Aling Conchita peers out the window of her small hut to see if the albularyo (folk medicine man) had come. Cloves of garlic hang from door and windows to keep the aswang (a type of Filipino monster) away. She walks over to her 6-year old grandson who is burning with fever. She thinks about how he had urinated on an old tree in the field without asking permission from the spirits. And now, they were angry and had struck down the boy with fever.
If I were to ask what you thought of Aling Conchita’s practice of hanging garlic, or of believing that the fever came from evil spirits, most of you might dismiss them as the products of superstitious and uneducated people.
Just a few days ago, I read about an official of the CBCP (Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines) declaring that incidents of demonic possessions were on the rise in our country (although he could not give exact figures). He attributed these to people not attending mass, idolizing or worshipping other things, disowning God and not praying. His advice? Wear sacred objects such as scapulars, rosaries or holy medals, preferably those blessed by a priest.
Now I would daresay that many who dismissed the first example would not be so quick to do the same to the second, especially my Catholic friends. My Protestant friends wouldn’t have any qualms with demonic possessions but would surely scoff at the idea of wearing various trinkets to ward off these demons. They would say you only need to command these demons to go away in Jesus’ name. My Muslim friends would probably be skeptical of both and would bring the poor sod to an imam for him to implore Allah to drive the spirit away (Oh yes, I have heard of exorcisms done in Allah’s name — and one story from an eyewitness to the procedure).
In my skeptic mind, it is simply a matter of one mythology trumping another. We have simply replaced the old superstitions with newer ones. We have thrown out the old rituals and incantations and invented new ones, but they are superstitions, nonetheless, with the latter having no more evidence than the former. We smirk at the idea of hanging garlic at our windows, yet we invite our local cleric to bless our new home by sprinkling holy water, oil, etc. We laugh at people who wear anting-antings (amulets) yet we cling to our prayer beads, holy books or statues and believe they will ward off evil beings.
Have you ever stopped to wonder why reports of demon possession usually occur in rural areas where education and information is less accessible? Have you ever heard of a demon possession occurring in Ayala Center or SM? Or in the posh subdivisions like Forbes or Corinthian? At the very least, these demons should schedule their visit to newscasters or TV show hosts where their powers will be fully revealed on national television (and worldwide on Youtube). One would think these demons could do better than to simply prey on some unknown youngster in a far-flung town.
On another note, if idolizing or worshipping other things induce demonic possession, then shouldn’t half our congressmen and senators already be having massive fits right now? And some of you would wonder, why only half?
Have you ever heard of a scientist being possessed? If disowning God opens the door to possession, then why hasn’t any demon thought to possess Stephen Hawking? That would be a sight to see: him floating around in that wheelchair with his head spinning round and round. Why haven’t Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, James Randi or other famous atheists been possessed many times over?
Almost all the reports I’ve heard of alleged possessions occur to believers or families of believers. Now, why would that be the case, I wonder? In fact, why would a demon want to possess anybody? The logical result of demonic possession would be more faith and prayers for the family and witnesses, right? What demon with half a brain would want want that? Aren’t these creatures supposed to be highly intelligent, crafty and cunning?
I grew up believing in angels and demons — in fact I believed in them until only a few years ago, when I decided that the lack of evidence for them no longer justified such belief. I find it rather strange how long it took for that to happen. After all, I stopped believing in Santa Claus, Superman, fairies, unicorns and elves before I turned 10. Yet, we live in a culture where grown men and women believe in invisible beings playing tug-o-war with our souls (aside from giving us good parking spaces or tempting us with scantily-clad bodies).
Think about it.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao. Also appears in Freethinking Me.