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Seeing What We Want to See

By Ben Love ~

There is such a strong pull in our lives, regardless of what religious roads we walk, to see patterns where none actually exist. Our hearts and minds so desperately want confirmation of some unseen realm, some supernatural plane where “good” prevails. Thus, we will take what are otherwise random events from our life, string them together into some kind of biased motif, and then use that motif to confirm what we want to believe. We all do it, everyone one us. Most of the time, we don’t know we’re doing it. But we can train ourselves to recognize it and then cease it.

The point is that we all encounter random phenomena, arbitrary occurrences, chance meetings, and eerie coincidences. When we attach our own meaning to these events, we are feeding meaning into the random; we are choosing something arbitrary and assigning our own deeper purpose to it. The problem, though, is that we do this selectively.

How about this scenario: suppose there are two men. Both are prime pickings for a religious conversion. How so? They have both been suffering. Both are depressed. Both have been seeking answers. Both are just hoping for something, anything, to show them the way. Man A wanders over to the library to read the newspaper, but notices upon sitting down that there is a Bible on the table. He discards the paper and reaches instead for the Bible. A week later, he becomes a Christian. My Christian readers are no doubt thinking, “Amen! God placed that Bible there! He moves in mysterious ways!” Well, maybe he does, and maybe he doesn’t. It’s difficult to say, because Man B, who would have made an excellent believer, whose heart would have accepted the story of Jesus with open arms, goes to the library the next day, sits at the same table, and notices…nothing. There is no Bible on the table this day. Man B’s darkness eventually consumes him and he ends his own life. Now, if you think this is an unlikely scenario, consider that in 2010 there were 38,364 suicides in the United States alone. That’s 105 suicides a day; 4 every hour. Where was the chance Bible on the table for these people? How many of those 38,364 people who killed themselves in 2010 would have fully embraced Christianity if they had known about it? Moreover, why did your God lead Man A to the Bible but not Man B? Doesn’t this throw a wrench in your pattern? It does, whether you want to admit it or not. Therefore, if you really do want to go on believing that your God is good and loving, then which makes more sense? Pick one: 1) God cared about saving Man A but didn’t care about Man B, or 2) both events, the presence of the Bible in the one case and the absence of the Bible in the other case, are purely random.

If you are going to attribute one random act to God simply because it has a favorable outcome, what do you do with all those other random acts that have a terrible outcome? The point is that you are seeing what you want to see. You are assigning purpose to those random coincidences you have selected for your agenda, and discarding the ones that do not serve this agenda. This is bias gone rampant.

When I was a Christian, I would often “come to God” about this question or that, or some particularly distressing issue that needed resolution, and I would then examine the Bible (Christians call it “searching God’s word”) for the answer. From a purely scientific standpoint, it must be observed that whatever my problem or question was, there was a very high likelihood that somewhere within the vast pages of the Bible I was going to find a suitable answer. Being the believer I was, I would of course interpret this as “God speaking to me,” thus answering my question or resolving my problem.

But was this really God? To put this into perspective, let us assume that there exists a device that is known for having been filled with all kinds of generic rhetoric, answers for the living of life. Oh wait, you know what? Such a device does exist. It’s called a Magic 8-Ball. The point is that a Magic 8-Ball is specifically engineered to be something you can come to with any question, any problem, and find an answer. It may not be the best answer, but I bet you could find a way to psychologically link the generic answer of an 8-Ball to your individual predicament.

We have what I call the “Random Flip Probability”; that is, the phenomenon of possessing a book like the Bible, opening it to a random page, and, lo and behold, finding something pertinent to your life.Isn’t it possible, even probable, that the Bible is much like this? Here you have a book that purports to be the very words of God, a book that is chock-full of comforting statements, words of wisdom, stories that are applicable to any situation if you look at them from the right perspective, moral lessons, remarkably relatable insights into the harrowing realities of the human condition, and instructions for the living of daily life. In fact, the Bible is just teeming with all kinds of relevant excerpts that are readily available to be read, understood, and put into practice.

Therefore, since one could virtually open the Bible to any page and likely find something that speaks to his particular situation, is it really fair to attribute this to the voice of God? After all, the Bible is not the only relevant book in existence. I could select Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism off the shelf, randomly flip to any page, and likely find something applicable to my life. Does this mean God is speaking through the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, a man who was by no means considered a friend to Christian thought? If the answer is yes, then who really needs to read the Bible? If this God is capable of turning anything into his “word” at any time, then you could theoretically receive a message from him in your Alpha-Bits.

Thus, we have what I call the “Random Flip Probability”; that is, the phenomenon of possessing a book like the Bible, opening it to a random page, and, lo and behold, finding something pertinent to your life. The probability of accomplishing this feat with a book like the Bible is extremely high; the book is, after all, specifically meant to be such! That is what it is for, yes? To then backpedal and say that God was “leading you” to that particular excerpt on that particular random page is really nothing more than inserting your own conclusion into an argument.

Furthermore, how many times did you randomly flip through the Bible and not find something suitable on the page that spoke to your particular situation? What did you do at that point? You either flipped again or you closed the book and got on with your day. Therefore, if randomly flipping to a waiting answer is seen as proof of God’s existence, why isn’t the reverse seen as proof against his existence? If one day’s efforts in this regard yield a positive result and thus God gets a positive checkmark under the heading of “Proof,” then why does another day’s failed efforts in this regard not undo that checkmark? You cannot have it both ways. You cannot apply a definitive conclusion to the favorable outcome of random chance without also applying a definitive conclusion to the unfavorable outcomes of random chance. If you are not fair in both instances, it means you have just committed a variation of what’s known as “special pleading.”