Feature 07.17.2023 6 minutes

Spirits of the Cloud

Evil skull nebula

A demonology of the internet.

What she didn’t understand, she being spiritual and seeing religion as spirit, was that it took religion to save me from the spirit world, from orbiting the earth like Lucifer and the angels, that it took nothing less than touching the thread off the misty interstates and eating Christ himself to make me mortal again and let me inhabit my own flesh.

–Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” Kevin Spacey’s character Verbal tells us in 1995’s The Usual Suspects, channeling Charles Baudelaire. It’s an old bit of Christian wisdom. It certainly rang true back in the 19th century at the high noon of rationalism, when the good and the great flattered themselves to have banished supernatural entities from the world. After all, one very traditional name for demons is “spirits of the air” (Ephesians 2:2). There is a sense that these airy beings are master manipulators, pulling our strings while remaining hidden themselves.

Today, though, it seems as if the devil is abandoning old tricks for some new ones. Demons are having their day in the popular consciousness. Even public atheist James Lindsay, who does not believe in demons per se, recently posted on Twitter about the wisdom to be gleaned from listening to Catholic exorcist experts on demons. It’s a moment that hearkens back to earlier days, when demonology was considered one of the most straightforward and cogent ways to describe the world.

In ancient Christianity, demons were thought to control people both through pagan religions and through politics: the various nations all existed in some state of rebellion against God, and each was overseen by some malign force or counterfeit god. What could be more current? There is a widespread sense now that hidden, powerful, possibly malicious forces are manipulating us through our “air”—through the internet and social media, or through mysterious exertions at the heights of our political and cultural elite.

So there is much wisdom that can be gained by turning to ancient sources to understand how these mysterious forces operate and how to resist them. In brief, they operate by preying on our imaginations and desires, which are oftentimes obscure even to us, especially when we try to penetrate the veil between present and future or between human and divine by some sort of magical or technical means. James Lindsay zeroes in on this aspect: “Demons influence people through their emotions and their interpretations of features of their lives.” Since they are airy, and proud of their elevation over our earthiness, they have a weakness: humility and an embrace of our earthbound bodies (as a matter of fact, the word “humility” is derived from a Latin word meaning “dirt” or “earth”, humus). For the Christians following along, this is why the Incarnation and the bodily sacraments are so important.

Now, as it happens, I do believe in both God and demons—I am a Catholic theologian, after all. But much of what I am about to say might be of use even to non-believers—although I do hope that, if what I say seems useful, a non-believer who is a friendly reader might be led to wonder if there is a deeper reason for the sense I might be making.


First, let’s talk about how demons manipulate. The movie The Exorcist was on to something in the exchange between Fr. Damien Karras and the demon possessing Regan:

Demon: I’m not Regan.
Father Karras: Well, then let’s introduce ourselves. I’m Damien Karras.
Demon: And I’m the Devil. Now kindly undo these straps.
Father Karras: If you’re the Devil, why not make the straps disappear?
Demon: That’s much too vulgar a display of power, Karras.

Demons are far more intelligent than humans and have no need for such “vulgar displays.” St. Augustine of Hippo observed that demons are excellent and precise observers of human vices and sins. They are capable of devising clever traps to exploit those weaknesses in the most subtle ways. He says, “By a mysterious divine judgment people who are greedy for bad things are handed over to be fooled and cheated as their evil wishes deserve, fooled and cheated by the apostate angels, to whom a ruling of divine providence has so neatly and fittingly subjected this lowest part of the universe” (De Doctrina Christiana 2.23.35). Their more subtle operations have the benefit of inducing our cooperation with their evil, whereas all the vulgar display does is to throw us about like rag dolls.

As both master psychologists and master manipulators, demons are expert in preying on human beings’ faults. Sin, for Augustine, in addition to being primarily an offense against God, has serious psychological consequences: our attention is compromised, shifting as it does from higher things to lower, baser things. We chronically mis-prioritize, elevating lower goods over higher goods, creating fatally bad habits.

Augustine shows how the demons use our vices and sins against us when he talks about divination, which is the practice of relying on supernatural signs to find out hidden things, either in the future, the past, or far distant from us. Ancient peoples had many ways of doing this. Some of the ones Augustine talks about are haruspication, which is the examining of animal entrails for hidden signs; bibliomancy, which is to let a book fall open by chance and to regard the passage or page that opens up as revealed by supernatural means; and augury, which is the art of reading the flights of birds.

In each case, Augustine says, these apparently supernatural signs, or occurrences that seem to have some prophetic significance, are the means by which human beings are manipulated. These signs, he says, “Have not, in fact, been noted down because they had any value, but they have been given a certain value by being noted down and treated as signs” (2.24.37). In other words, the person searching for signs happens upon occurrences that stand out as significant because of some predilection already in him or her, usually the result of a vice or sin. “And so it is,” Augustine continues, “that they signify different things to different people according to their assumptions and ways of thinking. For these evil spirits, whose sole desire is to deceive, procure for any particular person such things as they see his guesses and his cultural conventions have already ensnared him into expecting.”

If that doesn’t sound like what happens to us through our interactions with algorithms online, I don’t know what would. The algorithm takes our desires, and what we are already predisposed to pay attention to, and creates a kind of psychological profile for us. This allows it to present to us things that accord with our predilections and which also then provide the algorithms—or the masters of the algorithms—with the means to manipulate us by subtly modifying what we are led to attend to, just as the demons present us with outward phenomena designed to catch our attention based on their knowledge of our (sinful or vicious) predilections. This repeated process has the effect of creating a new, unnoticed environment in which our perceptions are curated by a new kind of social media spirit of the air, which acts as a medium between us and reality.

Lucifer’s Moment

Worship shapes the worshipper to conform closer to what is worshipped (See Romans 1:21-25, Psalm 115:8). The idolatrous images are the medium by which the human being has access—or thinks he has access—to the divine. Once again, the medium has a shaping effect on the user. If the Christian idiom of idolatry is uncomfortable, then perhaps John Culkin’s summary of Marshall McLuhan’s thinking about how our media technology effects expresses the same thought in a more congenial idiom: “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

The shape of the tool, then, has a causal effect on our perceptions and our consciousness. In order to rule or manipulate, all that is necessary is to shape the shaper: to control the medium. Any number of malicious actors, natural and supernatural, have grasped that truth.

Electric media, McLuhan points out, produces the very odd impression that one is a “‘super angel.’ When you are on the telephone you have no body. And, while your voice is there, you and the people you speak to are here, at the same time. Electric man has no bodily being. He is literally dis-carnate.” This impression of being discarnate, which electric media produces and social media especially exaggerates, might be thought at the very least partially to explain some of the most discarnate delusions of our time—transgenderism being the most obvious.

The democratization and further distribution of electronic media to anyone with a smart device seems to have exaggerated the effects of electric media. McLuhan already worried well before the advent of the internet as a popular tool, “I also think that this could be the time of the Antichrist. When electricity allows for the simultaneity of all information for every human being, it is Lucifer’s moment. He is the greatest electrical engineer.” Lucifer’s name, of course, means “light-bearer.”

Name of Names

So what is to be done? The fathers of the Church have some solutions. St. Athanasius’s summary of the solution to the problem is simply that “Where Christ is named, idolatry is destroyed and the fraud of evil spirits is exposed; indeed, no such spirit can endure that Name, but takes to flight on sound of it” (On the Incarnation #30). Athanasius is not referring to something happening in the noumenal sphere, but rather something observable: where Christ is preached and people are baptized, idolatry fades and the influence of demons lessens in ways apparent to all. Now, I think this happens because Christianity is true and Christ does, in fact, have lordship over all of creation. But that lordship is exercised in ways appropriate to our nature, so there ought to be, and is, a way to make some sense of what is happening even from the standpoint of a neutral observer (a James Lindsay, for example). And that is what we find.

Athanasius’s account rests on two legs. First, Christ is the Incarnate Word, who unites God with human nature. Athanasius spends a lot of time emphasizing Christ’s bodily being. If it is the spirits of the air that are a problem, then the earthy character of embodied humanity can be a counteractive. But embodied humanity needs to be validated against suspicions that the body or matter is either insignificant or evil, which is one of the things that Christ’s Incarnation does. The presence of the Word (the logos) in the flesh points out that God really is lord of all of creation, not just the “spiritual” parts, and that therefore clues about God can be found even in material things, if considered properly.

The Incarnation creates a whole new perceptual environment. Christ acts as mediator, displacing the usurper demons. He does so in a kind of surprise attack by validating and sanctifying human nature, especially the body.

The second leg of Athanasius’s account is the Resurrection. Man’s attention turns away from higher things to lower things on account of the original sin, but what that mostly means is that human attention is submerged in death: all of the lower things are corruptible, and so man begins to think of himself as corruptible and, therefore, of death as the greatest evil. The fear of death becomes the main lever the demons use to manipulate human beings. But if Christ has conquered death and opened the way to eternal life, not only for the soul but also for the body, then the demons are disarmed.

Embodied life, which is validated and sanctified by the Incarnation, is the antidote to demonic manipulation. The sacraments, which Christians have always understood to be a bodily extension of the incarnation, is the Christian version of the admonition to “touch grass.” Get in touch with embodied, material reality, which is proof against the discarnate abstraction of “the air,” in both the demonic and social media sense. Especially pertinent is the type of embodied community enabled by this kind of life, which is grounded in and makes us realize we are subject to things outside of our wills and imaginations.

With the shift from electronic media to digital media wrought by the computer and the internet, the key will be to use digital technology to point us back to living an incarnate rather than a discarnate way of life. What will that mean? First of all, it will mean a return to humility: a step back from cosmic dreams of godlike power and toward DIY videos on YouTube, or telling stories based on newly easy access to your home’s county records, or finding Mass times nearby. The politics of COVID have already demonstrated the importance of local politics in ways we had largely forgotten as recently as four years ago. Perhaps we can find ways to use digital tools to help us with reentry from our electronic orbit and thereby take a lever away from the manipulators of every sort.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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