The idea of spiritual attack (also spiritual warfare) is found in most religious and spiritual traditions sharing the belief that a normally invisible attack is caused by evil or lower beings wishing to cause misfortune, distress and physical or psychological illness. I say “normally invisible” because certain mystics, saints and seers claim to actually see the process through visions, revelations or inward, intuitive seeing.
Alleged remedies for spiritual attack vary somewhat, according to the beliefs and practices of a given tradition. Perhaps the biggest difference among traditions is between those that overcome spiritual attack through
- humble prayer to God and interceding angels and saints
- one’s own effort, such as the of casting spells or identifying with some kind of spiritual warrior that slays or contains negative spiritual influences¹
St. Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into Hell Satan and all the evil spirits that wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls.³
Also in Catholic theology we find the term obsession, which means not possessed but significantly disturbed by an evil spirit, spiritual power or influence. Most religions and individuals probably interpret the idea of spiritual attack through their own cultural filters, arriving at beliefs that are just as man-made as actual. And some people go to great lengths to convince us that we’d do well to purchase certain beads or charms to ward off evil.
However, the overall idea of spiritual attack remains important, especially when viewed thoughtfully instead of dogmatically. Spiritual attack presents an alternative to the reductive belief, forwarded by the likes of Richard Dawkins,² that living beings are nothing more than an assemblage of electrically charged chemicals.
By way of analogy, ancient and medieval astronomers made mistakes while viewing the night skies, but those errors didn’t dissuade others from improving observational techniques, leading to better categorizations and explanations of astronomical phenomena. And so it is, one could argue, with observing and understanding the spiritual realm. Some claim to sense, discern or perhaps see its reality. However, we still have a long way to go in decreasing the interpretive biases and influences that can arise from preexisting religious beliefs and worldviews.³
¹ (a) In some cultures a professional shaman is enlisted or even paid to overcome evil for another person believed to be under its spell. Mircea Eliade notes that sometimes if the shaman can’t make a living out this, they choose another profession. See http://www.amazon.com/Shamanism-Archaic-Techniques-Ecstasy-Bollingen/dp/0691119422
(b) I should add that these two categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A modern witch, for example, might cast a spell but also pray to God or spirits for guidance. Likewise, a contemporary shaman might talk about the reality of one God among all traditions.
² See The Selfish Gene, 1976; The God Delusion, 2006.