Anthropology and Theology, Angelology and Demonology

To any of my readers who haven’t got an ology I offer an, um, ap-ology, for bringing four ologies into the title of this post.

My responses to Scott Bailey’s post Does Higher Criticism Attempt to “Destroy the Bible”? V, both in comments on that post and in my own post Scott Bailey in bed with creationists!, have created a small storm. I will not attempt to respond any further to Scott, as it is clear that he holds to his materialistic creed with the fervour of a fundamentalist. But some important issues were raised by Scott’s commenters Terri and 4xi0m. I started writing this post in order to address these issues, but matters have moved on as I have been working on this post, and I have said in many further comments there much of what I intended to write here. So here are some slightly disconnected thoughts about the matter.

I can also recommend John Hobbins’ post Why Scott Bailey is wrong and Alvin Plantinga is right.

An issue which I still want to take up is one which I hinted at in my post Unseen Realities: forget Bultmann and the 19th century. There I wrote concerning the activities of spiritual beings:

Just as experiments on the behaviour of individual humans cannot succeed without their consent, so we cannot hope to experiment on the behaviour of individual demons or angels who are unlikely to consent. The best we can do is observe their typical behaviour using the kinds of techniques used in anthropology.

I need to explain a bit more these “techniques used in anthropology”. Anthropology (from Greek anthropos “human being”) is, according to Wikipedia, “the study of humanity”, and

is traditionally divided into four sub-fields, each with its own further branches: biological or physical anthropology, social anthropology or cultural anthropology, archaeology and anthropological linguistics.

In addition, systematic theologians recognise

Theological anthropology, which is not part of anthropology but a sub-field of theology.

The only sub-field of anthropology which I have studied formally is cultural anthropology, and that only for one short course. And the specific anthropological technique I had in mind, which was the focus of that course, is called participant observation:

A key principle of the method is that one may not merely observe, but must find a role within the group observed from which to participate in some manner, even if only as “outside observer.” Overt participant-observation, therefore, is limited to contexts where the community under study understands and permits it. …

It emerged as the principal approach to ethnographic research by anthropologists and relied on the cultivation of personal relationships with local informants as a way of learning about a culture, involving both observing and participating in the social life of a group. By living with the cultures they studied, these researchers were able to formulate first hand accounts of their lives and gain novel insights. This same method of study has also been applied to groups within Western society, and is especially successful in the study of sub-cultures or groups sharing a strong sense of identity, where only by taking part might the observer truly get access to the lives of those being studied.

Angels & DemonsI’m sure Scott and his commenters would agree with me that, to a large extent at least, Christian healing and the attribution of activity in this world to angels or demons takes place largely within “sub-cultures or groups sharing a strong sense of identity”, referring to the Christian groups practising these things. That justifies the use of participant observation methods to study these phenomena. I would accept that there are limits to what can be proved by such methods.

But there is another factor here, that angels and/or demons, if they exist, can themselves be treated as “sub-cultures or groups sharing a strong sense of identity”. As such one cannot hope to study their behaviour in any detail without “cultivation of personal relationships” with them as a participant observer. Now I would not suggest that anyone should cultivate personal relationships especially with demons. My point here is more that angels and demons cannot be studied as if they are impersonal forces. Nor can God, although participant observation would not be a suitable technique for studying him.

Then, as I wrote in response to one of 4xi0m’s comments on Scott’s post,

there is an issue to be considered whether spiritual healing depends on “the caprice of an invisible, unpredictable force” or “follow[s] a predictable law”.

Here “force” is 4xi0m’s word. I would have used “person”, on the basis that forces are predictable but persons or not. But on the quantum level even forces are unpredictable, and the Free Will Theorem ascribes to them free will and so blurs the distinctions between them and persons. Scott should note that this theorem which offers metaphysical results, while not necessarily proved beyond doubt, was put forward by respected scientists in the peer-reviewed journal Foundations of Physics.

In fact we have a false dichotomy here. It is well known in many branches of science that whereas the behaviour of individual constituent parts of a system may be unpredictable the behaviour of the system as a whole may follow highly predictable laws. Much of physics and chemistry depend on this large scale predictability of systems which are apparently random at the molecular level. And these same principles can be applied to the behaviour of large groups of people: the choices of each individual are unpredictable but the overall behaviour of the group can often, if not always, be predicted rather well. Indeed this is the whole basis of social science.

One might expect this to be relevant to the activities of angels and of demons, to the perhaps debatable extent that they are individuals acting independently. But is this relevant to Christian healing? I’m not sure. The involvement of angels in healing is controversial. And if healing is down to the work of one God, then it is not about averaging out the behaviour of many individuals. This is a matter not of sociology but of theology.

There is another ology involved here which I cannot recommend for serious study, although sometimes it is good for a laugh: Scotteriology.

18 thoughts on “Anthropology and Theology, Angelology and Demonology

  1. In law school, we studied a particular case – Mayo v. Satan and his Minions, 54 F.R.D. 282 (W.D. Pa. 1971) – in which the plaintiff sued Satan for tort (I think tort) for causing some sort of vague obstacles (maybe the plaintiff wanted to have sex with the Sun Goddess and Satan put up too many obstacles to the solar consummation, as is the current partial parody focus over at Scott’s house – where I left a particularly nasty comment). At any rate, the lawsuit against Satan and his minions failed on procedural grounds – lack of physical address at which to serve Satan proper notice.

    I’m guessing that if Satan showed up in court and stipulated to notice (if Satan waived notice requirements – sorta like in Hellboy), then the judge would then need to decide – jurisdiction.

    It was all an ethological ramp for me. Could hardly focus on legal-procedural questions. So many biological theories racing through my mind.

    More fun.

    I did some post-grad study on the use of spectral evidence at the Salem witch trials. There are testable biological – group and individual selection – theories about the effects of spectral and liminal stuff – like is this stuff adaptive? Very intriguing. And tragic. Many people died at Salem because of the abuse of the canon of this kind of casuistry. Many others libeled or slandered.

    I do love Kekule’s dream. And love other liminalia. The distance between spectral evidence (and other liminalia) inducing judgments unto death versus Kekule’s dream inducing research unto life (Kekule’s dream helped get organic chem off to the races) – is what we invented science for.

    Many of my poverty law clients pray to bind spirits and stuff. Native American Indians variously so – with rites and such. These are important anthropological sorts of things. I think a recent Gallup (Barna?) poll showed a quite high rate of belief in the existence (what about agency? operation?) of such entities.

    As to all the other “ologies” – and the poor guy who just couldn’t – he could always try to get a job by ….

    “Five, four, three, two, one, zero!”

    Monty Python’s, “Silly Job Interview”



    hey! my anti-spam word for this post was “CHERUB”! But it didn’t take! Maybe the Sun Goddess is standing between me and my better angels because of my nasty post about her over at Scott’s?

  2. Peter, I like what you’re trying to do vis Scott.

    FYI – posting here for your attention. Posted also at Scott’s house.

    See, here


    Scott – “So, let’s say that today we are talking about the miraculous and metaphysical claims of these persons. How would you go about establishing the veracity or ‘truthiness’ of their claims? Would this process be any different than a similar investigation into charismatic Christian claims …”

    Okay, let’s.

    Scott, I’m not up to full speed. On the back and forth between you and Peter. Sort of a newcomer. En media res.

    I think Peter’s driving at a valid point. And I think there may be (read: may be) ways to frame Peter’s questions. I’ll leave it with that for now.

    For you (maybe Peter too) –

    Nothing adversarial in these questions – just double checking orientation. You’ve asked questions above that involve religious practices tied to religious concepts, right? – and you know that your questions stop short of testable hypotheses, is this right? – and you’re asking how to move beyond general conceptual and praxis observations and analyses in order to form testable hypotheses, is that right?


    Or are you merely wanting for your own sake to get yourself a more tightly formed heuristic? – say like learning what sort of bounded rationality is level-appropriate for your own questions (even intuitive questions to yourself)? – for example, whether to use an ignorance-based search, or to use a one-reason-stop rule, or to use elimination rules for using multiple-option hermeneutical or pre-scientific interpretations?

    Do you have in mind any level-appropriate next step for your own questions? In your own mind? Just any?

    I take your questions as open questions. No animus involved. Genuine question asking.

    Going to get super-specific in a moment. First housekeeping.

    In the case of metaphysical claims (play along – I know that you may not be using metaphysics in the following way – just play along – this is a clinical rule-out question), Karl Popper said that any – properly formulated – metaphysical truth could never be falsified. A little housekeeping: I think you may (may) be confusing scientific falsification with verisimilitude (‘truthiness’) here. A separate issue, only housekeeping. It doesn’t matter to me how you define these terms. So long as you know your own indices so you can move around in your own lexicon. Back to metaphysics. Would you agree that any – properly formulated – metaphysical claim can never be falsified?

    This is not a throw away question. Because if the claims of those who you observe slide back and forth between metaphysical claims and specific-testable claims (derived or not-derived from their metaphysics – either way), then such slippage becomes another part of your own field notebook. No?


    The difference between your New Age friends and charismatics involves factual/empirical questions, do you agree? If no, then what? – we’re back to level-appropriate conceptual analyses (see all above)? If yes, then the next step is to do tons and tons of further narrative interviews with properly put questions sufficiently to define categories of functional or operational similarities, agree? This will take several iterations, no? Maybe eventually something like factor analysis to let the data from the narratives self-pattern into clusters, no? If not, then what?

    You wanted to move the conversation to a more neutral playing field.

    Try this (for starters only) –

    Miner, M. H. and McKnight, J. (1999). Religious Attributions: Situational Factors and Effects on Coping. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 38(2), 274-287. – 363 Presbyterians (confessing/active) were tested for coping responses across a range of situations, under multi-sufficient schemata (attributions to God or secular causes).

    The multiple schemata involved God proximal/distal in causing natural effects factored against so-called secular causation. This is only an attribution study. Got it?

    Next, the control group of Presbyterians held theological commitments that should have required them to assert God’s direct control over various natural events. Belief in God’s sovereignty (I hope you know the drill on this dogma because I don’t want to enumerate it).

    Findings – no correlation to divine attribution. The subjects – as a pool – did not uphold their cognitive beliefs in God’s sovereignty by making real life attributions. The subjects presented some arguably adaptive coping effects – that’s another matter. Another study.

    So what?

    This study says what to you? Instead of come-backing that you need more info about the study (then read it for yourself – if you really want answers to so many of your questions, there are thousands and thousands of such studies – jump in!), then can you – can you – enumerate your next question or cascade of questions?

    Or, if you’re not really asking empirical questions, then what? – back to heuristics (see all above)?

    What’s your preferred level of generality and level-appropriate sense of your next questions after this study? You don’t need a technical answer, you can start with your intuitions, okay?

    Mock up your next-questions. And apply. Apply those to your questions above about New Agers and charismatics.

    And go from here.



  3. Jim, thanks for your support and your comments. If people actually did some research on Japanese emperors having sex with the sun goddess they would realise that this is an actual reported practice, although I guess no one outside the court knows what really happens.

    I think Scott would take more notice of your comments if you tried to be more concise.

  4. Peter, heading off to sleep here. Working in the background.

    You’re right. Scott probably would be more responsive to more succinct questions!

    But, consider. Please just consider. The problem with Scott (imho – merely preliminary!) is that he slides all over the place with his sorta-scientific vocabulary. I’m not faulting him. This is expected for someone learning the ropes and tropes. So what? So look at my questions – the questions ranged from mere conceptual analyses to heuristics (at various levels and level-specific heuristics) then all the way to hypothesis formation.

    What’s omitted from that range?

    Next, Peter – for you. Please hear me on this despite my windiness. Look again at those questions – because there is no gamut not covered. In other words, if he wants to stay with mere abstract-cognitive theological concept analysis, then he owes an answer for that. And you leave the science alone. If he answers at some level of heuristic desire (any level of heuristics), then he owes an answer for that. And a clarification of his level-appropriate heuristics for his own questions. Next, if he goes beyond heuristics into metrics and hypothesis formation, then he owes an answer for that level. And a clarification of his own questions at that level too. The particular scientific study I cited is targeted at his constant sorta-sciency questioning – can he handle that level? Does he want to? Really?

    He owes an answer at one of these levels. Or at multiple levels.

    That’s why the windiness and range of my questions.

    Does he even understand the various levels he traverses?

    In your case, your anthropological approach does have a valid intuitive appeal. My guess is that such an approach would still involve use of narrative and questions. And many iterations. You cannot get at testable claims – until you know whether the subjects are making testable claims. Or whether their claims can be mapped to testable claims. More – what exactly are those claims? What are they? (See e.g., Jessica Utts on “psi” research). My best guess is that the series of questions and responses would best fit to factor analyses using clustered sets of data that self-organize. In other words, the categories of claims themselves are categories which are empirically derived. There is no conflict in sliding from anthropological methods into factor analyses. You’re at least being faithful in defining the claims themselves! That’s why I felt you might – if you want – tract Scott to the series of questions I asked him. Otherwise he might – might – just slide around avoiding all categories.

    In regard to charismatics, I’m extremely warm. For too many reasons to note now. Late. But the problems with many empirical studies so far is that the studies cannot identify appropriate scalars for an interactive God with respect to God’s agency in a timed series (“a time for everything”), and with respect to negotiated intersubjective perceptions between God and believers (or attributions of such negotiated perceptions – stick with attributions maybe?), that is, if we could solicit self-reports from charismatics of what these charismatics believe to be the at-the-moment (time-series) sense of internal agreement between them and the Spirit – then we could mock questions (not quite hypotheticals yet – more narrative ones) to test their perceived sense of agreement-with-God for specific prayers.

    For example, Chuck Smith (self-report – and witnessed) once reportedly (I wasn’t there) prayed for healing for a man in a wheelchair. And the man was healed. The next night (series of meetings), Chuck walked into the meetings with his young son. His son asked Chuck if Chuck would heal another man now waiting in another wheel chair? Chuck refused. I forget the exact reasoning. But it had to do with Chuck’s own internal sense (his perception/attribution!) that the Spirit did not want to heal this man – at this time – of this particular malady. Most of the studies do not solicit such sensed-intersubjective agreements (for lack of a better phrase) between humans who pray and God! If there really is “a time for everything” (dig this Peter) and that time is known intersubjetively between the believer who prays and God (it’s not mere holiness – it’s intersubjective time-sensitivity!) – then the results of such prayer might indeed look ad hoc and anecdotal!

    How else could it appear?

    This is similar to the state of quantum physics – before renormalization! Infinite results!

    I see no other way to ‘renormalize’ the infinite results of charismatic claims without incorporating scalars to account for the felt/sensed intersubjective agreements (self reported) between those who pray and the Spirit. And between those who receive the healing and the Spirit. You use the factor analysis and self-organizing data further to refine the self-reports of these intersubjective (God-human) perceptions. For starters.

    I’m not sure I want to mock this up because the iterations could eat up all my work time!

    My questions for Scott deserve answers at any one – or across all – of the levels involved in those questions.

    I mean, come on! Just one level!

    If he will not tract and self-report to any of those questions at one level at least, well okay. Maybe he’s got fixed ideas? Or just plays Voltaire seizing on most egregious and absurd cases to reduce to low parody and satire? A joker? Or a bunch of meandering ipse dixit? Or just honestly confused? A little of all of these? But at some point, he needs to declare – self-declare – his level of generality somewhere across that spectrum of questions. Or quit pretending to hail to science.

    You could use those questions (or variations on them) – to ask him to tract. Just to ask. Even if those questions aren’t your particular bag. You can commit to any other method that suits you. But those questions are the frame carpentry.

    My two-cents.

    Outta here!



  5. Thanks, Jim. I hope you slept well after writing all that!

    I have come to the conclusion that Scott is more like Voltaire, not really open to evidence of God’s work but only wanting to ridicule those who present such evidence. That makes it a waste of time to discuss these things with him. But you are welcome to try to get different answers from him.

  6. Peter, fyi/review – trash and tear down this post here if it’s not relevant or interesting ..

    Posted at Scott’s

    Scott – “While Jesus may be untestable, or the ‘healing force’ which acted on the tooth, in many instances should not the effect in the material realm, if there is any effect, be observable, testable, and falsifiable?”

    Scott, picking up our previous conversation. I may post parallel to Peter – asking review. I’m a bit confused here. There’s always an effect. There’s never not-an-effect. For example, Immordino-Yang (neuroscience researcher) is reading mere narratives to subjects. Stories. Story-time. To measure neural correlates of sympathy and admiration. She’s measuring neural effects. And there are cascades of other physical effects all across our bodies too. For all these sermons.

    What you really mean is that the advertised effect does not correspond to the realized effect, right?

    I get that part. Balls-to-bone. I’ve traveled around alongside a fully trained and science-hard-core medical doctor (now dead) whose mission was to follow after the parade of charismatic snake-oil peddlers (both he and I are charismatics) so we could go along after the parades and pick up broken pieces of failed promises of charismatic blow-hards. Doc did real medicine (Indian reservations, for just one example). So what? So I know the drill about failed promises. This stuff is not read-it-in-a-book for me. It’s clinic. Real life. The doctor went looking for Bayesian false positives and negatives after snake-oil faith-healers took down the circus tents and blew town to harvest offerings elsewhere. I want looking to do free care – doc too, free care – looking for increased clinical rates of depression and looking for domestic violence increases and looking at resort-to-alcohol because of failed promises of charismatics.

    Got it?

    This is not book time for me. It’s not internet time.

    It’s clinic. Real life.

    So see my single-line question to you above about effect differences – am I missing something about your point here?

    If I do get it –

    So what?

    Because I’ve been ready all my life to move beyond playing Voltaire in satire.

    Save when I want to play satire of my own. But it gets boring. There’s work to do.

    Don’t you think?

    Voltaire mined the church for satire and parody. A whole career of church satire. Damn good at it. Lifetime worth of church satire and parody material.

    Scott, this stuff will never end. Ever. For Voltaire. For you.

    Mircea Eliade didn’t have time to burn on satire. His Eastern Orthodox predilections about the ubiquity and universal phenomena of hierophanies led him to official editorship of the multiple volumes of the pretty hard-core academic, “Encyclopedia of Religion.” And to authorship of hundreds of serious articles and books on cross-comparisons between religions. Eliade catalogued, chronicled, and made encyclopedia of en-Spirited-phenomena (hierophanies). I note Eliade to you for a reason. Because you moved to cross-religious comparisons in your previous example. Eliade’s data is dated. His methodology needs renormalization. But his data pool is still exemplary of the cross-religious data pool still out there. Ubiquitously.

    What I asked you earlier about metaphysical claims (we can start with metaphysical claims or start with my other questions – or drop all this if you want? – I don’t want to waste your time or mine) – what I wrote was that only a – properly formulated – metaphysical claim can never be falsified. Not just any old metaphysical psycho babble. Only a properly formulated claim.

    We can get to falsification. And verisimilitude. Or just stick with better heuristics for this stuff.

    Whatever you want.

    But for now, do you feel that these particular metaphysical claims (the ones you are putting up) are really – “properly formulated?”

    What am I missing?



  7. Jim, thank you for the comment. Did you ever find any evidence of people who had really been healed, in medically verifiable ways, at the “snake-oil” meetings? I guess that is hard to know if you see them only afterwards, unless you have access to medical records.

  8. Peter, now you’re asking questions after my heart. Answer: yes. Plenty of evidence.

    As you know, the problem here involves longitudinal questions too. And questions of factoring – to rule out other causes. You know the drill. You know that field observations by practitioners must go into a larger data pool for multiple series of analyses – plus all the ecological factor notes! This is hard stuff to do! It’s not easy – to be careful. Hard work.

    Another thing – your comments about confidentiality were dismissed (on the other blog). But your points were dead center. In my case, I want to stand far back from violating confidence. There’s confidentiality. And then there are parsimony/generosity factors in attitude for how to ‘interpret’ confidentiality rules. Confidentiality plays a high role for many care-givers. A role that goes well beyond black letter rules. Attitudes – of extra care. Caution. Again, your comments about confidentiality deserved much greater respect. And were spot-on. Peter, I can feel you inwardly wanting to know all the kinds of facts which we cannot yet know. I feel the same way about it! Wouldn’t it be awesome to have access to the data pool? God, think of it!

    Tip toeing toward your question –

    Peter dig – I have a field journal of every prayer that clients have prayed (they have prayed with me – and that I have prayed with them). Why? Because I must – must – keep notes for both client narratives and for my codes too (much like physicians using SOAP first, and then ICD/CPT’s) in order for me to journal/chart all client contacts and to differentiate between clinical counseling entries, legal entries, ADR entries, my own observations mapped into field biology/evo-psych stuff (I do make journal notes for this too!) – all these must be differentiated from prayers and spiritual advice. I think you could guess the reasons why! I see many positive correlations. Many.

    Trying to play in my own mind how to say more? Peter let me chew some more. Chewing …



  9. … Peter, I’ll chew on summarizing confidentiality … you know it’s a tough one … dig this, I accidentally posted that same post (confidentiality stuff ) over there on that blog (lol – total accident – wrong blog!) .. man .. the first response over there was an ad hom (not Scott – I think he’s cool with it) .. I followed up saying they can delete it / take it down .. but since it’s there, we’ll see if anyone picks up the confidentiality stuff? .. ~ Jim

  10. Scott, I have made no comment on the post you link to, and I have no intention of doing so. I have never claimed that any human being, except Jesus, is infallible.

  11. Peter, for you. I posted this question over there. It’s been dropped. Non-responsive.

    Guess I should say, “Voltaire! Vous êtes complet!”?

    Wondering aloud (with you here) about this question (question I posted there) – as a conversation starter for those of us who would ask our en-Spirited questions in a positive and productive, rather than in a satirical – if still subjunctive mood? – no need to reply …


    Scott – “.. shorten up the comments .. One Q at a time ..”

    Jim – Okay. If quantum computing gets off to the races, so we have a perfect registry (no hidden variables – everything’s expressed) with all the Spirit’s i/o’s to/from people and all human i/o’s in response – then where would you start your query of the Great Smoky Dragon? (this isn’t subject-changing – you mentioned Chopra – so why not do quantum right?)

    Alas, ~ Jim

  12. Peter, I agree. I observed the longer posts between everyone else over there. Many – long – responses. I ignored the ad hom (or accusations of ad hom) and focused on the subject. Because I love the questions. Found myself carried along. Long or short, I covered the generic bases – cognitive-theology, heuristics, science hypothesis (the Miner study really was in Scott’s favor – a freebie for him!), and finally this short question on quantum – so long or short – no response. All’s fair. It’s his blog. There are conversation partners who want to frame these Spirit-questions positively! Better yet, it’s a profound joy to resolve counseling and legal cases alongside the Comforter! In real life. Sorta like, “Chariots of Fire” – “I feel the joy of the Lord ….!” And that joy in brief sprints too! Brevity, I agree.

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