Can the Social Sciences Help to Facilitate Interreligious Dialogue through the Lens of Spirit Possession?

David Bradnick
Thursday 7 July 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion: A Case Study of Possession
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

American culture holds an intense and deep fascination with demonic possession. Seemingly, every year Hollywood releases blockbuster thrillers centered around this phenomenon; many of which are sequels and spin-offs of earlier films, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars. In recent years these include Insidious (2018), Hereditary (2018), Annabelle Comes Home (2019), The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)—not to mention numerous series on network television and the various streaming platforms. Possession, however, is not merely a phenomenon isolated to the silver screen. In a pivotal study routinely cited by anthropologists and encompassing 488 cultures worldwide, Erika Bourguignon uncovered that 360 societies (74 percent) maintain beliefs in spirit possession (Bourguignon 1973). Furthermore, these beliefs are grounded in public manifestations and personal experiences of trance phenomena, including spirit possession.[1] The same study uncovered that 437 of these people groups (90 percent) “are reported to have one or more institutionalized, culturally patterned forms of altered states of consciousness” (Bourguignon 1973, 16-17). Thus trance and possession are recurrent phenomena in a vast majority of the world’s cultures. In Bourguignon’s own words, these statistics suggest “we are, indeed, dealing with a matter of major importance, not merely a bit of anthropological esoterica” (Bourguignon 1973, 11).

Despite the cultural and global prevalence of possession, Christian theology tends to give limited attention to the topic—if at all in some circles—and in many cases, theologians are inclined to demythologize the demonic and possession. In other words, theological explanations often reject supernaturalistic depictions and rationalize the demonic in naturalistic frameworks. Rudolf Bultmann, for example, describes the demonic as unbridled human passions (Bultmann 1958, 20-21), and Karl Barth categorizes the demonic as synonymous with falsehoods (Barth 1960, 525). Both views continue to dominate theological perspectives in the twenty-first century, despite their inability to account for contemporary spirit possession phenomena.

Because possession is a cross-cultural occurrence, it is also a trans-religious trend. Yet comparative theology and interreligious dialogues also have a propensity to gloss over discussions concerning malevolent spiritual beings and any related phenomena. These conversations tend to focus upon the essence of ultimate reality and the variety of religious ends (e.g. salvation and moksha), but the prominence of possession, as noted by anthropologists, also calls for attention from the religio-theological community. It raises questions about the nature of spirit possession and how religio-theological beliefs and practices relate to anthropological and psychological frameworks. Or put differently, can these seemingly disparate puzzle pieces fit together to offer a clearer picture of reality concerning spirit possession?

This article considers how an examination of spirit possession, with the help of the social sciences, may contribute to comparative theology. First, it may provide an advantageous platform from which to promote more robust interreligious dialogues. Second, it questions the responsibility of the religious community, if any, to address manifestations of spirit possession and the circumstances out of which they emerge. Thus, by ignoring the phenomenon of spirit possession, scholars of religion may be neglecting an area of possible confluence and fecundity when comparing religious beliefs.

I will attempt to construct this puzzle in several steps. First, I briefly summarize the goal of comparative theology as well as challenges to doing comparative theology. In an attempt to address these challenges, I advocate for Amos Yong’s pneumatological theology of religions. Furthermore, I demonstrate that his framework embraces a multidisciplinary approach, including anthropology and psychology, and is open to the reality of the demonic and spirit possession. Next, I will employ data from anthropological and psychological studies to illuminate the prominence of trance and spirit possession in human cultures throughout the world. In doing so, I will argue that the prominence of spirit-related phenomena calls for attention from the religio-theological community. Finally, I will employ an anthropological case study that addresses mass-possession within a Malaysian factory. I suggest that interreligious conversations centered on spirit possession and the demonic may lead to fruitful understandings of other traditions. Furthermore, it may act as a springboard to joint endeavors, particularly acts of social justice in which religions may be motivated to work together to relieve possessed individuals of their subjugation.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Comparative Theology

Comparative theologian John J. Thatamanil contends that the purpose of comparative theology is “to engage specific texts, motifs, and claims of particular traditions not only to understand better these traditions but also to determine the truth of theological matters through conversation and collaboration” (Thatamanil 2006, 3). Comparative theology, along with interreligious dialogue, often centers on a few select topics, notably the nature of ultimate reality as well as the nature and the means of religions ends. These interactions have produced a myriad of fruitful conversations, but they also present theological and philosophical limitations. One drawback of theocentric approaches (e.g. Paul Knitter 1985) is that some religions do not maintain belief in a divine being or beings. In essence, this factor potentially precludes certain non-theistic religions from the conversation, such as Theravadan Buddhism. Another central topic for interreligious dialogue, and perhaps the most dominant, is the nature and means of religious ends, whether that refers to salvation, moksha, or annihilation—to name only a few. At times, however, advocates of exclusivist approaches have throttled these interactions because they tend to deem their position as non-negotiable. Some Christian theologians, for example, argue that the person and work of Jesus Christ is the standard whereby all truths must be measured and that all other religions are in error (e.g. Hendrik Kraemer 1938). Consequently, scholars can quickly hit impasses in the conversation when focusing upon theological commitments to religious ends.

A number of scholars have suggested bracketing the question of religions ends in order to extend interreligious discussions, including Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong through his pneumatological approach to comparative theology. As a Trinitarian Christian, he argues that the Spirit of God may be operative within other religions, and subsequently, scholars may benefit by initiating interreligious dialogue from a pneumatological standpoint. This approach may require Christians to bracket questions about Christology in order to further dialogue and to discern the presence and the work of the Spirit in other traditions. He maintains that a pneumatological approach is more dynamic because it is a process open to change, reshaping, and even discarding—if needed (Yong 2005, 266). Consequently, it may be beneficial to examine Yong’s approach as it could potentially facilitate an exploration of spirit possession.

Yong advocates that human knowledge of God and talk about God has limitations. After all, finite time and words cannot fully express the infinitude of God. Thus religions, which are ultimately human attempts to understand and express the transcendent, are imperfect and only bear witness to God’s revelation within the confines of human limitations. This means that even Christianity is an imperfect conveyer of truth. Yong adds that the Christian faith may not be the only means through which God reveals God’s self; many different cultures, at different times, have carried the gospel (Yong 2005, 266). Christian scripture itself testifies that knowledge of God often comes through unexpected sources, such as The Good Samaritan and King Cyrus. For Yong, God cannot be confined to the Church, or even the person of Christ, because God can be present in all places through the Spirit. The Bible exclaims that the Spirit of God animates all of human life, and in Acts 2, Peter preaches that the Spirit of God is poured out on all people in the last days. Yong contends that Christians should take scripture’s testimony seriously, including these passages, and should consider the potential work of the Spirit in non-Christian religions (Yong 2005, 110).

Ultimately, Yong takes an inclusivistic approach to the theology of religions. He argues that God’s grace in Christ may be offered to people outside of Christianity through the work of the Holy Spirit. Walls, borders, doctrines, or religions cannot confine the Spirit. Yong writes, “Religions are…instruments of the Holy Spirit working out the divine purpose in the world and that the unevangelized, if saved at all, are saved through the work of Christ by the Spirit” (Yong 2005, 236). He adds that the Spirit operates through “many tongues and many practices” (Yong 2008, 160; Yong 2007, 61). Sometimes the Spirit works unexpectedly, and in this way, God’s grace is extended to the world.

According to Yong, a pneumatological theology of religions requires hospitality from Christians and to engage people of other faiths as an equal (Yong 2008, 83). Hospitality also requires that Christians see themselves as both guest and host. They must interact with their neighbors and not close themselves off to what others may have to offer (Yong 2008, 124-25). These interactions may bring about mutual enrichment, mutual transformation, and authentic vulnerability on both personal and institutional levels. Acknowledgement that the Spirit is poured out on all flesh requires: 1) A respectful attitude to those in other faiths; 2) A listening ear; 3) A willingness to be self-critical; 4) An openness to learning from, and even being corrected by, other religions; and 5) An awareness that the gospel may be manifest in new ways, in other faiths (Yong 2005, 247). Thus, harkening back to Thatamanil’s description of comparative theology as an attempt “to determine the truth of theological matters through conversation and collaboration,” Yong’s goals and approach appear to be advantageous to the theological puzzle of spirit possession. He is open to a multitude of voices across cultures with an emphasis on humility and reciprocity.

Yong’s method is not only open to conversation partners from various religious traditions, but he also advocates for a multidisciplinary approach to theology. For him, traditional theology must expand its community to include other disciplines, such as history, philosophy, rhetoric, sociology, anthropology, politics, and economics. Yong writes, “[T]he foundational element of the hermeneutical process requires that all theological interpretation be an ongoing process of engaging multiple voices, perspectives, and conversations with those within and beyond the borders of the Church” (Yong 2002, 306). He invites the inclusion of multiple perspectives in which a more complete understanding of reality can be appreciated. Given this standpoint, Yong’s comparative approach to theology is advantageous for examining spirit possession in a conversation that includes anthropology and psychology.

Yong himself accepts the existence of other spiritual realities, including angelic and demonic ones. For Yong, demonic forces are at work within the world, and it is not only possible to discern the work of the Holy Spirit, but it is also possible to discern the operations of demonic realities (Yong 2003, 154-157). Although he addresses a theology of the demonic at various points throughout his writings, Yong uses it sparingly in the context of interreligious dialogue (see Yong 2000; Yong 2011), and he rarely engages with the social sciences, specifically anthropology. On these points, it is possible to expand Yong’s pneumatological proposal. If it is possible to discern the demonic, then exploring the nature of the demonic across religious and disciplinary boundaries may generate fruitful conversations. Specifically, the topic of spirit possession may open avenues of discussion that have gone under-traveled heretofore. I will argue below that there are both theological and practical purposes behind such possible conversations. In fact, it is a pressing matter when the prevalence of spirit possession is considered, especially in the Global South.

2.2 The Social Sciences

Anthropology and Methodology

Given the prominence of spirit possession across contemporary cultures, the substantial anthropological literature on this topic, and the theological approach proposed above, it seems prudent to explore anthropology as a discipline. Examining the contours of this puzzle piece independently, at first, will later help to place it within the context of the broader puzzle. I will begin by summarizing the goals and methods of anthropologists before reviewing contemporary literature within the field of anthropology as it relates to spirit possession. Most anthropologists subscribe to psychological explanations for spirit possession, so it will also be necessary to explore major trends in psychology as they relate to this phenomenon.

The central goal of anthropologists is to develop an ethnography that will provide an explanatory framework for phenomena of interest, such as spirit possession. Ethnographies may include any number of means for collecting information, but the principal source of ethnographic data derives from an anthropologist’s fieldwork—their personal observations. Typically, the researcher selects a social group in which spirit possession is present, and they integrate into that society. This field work usually lasts for at least a year, although shorter periods are not unusual (Davies 2002, 67), and during this time an anthropologist may observe intra-familial dynamics, inter-familial relations, clergy-lay interactions, gender associations, and/or age-related exchanges. In the case of spirit possession, anthropologists focus upon relations between spirits and mediums, clergy and spirits, and lay people and spirits. Additionally, interviews with these individuals allow anthropologists to analyze and supplement their own observations and assumptions about spirit possession within the social group. It can provide an important checks-and-balances system that protects the accuracy of the study and/or adds complimentary data to existing observations. Other means of collecting data include demographic information, ideological studies, dietary assessments, speech analyses, and empirical sciences. Generally, anthropologists strive to create an ethnography that fulfils the standards of validity, reliability, and generalizability (Davies 2002, 92).

Anthropological and Psychological Analysis

Trance and spirit possession have become topics of significant interest within the social sciences as evidenced by the substantial amounts of literature in the fields of anthropology and psychology. One reason stems from the relative regularity of these phenomena. As noted above, anthropologist Erika Bourguignon uncovered that most societies maintain beliefs in spirit possession and experience acts of possession and/or trance by its members (Bourguignon 1973, 16-17). Countless independent ethnologies further substantiate the regularity of altered-states of consciousness, as described by Bourguignon’s study, so the occurrence of trance and possession is not in question for anthropologists. Yet their underlying cause is highly debated. Although anthropologists use the phrase “spirit possession,” very few maintain that actual spirits cause it; however, by using this terminology, they employ language that is consistent with the beliefs of the people they study. On the other hand, some anthropologists affirm the existence of spirits, including Edith Turner, but their views are in the minority (Turner 1993, 9-12). Other anthropologists have proposed an array of factors that contribute to possession, including nutritional, biological, psychological, or cultural influences, but speculation concerning psychological and cultural factors tends to dominate the field.

Over the past thirty years, social scientists have struggled to categorize trance and spirit possession, and relatively recent changes made in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) evidence these efforts. Currently, contemporary psychology tends to classify trance and spirit possession under the heading of dissociation, yet dissociative states can be pathological or non-pathological. Dissociative Identity Disorder designates pathological forms of dissociation, and the DSM-V lists the following criteria:

  1. Disruption of identity characterized by two or more distinct personality states.
  2. Recurrent gaps in the recall of every day events, important personal information, and/or traumatic events that are inconsistent with ordinary forgetting.
  3. Clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
  4. The disturbance is not a normal part of a broadly accepted cultural or religious practice.
  5. The symptoms are not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (DSM-V 2013, 292).

Some instances of possession and trance fall into the category of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Possession-form Dissociative Identity Disorder, however, does not conform to criteria C and D, and Dissociative Trance Disorder does not conform to criterion D (DSM-V 2013, 294). Both of these disorders are rare in most cultures, and according to studies, only 1.5% of adults in the United States have suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DSM-V 2013, 294).

As previously mentioned, though, some forms of dissociation are not pathological. In the latter part of the twentieth century, psychiatrists recognized the shortcomings of diagnosing all forms of dissociation as pathological, and DSM-IV-TR (2000) reflects this shift.[2] This new school of thought dissuaded practitioners from diagnosing individuals with dissociative disorders, if they “enter trance or possession states voluntarily and without distress in the context of cultural or religious practices that are broadly accepted by the person’s cultural group. Such voluntary and nonpathological states are common and constitute the overwhelming majority of trance and possession-trance states encountered cross-culturally” (DSM-IV-TR 2000, 783). In sum, universal diagnoses of pathology are too broad. In fact, the subsequent edition of the DSM reads, “The majority of possession states around the world are normal, usually part of spiritual practice, and do not meet criteria for dissociative identity disorder” (DSM-V 2013, 293-94). Possession should only be considered pathological when it is: non-recurrent, wanted, voluntary, not the cause of distress, and not part of typical cultural and religious norms. Thus, a significant number of possession cases, notably in non-Western cultures, do not fit into past diagnostic categories.

Despite the changing tide in psychology to recognize nonpathological dissociative states, some psychiatrists argue that it likely remains underdiagnosed due to Western biases (During et al. 2011). Until recently, the West typically viewed dissociative states as a hindrance to healthy maturation, but now many psychologists and anthropologists generally recognize that dissociation can have positive effects (Harris 2005, 108-109). In certain cases, possession-type expressions are no more pathological than daydreaming. Some psychologists suggest that spirit possession only becomes pathological when it causes significant interference with one’s social and occupational life (van Duijl et al. 2010, 394).

Since psychologists recognize healthy applications of dissociation, we cannot categorically label dissociative states as indications of pathological conditions within individuals (Castillo 1994, 15). Hence, dissociative theories make room for beliefs concerning genuine cases of possession caused by spirits. Genuine cases of spirit possession may occur alongside a variety of pathologies, including DID and neurosis, and many manifest similar traits. If this is the case, then spirit possession phenomena may challenge Christian theologies that demythologize the demonic (e.g. Bultmann and Barth), and it may provide theological insights into the ontological character of spiritual realities, such as the demonic. Additionally, since possession is a cross-cultural and interreligious occurrence, a phenomenological approach that examines case studies may allow us to compare a wide variety of experiences and to glean fruitful insights.

3. Discussion: A Case Study in Possession

In an article titled “The Production of Possession,” anthropologist Aihwa Ong investigates several cases of collective possession in Malaysian factories in the 1970s and 1980s. According to Ong, spirit beliefs in rural Malay society are complex. These beliefs are overlaid by, but exist within Islam, while also weaving together an indigenous worldview, including animistic cosmology, as well as Javanese, Hindu, and Muslim culture. (Ong 1988, 30). In this area of Malaysia, “toyol are the most common familiar spirits” (Ong 1988, 30). Some Malaysians are accused of breeding toyol and coerce them to steal from others. In so doing, they express “resentment against economically successful villagers” (Ong 1988, 30-31). Other spirits include jinn and hantu, who dwell in rocks and trees and can possess young girls who venture out at night. Kena hantu are angry spirits that possess young women who trespass in forbidden places. Often male spirit-healers, called Bomoh, are implored to exorcize these spirits (Ong 1988, 31).

From Islam, Malays have inherited the belief that women are more vulnerable to spirit attacks than men because they are overly influenced by lust. In these episodes, women scream, hyperventilate, or fall down in a trance or a raging fit. Indigenous Malay beliefs also maintain that women are more likely than men to become possessed by spirits. Their spiritual frailty, polluting bodies, and erotic nature, make women particularly likely to transgress moral space, and therefore be permeable by spirits. Women are especially vulnerable during childbirth and later in life, if they do not submit to social norms as mothers and wives.

With the advent of modernity, however, young unmarried women have become prone to demonic-possession, and young women who work in factories are the most susceptible group to possession (Ong 1988, 31). Some of these instances involved as many as one hundred twenty individuals, in which women, supposedly “seized by vengeful spirits, explode into demonic screaming and rage” on the factory floor (Ong 1988, 28). Certain women even struggled against male supervisors who attempted to restrain them, which is remarkably uncommon since Malay women are expected to be subservient and quiet. Management within the affected factories often reacted by secluding these women, giving them medication for anxiety, and/or requiring them to go home (Ong 1988, 32).

Ong concluded that these incidents served as an unconscious means of retaliation for the women against the factory’s management (Ong 1988, 32). Management would ordinarily punish individuals for this type of protest, but spirit possession shielded the factory workers from disciplinary action. Ironically, possession liberated these women to voice their disgruntlement because they were not perceived to be acting according to their own will. Instead, observers believed that it was the spirits acting within the possessed women (Ong 1988, 33 and 38).

Ong suggests that these cases of spirit possession were “a rebellion against transgressions of indigenous boundaries governing proper human relations and moral justice” (Ong 1988, 33). Women were subjected to harassment by the factory management to the extent that they could not use the restroom without being questioned or followed. Women felt a loss of control over their own bodies and social relationships within the factory. Consequently, Ong argues, “spirit imagery gave symbolic configuration to the workers’ fear and protest over social conditions in the factories” (Ong 1988, 35). In other words, Ong blames an abusive form of industrial capitalism. In reaction these incidents were an expression of the alienation experienced by the Malay women.

This case study highlights a spirit-filled cosmology maintained by Malaysian indigenous religions and that spirit possession occupies a noteworthy portion of their social consciousness. But there are also broader implications from this situation and other anthropological case studies of a similar nature. Notably, they provide interreligious dialogue with an alternative set of questions to consider. With spirit possession as the focus, questions about the nature of ultimate reality do not need to be addressed here, or at least not at first. Rather, dialogue can center around understanding the events laid out by the phenomena and raises questions, such as: Do spirits exist? Were these Malay women indeed possessed by spirits? If so, how did they become possessed and what are the signs of possession? How does one escape possession? What is the nature of evil? These questions can fuel interreligious dialogue where other approaches dissipate.

Some may argue that spirit possession offers nothing new to interreligious dialogue, since the topic of evil is sometimes used as a comparison between religions. But even then, evil often centers around the philosophical issue of theodicy, which hinges on the nature of God. Focus upon spirit possession, though, may initiate new inroads since it is often attributed to malevolent beings, including demons. Such an approach may include a wider array of conversation partners, particularly non-theistic ones. Given the challenges of theocentric interreligious dialogues, the topic of spirit possession can entertain both theistic and non-theistic religious traditions, since many non-theistic religious traditions maintain beliefs in a spirit-filled cosmology that includes lesser spirits, demons, ghosts, and a host of other spiritual realities. Extending interreligious dialogue where traditional approaches dwindle may glean a fruitful harvest of understanding.

This case study from Malaysia also demonstrates the interreligious nature of spirit possession. As noted above, Malay religious beliefs often incorporate a combination of indigenous, Hindu, and Islamic theological convictions. Combinationism in relation to spirit possession is also present in many African religions, especially where beliefs in witchcraft are dominant. The topic of spirit possession invites a multitude of religions to the table beyond the typical “major world religions” and may be capable of bringing together disparate dialogue partners, especially in light of the cultural prominence of this phenomenon. Interreligious discussions around spirit possession may illuminate theological beliefs from various religions that often go overlooked within the broader academy and could lead to a more robust dialogue.

Finally, the case study not only provides a theological conversation, but it also provides a practical lens to consider, particularly in light of the theoretical framework offered by anthropologists. For instance, how should we interpret the conclusions reached by Ong in relation to the Malaysian factory workers? Should we discount the existence of spirits and reduce this to a psychological reaction to an oppressive system?[3] Even if no consensus is reached across the religious spectrum on how to understand spirit possession and how to ontologize these spirits, if they even exist at all, interreligious dialogue around this topic can lead to cooperation from a social justice standpoint. Regardless of theological beliefs, individuals who exhibit possession symptoms are afflicted persons who, from an ethical standpoint, require assistance and deliverance. The powers of affliction—whether spiritual, material, or both—need to be exorcised, and the religious community can offer assistance. This may require a cooperative effort that includes a variety of religions, especially if corrupt and oppressive systems need to be reformed, such as unjust working conditions in factories. The situation in Malaysia reveals that religious interaction does not need to be limited to academic discussions, but it may include interreligious action. In some cases responses of social justice may require a cooperative effort across religious boundaries.

4. Conclusion

Given its prominence across the globe, spirit possession is not a phenomenon that can be ignored by theologians in the twenty-first century. Furthermore, it is not simply a theological belief that can be formed through biblical exegesis; rather, it requires an engagement with a variety of academic disciplines, including anthropology and psychology.

This global nature of spirit possession, however, offers exciting avenues of exploration to conduct comparative theology and to engage in interreligious dialogue. Due to its openness to a variety of voices, a pneumatological approach, may serve as an advantageous conduit for such an exploration. It not only offers opportunities for expanded dialogue and understanding among the world’s religions, but it also offers opportunities for cooperative acts of social justice.

This article may have raised more questions than it has answered, but my hope is that it provides a way forward to explore these questions. Analogously, perhaps it has established the outer pieces of the puzzle, and further dialogue may help to fit the inner pieces together, bringing the picture about spirit possession into more focus.


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[1] For an explanation on how some anthropologists tend to differentiate between trance and spirit possession see Cardeña 1992; Halperin 1996. It should be noted, though, that this distinction has come to be criticized more recently by some anthropologists and psychologists (See Halloy and Naumescu 2012).

[2] Another major change in DSM-IV includes the dissolving of hysteria as a category. Historically hysteria has often been connected to cases of mass spirit possession. See Appendix D.

[3] Similar conclusions have been reached by other anthropologists and hold significant influence, including I. M. Lewis’s Conflict Theory (2003).

Cite this article

Bradnick, David. 2022. “Can the Social Sciences Help to Facilitate Interreligious Dialogue through the Lens of Spirit Possession?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 11).

Contact the author

David Bradnick
Email: [email protected]

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