Last year, like many people, I craved more human voices in my locked-down life, and I turned to podcasts to fill the void. One day, the algorithms suggested an episode of some show called “Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World”.
The next thing I knew, I had been sitting with my mouth agape for over an hour as Jimmy Akin’s comfortable voice narrated how the US Army trained soldiers during the Cold War to spy on the enemy using psychic powers… and it worked. (Well, at least some of the time, and better than expected. More on that later.)
Other episodes of “Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World” cover ghost hauntings, alien abductions, bigfoot sightings, historical assassinations, Marian apparitions…. Anything mysterious is fair game.
Recently, I got to connect with Jimmy Akin by email to ask him about this unusual show. Produced by the Catholic non-profit organization Star Quest Production Network (SQPN), it’s a Top 25 documentary podcast in the US on Apple Podcasts and has around 100,000 listeners per episode.
Akin himself is well-known as a Catholic apologist: author of many books, senior apologist at Catholic Answers, and regular radio guest on Catholic Answers Live. As if this weren’t enough to fill the 168 hours in a week, in 2018, he and co-host (and CEO of SQPN) Domenico Bettinelli decided to create “Mysterious World”. “Every Friday, ‘Mysterious World’ looks at fascinating mysteries—both natural and supernatural—from the twin perspectives of faith and reason,” Akin summarized for me.
Those fascinating mysteries include topics from science (why do we sleep: that is, go limp and have delusions several hours a day?), religion (is there good evidence for the Fatima apparitions, based on both faith and reason?), history (was King Tut murdered?), aliens and UFOs (were Betty and Barney Hill really abducted by extraterrestrials?), and the paranormal (did the aforementioned psychic spying really work?).
When I asked Akin if he has a favorite, he said, “One of the mysteries I find most intriguing is the paranormal. The Catholic faith holds that the supernatural is real, and it’s always a delight when we’re able to cover a ghost story that has evidence backing it up.
“Similarly, the scientific evidence for psychic functioning turns out to be greater than I initially thought,” he continued, “and doctors of the Church like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas held that God actually built weak, natural abilities into human nature that today would be classified as precognition and telekinesis.”
Back to psychic spies for a moment. In episodes 102 and 103 of “Mysterious World”, Jimmy and Dom tell the story of how the CIA and military trained a small team to collect intelligence by simply “seeing” things from a distance—an alleged psychic ability known as “remote viewing.”
They even relate how one experiment—in which the practice target was a secret underground CIA facility—was so successful, the CIA believed someone must have broken into the facility. The psychic had not only found the secret underground bunker, he had correctly read the names on folders inside a filing cabinet, with his mind.
Thrills like this partly explain why the show has sometimes (according to Akin) hit the #13 spot in the documentary category on Apple Podcasts, competing with well-funded outfits like NPR. But on the other hand, aren’t topics like bigfoot sightings and alien abductions a little, well, niche? And when they are covered from a Catholic perspective, doubly so? How has this obscure show grown so popular?
For starters, in today’s polarized atmosphere, “Mysterious World” is a breath of extraordinarily fresh air. It manages to be respectful, intellectually rigorous, and a lot of fun. Akin summed it up for me himself: “We seek to be open minded, charitable, and fair, while using critical thinking to arrive at the truth about the wonderful, mysterious world in which we live.”
But, from a Catholic standpoint, when it comes to topics like psychic abilities, is it possible to be too open minded? Aren’t alleged psychics usually frauds, or worse, might they be working with demons?
Akin takes all those possibilities into account, as he does for every mystery. The explanations he considers in the course of an episode usually include hoax, illusion, demons, and natural reality, and each one gets fair treatment.
“The evidence for [remote viewing] being real is significant,” concludes Jimmy near the end of episode 103. He points to a 1995 study indicating that the results from the US intelligence experiments were well beyond random chance.
He also points out that Aquinas believed God built weak psychic powers into human nature. “At least on its face, the [remote viewing] phenomenon presents itself as a natural one,” Jimmy continues in the episode, “in which case Aquinas would say you could use it, but we also need to be on our guard, because I can’t eliminate the possibility of demonic activity.”
On the other hand, Akin often reiterates that we shouldn’t rush to the conclusion that demons explain everything.
“It is superstitious if you dismiss everything you don’t understand as demonic,” says Akin in episode 103. “It also harms the Gospel, because it makes Christians look like superstitious buffoons when they do that. And it is factually inaccurate, because it gives the devil too much credit.”
In fact, he and Bettinelli have a running joke: whenever they mention the possibility that some phenomenon could be demons, they both chime in together with a playfully ironic, “because… it’s always demons!”
The slogan, “It’s always aliens,” is at least equally common, though here again, the hosts neither fully endorse nor dismiss the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors. Jimmy reassures Catholic listeners that the possibility of intelligent life on other planets wouldn’t contradict the Faith at all; it would just mean that God created them, too. (The whole of episode 55 is devoted to considering the theological implications of intelligent species on other planets.)
On the other hand, Akin is not overly eager to ascribe every strange light in the sky or every memory of a weird encounter “recovered” under hypnosis, to extraterrestrial beings. He sharpens Occam’s razor and comes back to the simplest explanation that fits all the available evidence, while still remaining open to other possibilities if the available evidence changes. The podcast is thus neither a debunking operation nor a series of thrilling rumors. The show’s Twitter bio says it best: “Neither skeptical nor credulous.”
But even if a lot of these alleged paranormal things are real and non-demonic, why should Catholics care about them? Is it a waste of time to delve into these topics that are not strictly necessary to our Faith or (for most people) our daily lives?
I probed this question with Akin himself, and received the kind of careful, balanced response I’ve come to expect from listening to the show. “Catholics shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that they should be interested only in knowledge that is ‘strictly necessary,’” he said in an email. “That would be a scrupulous and harmful approach.”
“It would prevent us,” he adds, “from marveling at aspects of God’s creation, prevent us from acquiring a pool of background knowledge that could be helpful in the future, and prevent us from learning things that will improve life for ourselves and others, such as new medical treatments. The healthy approach is to embrace a love of learning…. Just don’t do anything immoral in getting or using the knowledge.”
For example, says Akin, “I may be curious what the weather will be tomorrow, but I should be satisfied with the forecasts that are widely available. It would be immoral for me to conjure up a demon to get a more precise weather forecast.”
In fact, the natural curiosity that leads people to wonder about the mysteries of space or history might also lead to curiosity about the Faith. When I asked him how this show fits with his work as an apologist, Akin said, “’Mysterious World’ has an evangelistic dimension. By looking at every mystery from the perspectives of faith and reason, we ensure that the program has a Christian and Catholic worldview and that it demonstrates the critical thinking skills used in apologetics.”
“We have many listeners who are not Catholic or Christian but who have contacted us and said that they have gained new respect for the Faith as a result of listening to the show. We also have many listeners who have said that the integrated, faith-and-reason approach has helped them develop a greater appreciation for the harmony between the two and see how faith has nothing to fear from reason,” he continued.
“As a form of soft evangelization, the show has a ‘come for the mysteries, stay for the gospel’ approach.”
The approach succeeds. Every episode contains a “mysterious feedback” segment in which Akin and Bettinelli air messages from listeners, either praising or critiquing prior episodes. Many, many times, the feedback acknowledges the fairness of their approach to both sides of every topic, even when one side is easily laughed off by mainstream society (for example, for believing the earth is flat).
“We’ve had people who have disagreed with the conclusions I’ve come to, and that’s fine,” says Akin. “A diversity of views and a vigorous discussion about them is a good thing. … The great majority of listeners recognize the care I’m taking.
“For example, we did a couple of episodes on the 9/11 attacks, which are very controversial. As always, we sought to be scrupulously fair to all perspectives, and we got feedback from people who disagreed with my conclusions who still appreciated how we handled the subject.”
When I asked how he decides what topics to cover on the show, Akin replied, “For me, the fundamental requirement is that an episode topic be interesting. If I find a subject fascinating, I’ll be able to share that enthusiasm with the audience and make it compelling for them as well.”
As for what they don’t cover, “A limiting factor is that we work to keep the show family friendly,” says Akin. “This means that we don’t often do topics that could be disturbing, such as true crime. When we do touch on them, we keep our presentation clinical and non-sensationalistic. We also let listeners know in advance so that parents can make prudent decisions for their families.”
On a related note, Jimmy told me, “It was a very welcome surprise when we started hearing from parents who said they listen with their children, that their children are big fans of the show, and that it’s helping build their children’s faith and reasoning skills.”
It’s a welcome surprise to me that I found this show at all, despite not previously having been particularly interested in the topics it covers. Listening to each of Jimmy and Dom’s well-scripted, accessible conversations, I become immersed in something new and begin to appreciate it. Over time, I gain a sense of my smallness in a universe that has lived many thousands of years before me, and of which humans have discovered but a miniscule part.
And this is a comfort. Sometimes, the Catholics in my community seem wrapped up in apocalyptic anxiety: will COVID precautions keep us imprisoned forever, or will China nuke us all, or will Jesus come back tomorrow? What’s actually true, anyway? In the midst of it, “Mysterious World” goes on releasing episodes every Friday, reminding me that more wonderful things are found in heaven and earth than in all your clickbait-y news articles, Horatio.
The episode Operation Northwoods reminds me that government conspiracies are nothing unusual. The fascist coup in the USA reminds me that conspiracies against the government are nothing unusual. The Greenbrier Ghost reminds me that life on this earth is not all that matters, anyway. Life on Mars teaches me that life on this earth is not all the life there is anyway (yes, listen to that one).
All of it put together reminds me that disasters happen all the time, and they are usually survivable. Not all is right with the world, but God is still in His heaven. He has given us the truths of the Faith and the light of reason, but He has not spoiled the fun by giving it all to us at once. We can still wonder. We can still explore our mysterious world.
(Note: Quotes from episodes of the podcast are taken from outlines available to patrons of StarQuest on Patreon and may not precisely match the recorded episodes, though the substance is the same.)
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