Demons, Playing Cards, and Telescopes

Atheistic materialism is the belief that matter is all there is: not only does God not exist, this theory argues, but there’s no spiritual realm. From a Christian perspective, this position can seem baffling: how do these atheists account for all of the evidence of miracles, or conversely, demonic possession? One answer is that they just don’t see this evidence. As it turns out, even very smart, well-meaning people can be so predisposed to the truth of a certain view (like materialism) that they’re almost blind to contrary evidence. That’s the phenomenon that I explore in a piece that I wrote for Strange Notions. Here’s an excerpt:

Giotto, Exorcism of the Demons at Arezzo (1298)

In 1949, Jerome S. Bruner and Leo Postman asked a group of 28 students at Harvard and Radcliffe to perform a simple task: identify playing cards. There were just two catches. First, these cards were shown very quickly: for 10 milliseconds at first, but increasing up to 1000 milliseconds if they struggled to identify the card. Second, the researchers were using a deck of four ordinary playing cards and six “trick cards” in which the card’s color and suit were incongruous (red spades, black hearts, and the like).

This second catch proved to be quite vexing. Bruner and Postman found that it took these students four times longer to identify a “trick card” than a normal card:

While normal cards on the average were recognized correctly — here defined as a correct response followed by a second correct response — at 28 milliseconds, the incongruous cards required 114 milliseconds. […] The reader will note that even at the longest exposure used, 1000 ms., only 89.7 per cent of the incongruous cards had been correctly recognized, while 100 per cent of the normal cards had been recognized by 350 milliseconds.

The students’ brains struggled to process something as out-of-the-ordinary as a red six of clubs. The first time that they saw a trick card, it took students an average of 360-420 milliseconds (more than twelve times longer than it took them to identify ordinary cards). Even after they had seen two or three trick cards, it still took a full 84 milliseconds for them to identify trick cards. [….]

This is what we might call an incongruous perception problem: when we encounter something that disagrees with our worldview, we have a strong tendency to ignore or disregard it, or try to finesse it into our worldview by compromising it in some way. [….]

With this in mind, consider the Indiana exorcism case that appeared in USA Today in January, after the story was picked up from the Indianapolis Star. The case is a remarkable one for several reasons. First, there’s the sheer number of eyewitnesses: the Star interviewed “police, DCS [Department of Child Services] personnel, psychologists, family members and a Catholic priest.” There are nearly 800 pages of official records documenting the events. [….]

But what really stands out about this case are the things that the witnesses report having seen. They are remarkable, to say the least:

  • “Ammons and Campbell said the 12-year-old was levitating above the bed, unconscious.”

  • “Medical staff said the youngest boy was “lifted and thrown into the wall with nobody touching him,” according to a DCS report.””

  • “According to Washington’s original DCS report— an account corroborated by Walker, the nurse — the 9-year-old had a “weird grin” and walked backward up a wall to the ceiling. He then flipped over Campbell, landing on his feet. He never let go of his grandmother’s hand. “He walked up the wall, flipped over her and stood there,” Walker told The Star. “There’s no way he could’ve done that.””
  • “[Gary Police Captain Charles] Austin said the driver’s seat in his personal 2005 Infiniti also started moving backward and forward on its own.”

So what do we make of this case?

Christians are free to disbelieve that this case was demonic, of course. Believing that demons exist doesn’t mean that everything blamed on demons is really demonic, as opposed to delusions, lies, mental illness, etc. There’s no prior commitment to this being demonic or non-demonic: Christians are free to simply evaluate the evidence as it is presented.

But for atheists who deny the existence of the spiritual realm, stories like this one are a bit of a red six of clubs. There’s no way to easily harmonize the facts presented with the belief that that matter is all that there is.

Read the full piece, and several reactions, over at Strange Notions.


  1. Joe, fascinating article.

    Reading through the comments is interesting yet predictable. Atheists will NOT believe stories like the one you cited. Ever. They’d have to see something first-hand, much like UFO non-believers (like myself) would need to see a UFO first-hand. Most of faith is just knowing something exists. You and I and billions of others feel it. We can’t always explain it. I feel bad for atheists that they don’t “know”, like I do. I’m not suggesting I’m better than them. Heck, I may be worse off ‘cause I stumble through life knowing how much I fail in His eyes. Maybe as non-believers they’ll have less to be accountable for when at the pearly gates.

    There’s a few things on this earth that, if I HAD to prove that God exists, I’d think of. And the top of that list would be DOGS.

    The creatures are truly amazing. I know, I know…an atheist will likely type a 20-paragraph response explaining how dogs evolved over the tens of thousands of years to become what they are. To me, dogs are angels on earth. They’re spirit and never-ending love is like a red six of clubs.

  2. “Believing that demons exist doesn’t mean that everything blamed on demons is really demonic, as opposed to delusions, lies, mental illness, etc.”

    This sentence has me confused. Are you saying that mental illness is actually demonic?

    1. Cynthia,

      I’m saying the opposite- that not everything we think of as demonic is necessarily so. Sometimes, mental illness is mistaken for possession, so the Church carefully investigates such cases.

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