In this article I’m continuing my modest series reflecting on exorcist and priest Father Gary Thomas’ criteria for distinguishing a genuine instance of demonic possession. In his Catholic Answers interview, Father Thomas describes the second criterion as follows:
A knowledge of hidden things can be a sign. So people who know something they have no reason to know, either about me or a situation or to predict the future.
Stated as such, this is a very broad category and consequently the putative instances of knowledge could range from being of very high to very low veridical value. The demoniac who barks at the priest, “You have had doubts about your calling!” may have said something true. However, it is so vague and general that it is of no veridical value in confirming a genuine demonic manifestation. But now consider a demoniac who taunts the exorcist with this highly specific bit of information: “You stole your brother’s chocolate bar when you were five years old and you never told anybody. But I know! Thief!” If true, that would be a word of knowledge with some veridical value.
A word of caution is in order. Psychics have certain well established techniques for drawing out highly specific information from individuals during so-called “cold readings”, information that may look to the average person as supernaturally derived. (For example, see this discussion from Psychology Today which focuses on psychics working in group settings.)
With that in mind, a psychologically disturbed person who is adept at reading natural cues could potentially elicit some seemingly highly specific information that might seem to be supernaturally derived.
Thus, while the “word of knowledge” could indeed be of value in identifying a true instance of possession, much will depend on the accuracy and specificity of the knowledge claim as well as the exclusion of natural accounts of its origin.