Is power perceived or possessed


Extreme religious states that occur in many cultures and religions are interpreted as obsession. In religious studies, this describes unusual behavior in a changed state of consciousness, whereby the person concerned experiences himself as possessed and controlled by a spirit or a deity. If one takes a broad concept of possession as a basis, it includes positively desired forms - the prophets of the Old Testament, for example, were filled with the spirit of Yahweh. A distinction is made between these negative forms, which are attributed to the destructive influence of demonic powers.

Obsession phenomena can be observed quite frequently in the spiritualism of the African, Asian and Latin American cultures (Passie 2011), in the worldwide Pentecostal churches (Währisch-Oblau 2011) and in Europe in the milieu of alternative life support (Pöhlmann 2011). In Brazil, for example, spiritist practices and ideas are so widespread that a third of all private hospitals are run by spiritists. Due to its bourgeois values ​​and the emphasis on theoretical studies, according to the anthropologist Anna Theissen (2006), spiritualism is intellectually attractive there as a modern cult of possession for the urban upper and middle classes. A prerequisite for such an interpretation of the experience is a dual worldview with a clear demarcation between good and evil, which also shapes shamanism and charismatic piety. Against this background, Moshe Sluhovsky (2011) differentiates between holy and demonic possession in his review article.

In large parts of the current European esoteric scene (negative) obsession is classified as a result of improperly applied spiritualistic techniques, while appropriate procedures such as channeling enable helpful communication with otherworldly beings.

Obsession in the Catholic Church and Pentecostal Movement

In addition to societies that are more rooted in tribal cultures, such as Brazil, there are two Christian milieus in which obsession plays an important role: in parts of the Catholic Church and in the Pentecostal movement.

Exorcist practices are widespread in the Catholic Church around the world - not just in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In France, around 1500 exorcisms are carried out annually in the greater Paris area alone, and in Italy there are said to be over 300 official diocesan exorcists. Father Gabriele Amorth, appointed by the Diocese of Rome, reports that he has already carried out over 40,000 exorcizations of devils in his life (Singer 2006). In the Catholic Church, after many years of discussion, a new exorcism rite was published in 1999, which has also been available in an official German translation including pastoral guidelines since 2009. Compared to the classic ritual of 1614, which was performed 67 times in Franconia in 1976 if the indication was wrong, the student Anneliese Michel subsequently died of malnutrition and exhaustion, the current version contains several significant improvements. The exorcist should consult experts from psychiatry and psychotherapy before performing the ritual. The personal address and inquiries about the name of the demons have been omitted in the renewed ritual. The revised rite thus takes on the character of a liturgy for liberation from evil, in which the suffering person is given spiritual help and support.

Obsession is also an important issue in the context of Pentecostal and charismatic piety (Kick & Hemminger 2003, Lemhöfer 2006). With the prayer practice of a "liberation service" from occult burdens and demonic possession, the power of ungodly demons is to be broken and those who are burdened are finally freed from wrongdoing (Hemminger 2003). However, there is often a demonization of the worldview, which leads to shifting one's own responsibility into a spirit world, to understanding oneself as a helpless victim and to externalizing wrongdoing. Here, empathetic and religiously knowledgeable psychotherapists are asked to recognize these defense mechanisms and to provide support for the development of a mature religiosity (von der Stein & Ruff 2010).

Obsession with Transcultural Psychiatry

As a result of the migration flows of the last decades, traditional rituals in which obsession occurs are also taking place in Europe - but often in weakened, westernized and thus “domesticated” forms (Versteeg & Droogers 2007). The idea of ​​the existence and effectiveness of evil spirits and the desire for appropriate healing rituals are particularly widespread among migrants (Wohlfart & Özbek 2006; Strasser 2006). According to the traditional Islamic view, good and bad spirits ("djinnen") affect people; many neurological and psychiatric diseases are attributed to obsession with an evil spirit (Assion 2004). In the ethno-psychoanalytical tradition of transcultural psychiatry, obsession is sometimes compared to a role-play and contrasted with psychoanalysis. Both techniques do not try to bring the psychological conflict under control as the cause of mental disorders. Rather, they offer interpretations and actions to shift it into the symbolic and thereby remove the negative symptoms (Ndoyé 2006). With a corresponding cultural adaptation, the symbolic handling of the phenomena should make it possible to relativize the effective power of ghosts and to strengthen personal responsibility for assessing and acting. This approach corresponds to a systemic view that tries to include all relevant influencing factors in the treatment.

The importance of a differential diagnosis

From a professional point of view, external influences of a transcendent power (“spirit”) are mostly disputed as the reason for behavior that was previously classified as “hysterical”. Rather, inner-world reasons such as incorrect electrical discharges in the brain (epilepsy) or strong imaginations (trance) are cited. An “enlightened psychotherapy” should lead to the demonization of emotional conflicts (Picker 2009). However, the post-materialistic approaches of transpersonal psychotherapy reckon with an information-containing cosmos, the messages of which have to be deciphered.

Psychodiagnostically, altered states of consciousness without disease value such as glossolalia or channeling, which are socially desirable in certain communities, can be differentiated from pathological forms. There is a worldwide, culturally institutionalized use of altered states of consciousness. In the Christian context, however, one speaks of being moved instead of obsession. Such conditions can become disease-worthy if those affected suffer from them and harm themselves and others.

Religious scholars criticize that the frequent pathologization of obsession serves to defend against the content expressed in changed states of consciousness. It is overlooked that such conditions and their cultic processing for a society as well as for individuals also contain therapeutic and aesthetic aspects. With a similar intention, psychotherapists also advocate depathologizing changed states of consciousness (Passie 2011, Vaitl 2012). Only then can their psychological function be understood.

Whether an obsession phenomenon is interpreted in the context of a spiritist, a Christian fundamentalist or a transcultural systemic worldview: a clinical-psychiatric differential diagnosis is fundamentally important. Due to the increase in psychiatric knowledge, some epileptic seizures, which are perceived both subjectively and externally as obsession, can properly be viewed as a brain physiological disorder. This means that they can be treated successfully.

The demarcation of a dissociative disorder, i. H. The separation of parts of consciousness is more difficult to undertake because this disorder often occurs together with other diseases or simulated as “False Memory Syndrome” (Dammann & Overkamp 2011). Nevertheless, the current list of disorders of mental illnesses (ICD-10) lists trance and possession disorders under category F44.3 with the following characteristics: temporary loss of personal identity and complete awareness of the environment, mostly accompanied by (involuntary) repeated consequences of restricted movements , Positions and expressions.

According to current findings, 1 percent of the general population and 5 percent of psychiatric patients are affected by dissociative identity disorder (Gast & Rodewald 2012).

Vaitl (2012) describes the lack of a uniform conceptualization of dissociative phenomena and disorders as a “diagnostic dilemma”. The psychotherapist classifies obsession and trance as special forms of dissociative disorders of consciousness. In contrast to dissociative identity disorder, the personality is not dissolved into other parts of the personality in the state of possession. Such conditions occur differently depending on the culture, but must be carefully differentiated in each case from organic or delusional disorders.

For a more precise assessment of these gray areas, empirical studies are essential. In a pilot study, Krenzlin (2007) asked six exorcistically active people in Germany about their concepts of illness and healing. All were in interdisciplinary collaboration with doctors and therapists. Only one interviewee used the term “possession”, while the others spoke of “occupation” or “demonic attachment”. Remarkable: Four of the six respondents attributed the healing to religious factors.

In a literature study on German-language medical assessments of obsession over the past two centuries, 35 scientific publications were found (Demling & Thierauf 2010). While the majority of doctors classified the phenomena described purely psychopathologically - mostly as "hysteria" - at least a seventh of the researchers saw an influence of external, "demonic" forces on people, which also required medical action, as real. The psychiatrists Demling and Thierauf recommend paying greater attention to religious aspects that can also be expressed in subjective disease models in the future.

A recognized expert in this field, the psychiatrist and Jesuit Ulrich Niemann, reported that in his last 25 years of professional activity he had provided technical and pastoral support to (only) 15 people who experienced themselves as overwhelmed by evil. The fact that in over 90 percent of the inquiries there were other causes shows how important a thorough psychodiagnostics is, which, however, must carefully take into account the religious influences and convictions. Basically, the churches must be cautious and cautious about the diagnostic category of “possession”.

The media sometimes convey the impression that obsession is a much more common phenomenon. According to research by journalist Marcus Wegner (2009), around a dozen expulsions of devils take place in Germany every day, for the most part outside of the established churches. Even if these estimates lack an empirical basis and are likely to be greatly exaggerated: The phenomenon of “obsession” requires stronger interdisciplinary efforts in order to be able to better accompany people in dealing with “evil” forces.


Against the background of intercultural pastoral care and a systemic-psychotherapeutic perspective, the phenomenon of obsession is taken up in some pastoral care concepts and integrated in different ways (Thurneysen, Scharfenberg, Josuttis, Zimmerling). Dealing with evil, however, requires more systematic and theological reflection (Rust 2007).

Another problem: Different cultural traditions and influences lead to conflicts between the European churches and their partners in Africa, Asia and Latin America (Edwards-Raudonat 2011, Quaas 2011). In 2012, an expert commission of the United Evangelical Mission (UEM) recommended that its member churches in Africa and Asia integrate liberation service into their pastoral care practice, which is unimaginable from a European perspective. Here, too, there is a need for theological clarification.

From a psychiatric-psychotherapeutic point of view, approaches that understand culture have been developed, which include the religious belief system in the treatment. Close cooperation between medical, psychotherapeutic and church professionals is essential for adequate support. The prerequisites for this have improved in recent years. The aim is to develop concrete life aids in interdisciplinary cooperation, beyond a reductionist psychologization and premature demonization. What is required is a down-to-earth as well as religion-sensitive psychology that tries to understand the individual case. Those affected are not helped either by rationalizing the demonic dimension or by projecting responsibility.

In general, evil does not deserve excessive attention - it is not for nothing that it does not appear in any church creed. A first step can be to rediscover the reality of angels, i.e. the good forces of God (Zimmerling 2001). Martin Luther still prayed daily in his morning and evening blessings: “Your holy angel be with me that the evil enemy will find no power in me.” Prayer can help to escape the fascination of the demonic world.


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Dr. Michael Utsch, September 2013