The occult is an object of fascination for Christians as it brings home the fact that God – and the dark forces against Him – are not of this world.
In its broadest sense, the word "occult" contains the entire supernatural realm. Modern science has made man quick to scoff at magic and monsters, demons and the divine. All the same, many Christians can't shake the feeling that good and evil are battling on Earth for their hearts and minds.
Few know this better than John Ramirez. The New York minister has fought for both God and Satan during the search for his soul. In his 2011 book Out of the Devil's Cauldron: A Journey from Darkness to Light, Ramirez reveals he started off serving the wrong side.
"I was drawn to the power and authority that the Devil gives you over people," Ramirez said. "I found that the more evil I acted, the more respect I earned from others. If they feared me, I could get more and more of what I wanted. People who knew me knew I was Satan's son."
Ramirez said his story began in the Bronx over two decades ago with a Caribbean cult known as Santeria. He said that African slaves shipped to the New World brought with them their faith in tribal spirits, and that such mysticism soon merged with Roman Catholicism. The resulting religious hodgepodge, he said, defined his youth growing up in a Puerto Rican family.
It was a tough childhood. Born to an absentee, alcoholic father and into severe poverty, Ramirez said Santeria enslaved him as it looked like an escape route. Delving deeper and deeper into the faith, he found that its reliance on saints and guardian spirits only trapped him more.
"The Devil can get you through identifying with your culture," Ramirez said. "I felt like I was loved and valued as part of an important family by joining Santeria. The sad thing is that the Devil can never love you or me. We are created in the image of God, and that is utterly alien to him now."
Dr. Karl I. Payne, the author of Spiritual Warfare: Christians, Demonization and Deliverance, said he'd encountered plenty of people like Ramirez who were drawn into the occult through tradition and culture. The writer was quick to point out, however, that supernatural forces could harm anyone who reached out to them regardless of their background.
"I would say that animalistic cultures provide more accessibility for demonization because they typically not only practice spiritism, they embrace it," he said. "But an atheistic biochemist teaching at an Ivy League College is just as susceptible to demonization as an illiterate hunter or farmer living in a rain forest. The only thing demons fear is Christ."
Payne said that emotions like fear and bitterness could leave people open to spiritual attack. Ramirez said he knows such feelings firsthand. The former Santeria high priest said he was often pressured by fear to do horrendous things.
"The demonic forces of the occult are so real you can touch them," he said. "They produce a spirit of fear that grafts onto people's hearts."
Ramirez's book claims that he participated in rituals including cutting and burning Santeria symbols into his flesh, summoning spirits and drinking animal blood. At one point, he said, he even sold his soul in a ceremony that cost him $3,500.
"I didn't see the occult's true colors until it was too late to turn back," Ramirez said. "It was like the mafia as they started me off with little errands and then got me hooked on bigger, more evil things."
Roy Speckhardt, the executive director for the American Humanist Association, said such stories of spiritual warfare and demonic possession were outdated superstition. He urged those interested in the occult to explore it through the lens of science.
"Nobody has ever verified, by rigorous scientific observation and experimentation, the existence of any demon," Speckhardt asserted. "Moreover, there's a long history of myths and superstitions about demon possession that show they are the product of ignorance rather than knowledge. We've come a long way, and no good can come from turning back."
Ramirez said those skeptical of his experiences are wrong to doubt the occult. The forces of Hell, he said, had personally invaded his life. He said he now rests easily knowing he is allied with Jesus Christ, the supernatural world's supreme force.
"If I give false testimony, I have to give an account of that someday to God," he said. "There's nothing to prove besides the truth of Jesus Christ. If he can save me, he can save anybody."