Atheists in Foxholes: The Demon-Possessed Woman and the Kindly Deacon by Bruce Monson (May 2002)

It was a Sunday around 10 a.m. when our engine company was dispatched to a possible seizure at a Baptist church in our district. We arrived to find several frantic people in the church lobby crowded around the patient–a moderately retarded woman in her 40s with a history of epilepsy and diabetes. Her skin color was blue (cyanosis) and she was still actively seizing.

Much to my amazement two people on each side of her were physically holding her upright in a chair as she convulsed (not recommended)! I soon learned that she had been seizing for about 10 minutes. The seizure started during church services (which were still in progress even now) and they had carried her out into the lobby while she was still seizing . . . hey, the sermon must go on! Our first action was to place her on the floor and assist her breathing with oxygen and a bag-valve mask. A lot of other things were being done simultaneously such as airway suctioning, IVs, checking glucose levels (she’s diabetic so she may require sugar), and getting med orders for Valium (to stop the convulsions). No sooner had I drawn the proper dose of Valium into the syringe and was preparing to inject it into the IV when this man walks up to us and identifies himself as “a church deacon,” after which he says, and I quote: “Excuse me, but services are about to conclude and I need to clear this area so people can exit. Can you move her [the patient] somewhere else?” For a moment I just looked at him in stunned silence, not really believing what I had just heard.

I looked him in the eye and he just glared back with a smug expression, almost as if to say, “Well, are you going to move her or not?” I only had time to respond, “I think this [situation] is a little more important, don’t you? The people can wait!” Fortunately, once I gave the medication the seizure broke and the patient ultimately recovered. Well, perhaps our actions were of no use after all and Jesus simply chose this precise moment to answer the “healing prayers” from the congregation? Yeah, right! In any event, the good outcome in this case isn’t the issue.

The issue is the insensitivity displayed by this deacon, and how his Christian beliefs apparently did not inspire him to any sort of special “Christian compassion” for a person in need. No matter where you go in the world you are going to find some people who are compassionate and sensitive to the needs of others, and other people who are not; and what religion they happen to profess, if any at all, makes no difference whatsoever. The story could end here and my point would be sufficiently made, but there is another issue to address–a scriptural issue that, if true, would probably put me out of a job! Jesus on Epilepsy As was related in my account, the woman suffered from epilepsy. And according to the bible, what is the cause of epilepsy? Why “demon possession,” of course! Matthew 17:14-18: When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, because he is epileptic and suffers terribly. . . .”

Then Jesus rebuked the demon and it came out of him; and the child was healed from that moment. Many Christian commentaries, embarrassed by Jesus’ obvious lack of medical knowledge, attempt to save face. They contend that Jesus did know that there was no such thing as demon possession, but in appearing to expel demons from afflicted persons he was really just curing them of a disease and relating it to the people in a symbolic language they could understand.

The problem is that other passages, such as Mark 5:11-13, tell us that Jesus not only expels literal “demons” from people, but even forces them to possess a herd of 2,000 swine. After which, he shows his legendary compassion by forcing the entire herd to drown in a nearby lake! Jesus wasn’t too fond of pigs and dogs, and he apparently had some personal issues with fig trees as well. . . . Other passages also demonstrate literal “demons” as being the cause of sickness and disability (Matthew 8:28-33; Matthew 12:22; Mark 16:17; Acts 19:12, 15-16). Indeed, Jesus himself was accused of being “possessed by Beelzebul” (Mark 3:22; John 8:48). Funny, though, I don’t recall “demon possession” ever being discussed as a pathological explanation for seizure disorders in the paramedic school I attended. And for some reason “casting out demons” is frowned upon by my physician advisor. Maybe I should bring this up at the next paramedic meeting? Maybe not. Colorado Foundation member Bruce Monson is a professional firefighter-paramedic and former Baptist turned freethinker. He promotes religious tolerance, rational thinking, and the separation of church and state. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation