignorance of the Bronze Ages, much like how gods could be invoked to explain thunder; because we didn’t know any better, and it was easier. These days however, relying on such external agents as demons to explain away personal struggles and mental problems is just a cop out.
You see this all the time when people talk about battling their demons, whether it be in the form of alcoholism, depression, or any other negative aspects of their lives. It is a handy way of making it seem like the problem you are having isn’t something intrinsic to you, but rather something happening to you. In this sense it isn’t your fault.
Doing this you effectively externalise your problems, and can even further romanticise this by calling the process a struggle. It allows a certain level of detachment from responsibility, and can also make the whole thing seem less futile. To some, battling a demon is something that can be won, whereas dealing with an inherent problem within yourself can seem like an impossible task.
To a certain extent, these externalisations are not all bad things; however I think this approach gets more wrong, than it does right. This demopomorphising (can I copyright that term?) of ones problems can actually make a lot of sense when you consider the fact that in many cases, these are things that are simply beyond our control. We don’t choose to be depressed, nor do we choose in the strictest sense to be alcoholics.
In many instances things like mental illnesses are a fact of life, and so they can in effect take on the same attributes as some mysterious external force acting upon us.
But I can’t help feel that it is much better to accept that these forces which are external to us can nevertheless be contained entirely within our physical body, and that they don’t require a supernatural explanation. Our brain can work against us, without our consent, or knowledge, and bring about conditions that affect who we are, without necessarily having to be considered an intrinsic part of who we are.

Of course I realise that many instances of evoking demon battling is done in a purely figurative manner. It is however important to realise that a good deal of the public actually do believe in demons actively influencing people’s lives in the literal sense. And there are the more amorphous concepts of demons out there that others adopt. 
A man I previously worked with surprised me one night by revealing that he was a Buddhist. I had heard there were many around these days, but to have a live one in front of me seemed like quite an occasion. Much like when I manage to find a real Christian amongst the throng of unbelievers, and even though I know that Australia is apparently rife with them, they so seldom make their presence known.
Anyway, this real life Buddhist co-worker replied in the affirmative when I asked him if he believed in demons, as I had heard many Buddhists do. As I prepared to place my arguing hat on, and steeled myself for a rhetorical battle to defend reason, I was slightly dismayed when he explained that these demons weren’t supernatural beings. “It’s more like accepting that alcoholism is something that can affect all our brains, it’s something that we are all susceptible to.  There are others too; other things which can affect us negatively in similar ways. And these things are also like demons”
While this explanation doesn’t really sit quite well with me, it was nevertheless a more rational response that I was used to hearing.
Fine, I suppose if you want to refer to these negative aspects of the human condition as demons, I guess I can’t stop you.
But at the end of the day it still seems to me that to describe these negative aspects of our lives as demons just adds unnecessary nomenclature to the situations, which muddies up the waters. Similar to the folly of an atheist talking of the soul, when what they are really just referring to is their inner convictions or mind. Or when people invoke the analogy of ones heart as the seat of their emotions, rather than a muscle to pump blood. Just cut out the superfluous terms and stick to more direct explanations, it often will not only lead to less confusion, but also give a more accurate understanding of what is really at play.

I think Douglas Adams made a fine point of it when he remarked on one of his own mental quibbles, in this instance lacking confidence;
"I have terrible periods of lack of confidence [..] I briefly did therapy, but after a while I realised it was like a farmer complaining about the weather. You can't fix the weather – you just have to get on with it"
Mental problems are things to be dealt with as best we can. They generally aren’t there due to any fault of the person in question, nor are they there for some esoteric religious or mythological sense. They just are.
To try and pin meaning, or intent, onto the things that befall us leads to confusion, halts any real and effective treatment, and places blame in all the wrong places.

Of course this is all just my opinion, and I have absolutely no grounding in any of the relevant sciences in order to make these statements with even the ghost of authority (an I realise that I kind of ended up aiming this rant in the direction of mental illnesses). But hell; isn’t this what the internet is for?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments, particularly if anyone out there has any actual expertise in this area (if this even is an area one can be expert in).

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