God in a Coffee Stain

“Several people claim an image of the Virgin Mary has appeared in a tree stump after a cluster of trees were mysteriously cut down.
        Crowds have flocked to the Passaic site in recent days since word of the image began spreading. The state Department of Transportation owns the land, but no work order was issued for the tiny tract and officials do not know who performed the work.
        Some visitors say the clearing was an act of God.
        ‘It looks like Mary,’ Camilo Diaz, 41, told the Herald News of West Paterson for Tuesday’s editions. ‘There’s no way it was carved to look like that, no explanation other than it was a miracle.’”

CBS2Chicago.com via The Associated Press, 21 October 2003

We live in a world in shadow. The presence of great evil and suffering is only too obvious in the news headlines and even in everyday experience: war, terrorism, racism, and injustice. Such occurrences form the core of the atheistic argument from evil, acknowledged even by many believers as a potent counter to faith in a benevolent deity. And yet, many believers maintain, God has not abandoned us. His presence, so they say, is still visible in the world in a water stain on the wall of a Chicago underpass; in a pancake that resembles a person praying; and in a grilled cheese sandwich that sold at auction for $28,000. We are told that while people go hungry at night, die of disease, and suffer under totalitarian regimes, God’s infinite love shines forth in oddly shaped tree stumps, unusual shadows cast by tree branches, and a very unique tomato. And we are told that although this all-powerful and compassionate being failed to prevent horrible tragedies such as the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, we can take comfort in the fact that among the rubble of the 110-story Twin Towers, two massive skyscrapers containing thousands of intersecting steel beams, one particular cross section was torn into the approximate proportions of the Christian religious symbol.

These are the minor miracle claims. There are legions of them, each with its own flock of faithful who make pilgrimages to the site to worship and adore it. No claimed appearance of God, it seems, is too insignificant or too absurd to attract devotion. The Virgin Mary is a popular candidate, frequently reappearing throughout the world. (The quoted excerpt is not her first manifestation in a tree – she made an earlier appearance in the 1993 image called the Lady of Watsonville). Most notably, a grilled cheese sandwich claimed to bear her image recently sold at auction for thousands of dollars, and a water stain on a highway underpass has been attracting pilgrims as well. Mother Teresa is another contender, making appearances such as the famed “nun bun“. Images of Jesus are very common as well. On the other hand, since Islam prohibits pictorial representations of God, minor miracle claims among Muslims more commonly take the form of the name Allah spelled out in Arabic. Not all of these claims have strictly religious significance, however. The infamous face on Mars has similarly been claimed to be the product of design by those who have substituted faith in unevidenced extraterrestrials for faith in unevidenced supernatural beings.

“To some it is just a mottled shadow cast on the fence of a caravan park – to others it is the face of Jesus Christ himself.
        For the town of Port Germein in South Australia, the nightly apparition – resulting from the combination of a street light, a wooden fence and a conveniently placed tree – is providing a much-needed boost to the local tourist industry.
        Newspaper reports about the ‘miraculous’ vision have brought hundreds of visitors from across Australia to the small coastal resort…
        The face, replete with crown of thorns and beard, was first spotted about five months ago by Port Germein business owner Shelly Brooks.
        …
        ‘It was a message of some sort but I’m just waiting to find out the answer,’ she added.”

BBC News, 11 October 2000

How do atheists explain these phenomena? The best explanation is that they stem largely from pareidolia, the human tendency to perceive vague or random sensory stimuli as containing more information than they actually do. Pareidolia explains why we can see familiar shapes in clouds and Rorschach ink blots; it also explains why some people thought they saw a demonic face in the smoke of the burning World Trade Center, or why “ghost hunters” poring over hours of tape-recorded white noise occasionally hear something that sounds like a human voice. Failure to think in statistical terms also contributes to the problem. Given the literally thousands of opportunities we have to see random shapes and hear random sounds each day, it would be surprising if one of them did not occasionally look like a face or sound like a voice. But most people do not think in these terms, and so when they perceive something that seems to hold meaning, they immediately exalt it to great significance, ignoring the millions of meaningless perceptions they encountered before that point. Out of such credulity are minor miracles born.

It is no surprise that humans are so quick to find illusory patterns in sensory noise. The tendency toward pareidolia appears to be hard-wired into the human visual system; like so many other things about us, it is an artifact of our evolutionary heritage. Scientific research has consistently found that human infants prefer to look at facelike shapes. Even just minutes after birth, babies show a marked preference for simple, abstract shapes that look like faces over ones that do not. It is almost certain that this trait is an evolutionary adaptation: babies that were quick to recognize and respond to their parents’ faces would be more likely to receive parental love and care, and people in general that could quickly detect and analyze the facial expressions of others would do better in social interactions. Our brains have an eagerness to find faces, which are, after all, very simple shapes in abstract terms. (Think how readily we interpret two dots above a curved line as a “smiley face”). But this sometimes leads us to see them even where they do not actually exist. It is not a coincidence that most minor miracle accounts are sightings of humanlike faces or forms.

“Even on the traditional Christian day of rest, the Virgin Mary has made another appearance at Sydney’s Coogee Beach, with several thousand gathered for the spectacle.
        Optical illusion or religious vision, between the hours of 3pm and 4.45pm AEDT, the apparition has appeared on a fencepost at the northernmost tip of the beach.
        …
        Diana Kahwati of Maroubra was emotional and teary-eyed as she pointed out the vision to friends.
        ‘I saw it last week and this is my second time I have come to see her,’ Mrs Kahwati said.
        ‘It feels so good that our dear Virgin Mary is with us, she’s trying to get us as close to God, her Son and our Lord Jesus Christ.’
        …
        ‘I think it is amazing that so many people are gathered in one spot to see her,’ she said.”

TheAge.com.au, 2 February 2003

Of course, wishful thinking, otherwise known as hope, plays a major role in these sightings as well. To a large extent, people find what they want to find. This explains why members of mutually incompatible religions each hail the minor miracles they find as proving the truth of their own faith, as is shown by the quotes in this article.

But the veneration of these trivial events, the obvious desperation of believers to find any concrete support of their beliefs, is actually a strong argument for atheism. No holy book talks about “miracles” such as these. When miracles do occur in the stories of sacred texts, they are always dramatic, unmistakable departures from the natural order of reality – not minor phenomena that could easily be explained by chance. Elijah triumphed over the prophets of Baal by calling fire from heaven, not by lighting a fire himself and discerning angelic shapes in the smoke. Jesus fed the masses by multiplying five loaves of bread into hundreds, not by finding a burnt loaf that sort of looked like it had his face on it. That modern-day believers are reduced to seeking confirmation in such unimpressive coincidences is a tacit acknowledgement that miracles of the type their own texts describe do not occur in the world today. If much more impressive miracles happened, if there was real evidence that God was active in the world, why would they be so easily impressed by these?

“Palestinians have been flocking to see a lamb which seems to have a birthmark spelling out the Arabic word for God, ‘Allah’, in its coat.
        Owner Yahya Atrash, from the West Bank town of Hebron, told Reuters the animal was born on Monday, when militant leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was killed.
        He told Reuters the timing was ‘clear evidence of God’s existence’.”

BBC News, 26 March 2004

“Car parts trader Mohammed Yousuf said his wife Yasmin was preparing the evening meal at their home on Hare Street when she started chopping tomatoes and discovered the word Allah on one of the small slices.
        She quickly called her husband who went to inspect the tomato and was overjoyed to see the Arabic inscription of Allah.
        …
        This is the second time Mohammed’s family has discovered the word Allah in a slice of tomato.
        …
        Said Mohammed: ‘When my wife first showed me the tomato there was no doubt about it that it spelled Allah in Arabic…. I’m not trying to say that my family is blessed because we have discovered this but I do feel fortunate that it has happened to us as this goes to prove the existence of Allah and further strengthens our faith in Islam.’”

TheAsianNews.co.uk, 5 June 2003

In other words, the veneration of these minor so-called miracles is another support for the argument from divine hiddenness described in “One More Burning Bush“. Some apologists claim that atheists are without excuse because God’s existence is obvious in the world. But the behavior of many theists in response to these trivial coincidences shows that this claim is false. If it were true that God’s existence was obvious from a simple look around, there would be nothing especially impressive or out of the ordinary about these events, and people would not react to them with any special reverence. But this is not what happens. As the quotes throughout this article show, minor miracle claims routinely draw sizeable crowds and widespread attention. Clearly, there is a significant number of believers who feel that these events provide confirmation for their faith in a way that everyday experience does not, which only goes to reinforce the atheist’s reply that God’s existence is not obvious from nature.

Cases like these show how people hunger for miracles. They want to believe that God is in charge, even if the evidence of their senses does not tell them so, to the extent of proclaiming these trivial, ambiguous discoveries to be certain proof not just of God’s existence but of their entire complex belief system. (If a tomato can strengthen your faith that much, how much faith could you have had to begin with?) But the real problem with such claims is that they are used in an attempt to support different and incompatible belief systems. The philosopher David Hume pointed out over two hundred years ago that conflicting miracle stories in effect cancel each other out, because the miracles claimed by each religion, in supporting that religion, simultaneously undermine all the others; and every religion has its own particular miracle stories, none of which are supported by substantially more or better evidence than those of any other. All these minor miracles cannot be true – but they could all be false!

“At first glance, it looks like any other pecan tree. But with a little closer, you may notice an image of what Clyde Jackson says is Jesus.”

TheSanDiegoChannel.com, 24 March 2004

It can be tempting to mock the believers who put their faith in these trifles, or to conclude that they are unintelligent. I believe this is a temptation that atheists should resist, for the same reasons we should not mock or scorn religious believers in general; namely, hostility and derision never accomplish anything productive. Whether we want to win theists over to the cause of atheism or simply persuade them to respect our rights so that we can live peacefully side by side, we will never bring this about by insulting or humiliating them. Treating a person in this way never achieves anything other than to harden their position and push them further away. Regardless of how absurd these beliefs may seem to those who do not share them, we should recognize that they are deeply and sincerely felt and respond accordingly, with awareness of the very human and understandable reasons why people believe in them. We can say that they are not true, but to the best extent possible, we should do so without ridicule or contempt.

I am not suggesting that atheists should dilute or compromise our message so as to avoid offending anyone, or that we should have no sense of humor. On the contrary, we should present our case with all the force and passion it commands, and we should not refrain from using humor as a way to draw attention to the excesses of religion where appropriate. The satirist’s pen can be a very effective weapon when deftly wielded. But what we should refrain from doing is presenting argument and satire in a way that has no intent other than to flaunt the speaker’s superiority, or to humiliate the intended target. Instead, we should focus on using these methods as a way to defend the reasonableness of our position, as well as to broaden others’ understanding of it. There will always be some hardened partisans who perceive any opposition or disagreement as an offensive personal attack, but most religious believers are not so militant. We should ignore theists who fall into the former category, and instead concentrate on reaching out to the people we can reach.

“Imagine taking a cake out of the oven only to find what you believe is an image of Jesus Christ on the surface, that’s exactly what happened to one woman in Vermilion Parish on Wednesday.
        …
        Mitzi Louviere says ‘you see the knee bending here, and then the feet. You can almost see the head of a nail here.’
        She says the image she saw sent chills up her spine.
        …
        ‘We shouldn’t go around looking for miracles, but when something happens I think it’s just a confirmation of our faith and he still thinks about us and he’s still there,’ Father Guidry tells KATC’s Candice Gale.
        The word is spreading quickly around Gueydan and for those who’ve seen the cake, it’s nothing short of a miracle.”

KATC3 News, Louisiana, 18 March 2004

The last and most serious difficulty with minor miracle claims relates to the atheist argument from evil. If there is a powerful, benevolent god, why is he manifesting in such trivial and inane ways while innocent people are suffering and dying all around the world? Why does he not use his power to help them instead? Is forming a vague shape in a pecan tree or a cake a more valuable use of God’s divine abilities than, say, healing a child with cancer or bringing rain to a drought-stricken African country? Does the creator have nothing better to do with his time?

Those who venerate minor miracles should consider what it says about the character of the god they worship that he seemingly puts a higher priority on these useless manifestations than on curing the evils that plague this world. We would not think much of a policeman or firefighter who put up pictures of his face all around town but failed to take any effective action when a real disaster occurred. And the same goes for believers who spend time and money journeying to see and adore these images rather than spending those resources for the betterment of humanity. A grilled cheese sandwich claimed to bear the image of the Virgin Mary sold at auction for $28,000 – what better uses could that much money have been put to?

One of the best passages in the Christian Bible expresses a similar sentiment. In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus tells his followers that at the last judgment, they will be judged on how they treated the needy they met in their lives – whether they fed the hungry, sheltered strangers, cared for the sick and so on – because, he says, “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Although I do not agree with the theistic message, the moral is one even an atheist can wholeheartedly support. According to the Bible, there is no need to look for God in tomatoes or on tree stumps – if he can be found, it is among the poorest and most downtrodden of us.

Even some believers grasp this point. Consider this excerpt from a story about God being credited for miraculously keeping disposable razors sharp – a minor miracle if ever there was one:

        “Back in the mid-1980s, a man promised God he would give 25 cents for every extra shave he got from his Bic disposable. To his amazement, he began getting 80 and 90 shaves instead of his usual four or five. Other men from his church joined in, with similar results.
        At the time, I was an editor for a denominational magazine. We thought the story inspiring and published it. On the cover we featured the participants – all lathered up and holding aloft their razors. What a miracle.
        But the readers didn’t all share our enthusiasm. One poignant letter went
something like: Yesterday a young mother of three learned she had terminal cancer. Yesterday a little boy chased a ball into the street and was killed. Yesterday millions went to bed hungry. And where was God during all this? He was busy sharpening Bic razors.
        How do I explain the sharp-razor phenomenon now?
        I can’t.
        …
        There are times when the most appropriate response…is to simply be grateful for any good that comes our way and to refrain from opining about ultimate causes.”

—From the Orlando Sentinel, 1 December 2001 (archived on alt.atheism)

Although the author of this editorial, a Christian pastor, fell short of grasping the consequence of his own argument and taking the final step to atheism, the principle as expressed is a sound one: no deity worth worshipping would spend its time on these trivial matters rather than take action where divine intervention is genuinely needed. Unfortunately, for the time being it looks as though many people will fail to see this, and minor miracle claims will continue to spring up and divert our time and attention away from the true problems in this world. Atheists can only hope that one day, humankind will gain the wisdom to stop seeking confirmation of its beliefs in background noise, and instead learn to deal with what is truly important.


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