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New York Times Columnist Writes About Ghosts, and Confusion Ensues

Ghostbusters/Columbia Pictures

The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier has already taken a satisfying whack at T.M. Luhrmann, the occasional New York Times columnist who writes about spirituality and religion. But Luhrmann's Thursday column, written in honor of Halloween, begs several questions, none of which she attempts to answer. Instead the piece represents a type of muddled thinking that is usually only allowed if the subject is faith. Here is her basic point:

As many as 80 percent of those who lose loved ones report that they sense that person after death. These are real sensory events. People hear a voice; they feel a touch; they recognize a presence. A friend told me that a year after her husband’s death, she would still find him sitting on that bench in the park, waiting for her. She liked that.

Luhrmann adds:

One study found that one in 10 people had sensory experiences so rich and frequent that they felt their dead spouse was always with them. “Part of my life is gone,” Dame Thora Hird, a British actress, told The Daily Telegraph in 2000, about the loss of her husband after 58 years of marriage, “but he isn’t a long way away. Don’t think I’m being silly, but I sit in his easy chair in the loft and so often, I have a feeling he’s there.”

It's hard to interpret exactly what poor Ms. Hird means, but the beginning of her quote, about part of her life being "gone," provides a clue. As with Luhrmann's friend mentioned above, Hird appears to have some sense that the "sensory events" she is experiencing are different from the sensory event of, say, eating dinner. There is an acknowledgement, however grudging or unintended, that whatever is going on is not reality. This doesn't mean that people are making the experiences up; there is no reason to doubt their sincerity. But it is an important distinction to make. Luhrmann, always anxious to treat every spiritual experience with the utmost respect, never bothers to make it.

Nor is she aided by comments such as this: "We tend to treat this old folklore as so much fluff—the stuff of masks and costumes—but increasingly, scholars are finding evidence for its experiential underpinnings." Again, she simply refuses to distinguish between things that have "experiential underpinnings" but are not actually occurring (like feeling the presence of your dead husband) and things that are actually real (like holding the hand of your living husband). This problem gets worse in the second-to-last paragraph, where Luhrmann states:

To be sure, the fact that we can identify in-the-body phenomena (hallucinations, sleep paralysis) associated with ideas about the supernatural does not necessarily mean that those ideas are false. Mr. Hufford, who also studies near-death and other remarkable experiences, is very clear about that: “Learning as much as we can about spiritual experience does not make spirituality go away.”

The claim in the first sentence may by itself be true. (Even staunch atheists will not claim to be certain that there are no supernatural phenomena in the universe). But the evidence she provides for it, from a Professor Hufford, does not in any way support the claim. Indeed, it has nothing to do with the claim. No one is saying that spirituality can be made to "go away," and whether it does has nothing to do with whether ghosts actually exist. But for people like Luhrmann, the whole point is to muddy these waters. She concludes:

But what this research makes clear is that when people report that they hear their dead husband or are terrified by an evil presence that groped at their throat in the night, they are not necessarily making it up, nor are they crazy. Events like these are rather what Ann Taves, professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, calls the “building blocks” of religious experience. The experiences are psychologically real events. How you interpret them is up to you.

It's all up to you! Well, of course it is up to you, since we have this thing called freedom of religion and don't live in a totalitarian society. We can thank Luhrmann for reminding us of this. In the meantime, she might decide that if she wants to be an opinion columnist, she should offer her opinion. My hunch is that the reason she doesn't want to do so is that it might lead to the following conclusion: Not all "interpretations" are equally valid.