When Demons Are Real

Some months ago, on a warm Friday evening in Accra, Ghana, I found myself in an all-night prayer session with a charismatic evangelical church. All-night prayer has become wildly popular in the city, somewhat to the distress of those who object to the late-night noise, which rivals that of an American frat party.

But the people who attend love them, because the long stretch of time allows them to pray more intensely than a mere two-hour Sunday morning service will allow. On this Friday night, the focus of our prayers was a story in the Book of Acts.

The Apostle Paul, arriving at an island on his journey to share the Gospel, picked up some brushwood for a fire, and a startled viper within it leapt out and bit his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they thought that he would die. But Paul shook the viper off and lived. The pastor applied the Scripture to our lives: “Say it out loud!” he shouted. “Every viper sticking to my hands, my marriage, my career, my destiny, I shake it off. I shake it off!” The 200 people around me jumped up and down and shook their hands with fury, hurling invisible and metaphorical vipers into the air.

To be in Africa is to encounter a God different from that of a charismatic church in the United States. People say that the boundary between the supernatural and the natural is thinner there. Certainly religion is everywhere — churches and church billboards seem to be on every street — and atheists are few. American evangelicals often say that faith is more intense in Africa. There is something to this. Compared with Ghanaian charismatic Christianity, American Christianity can seem like soggy toast.

It is not just the intensity that seems different. In these churches, prayer is warfare. The new charismatic Christian churches in Accra imagine a world swarming with evil forces that attack your body, your family and your means of earning a living.

J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, a professor at Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Ghana, argues that these churches have spread so rapidly because African traditional religion envisions a world dense with dark spirits from which people must protect themselves, and these new churches take this evil seriously in a way that many earlier missionizing Christianities did not. Indeed, I have been at a Christian service in Accra with thousands of people shouting: “The witches will die! They will die! Die! Die!” With the pastor roaring, “This is a war zone!”

While this feels very different from soft-toned American evangelical Christianity, which emphasizes God’s loving mercy rather than God’s judgment, spiritual warfare is deeply embedded in the evangelical tradition. The post-1960s charismatic revival in the United States, sometimes called “Third Wave” Christianity (classical Pentecostalism was the first wave and charismatic Catholicism the second), introduced the idea that all Christians interact with supernatural forces daily. That included demons.

In fact, I found American books on dealing with demons in all the bookstores of the African charismatic churches I visited. In one church where I stood looking at the shelf of demon manuals, a helpful clerk leaned over to fish one off for me. She chose an American one. “Here,” she said as she handed me Larry Huch’s “Free at Last,” “this one is good.”

In many American evangelical churches, people will tell you that demons are real, but they do not treat them as particularly salient. Demons don’t come up in Sunday morning sermons, and for the most part people don’t pray about demonic oppression. Their encounters with supernatural evil were like the ghost stories I heard at summer camp: more exciting than terrifying. One man told me of an angel who’d protected him by driving off the devil: “When I turned completely around, just right there, the woman, the vehicle, the lights shining, they were gone. They were gone. But in my brake lights, I saw the guy running over that hill.”

But not always. A 2012 poll found that 57 percent of Americans believed in demonic possession. It’s unlikely to be entertainment for all of them.

One way to think about demons (if you happen not to believe in supernatural evil) is that they are a way of representing human hatred, rage and failure — the stuff we all set out to exorcize in our New Year’s resolutions. The anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere, who grew up in Sri Lanka, got a Ph.D. from the University of Washington and, eventually, a job at Princeton, once remarked that all humans deal with demons. (He was quoting Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” — “In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden.”) The only question, he said, was whether the demons were located in the mind, where Freud placed them, or in the world. It is possible that identifying your envy as external and alien makes it easier to quell.

But it is also true that an external agent gives you something — and often, someone — to identify as nonhuman. In West Africa, witches are people, and sometimes, other people kill them or drive them from their homes. In an April poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, over one in 10 Americans were confident that Barack Obama was the Antichrist — and the Antichrist is, as it happens, associated with war in the Middle East. If those people think that demons are real, they don’t mean that Obama is misguided, confused or mistaken. They mean that he is real, inhuman evil.

That is a terrifying thought.

T. M. Luhrmann is contributing opinion writer, a professor of anthropology at Stanford and the author of “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God.”