Christianity, Demons and Mental Disorder

by Dr Tasia Scrutton

Last Tuesday was the first day of Lent, the forty days in which Christians observe the temptation and testing of Jesus in the desert by the devil, interpreted by some Christians in literal and others in metaphorical, usually psychological, terms. On the same day, newspapers reported the story of Vilma Trujillo, a 25 year old woman from Nicaragua who died after sustaining severe burns. Vilma’s murder is also connected with Christian beliefs about the diabolical or demonic, albeit in a rather different way. While the case has yet to be brought to trial, it seems Vilma was attacked, tied up, and thrown into a fire by a pastor and church members as part of an ‘exorcism’ ritual, since she was believed by the church to be demonically possessed (BBC, 2017). This incident is not unique. For example, in 2005 a young Romanian Orthodox nun, Irena Cornici, died as a result of being gagged and chained to a cross and left in a cold room without food and water for three days at the hands of priests and fellow nuns – part of an attempt to exorcise her for what psychiatrists identified as schizophrenia (BBC, 2005).

In what kinds of context might these bizarre-seeming and horrific modern-day incidents make sense? Though it’s tempting to distance ourselves culturally from them (the short BBC article mentions twice that Vilma was from an ‘isolated’ part of Nicaragua), demonic accounts of what psychiatrists would call ‘mental disorder’ are in fact quite common, especially in Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. Demonic accounts are also extremely geographically widespread. In a 2008 textual analysis of Christian bestselling self-help books about depression, most from the US, Marcia Webb, Kathy Stetz and Kristin Hedden note that demonic influence is the most frequently-cited explanation for depression (Webb, Stetz and Hedden, 2008). A 2007 study finds that 54% of Americans believe in demons and an additional 19.4% think that demons ‘probably’ exist, thus opening the door to demonic accounts of mental disorder (Baylor Religion Survey, Baylor University, 2007). In a 2005 Australian-based study, Kristine Hartog and Kathryn Gow find that 38.2% of 126 Protestant Christians endorsed a demonic aetiology of depression, and 37.4% endorsed a demonic aetiology of schizophrenia. While only anecdotal, since beginning to study this topic, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have told me about demonic accounts in the UK, whether by people who have encountered them in church contexts, or by people who themselves endorse them.

Michelangelo, The Torment of St Anthony, after an engraving by Martin Schongauer, c.1487-9

Demonic accounts of mental disorder are sometimes described as forms of ‘lay theology’ (Webb, Stetz and Hedden, 2008), and yet we can find them in literature written by church leaders, mental health professionals and academics – literature that of course is particularly influential because of the status of the authors. One such example is Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness, written by Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, a practising psychologist, and a church leader. An initial glance at Stanford’s book might give the impression that he will criticise, rather than endorse, demonic interpretations of depression.

The blurb on the back cover explains that:

Each day men and women diagnosed with mental disorders are told they need to pray more and turn from their sin. Mental illness is equated with demon possession, weak faith, and generational sin. Why is it that the church has struggled in ministering to those with mental illnesses? As both a church leader and professor of psychology and neuroscience, Dr Stanford had seen far too many mentally ill brothers and sisters damaged by well-meaning believers who respond to them out of fear or misinformation rather than grace. (Stanford, 2008)

The expectation that this will be a book that challenges demonic accounts will be strengthened if one is aware of Stanford’s academic research in this area, which includes a study that surveys ‘negative interactions’ people with mental illness have with their churches. These ‘negative interactions’ include abandonment or shunning and the idea that the mental disorder is the work of demons or the result of sin (Stanford, 2007). Stanford also reflects on the gendered dimensions of church responses to mental illness: according to the findings of his survey, ‘the mental disorders of women, significantly more than men, are being dismissed by the church’, which he puts down to ‘misguided patriarchal views’ influencing leaders’ advice to women (Stanford, 2007, 448). The tone of Stanford’s writing here, and indeed in parts of the book, is one of liberalism, moderateness and humanity.

However, this tone and aspect of his work sit strangely with many other things Stanford says within his book. Stanford uses biblical texts to argue that some, though by no means all or most, physical and mental illnesses are caused by demons (2008, 28 – 29). While demons may afflict Christians in this way, demon possession, defined as a person completely losing control of their thought and behaviour to a demon, happens to some people, but it is not possible for it to happen to a Christian (2008, 30, 33). Under the heading of ‘encountering the demonic’, Stanford describes the experience of Cindy, a then-non-Christian woman who had an episode which involved running up and down the street in the rain in her underwear. When her husband grabbed her and restrained her in a chair, she said ‘This whole God thing is crazy!’ A friend said she was going to pray over her, to which she replied ‘No prayer! Don’t pray for me!’ followed by ‘I hate my mother’ and ‘I’m mad at God. I wanted a baby and I never got a baby!’ Stanford recounts that when Cindy was prayed over the episode stopped, and that she then accepted Christ and became active in ministry and never had a similar experience again (2008, 36 – 7). Implicitly, here Stanford seems to identify correlation with cause: becoming a Christian seems to have been what ended her alleged demonic encounter. Elsewhere he argues that ‘The simplest – and most effective – way to deal with […] demon-possession would be to lead the individual to faith in Christ’ (34 – 35). Interestingly, despite being a psychologist, Stanford does not appeal to psychology in relation to Cindy’s episode, for example by discussing the possibility of repressed feelings of anger at God or the church or her mother, or sorrow over not having a child. Concomitantly, becoming a Christian, rather than exploring or addressing these feelings, is presented as the solution to the problem.

Stanford’s account is more moderate than many, but it is typical of conservative Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian ways of relating mental illness to the demonic in several respects. For example, demonic accounts of mental illness from this religious milieu are part of a family of accounts of mental illness in which the mentally ill person is regarded as not saved, as experiencing judgment for or the natural result of sin, or as demonically possessed or oppressed, almost always as a result of sin. What is common to these ideas when compared with other Christian interpretations of mental illness is that they see mental illness as antithetical to salvation and the spiritual life (see Scrutton, 2015a). According to these accounts, mental illness is reflective of a spiritually unsalutary state. Simply put, mental illness is spiritual illness. This may seem an obvious point, but it is at odds with other strands of Christian thought – for example, the idea that evil spirits are more likely to tempt a person if they are in fact particular holy or close to God, of which the story of Jesus’, and St. Anthony’s (depicted in the picture above), temptations in the desert are examples. The Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian accounts of mental illness are also characterised by an individualistic and voluntaristic view of sin. In other words, sin is something done voluntarily – it is within the person’s control – and it is also something for which an individual person (or number of individual persons) is responsible, rather than something more corporate or shared, for example on account of belonging to and participating in a shared culture. Again, while typical of this kind of Christianity’s view of sin, this is not representative of Christian thought historically, or across the board (see McFadyen, 2000).

The vast body of recent literature on religion and mental health has pointed to a positive relationship between mental health and religious belief (Koenig). Whether or not they involve violent exorcism rituals, the relationship between belief in demonic possession and mental health seems less salutary. We might speculate that the belief that one is continually being targeted by unseen, powerful and malevolent beings as a result of one’s sinfulness might not have a beneficial effect on one’s mental well-being, and this is borne out by the empirical evidence. A just-published paper by Fanhao Nie and Daniel Olson reports a pair of studies involving a longitudinal telephone survey of 3,290 young Americans between 2003 and 2008, which strongly suggests that belief in demons has a significant negative effect on mental health (Nie and Olson, 2017). In addition to the direct impact of a person believing in the demonic, demonic accounts may have other, indirect, negative effects on people experiencing mental illness. For example, whether or not they themselves believe in the demonic, some Christians report being cautious about sharing their experiences of mental illness with others Christians for fear of being told they are sinful or demonically possessed, leading to alienation and a lack of social support from communities they might otherwise turn to (see Scrutton 2015b).

In addition to this, demonic accounts of mental illness are damaging, not least because they deflect attention away from the social causes of mental illness by problematising the person (by regarding them as sinful), and de-problematising their context (the circumstances that led to their mental distress). The pages of demonic accounts of mental illness tend to feature quite regularly the examples of people, but especially women, whose ‘sinful’ behaviour is highlighted, without much reference to the wider social factors in play. As is increasingly recognised, what appears to be a relatively high prevalence of mental health issues among groups frequently disadvantaged, harassed or discriminated against – including women and LGBT people – mean we need to take the social causes of mental illness more rather than less seriously. Conservative Evangelical and Pentecostal demonic accounts reflect Christianity’s continuingly-problematic relationship with gender, sex and sexuality. The dismissal of women’s experiences of mental disorders (Stanford, 2007) and the stories of Irena and Vilma highlight just a few of the harmful and devastating consequences of it.

What is the role of Religious Studies scholarship in all this? Sociological, anthropological, philosophical and theological dimensions of Religious Studies can help us to understand the very different contexts in which ideas about demonic possession emerge, and how they fit into (or depart from) the religions, cultures and ideologies of which they are a part. This is crucial, since we cannot engage intelligently or effectively with beliefs and practices we don’t understand. While some Religious Studies scholarship has historically been hesitant about critically engaging with religious beliefs, preferring to retain a neutral or disinterested observer perspective, the role of Religious Studies in not only describing but also evaluating and appropriately criticising problematic beliefs and practices is important too. Indeed, since beliefs and practices we’ve come to define as ‘religion’ sometimes get a free pass in our culture on account of being ‘part of someone’s religion’ and so the damage they cause tolerated or overlooked, by having a detailed understanding of the belief or practice in question, and rigorous philosophical, sociological and other tools to critically analyse beliefs and practices, Religious Studies has a distinctive role to play in bringing about positive social change.


Baylor University. 2007. The Baylor Religion Survey, wave II. Waco, TX: Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

Available at

BBC, 2017. Nicaragua woman burnt on a fire in an exorcism ritual. Available at:

BBC, 2005. ‘Crucified’ Romanian nun exhumed. Available at

Hartog, K. , & Gow, K. (2005). Religious attributions pertaining to the causes and cures of mental illness. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 8(4), 263-276

Koenig, Harold, King, Dana and Carson, Verna (2012), Handbook of Religion and Health. Oxford: Oxford University Press

McFadyen, A. 2000. Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust, and the Christian Doctrine of Sin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Nie, Fanhao and Olson, Daniel. 2017. Demonic Influence: The Negative Mental Health Effects of Beliefs in Demons. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, DOI: 10.1111/jssr.12287

Scrutton, Anastasia Philippa 2015a. Two Christian theologies of depression. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology 22.4, 275 – 289 (DOI: 10.1353/ppp.2015.0046)

Scrutton, Anastasia Philippa. 2015b. ‘Is depression a sin or a disease?’ A critique of moralizing and medicalizing models of mental illness. Journal of Religion and Disability 19.4, 285 – 311 (DOI: 10.1080/23312521.2015.1087933

 Stanford, Matthew. 2008. Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness. Colorado Springs: Paternoster Press

Stanford, Matthew. 2007. Demon or disorder: A survey of attitudes toward mental illness in the Christian church. In Mental Health, Religion & Culture 10.5, pp. 445–449

Webb, M., Stetz, K., & Hedden, K., 2008. Representation of mental illness in Christian self-help bestsellers. Mental health, Religion and Culture 11 (7), 697 – 717


Representation, self-disclosure and the role of the teacher in the study of religion

A little while ago, there was an interesting twitter discussion about whether, as teachers, we should be open with students about our own religious backgrounds and commitments. It’s a subject we are interested in here at the Centre for Religion and Public Life (and a topic that is likely to come up in a couple of research days that we are running later in the year). We asked Jo Henderson-Merrygold from the University of Sheffield to reflect on this issue, from her perspective, in this blog post.  Thank you Jo!

Jo Henderson-Merrygold

What is it we do when we disclose or decline to disclose our (non)religious location(s), and why do we do it? I’m a passionate exponent of teaching in a non-confessional environment: one which articulates clearly that there is no expectation or demand for staff or students to disclose. But I’ve disclosed: I told one of my first year student groups that I am a Methodist Local Preacher! It was relevant: we were talking about effective constructions of arguments and I was arguing for the merits of a three-point model. How very Methodist I am!

Then again, how Methodist am I really, and is a three-point sermon the entire foundation of being, Christian, Methodist or even a local preacher? It is far more complicated than that, which is exactly why the non-confessional foundation is so important. On another occasion, a student clearly perceived me to be non-religious which led to discussions about how we conduct study of religious history.  Another struggled to disentangle an overtly religious author – a Rabbi – from their published work. Had these students known not only of my religious beliefs but that I am an office holder, I am aware that they may have considered my teaching differently. Other students wanted to find that their religious identities were valid and accepted in the classroom. But before we discuss religion too much I’d like to reflect on the other key subject I teach: LGBT+ Studies. So let’s return to my initial claim for a moment: I’m a passionate exponent of teaching in a non-confessional environment.

I am committed to the idea that no student or staff member should be expected to disclose… sexuality, gender identity, or (non)religious location(s). Nobody should ever force anyone into or out of a closet! Teaching LGBT+ Studies and queer biblical studies have both been helpful in enabling me to nuance my approach to disclosure and representation, not least in acknowledging to myself that there are no more grounds for me to withhold my religious identity than my sexuality. Both can have a representative function, while equally hold the potential to distract from what it is I am attempting to teach. So how to navigate this treacherous realm?

Let me reflect for a moment on one of my early PhD research methods classes: a fellow student asked “so, what is your religious allegiance?”, or something similar. My reply was rather abrupt: “I’m happy to tell you; but why is my (non-)religious background more relevant than, say, politics, gender identity, sexuality, class, ethnicity or educational and employment background? In my previous university the non-confessional approach was established from day one and something I really value.” It certainly wasn’t something I realised I had valued so highly, but in that moment it really became clear to me that it was so very important and valuable. Depending on the context any one or more facets of identity can become apparent or relevant in a given context, but do we consider the process of disclosure or revelation the same with each?

In considering what to disclose it is also worth considering what I am likely to be perceived to represent. Those facets of identity which are discernible on encounter also factor in how we are perceived as teachers. Is it relevant to my teaching that I’m a PhD student rather than someone with a doctorate? How about my status as a mature student, my southern English accent, white skin colour, physical size, marital status, or gender? Each of these has an impact on my reception by students, some of which may be more tangible than others. Just as the students will form conclusions about my life based on these things, they will form others based on how I teach the subjects too.

When teaching (and, for that matter, preaching) I don’t want to be an unnecessary distraction, and this informs the decisions I make about what to disclose, to whom, and when. As graduate teaching assistant for LGBT+ Studies, I was listed on the module handbook as Mrs Jo Henderson-Merrygold. My marital status was therefore known before I started teaching. But what does that mean? To whom am I married, and what does their name or honorific tell students about me? The answer in many ways is “not a lot,” but equally it can mean everything. In the module we discuss public figures and representation, about sex and relationships education, about the need to address the lived experiences of LGBT+ people inside and outside the academy. Some of them have never knowingly met an LGBT+ person before taking the class, and the annual panel discussion hosted by the LGBT+ staff network is a visible opportunity to change that situation without forcing the students to out themselves. Similar to the non-confessional approach to religion I valued as a student at Leeds, no student in the LGBT+ studies course is forced to disclose anything they are unwilling to share, but there is also an agreement to treat the classroom as a safe, respectful space. I can’t remember exactly when I referred to my spouse as my wife, but it was late in the module and my relationship with the students had stabilised.

The motivation for outing myself as gay is the same as that for outing myself as Christian: is visibility and representation important in the context, and is the timing appropriate for the subject being taught? Some classes I’ve disclosed neither, but others I have disclosed one or both. This matches my approach to writing up my research for publication: is my own location relevant to the work being presented? If yes, and if it has impacted how I’ve undertaken the research or what conclusions I’ve reached it needs to be acknowledged. If not, it can remain outside the text. All these months, and many hours of teaching, later I feel confident the conclusion still holds. If you need to know, I’ll tell you. If you don’t, I’m happy for you to make whatever assumptions and draw whatever conclusions you wish. If you ask me directly I’ll give you an honest answer – whether it’s about politics, ethnicity, class, or educational background or about sexuality, gender identity, or religious belief.