Not too long ago I ran across a blog post I can’t find again about how everybody pretty much has That One Weird Thing That Happened Once, and it’s had me thinking ever since. (Edit: This was the post–and I’m very glad to be linked up with it again! The whole series, “That One Spooky Thing” by Ubi Dubium, is excellent.)
The reason we’re talking about it today is that a story circulating around lately concerns Michael Shermer, who is a big name in the skeptic-o-sphere (and yes, I’m aware of some of the less-than-savory stuff going on with him). He wrote a story about an event he’d experienced that he can’t explain about a dead relative’s broken radio that sprang to life very suddenly at a very startling time during a wedding ceremony:
At that moment Jennifer shot me a look I haven’t seen since the supernatural thriller The Exorcist startled audiences. “That can’t be what I think it is, can it?” she said. She opened the desk drawer and pulled out her grandfather’s transistor radio, out of which a romantic love song wafted. We sat in stunned silence for minutes. “My grandfather is here with us,” Jennifer said, tearfully. “I’m not alone.”
It sounds like he was quite rattled by the experience, and one cannot blame him. Even a guy who is one of the folks behind Skeptic Magazine and a regular speaker at big atheist conferences, author of books about skepticism, and a champion of science can experience That One Weird Thing That Happened Once (TOWTTHO).
Indeed, most of us who were religious–and a great many of us who never have been–have at one point experienced unexplainable events. I’ve experienced a great many of them myself, and so has my sister–a more prosaic Catholic could not be found, I’m sure. As a Christian, I was trained to see those events as miraculous in nature, or else demonic. Every friend I’ve ever had has mentioned TOWTTHO at some point.
And it’s kind of weird given that in Christian theology, people don’t become ghosts. They go to Heaven or Hell, or they sleep in the grave depending on who you’re talking to. They don’t somehow pal around after death. This belief in ghosts seems like a folk belief, part of Low Christianity, not an official doctrine. Some Catholics think that ghosts might be souls working through unfinished business in Purgatory, but it’s worth remembering that though Purgatory is a very ancient idea, Purgatory itself as practiced in Catholicism is a much later doctrine that was made up centuries after the religion had gotten rolling–and the idea doesn’t really sound persuasive anyway all things considered. Even my Pentecostal church taught that Christians should not go in for stuff like ghost stories.
But we really want to believe in stuff like ghosts. A surprising percentage of people think they’ve seen a ghost or been in touch with someone who died, and lots of people believe in supernatural stuff in general, even in a society as Christian-dominated as America, a shocking number of Christians have had what they think are paranormal experiences (this report is amazing all the way around so please do check it out–it gets really eye-opening after page 45).
Indeed, one part of my post-deconversion journey involved looking more closely at these events to see what else might have been going on there. And I regularly run into Christians (and to be fair sometimes folks in other religions) who use these events as supports and props for their own faith, or who use these events as ways to increase the credibility of their religious claims.
It’s okay to have one or two experiences left over that qualify as TOWTTHO. It’s not like when I tried to replace my ancient Cutlass’s thermostat back in college and ended up with a bunch of little bitty parts, cables, hoses, and clamps left over. (“They must have been optional,” I said, and Biff drove the car to work the next day and it more or less blew up on the freeway; for once it wasn’t his fault that a car broke down under him, poor guy.) We are allowed to have a few bits and bobs left that we can chew on at our leisure and allow to be mysteries for a while.
Sometimes you’ll encounter Christians who try to run a false dilemma past you by saying that if someone can’t identify every single one of those bits and bobs that obviously they are proof that there is a divine Creator-God who cares very deeply about where people poke their genitals and evidence that everything in the Bible is (to some extent) literally true for realsies 100%. Or they will shift the burden of proof by saying that if you don’t agree that this story is proof of their claims that you are now responsible for coming up with a more plausible explanation.
As for Mr. Shermer, I’m left wondering if he’d have been quite that astonished and rattled by the radio’s sudden revival if he’d been an electronics nut or even an electrical engineer or something. His degree and expertise is in history, not in radio repair.
Considering all the ways in which a ghostly grandfather might manifest, making a radio play a song seems like one of the least effective ways to communicate–and I’d wonder how his spirit got there from Germany; did he snag a ride? Or sneak aboard the plane bearing the package with the radio in it? Considering the guy was German, just how familiar was he with American radio signals? How well did he understand English, and was he familiar with American love songs?
If I’m to believe that a real live ghost was involved here, then I’d have to buy into the following:
* A ghostly grandfather was sentient enough somehow to know that his radio was being packed up.
* He would have to get to the States somehow.
* When Mr. Shermer’s attempts to resurrect the radio failed, the ghost would have to fix it somehow–but just temporarily of course.
* He’d have to find an American radio station that played something he wanted his granddaughter to hear.
* Though we know of no mechanism by which ghosts can power radios or cause them to work, whatever wires needed crossing or diodes needed popping in place, this ghost did it.
* The radio played by some means, then stopped, but nothing Mr. Shermer did to it affected it.
* The grandfather went into the light or whatever afterward, because he’s never done anything since his one big appearance, apparently.
* The radio played on the wedding night and fell silent again the next morning–which is a little creepy if you ask me. Was Grandpa standing there or something?
Did the grandfather grab the radio’s wires and transistors or whatever and make like the Drej in Titan A.E. and become a power source? I mean, it’s just baffling how an educated man could spring from “the radio he’d tried very hard to repair and had just put fresh batteries into didn’t work and then did briefly” to “OMG GRANDPA SIGHTED.”
But when TOWTTHO involves a very dear dead relative, we don’t always think very clearly. And that’s okay. After my mom died (about ten years after my deconversion), a lot of weird shit happened to me that I ascribed at the time to her posthumous help and attention. Here’s one example:
Right after she died, I was in a total emotional tailspin and kept a notebook handy to write anything down that I needed to remember. I was also cleaning out her house and throwing a lot of her old hoarded stuff away. One day I had a lot of trouble finding my notebook. I searched the whole house but couldn’t find it anywhere. I had a lot of important things in that notebook besides my notes; it was also where I stashed bills, legal documents, checks, and addresses and phone numbers generally, so losing it was a serious problem. I sat down on the couch and cried my eyes out because I couldn’t find my notebook. You may know what it feels like to feel abruptly depleted of hope and strength, like there is just no more left in the reservoir right then. Well, that’s where I was right then.
Suddenly, I heard her voice in my head as crystal-clear as could be: “You should check the dumpster outside just in case you accidentally threw it away.” I remember just blinking in shock. I’d thrown a bunch of her old console-gaming magazines into a laundry basket (I wasn’t kidding when I told y’all she was a gamer a while back–she was way into video and console games ten times more than I even was as a teenager) and I’d carted several such basket-loads of them to the dumpster serving her residential area. I couldn’t even imagine how the notebook could have ended up in that basket. I kept it in the dining room near the phone. I’d been nowhere near that room while cleaning that day and I’d have had to put the notebook into the basket and then put gaming magazines over it, which seemed unlikely. Nor have I ever been prone to hearing voices. But this voice was so clear that I thought, “If my mom were here, that’s exactly the kind of methodical precaution she’d suggest, so I might as well make sure.”
So I went out to the dumpster and leaned wayyyyy over and looked into it, and lo and behold my notebook was sitting right there at the very top of a neat stack of gaming magazines. I swooped down, grabbed it, and ran all the way back to the house and had a bit of a breakdown, all the while hugging it to myself.
Had my mother really spoken to me? I really don’t know. Maybe I’d subliminally noticed the notebook somehow while throwing it away; maybe I just think like her after having grown up with her. I still have that notebook, years later; I never lost it again.
At the time, I took this incident to mean that my mother was right there beside me. It wasn’t even the only thing that happened around then that I took that way, just one of the more dramatic ones. Other times I’d find a stash of quarters or bonds she’d squirreled away right when I desperately needed money; still other times I’d veer one way or the other driving because of some sudden strong feeling about a side road and end up somewhere very meaningful she’d have found especially nice. Those incidents lessened in frequency as I recovered a little more, but at the time they seemed to happen all but constantly.
Now I think that in a kinda metaphysical way, my mother will always be–and always has been–with me, in me, part of me, in a way that nothing else can be. As a Zen monk said, Open your hand, and look at your palm; your mother is there.
But I can’t justify leaping from that metaphorical feeling of oneness or even from those crazy days of fresh, raw grief to ghosts or Jesus or whatever. I don’t need my mom to be a ghost to appreciate those moments of sudden closeness, hopefully any more than Mr. Shermer and his wife need her grandfather to have animated their radio to remember him and love him and feel like they’re a part of him in a visceral way. I’d rather think Mom moved on to whatever new adventure might await us after death, or at least that she found peace in oblivion, than that she was hanging around lingering in some way.
When I hear about an unexplained event in someone else’s life, I think about ways it could have been a natural occurrence. Because when we find out for sure what these events were, they always turn out to be, in fact, natural occurrences. Life’s a lot more like Scooby-Doo than it is like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When figuring out who’s haunting the abandoned amusement park, I have a short and informal procedure I run in my head.
Who’s Haunting the Amusement Park?
1. Was the event really that outstandingly coincidental?
In my case with the notebook, I’d gone through the whole house already and had been throwing stuff into the dumpster all day, so it’s not hard to imagine I might think of going to the dumpster to look for something that was mislaid. In Mr. Shermer’s case, he’d been futzing with the radio for a while and had replaced the batteries–and it doesn’t sound like he’s some kind of radio expert to me, so he might not know what he did or didn’t do that might have fixed it temporarily.
2. Has anything like this ever happened before and been natural rather than supernatural?
Obviously, people have found stuff before. Electronics have sprung to life seemingly on their own before. I used to work on computers and other gadgets and can tell you that’s a regular occurrence. I get a little more worried about the stability of the gadget if it does that, but I don’t worry that someone’s dead grandfather is manipulating it. And my hearing my mother’s voice might well be chalked up to my being in such a highly emotional state after her death.
3. Did the event actually conclusively prove anything supernatural?
Generally, no. At the end of it, what we’re left with is spooky music and a somber voice intoning “And we just don’t know why this happened” and implying that we never will, either. You know, I can think of another place where that happens. But in this case it’s a dishonest suggestion. The person telling the story very clearly has a strong opinion about what happened, and we’re meant to have the same one after hearing the story.
Suggestions for Confrontations With a True Believer in TOWTTHO.
1. Be gentle.
For a long time I wouldn’t even hear of anybody suggesting that my notebook incident was just a natural occurrence. I’m sure Mr. Shermer’s bride is in the same position about her radio. These events often touch on some very personal and deep tragedy. They often involved dearly-departed family and friends. The fear of death and the hope in an afterlife fuels a lot of folks and these incidents can be taken as signs that there’s less to fear. If it’s just some fundagelical trying to coax belief out of people, then feel free to ask a lot of questions. But if it’s a dear friend recounting TOWTTHO, then tread carefully about poking holes.
2. Educate yourself in what these things can’t be.
If you’re prone to buying into stories like these, it’s worth studying things like artificially-induced NDEs and “spirit voices,” ultra-low-frequencies, and how humans can hear voices in times of stress. It’s also worth remembering that humans form memories in highly unreliable and subjective ways, so someone experiencing a strange incident might not be remembering what exactly happened–and the more time that passes, the less objective these memories can be.
3. Feel free to ask someone in the know about it, if applicable.
In the case of the radio, we don’t know if Mr. Shermer consulted any electronics shop workers or experts about why it might have come on. If it’d been a computer, I could have easily helped out, but I don’t know a lot about radios–and neither, I’m sure, does most of Mr. Shermer’s audience. Indeed, you’ll notice that these stories typically center around stuff we don’t really understand–like the afterlife, electronics, automobiles and other such complex machines, diseases, etc.
We need to be very careful of religious people who want us to assign meaning and explanation to these anecdotes that they don’t actually deserve or merit. Evidence for the supernatural will not look like TOWTTHO. It will look like testable predictions, reproducible results, and falsification parameters. That’s because it’s just too easy for human beings to see something weird and leap to an explanation that isn’t true, especially if that explanation serves us in some way or advances our pet theories about the workings of the world.
We need to be especially careful not to let our very human desire for certainty and closure drive us toward explanations that simply aren’t true.
And when TOWTTHO happens to someone like Michael Shermer, we need to cut a little slack. I’m glad he was honest enough to talk about it and share it. In time, he might be able to revisit the event to think more critically about it. Until then, this kind of thing is part of the human condition, and it seems so common for ex-Christians to encounter both in themselves and others that I think it needed to be part of our Handbook.