Demon Possession in 2016

How is the intellectual Christian supposed to take Demon Possession? As I see it there are only Three options. The first is to believe that it didn’t happen and the Bible is misunderstanding mental illness and epilepsy . The Second is that the cases in the New Testament were special events that only occurred while Jesus’ power was directly manifested in the World, as a sort of balance between good and evil. Or mental illness really can actually be demon possession. Especially when a voice actually talks to the sufferer. Is it actually the voice of some kind of malevolent spirit who’s presence in the body causes physical reactions, chemical changes etc? The voices are always malevolent as far as I have learned. Doesn’t that strike anyone as weird? Personally, I think schizophrenia sufferers have part of their brain stuck in a constant state of ‘half-awake’. Those moments when half asleep or half awake where you hear your name being called or a knock at the door… A conversation may even play in your mind with voices that are not your own… It happens to everyone in this stage of consciousness.

I do not believe in modern-day demon possession.

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This is an interesting topic to discuss, but I think you shouldn’t be expecting any “either-versus-or” answers here. In biblical times People did not use the modern conceptual separation between natural and supernatural causes. From a skin infection to a woman’s period to severe fits of epilepsy, everything had some spiritual relevance. Just like God through Creation can work through natural causes, it seems evil spirits can work through natural causes too. So the evil intentions of a bad spirit could underlie a naturally caused fit of epilepsy.

For schizophrenia, I would say it is a similar story. Here it seems that a natural state of vulnerability can give space to bad spirits to start speaking. Not all cases of demon-possession with speech are related to schizophrenia. In African cultures it occurs much more often. I am not sure whether that should be interpreted as resulting from their superstitions or from bad spirits abusing those superstitions… Probably a bit of both.


For much of my life I tended to view most reports of demonization (my preference over “demon possession”) as explained by mental illness or at least physiological/psychological phenomena. But after a series of directly observable phenomena–much of it also witnessed by colleagues—I started taking the topic much more personally. I always accepted the Bible’s warnings about demons but I just never gave it a lot of thought in terms of my own life and ministry obstacles. That all changed after some experiences which all connected to someone’s occult involvements with shamanism in a particular area of Asia.

All of these situations I observed involved someone who had made a major life decision to reject God and to devote themselves to sin. Most (perhaps all) involved the individual making some kind of “pact” with supernatural forces. (Some spoke of Satan and some spoke of giving their allegiance to particular ancestors.)

Because of the nature of my experiences, I tend to think in terms of demonic manifestations in general and not just “demonic possession” per se. Nevertheless, it appeared that a human with special ties to the demonic powers was nearly always nearby or had recently been present. I don’t know why/how any of that works but I’m simply summarizing my observations.

I’ve not shared the details publicly because I don’t see much positive coming from it. After all, if I share them with Christians, many will wonder why they are not having the similar experiences with the supernatural, and many non-Christians will obsess on trying to poke holes in what happened, provide alternate explanations (even if they don’t at all apply), or simply claim that the reports are lies. (Indeed, I do agree that a great many bombastic tales from various prominent ministry entrepreneurs are probably fabrications. That’s all the more reason why I don’t want to get associated with the casting-out-demons industry.)

I do wish I could learn from others who have more ministry experience with demonic manifestations but it is hard to know how to separate the sensationalists and the showmen from those who have wisdom to share.

One thing that surprised me as I consulted various colleagues about my shocking experiences was how many of them had had at least one similarly supernatural episode sometime in their ministry career. Not one of them had ever mentioned it to me previously but in almost every case, their story would begin with the words: “This is something which I’ve never/rarely shared with anyone else but seeing how you’ve just gone through something similar, it was like this…” In two of those cases it was pastors whose wives later told me, “That was the first time I ever heard of his experience with the demonic”, although one of them said, “I knew something shocking had happened to him and the elders who accompanied him. He came home white as a sheet and simply said that he had experienced something Satanic. I knew it was something he didn’t want to talk about and we never spoke of it again.”

So even though I would say that I observed demonization of individuals, I wouldn’t at all describe any of those situations as the “traditional” kind of demon possession people talk about or remember from the Bible.

None of these “episodes” I observed or heard described by colleagues involved epileptic seizures, exhibitions of strength, or even bizarre behaviors by an individual. What I did see was phenomena I couldn’t explain and couldn’t imagine a natural explanation. And at least one other person witnessed each such event. All were in the context of what I can only describe as “spiritual warfare” involving rebellion and harm to innocent people.

To avoid a complete mystery, I’ll give just one example: the levitation of a small sleeping child about four feet above her bed.

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It’s called the hypnagogic state: of or relating to the state just before one is fully asleep.


What would be the purpose for Satan or any demon to levitate a small sleeping child? Aren’t they in the business of world domination?

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Agreeing. People who have spent no time in animistic areas of the world should not presume to be experts on the non-existence of the demonic. And it is not just Christians who have these stories. I have talked with several non-Christian anthropologists and linguists who have done extensive field work in rural Africa and have no “scientific” explanation for some of the things they encountered.

  1. @Tony, how many of the demonic episodes described during the ministry of Jesus in the Gospel accounts involved “the business of world domination”? Weren’t most of Jesus encounters with the demonic involving particular individuals who were suffering from what the Greek text basically labels as “demonization”.

  2. As to “the business of world domination”, is there really much doubt that evil dominates this world? (I find that a lot of Americans don’t really come to grips with that. But we live in an atypical place in many ways.) Satan offered Jesus the kingdoms of this world because Satan already dominated them and could legitimately offer them to Jesus. So I’d say that the “world domination” already happened. (Yes, I’m very aware that many of my academic colleagues would find that claim quite strange.)

The levitated child had come from a terribly abusive home. I won’t post the unspeakable things that that child had endured and she finally had a safe place to sleep and people who cared about her safety. The manifestation seemed to be part of an ongoing harassment and part of a “protest” against the change in status quo… Beyond that, I don’t claim to understand much of what it all means. I only know what I saw and what the foster parents shared with me.

I reached a point in my life where I could no longer explain away such things. (Believe me, I would much prefer being able to provide natural explanations for the things I’ve seen.)

What limited research I’ve done into the area of Asia where some of my incidents were linked revealed similarly bizarre reports from western colonialists and then anthropologists and folklore scholars visiting in the 1800s.

I have a lot of experience with skepticism and with debunking popular nonsense and conspiracy theories, but eventually I have to follow the evidence where it leads. What did I conclude? I concluded that I was unable to explain by natural processes various phenomena which I had observed in the presence of others witnesses. Worse yet, I saw fundamental changes in behavior of people which seemed to be permanent. That was the most disturbing part. It always brings to mind the Apostle Paul’s warning: “Satan walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” Obviously, that is metaphorical, yet very descriptive in ways I’ve come to appreciate.

If @Christy or anyone else has any academic titles or missiology textbooks which they’ve found helpful, I would appreciate recommended reading that one has found to be solid and not merely anecdotal and sensationalistic. Frankly, I procrastinated further intensive research into these types of things for many years. The memories have been too depressing. (Again, if natural explanations could address the shocking things I’ve seen in ministry, I would feel tremendously relieved.)

My life and circumstances are quite safe and comfortable but I can’t say the same for some of the people I saw pursued by evil. (That is the only wording that really captures what I saw.)

Thank you for your comments, Christy. I wonder if Christ-followers should talk about these topics more often than we do. I always cringe a bit when I hear Christians speak of “Bible times” as if everything was different back then. Yes, many things were different. But not everything. And the Bible warns of those dangers which always apply.

I realize that this topic is not central to the mission of Biologos. Yet I appreciate that this issue has come up in an environment like this where there are serious minded, deep-thinking Christ-followers who won’t obsess on sensationalist tangents but who can contribute serious thought to a rarely discussed topic. I would like to learn from those who have devoted themselves to the academic research of this topic. Recommended reading would be greatly appreciated, especially if some of it is available online…

P.S. I wonder: Is Satan delighted that many evangelicals get far more angry at those who dare disagree on the age of the earth than at the suffering of those who are oppressed by evil? Surely we do well to regularly prioritize our righteous anger where it is most strategic for the advance of the Kingdom.


I’m probably going to get hell for this, but I don’t believe in demon possession, or whatever you call it. I do believe in the miracles of Jesus. I believe that the afflictions described in the New Testament healing stories can probably be attributed to epilepsy and mental illness. (But the afflicted really were healed of what they were actually suffering from.)

As a matter of fact, simply believing in demon possession, witchcraft, and the like can cause terrible suffering. Just watch this very short video Report Decries Treatment of Mentally Ill in Ghana and see the terrible things people endure when there is inadequate care for the mentally ill. It’s just heartbreaking-- mentally ill folks are actually chained up in prayer camps.

I don’t think any of the great religion-affiliated hospitals, such as NY Presbyterian, Mount Sinai, or the many Catholic hospitals, have departments for demon-related stuff. And in large city hospitals, they would be treating many people from all over the world.



This suggests that the demonic exist only in these “so-called” animistic areas of the world—since people who have not spent time in these areas are not to be presumed experts on the non-existence of the demonic. It would be more precise to claim that the “civilized” world has entertained the demonic—the criminal and mentally ill.

Christians or non-Christians, whether anthropologists or linguists who have no experience in parapsychology should not be considered experts. In your example, this is the reason they have no “scientific” explanation for some of the things they encountered—they are not experts!

Word Origin and History for animism

Regarding animism, in "1866, reintroduced by English anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Taylor (1832-1917), who defined it (1871) as the “theory of the universal animation of nature,” from Latin anima “life, breath, soul.” ANIMISTIC Definition & Usage Examples |

In this sense, animism refers to the animation of the universe, as in—the eternal animating force (panentheism) that gives existence and sustenance to nature. In other words, anima mundi—literally “soul of the world.”

You could check out Keener’s Miracles. The appendices have a section on possession and exorcism.

Hi beaglelady, what do you think about my earlier reply in which I proposed to apply the idea that spiritual and natural causes cannot be strictly separated? Natural causes of epilepsy and mental illness do not exclude the spiritual dimension.

Also, if you do not believe in demonic possession at all, I am very interested to hear how you interpret the story of Legion. in Mark 5:

4 For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. (…)
7 He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” 8 For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!” 9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” 10 And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.
11 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. 12 The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” 13 He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

Especially the part where the herd of pigs gets drowned in the lake seems to be problematic in your explanation, but also verse 4 where the man is described to possess superhuman strength.

Why would separate departments be necessary? It sounds like you are assuming that the same set of symptoms calls for different treatment regimens depending upon the cause of those symptoms. That is not necessarily the case, especially in psychiatric treatment. Indeed, a great many out-of-control patients are put on haloperidol (e.g., Haldol) even before the ultimate cause of their behavior is determined. (Whether that is good or bad is another matter but I’ve seen it as a chaplain in a large municipal hospital.) They certainly are not assigned to different departments, as in demonic versus non-demonic!

I’m baffled by the logic implied in this:

Yes, false beliefs cause all kinds of problems. But that is no more the basis for logical conclusions about demonization than the anti-evolution protesters who reason “Believing in the Theory of Evolution leads to an abandonment of all morality because if you tell people they are animals, they will start acting like animals. Therefore, the Theory of Evolution is invalid.” That is the Argument from Negative Consequences Fallacy.

I think everyone would agree that incorrect diagnosis is a serious problem. It can be proven (and is well documented in the medical literature) that medical scammers who convince people that they are suffering from cancers cause terrible harm, even though no actual cancer is ravaging their bodies. Yet that fact does not lead to the conclusion that cancers don’t exist and that people die from cancers!

Yes, many cultures (in the past and even today) have assumed that every malady and disaster was caused by demonic forces. Yet, it doesn’t logically follow that because we’ve realized that most of those tragedies have explanations within natural processes, therefore (a) no demons exist, (b) no demon has ever caused problems for people, and (c) no demon has ever used natural processes in some way.

I don’t see how your argument consists of anything other than the Argument from Negative Consequences Fallacy. Again, you appear to be arguing that because wrong attribution of illness to demon causes is problematic, therefore demonization doesn’t exist. I don’t understand how you are making that logical leap.

Moreover, I don’t understand why you think a patient experiencing hallucinations and delusions of grandeur, for example, would need a separate medical ward or department in a hospital when the very same medications will be applied regardless of whether or not the doctor might suspect that demonic factors were involved. If a patient is admitted to a hospital after a suicide attempt by slitting their wrists, will they be placed in a different ward if they tell the admitting physician that they feel overwhelmed by guilt and feel that God is angry with them versus a similar patient who simply states that they felt overwhelmed by depression? Does the spiritual element (whether real or unreal) place them in a different department of the hospital despite the fact that both types of patients has slit wrists?) No. So I’m not clear why you think the absence of a “Department of Demonization Treatment” in Roman Catholic hospitals would indicate that RC theology has abandoned belief in the demonic. I just don’t get the argument.

By the way, since you mentioned hospitals with religious affiliations, I can personally assure you that some Roman Catholic hospitals certainly do consider demonization issues with some psychiatric patients. They have no reason to create separate hospital departments for them because all of the medical equipment, restraints, and staffing would be the same. Instead, they call for the Roman Catholic priest chaplain or an “on call” priest they consider experienced at such things (who the RC chaplain on duty consults on such matters.) I’m not Roman Catholic so I can’t tell you a lot of details but I’ve heard the M.D. who was Director of Psychiatric Services speak of suspected demonic factors with some patients. In fact, you mentioned “patients from all over the world” and I entirely agree. Those instances I recall happened to involve Haitian refugees. (I also recall one case involving a Rwandan who survived the terrible slaughter there.) One of the psychiatrists on the review board told me that even when a patient from various developing countries never mentions demonic factors, she had learned to probe for various kinds of cultural practices which seemed to correlate highly with symptoms commonly mentioned in the anthropological literature. By the way, she was an agnostic but her experiences with Doctors Without Borders had [her words] forced her to be open-minded about disturbing phenomena she had experienced in west Africa.

Sadly, this has been true of the treatment of mentally ill people throughout most of the world, past and present. In fact, virtually everything of a horrid nature in the video you cited was also shockingly common in American psychiatric hospitals even very recently! If you take a tour of various state hospitals which have been turned into museums or which have occasional tours, what you will typically find on basement floors (where the sounds were least likely to be heard by the general public, unlike the floors with windows) will horrify you. Whether or not prayer was involved or belief in the demonic, the horrid conditions were much the same. (Frankly, if I had to make a terrible choice as a patient, in general [and all things being equal, which they never seem to be] I would prefer a facility where they thought I was a suffering victim of evil demonic entities deserving compassion rather than one where I was treated as an incurable who simply didn’t matter and who deserved no special care. At least the former may recognize my humanity. Very often the latter type of facility did not. Nobody should have to make a choice between the two types of horrors when needing psychiatric care.)

On that I certainly disagree with any sort of probability that you are going to “get hell” for holding to a particular position on demons. If people go to hell for wrong answers on some theological exam, I’ve spent many year in big trouble! What if I had been killed in an auto accident when I was still a young earth creationist who believed in “flood geology” and thought radiometric dating was a travesty? Worse yet, I now consider myself to have been one of the false teachers scripture warns us about. [See footnote.] I wonder what Dante might have had in store for me.

FOOTNOTE: I’m not implying that everyone who teaches “creation science” is a heretic and among the false teachers the Bible warns about. However, what I was doing as a speaker and activist included quietly going along with the dishonest leadership and various aspects of the movement which I now consider quite reprehensible. And the fruit manifested a half century later has been devastating to the Church. This is a big topic for another time. I just wanted to make clear that I’m not making generalizations about all young earth creationists or even all advocates of “creation science”.

@Beaglelady, I thank you very much for posting what you did. I’m delighted that we are discussing such things. (And because recurrent disability tends to relegate most of my participation to that of silent lurker, I can’t always join in. But I’ve always appreciated your comments in these forums.)

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Beaglelady, I applaud you for coming out. If we could give more Likes, I would have given you 100. You have my respect.

Although very true for believing in demon possession and for using witchcraft to harm others (whatever you do comes back to you—what you sow you reap), a knowledge of the fundamental principles of witchcraft can aid a person from the harm that other would so inflict. What I’m referring to is simple to understand.

Witchcraft is the knowledge of manipulating reality. A witch is a person who has knowledge of witchcraft. The word [witch] means [bender of reality]. How a person bends that reality makes him/her a sorcerer or a wizard. The sorcerer bends reality from the reality to create a delusion. The wizard bends the false reality from the delusion to true reality. Both the sorcerer and the wizard are benders of reality—they have knowledge of witchcraft. How they use that knowledge classifies them as good or evil.

As Christians, do we want to be swindled by criminals (sinners)? Yes, we want to abide by Christ’s admonitions to be righteous human beings. But, does this mean that we should leave our guard down to be deceived and manipulated by criminals and con artists. One can be Christian and have knowledge of how criminals and con artists function so that the Christian can be safe from their devious schemes. If we go around trusting everyone we are bound to get duped and be mislead. How many times has that happened? Therefore, I can be a good Christian always following Christ’s admonitions in living a good life, and always sharpening my knowledge of witchcraft to protect me from criminals, swindlers, and any other sort of deceiver.

It’s amazing how others don’t take into consideration points such as these. I mean, are we in the civilized world just that cruel that we would leave people possessed by demons to their own devices.

Which hospitals? Were the experiences written up in the medical literature?

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Thank you, Tony.

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What? I tried but I just can’t follow your logic on that one. Who said, implied, or suggested that “the demonic exist only in these “so-called” animistic areas of the world.”? That’s like saying that because a discussion of lead poisoning happened to mention the high incidences of cases near lead mines, that means that someone “suggested” that lead poisoning is not a problem anywhere else. I can’t make sense of that.

I don’t understand what that means.

Moreover, I don’t know of anyone who claims that all criminality and mental illness is due to the demonic. (Do many people believe “the devil made me do it”? Even if they did, that’s not the same thing as the demonic.)

I didn’t notice anyone on this forum claiming that anthropologists and linguists (all or even some) were considered experts on parapsychology. (In fact, when I investigated it in the past, it was not even clear that parapsychology is recognized as an academic discipline. Christy pointed out that serious discussion of whatever one wishes to call “the demonic” is not at all restricted to theologians or Christians. It is a topic which has fascinated all sorts of people, *including academics doing fieldwork in their respective research disciplines."

In fact, I doubt if anyone here would even say that “experts” on the demonic even exist. (Perhaps I’m wrong in that assumption. I used to know of one professor at Moody Bible Institute who others sometimes called a “demonology expert” but I never heard him assign himself that label.)

As to your “word origin and history for animism”, I’m not clear on your point. As one would expect, animism has multiple meanings and usages. Christy’s use of the word was a casual one but not inaccurate for the context.

I guess I’m not clear on what you wanted to communicate in that post. If you are objecting to the OP topic and term “Demon Possession” in general, I must admit that I too have never thought the term a great choice for what the Greek text of the Gospels mentions. I prefer simply roughly transcribing the verb without any further embellishment or precision: “demonized” as in “a demonized man”, regardless of whether one thinks that literal demons exist. Labels are necessary to discuss the subject and the New Testament offers chose particular words in Koine Greek and so I use them. (Women today still get hysterectomies regardless of whether one accepts etymological descriptions of “a wandering uterus” [I think a *wondering* uterus would be more interesting] and the need for removing what was once thought to make some women hysterical.)

The fact remains that even if not a single linguist or anthropologist had ever included observations of bizarre phenomena in their field notes, my memories of my observations and those of my colleagues who witnessed those phenomena would not thereby be erased. Yet, to disparage those linguists and anthropologists as somehow unqualified to record such notes would baffle, though I’m not so sure that that is what you are saying. (Christy made no sweeping claims about experts and their conclusions so I’m just not clear on what was considered flawed in her remark.)

I’m not aware of any such academics saying, “Thus, my paper has conclusively proven that demons not only exist, they control some people and cause the aforementioned phenomena.” (Perhaps those academics exist. I’m simply saying that I’m not aware of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if one can find published notes from the 1700’s and 1800’s where Europeans made such claims but I doubt that any of those are peer-reviewed scientific papers based upon the scientific method.)

I do find it interesting how we as humans react to this topic. It sounds like we all find it an uncomfortable topic.

I quote from “An Introduction to the New Testament” by Raymond E. Brown (not too shabby a scholar):

> There is a major geographical problem in Mark’s location of the scene where the pigs can run down the embankment and drown in the sea. Gerasa is a site over 30 miles from the Sea of Galilee , and the alternative reading Gadara is no real help since that is about 6 miles from the sea.

So perhaps this is a bit of embellishment to make some kind of theological point. Pigs are, after all, unclean animals. Or was the sea (or the town) moved for this purpose?. Or maybe pigs can fly!

I also wonder why Jesus would do the bidding of evil spirits, and ruin a man’s livelihood by drowning all those animals.

I didn’t mean I’d be sent to hell. I meant that Biologos types would be giving me hell.

And you know what? I don’t believe in Marian apparitions! (That would make more than a few Catholics bummed at me.) The famous Miracle of the Sun was supposedly seen by 30,000 people!

I’m not clear on why you would expect such anecdotes to be “written up in the medical literature”. Medical journals are neither diaries nor are they records of hospital staff conversations. As to why the identity of the hospitals is important, I have no idea. (Obviously, if provided the name of the hospital and the year this happened, one could look up the staff directories and find out who made these private comments—and even to identify me. I don’t know why we would want to do that. Perhaps these is some “competition” here of which I’m unaware. I’m certainly not trying to “win” anyone to a particular view on the topic, especially when I know so little about it myself. As I’ve emphasized from the beginning, I know what we have observed but I find it hard to reach hard and fast conclusions. That is why I asked for the input of others. However, if someone chooses to believe that people like me who report such experiences are (a) lying, or (b) were hallucinating, or (c) are simply joking, that’s their choice and I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.)

There certainly are plenty of published articles on medical practice which deal with understanding cultural issues like animism and the demonic and how to interpret a patient’s answers to questions. Even when using a skilled translator, a lot can be misunderstood in translation. Therefore, one can certainly find mention of these types of topics in medical literature. But I’m not sure why that should matter in this discussion context. (I’m probably not understanding BeagleLady’s post. I freely admit that.)

Imagine if English speakers were rare in the world and a non-English-speaking physician was using a translator to relay the ailing patient’s answers to standard medical questions:

Doctor: “Ask our patient if his father died from heart disease.”
Translator: {The translator relays the doctor’s question to the patient but in English.]
Patient: “Yes. My father kept having chest pains over a period of months. He would pass out and each incident was worse than the one before. Finally, when I was around ten years old, he expired.”

Translator to Doctor: "Our patient says his father did have heart disease. But he insists that one day when the patient was ten, his father expelled his spirit from his lungs. So our patient assumes his father died because of that, not heart disease. His culture believes that breath is the substance of human life and by expelling it, the soul leaves the body and one is dead. To him, that is the best explanation of his father’s death. "

How is that relevant to this discussion? When dealing with some of these animistic cultures, the language of animism and the demonic is so much a part of the language that it can sometimes be difficult to determine what the person actually believes about demons and the demonic.

It reminds me of how Ronald Reagan used to misunderstand Gorbachev constant mentions of God and the spiritual in casual conversation. From what I’ve heard from the translators and aids to the President, they began to realize that Reagan thought that Gorbachev was “a godless communist” at all. So apparently they had to take him aside and explain to Reagan that what Reagen assumed to be “God talk” was just the common idioms of the Russian language.

Thus, as a linguist myself, I found it interesting when Tony implied that linguists and anthropologists were somehow inferior to “parapsychologists” on these matters—when in actual fact, the linguists and anthropologists would be absolutely essential to any study of the people and the reported phenomena. The academic world is not a simple division into qualified and unqualified experts.

As always, BeagleLady promotes interesting conversations and I appreciate Biologos allowing a non-origins topic .