Apr 8, 2010
Two-thirds of all Americans believe not only that angels and demons exist, but also that they are “active in the world.” Skeptics are dumbfounded by such “archaic nonsense.”
To believe in nonphysical beings—souls or spirits without bodies or brains—in today’s world may seem, well, delusional. But there are serious scholars who take angels and demons seriously. Why?
Certainly, nonphysical beings would challenge the scientific worldview that only the physical is real. Certainly, angels and demons, in one form or another, populate most of the world’s religions. But do angels and demons really exist?
J.P. Moreland, a Christian philosopher, defends angels and demons without hesitation or embarrassment. “I don’t believe they exist,” he tells me. “I know they exist—and there are two reasons. First, I’m convinced Christianity is true, so angels and demons being real is a system-dependent belief. Second, there are just too many credible, intelligent people who’ve had encounters with angels and demons to dismiss it. … I myself had an encounter with three angels.”
I put my skepticism to Moreland: “I’m not disputing your first-person account—I certainly believe you believe it—but I have to tell you, I am not moved one nanometer in my belief. If these angels are real, sent by God, why don’t such encounters happen more often?”
“They do,” Moreland responds.
After we agree to disagree—arguing with Moreland is, for me, revelatory and great fun—I ask about the purpose of angels.
“They are persons, they have lives, they’re involved in this world, they interact with God,” he says. “It is actually the case that children have guardian angels. This isn’t make-believe. This is real, and angels do protect children. Now, there is evil in this world, and so it’s not 100 percent.”
Not 100 percent? “It seems they’re doing an awful job,” I shoot back.
“But that’s based on your assumption of what [children suffering] would be like if angels weren’t on the job,” Moreland answers. “You don’t know that.”
“Look at Africa,” I say. “What are those guardian angels doing? Why don’t they feed those people instead of just watching them?”
“You don’t know what Africa would be like if [angels] weren’t involved,” he responds.
“I can’t imagine it worse in some cases,” I say.
“Then you need to go to Africa and talk to Africans,” says Moreland, “because they will tell you that they have seen angels and that they have helped them tremendously.”
“If Africans had more food, they wouldn’t see so many angels.”
A good sport as well as a sophisticated apologist, Moreland laughs and says, “Now that’s ad hominem argument and you know it.”
He was right: I did know it. So I move on: “Is there a finite number of angels?” I ask.
“Yes,” says Moreland.
“About how many?” I inquire attentively.
“I have absolutely no idea,” he answers.
“More than 100?” I persist.
“Yes,” he says.
“Less than a trillion?” I press.
Another “yes” from Moreland.
Surprised by the specificity, I’m momentarily speechless. In this business, setting boundaries between 100 and 1 trillion I’d call progress.
Moreland is both fun and smart (neither makes him right, of course). If he harbors doubts, I couldn’t find them.
Normally, I’d now go to a skeptic. But I already know what one would say. I prefer to explore the thinking behind such beliefs: how believers explain angels and demons.
Religious convictions are so strong. Does it help to get the biblical basis for belief in angels and demons?
Early Christian scholar James Tabor, author of The Jesus Dynasty, says that in his translation of the entire Hebrew Bible (called “The Original Bible” project), he will not use the word “angel” once. “It’s the Hebrew word ‘malach,’” he says, “which means messenger. And even though in some cases they are spiritual entities from God, the word ‘angel’ is misleading. The same word is also used for human messengers of King David. It’s the same word! So in the Hebrew Bible, ‘malach’ doesn’t have that ‘angel’ connotation of winged creatures benevolently watching over us.”
He goes on: “‘Demon’ doesn’t occur at all in the Hebrew Bible. Never. There’s one story about beings in the heavenly court with God, and one of them says, ‘Let me be a lying spirit in the mouth of this prophet.’ Almost like, let me go play this trick. But he’s not a demon in any traditional sense. So although the ancient Hebrews believed in entities beyond this world, it wasn’t thickly populated so that evil would be explained by these ‘demons.’”
What happened, he explains, was that “in later periods, in the Hellenistic world, you get this sense of pessimism, which may correlate with the rise of angels and demons. Why is there war, disease, injustice, suffering? There has to be more of an explanation than just fate, they reasoned. And I think it was very convenient for people to imagine that if there’s sickness, it’s because there are demons. It’s this attempt to explain the world with all of its troubles in some transcendent way, to explain why there’s such evil. There’s a bit of that in the Hebrew Bible, but when you open the New Testament, you’re suddenly in that world where much of Jesus’ activities involve casting out demons and healing the sick.”
Tabor concludes that “the demon-populated world, thick as flies, causing every evil, with Satan at the helm, with myriads of demons, is a comparatively late development and probably tells us very little about the cosmos as it really is.”
To get a Catholic perspective, I ask University of Notre Dame philosopher Thomas Flint. “It seems to me to be perfectly plausible to believe that angels and demons exist,” Flint begins, “though perhaps not with all of the cultural trappings—the wings and long robes.”
Flint defines an angel as “simply a finite nonphysical person who has, so to speak, decided for God to obey God. And a demon is simply a nonphysical finite person who has decided against God to rebel against God.” To Flint, angels and demons are “free spiritual beings who have something akin to a human soul, but not a physical body connected with it.” And, he adds, “it seems entirely reasonable to believe that God would create such beings.” One reason, he says, is that “there seems to be a large distance between us and God,” with “lots of possibilities for different kinds of beings for God to create [to fill the gap]. If anything, it would be very surprising if God had not created anything lower than himself but higher than us.”
Flint’s rational account of angels and demons feels so at odds with both objective science and tabloid foolishness. To me, in a way, that commends it. But it’s a mistake to assume that the existence of nonphysical beings depends on religious interpretations
Dean Radin, a leading researcher in extrasensory perception, has special ideas about angels and demons. “I view them as a projection of the unconscious,” he says. “You don’t need to go too far into the ESP world to appreciate why people persist in believing in such things. There is some kind of intersubjective reality, a reality that we create between ourselves and others by sharing thoughts and feelings.”
This is more than personal psychology. “It’s a natural extension of the idea that you’re not locked inside your head,” Radin says. “The moment that you make the leap of faith that our intentions, to some degree, can affect the world around us and what other people think, then you might create a shared mental space which can appear as if it were an angel or demon. It will seem just as real as a hard table would seem real, but it’s different in type.”
Radin uses the example of ghosts and haunting (where, he stresses, psychological explanations can be ruled out). “People go to places and they experience weird things,” he says. “Sometimes, they actually see characters of some types. Assuming these reports are real, where did those ‘characters’ come from? Perhaps many years of people all paying close attention to a given space will change it in some way so that when somebody new comes along, in that vicinity, maybe that person can resonate in some way with all of these intentions going back into the past.”
Radin calls it “place memory,” a literal physical change of some new kind in a specific location caused by multiple interactions with multiple minds. “At an informational level, the physical substrate, like the granite wall of a castle, for example, physically changes in some way,” he speculates. “And it stores information. So when somebody comes into the vicinity of that information, they pick it up.”
As a scientist, Radin prefers this kind of explanation to that of spiritual beings and nonphysical realms. “I’m thinking more or less from a physicalist, scientific perspective,” he says.
“What’s the alternative?” I ask.
“That there really is something there,” he says. “From a spiritual perspective, there may be some kind of actual entity which has gotten stuck there.”
Instead, Radin favors “something like a collective unconscious, which would have aspects of telepathy [mind-to-mind communication] and psychokinesis [mind over matter].” He calls this “large ESP,” and his conjecture is that what we traditionally call “angels and demons” may not be the creations of some God, but rather the manifestations of ESP.
Could our collective consciousness really bring such strange stuff into existence? This is more bizarre—and more entertaining—than I’d realized.
But I’ve had about enough mysticism: I relent; I need a skeptic. I ask law professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong how we deal with various kinds of spirits.
“We deal with them the same way we deal with fairies and gnomes in the garden,” he says. “There’s just no reason to believe in any kind of nonphysical creature. Stories about angels and demons are inconsistent: They’re nonphysical but they have wings!”
He continues: “Can you prove that they don’t exist? Of course not.” (It’s impossible to “prove” this kind of negative.)
So what’s left for the rational skeptic?
“Just make the argument that there is simply no good reason whatsoever to believe in angels or demons,” he says. “You might as well believe in Linus’ Great Pumpkin in the famous Peanuts cartoon.”
Among his physical, psychological, and cultural explanations of why a false belief in angels and demons would arise in many disparate human cultures, Sinnott-Armstrong blames people’s proclivity to use demons as scapegoats. The psychological analysis is that because people do not want to believe that evil is perpetrated by themselves, their family, and their friends, they conjure up (fictitious) demons that (supposedly) lead humans astray. With demons as causative agents in the world, people can feel better about themselves.
As I see it, a starting fact is that, yes indeed, most human beings believe in angels and demons. Across diverse cultures, nonphysical beings, in great numbers and variety, fly freely in collective myth and individual imaginations. How to explain such robust, broad-based belief?
It depends on your worldview.
Naturalists reject the reality of all such claims, citing personal illusion, mass delusion, and “cultural viruses”—called “memes”—as underlying causes.
Though not prevalent in the Hebrew Bible, angels and demons feature prominently in Christian doctrine—real beings, created by God as part of God’s grand master plan.
The radical alternative, advocated by some ESP researchers, is that angels and demons are manifestations of the paranormal.
Surely, angels and demons help us understand the human psyche, whether or not they are more.
Who’d have thought that angels and demons could “wing” us closer to truth.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with J.P. Moreland, Thomas Flint, Dean Radin, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and James Tabor in “Do Angels and Demons Exist?”—the 10th episode in the new season of the Closer To Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series (49th in total).
The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Thursday, participants will discuss the current episode.
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