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Risks of the Occult

by Tim Mulloy

Sometimes people kid around and say, "The devil made me do it!"

We know better, don't we? Or can the devil exert enough influence in our lives to make us act in certain ways? In this Youth Update, we consider the occult seriously. Can the devil really force people to do things? Who's to blame when bad things happen? Are Satanic symbols and signs harmful? What is the occult anyway?

What is the Occult?

Although the dictionary defines the occult as the world of the supernatural, mystical or magical, trying to come up with a clear understanding of the occult is a little like taking apart a car's engine. The more parts you see lying around, the further you are from understanding the original problem.

A reason for the confusion is that the occult covers so many activities: from the relatively harmless, such as reading your horoscope and fortune-telling, to the dangerous, such as witchcraft and devil worship.

Despite this wide range, occult practices are linked by one identifying element: belief in a power greater than-and opposite to-God's. While Christianity teaches that all wisdom, understanding and power ultimately come from God, the occult teaches that we can tap into a more powerful source of knowledge and strength-a source that may seem daring and courageous, but is actually uncaring at best, and evil at worst.

This power source isn't necessarily identied as the devil or Satan. If you accuse palm readers or psychics of having Satanic connections, you can expect indignant protests. They may attend Church services and even call themselves Christians. They don't think of themselves as being involved with the devil.

As people start looking for power in sources that are alien or unconnected to God, however, they begin to question God's power, even if they don't do it consciously. They allow themselves to entertain the possibility that someone or something other than God, or the instruments of God, can help them. They reason: If horoscopes or a Ouija board offer an immediate, clear-cut answer to life's problems and questions, puzzling over the will of God is unnecessary mental gymnastics!

Occult practices promise power and knowledge beyond typical human insight. It's like the biblical story of Adam and Eve, who searched for knowledge without trusting their creator to provide for their needs. If you can get your answers without God, then what's the point of going to God?

Evil does exist. And bad things happen to all of us. For example, your boyfriend or girlfriend dumps you for your best friend the same day you flunk an English test, your mom nags you about your hair, the dog chews your running shoes and you're grounded for missing curfew by 10 minutes-not a good day.

And it's not just you. Every time you listen to the news you hear about trouble and suffering. Murder. Rape. AIDS. Starvation. Drought. War. It's enough to make you wonder if God really is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving.

You read an article with new statistics and revelations about the Shoah, or Holocaust, in which six million Jewish men, women and children were slaughtered. You see The Silence of the Lambs on video. Soon you can't help thinking maybe evil does have the upper hand.

When you feel like that, it's natural to look for answers-practical, how-to-deal-with-reality answers that will work. This kind of thinking may lead-or mislead-you to seek answers in the occult.

The Occult's Answers

Practitioners of the occult say the reason evil frequently overpowers good is obvious: Evil is stronger than good. "Just look around you," they suggest. "Christians claim God destroyed sin and death, but people continue to sin and continue to die. If God did what Christians say, why is evil still around? And take the Beatitudes-all that talk about the meek inheriting the earth. When was the last time you saw a wimp win? The only ones who make it in this world are the strong. If you want to be on top, then it's up to you to make it happen. Do whatever you have to; the end justifies the means."

That kind of argument can be pretty convincing-so convincing that every year many young people look to the occult for answers to life's difficulties.

Although the Bible says in Leviticus 19:31, "Do not go to mediums or consult fortunetellers, for you will be defiled by them," and while it's dangerous even on the fringes of the occult, curiosity is a top teen trait.

When I was 19, I went with some friends to a fortune-teller. When she offered to read the cards for no charge, I agreed. She was remarkably accurate about a number of things and I would have believed she could predict the future. As it was, when she learned I had no money, the cards stopped "talking" to her.

I don't think that isolated incident marred me for life, and a one-time use of a Ouija board or similar device probably won't hurt you, either. The danger comes when you start to believe you can control your life through magical practices. Trouble often results from trust in mystical, occult activities. And you can't N involved with the occult very long before you become entangled in the shadow world of evil. It's this entanglement with evil that is serious and occasionally deadly.

The Power of Evil

The lure of the occult is subtle. At least in the beginning, everything is "All gain, no pain." It's a lot like drug addiction. Drug abuse starts because drugs can make you feel better. Getting high seems pleasurable. It's not until later that drug abusers learn addiction is the hidden cost of that pleasure.

The occult works like that, too. You don't learn the real price until you are deeply involved.

How do people get involved with the occult? Remember the day everything went wrong? On a day like that, your self-esteem is probably at rock bottom.

What if you heard of a way to guarantee you never had another bad day? If things were bad enough and an easy remedy was offered, you might just say, "What's the harm of looking into it? If it doesn't work, I'm no worse off than I am right now. And if it does work, well, then, what do I have to lose?"

Maybe you heard about this so-called guarantee from a friend. Maybe you read about the occult in the newspaper. Maybe you picked up some information from albums or videos. Maybe you studied the occult in religion class. However you got introduced to it, you discovered that some people claim that you can change your life through the occult.

You don't have to know a great deal. After all, you're not planning heavy-duty involvement here, right? You just want to see if there's anything to all this secretive yet supernatural business. So you dim the lights in your room, draw the drapes, light a black candle or two and perhaps mumble a couple of chants.

Probably nothing weird happens. That's not saying it can't. Some people have reported a sudden chill descending on the room, mysterious movements and an indescribable feeling of evil. But let's say you don't experience anything unusual.

The next day at school, however, you notice, people treat you with more respect. Your former boyfriend or girlfriend sits next to you in the cafeteria. That night your mom doesn't even mention your hair. The only difference, as far as you can tell, is the ritual of the night before. It must be the reason your life has turned around.

So that evening you try it again, rearranging your room to include an "altar," where you place the candles and repeat the ceremony that seems to have reaped major benefits for you. The following day, things are even better. You decide to make the ritual a regular practice, investigating more details of the occult or even Satanic practices. After all, the occult has worked in your life, or has it?

That's how people are deceived by the occult. You do "A" and "B" happens-none of this waiting around, hoping God hears your prayers. All you have to do is say the right words, and you can have everything you want. It's self-deception, a little like thinking if you buy the right clothes and have the right hairstyle, someone will go out with you. The difference is that occult practices aren't just harmless, wishful thinking. These practices are a doorway to evil. And any time you expose yourself to evil influences, serious consequences may occur.

What's Really Going On?

It's a remote possibility that you may have actually linked up with the physical manifestation of evil. Father Kent Burtner, a Dominican priest who has dealt with hundreds of ex-cultists and ex-Satanists, stresses that while it's not likely, you actually may have encountered the devil. Such things don't happen often, but they do happen.

More likely, however, it's not the occult that has improved your life but your own attitude. That first day you thought people were treating you better, they were! Your attitude, not your rituals or chants or symbols, worked a change in other people. You stood straighter or spoke with more confidence. You acted as if you were a worthy person, and others treated you the same way. Your increased self-esteem, not black candles or a darkened room, made life more positive.

If you connect your good fortune and succcess with the occult, you are starting down a dangerous path. The more you believe you can make people do your bidding, the more influence over them you may want to have. If such good results come from so little effort on your part, what would more elaborate rituals and more precise actions accomplish? So you try a few more things, perhaps drawing from the writings of traditional Satanists like Anton La Vey, author of The Satanic Bible. When your new rituals appear to work, you continue to try more.

The tragic story of a 14-year-old male student in a New Jersey Catholic school was reported in newspapers and magazines across the country. Tommy Sullivan, Jr., began to experiment with the occult in ways similar to those described here. Feeling he had tapped a new source of power and influence, he eventually came to believe he had a pact with the devil to kill his parents and take his own life. He did murder his mother and then cut his own throat. Other similar cases have been reported of persons who believed that they had made irrevocable agreements with the devil.

It's important to remember that while practitioners of the occult share certain ideological premises, they are not all alike. Some are members of actual Satanic sects such as the First Church of Satan and the Temple of Set. They worship the devil in elaborate rituals like Black Masses but have never been directly linked to criminal activities. A second group of secretive, intergenerational Satanic cults share the same beliefs, and as Father Burtner says, "They are involved in the truly dreadful activities you read about." Finally, the third group is people who dabble in the occult without becoming linked with an organized group, including teenagers like Tommy Sullivan.

Make Positive Choices

No one knows exactly how many teenagers become involved with the occult because by its very nature, the occult is secretive. But according to the Cult Awareness Network, a national organization providing information on cults, calls about Satanism have more than doubled in the past four years. A 1989 Seventeen magazine survey found 12 percent of teenagers have "some or a lot of faith" in Satanism.

While you may never know people who are so involved in occult practices and Satan worship that they sacrifice animals, drink blood or commit other acts of violence, experts like Father Burtner say more and more teenagers think they can flirt with the occult and then stop when they want. But experimenting with the occult can be compared to trying drugs "just once." The best way not to become involved is never to begin. The lure of power and the thrill of secrecy make it difficult, if not impossible, to quit without therapy and professional assistance. Beginning is easy; stopping can be a nightmare. You can take positive steps that combat occult influences:

1) Pay attention to your music, dress and entertainment. The consistent choices you make are obviously a powerful influence in your life. The more you expose yourself to occult influences, the more attractive they will become and the more likely it is you will think of these practices instead of other, more positive options.

2) Become involved in activities that create positive memories. Play sports. Join the drama club. Learn to play a musical instrument. Volunteer to help with younger children. Participate in student government. Attend youth activities in your parish. The real, living presence of God in your life is your best defense against evil.

3) Set goals for yourself. The occult appears to offer easy solutions to life's problems. By setting goals and working toward them, you can often resolve your difficulties in a more positive, effective way. Besides, when you know you've done something on your own, your self-esteem automatically increases.

4) If you know someone who has been experimenting with occult practices, encourage him or her to con-fide in a counselor, parent or priest. When the secrecy is broken, much of the occult's power is as well.

Some signs that may indicate your friends are involved with occult activities include a preoccupation with heavy metal music, backward writing, cruelty to animals, a false sense of exaggerated well-being, obsession with fantasy and role-playing games, secretive behavior, loss of interest in friends and activities, preoccupation with death, a black bedroom, secret altars and self-mutilation. None of these signs, however, reveal the root reason many turn to the occult: the seeming triumph of evil over good.

Claiming the Victory

Many people, if they were in charge of the universe, would choose to wipe out evil. God has different ideas. Isaiah 55:8 tells us, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord." While we can't know for certain why God allows evil to exist, we do have clues.

Many bad things happen because we live on the front line of the battle between good and evil. God allows evil to put up a fierce fight, not because God isn't strong enough to combat evil, but because God wants us to freely choose the side of good. If God were to destroy all evil, we wouldn't have any choice to make. The ability to make our own decision is God's gift of free will. God loves us enough to let us choose.

When we make our decisions we need to remember, however, that even though evil is usually portrayed as all-powerful, it isn't. Although we may not consistently see evidence in our daily lives, our faith teaches us evil will lose. As Father James Leaar, author of Cults, Sect and the New Age, puts it, "The victory has been won by Christ. These are just skirmishes."

It isn't always easy to believe that Jesus has really won, that the power of God is greater than the power of evil. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, "At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known." If Paul were writing to today's Corinthians, he might say, "Today I can catch only a glimpse of God's will working in the universe, but I have faith that some day I will see the divine plan-for the world and for myselfrevealed in all its awesome power."

What it finally comes down to is to choose faith-faith in empty rituals and meaningless signs of the occult or faith in God and God's eternal promises. Which would you rather trust? Which choice appeals to you?

Tim Malloy, who has a home on the West Coast, has a master's degree in journalism and experience in public relations and advertising. He has written elsewhere on this subject.

Youth Update advisers who previewed this issue, suggested changes and asked questions of the author are Jennifer Ernst, Ann Hornschemeier and Kyle Schwallie, who are members of St. Mary Parish in Arnheim, Ohio. Jason Stivers of St. Elizabeth Parish in Sardinia, Ohio, also assisted. Rev. Thomas L. Bolte is pastor of both parishes.


How do witches fit into this picture of the occult?


Modern witches are not hags on broomsticks, but persons practicing a new paganismcalled Wicca, with its roots in pre-Christian nature religion. Witches who use their spells for compassionate purposes such as healing deal in "white magic" as opposed to those who focus on evil or "black magic. "The source of power called upon by witches is not the one God of Christendom, but the gods and goddesses of ancient religions. The lack of structure among those embracing witchcraft opens the door to abuse of power and authority, whatever its source-benign or evil. Finally, although most Wiccans will not harm you, a religion such as theirs that includes the belief that God is everything and everything is God (often called pantheism) presents serious theological difficulties to Christians.


Heavy metal music is not Satanic. I know really good people who are into heavy metal. Why do you include that with terrible things like mutilation and cruelty to animals?


Heavy metal music is not evil in and of itself. Still, I'm sure you agree that the lyricsand videos of many heavy metal groups glorify violence, the occult and even Satan.Case studies of youth who have become involved with the occult have shown that virtually everyone who is involvedwith offensive practices such as animal sacrifice is also engrossed with heavy metal music. Of course, not everyone who prefers heavy metal embraces the occult, but such music plays an important rolein the lives of many teens who do become involved with mutilation and cruelty to animals.


If you know a person who's into occult practices, how can you get through to themespecially if they don't want to listen?


First, be informed of the signs of occult involvementsatanic symbols, preoccupation with death, a black bedroom, satanic diaries, backwards writing and obsessive behavior-so you can talk intelligently with such persons.Second, rather than condemn their current behavior, offer alternatives. Share your own enthusiasm for sports, for groups that build self-esteem and a sense of personal worth.Finally, involve adults-parents, counselors, pastors-who can actively intervene in ways youmight not be able to. Even if your friend doesn't want to listen, the smallest things you do to express your concern and care can make the difference between life and death.


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