I was a fan of the “Skeptics Guide to the Universe” podcast in the summer of 2007 when Perry, one of the hosts, died at about age 44. I was listening to a memorial retrospective podcast of Perry’s contributions as I walked through Seattle’s streets, on my way to an Alpha group meeting. (Alpha is a series of classes that discuss various aspects of Christianity, so God is in this story somewhere.)
One of the quirks of the show was an ongoing argument over whether birds or monkeys were more impressive animals (don’t ask). Perry would often spar with another regular on the show, enthusiastically arguing for the monkeys.
So there I am, listening to this poignant reflection as I walk to my Alpha meeting, and I turn a corner onto Queen Anne Avenue in Seattle. I see a sign that says “Monkey Love Rubber Stamps” (above).
This sign didn’t have just any name, but a name with an animal. Not just any animal, but a monkey (not an ape or a chimpanzee). Not any common monkey idiom (monkeyshines, monkey business, monkey’s uncle) but monkey love. What more is necessary to indicate a celestial blessing on the memory of a departed friend?
Apparently a lot more than that, because it’s been a memorable coincidence to me and nothing more.
Fortune telling through pie
Here’s another small but surprising event that stuck in my mind. On my daughter’s wedding day, I was making two pies that called for six eggs. The last egg had a double yolk.
This was my daughter’s wedding day. Clearly that had to mean something. Jesus was clearly telling me that they would have a happy marriage. Or that they would get married. Or that they would have kids. Or, because I beat the eggs for the pie, that they would be mangled in a horrible accident. Or something.
This curiosity of the double egg yolk is like the New York state lottery picking the digits 9 1 1 on the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Sure, that’s cool and even memorable, but what does it mean?
Noteworthy and even startling coincidences are easy to find.
- The Apollo 13 mission to the moon nearly ended in disaster, but some clever extemporaneous engineering saved the crew. Look for thirteens in this story, and you find them in abundance. Not only was the mission #13, but the time of launch was 13:13. The disaster happened on April 13. 1970 was the 13th year of the space program.
- In the weeks leading up to the June, 1944 D-Day landings, the code words Utah, Omaha, Overlord, Mulberry, and Neptune appeared in different crossword puzzles in London’s Daily Telegraph. No, not espionage—just coincidences.
- In 2001, an English girl released a helium balloon with her contact information. It landed 140 miles away and wound up in the hands of another girl. Not only did the girls each have as pets a gray rabbit, a guinea pig, and a black Lab, they were the same age and each girl was named Laura Buxton.
- The coincidences between the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations are famous: Lincoln’s secretary was named Kennedy and Kennedy’s was named Lincoln, both presidents were succeeded by Southerners named Johnson, both assassins were known by three names, Booth shot in a theater and ran to a warehouse while Oswald shot from a warehouse and ran to a theater, and others.
- Everyone knows about the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. Fewer know about a novel written 14 years earlier about another “unsinkable” ship, the largest ever, that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank with great loss of life. The ship’s name was Titan.
If God is simply that which is unexplained or curious, then sure, that God exists. But God is then no more supernatural than an interesting pattern on a grilled cheese sandwich. Without good reason to think otherwise, a coincidence is just a coincidence.
Self-validating miracle claims
Survivors of a disaster—tsunami, plane crash, whatever—can look at the long odds for their surviving and read that as evidence of God’s providence. The problem with this analysis is that all the naysayers—those who could puncture that bubble with their own stories of how God didn’t care enough to save them—are all dead. The result is a monoculture of survivors who could look imagine God’s action.
Littlewood’s Law says that a “miracle”—a once-in-a-million event—happens once a month. To make this calculation, he assumed one “event” per second. Obviously, most of those are mundane. These monthly “miracles” are the surprising (but not supernatural) events that we tell our friends, like the two that happened to me, above.
We’re pattern-seeking animals. We see a man in the moon, shapes in clouds, and the face of Jesus or Mary in a tortilla. Someone determined to see supernatural agency in life can find examples, but the evidence doesn’t back them up.
Whatever Nature has in store for mankind,
unpleasant as it may be, men must accept,
for ignorance is never better than knowledge.
— Enrico Fermi
Photo credit: yelp