In Which I Experience a Miracle. Or Not.

In Which I Experience a Miracle. Or Not. October 5, 2018

monkey love rubber stamp sign and coincidences point to god?

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 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 touching retrospective as I walk to my Alpha meeting to talk about arguments for God, and I turn a corner onto Queen Anne Avenue in Seattle. There, 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, monkey see no evil) 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 curious coincidence to me but 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 must’ve been telling me that they would have a happy marriage. Or that they would get married. Or that they would have kids (they have indeed had two). Or, because I beat the eggs for the pie, that they would be mangled in a horrible accident. Or something.

Other coincidences

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 spooky and even memorable, but what does it mean? If there’s a message in there, what is it?

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, and 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—probably just interesting words that schoolboys had overheard from nearby American GIs and passed on to their headmaster, who created the puzzles.
  • 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 imagine God acting for their benefit.

Littlewood’s Law

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 imagine examples, but the evidence doesn’t back them up. Natural explanations are sufficient.

Whatever Nature has in store for mankind,
unpleasant as it may be, men must accept,
for ignorance is never better than knowledge.
— Enrico Fermi


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 12/16/14.)


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  • Jim Jones

    The birthday problem

    In probability theory, the birthday problem or birthday paradox concerns the probability that, in a set of n randomly chosen people, some pair of them will have the same birthday. By the pigeonhole principle, the probability reaches 100% when the number of people reaches 367 (since there are only 366 possible birthdays, including February 29). However, 99.9% probability is reached with just 70 people, and 50% probability with 23 people. These conclusions are based on the assumption that each day of the year (excluding February 29) is equally probable for a birthday.

    It may seem surprising that the probability is above 50% when there is a pair with the same birthday for a group as small as 23 individuals. This is made more plausible when considering that a comparison will actually be made between every possible pair of people rather than fixing one individual and comparing him or her solely to the rest of the group.

    • Next time you’re watching a football game (either kind), imagine the players from both teams (11 + 11) plus one ref, and it’s more likely than not that there will be a shared birthday within that group.

    • Michael Neville

      Probability can get counter-intuitive sometimes. The famous Monty Hall Problem is another example:

      In a game show, there are three doors behind which there are a car and two goats. However, which door conceals which is unknown to you, the player. Your aim is to select the door behind which the car is. So you select a door of your choice.

      At this point, regardless of which door you selected, the game show host chooses and opens one of the remaining two doors. If you chose the door with the car, the host selects one of the two remaining doors at random (with equal probability) and opens that door. If you chose a door with a goat, the host selects and opens the other door with a goat.

      You are given the option of retaining your original choice or switching to the other closed door. Does switching to the other door increase your chances of winning?

      Switching will let you win twice as often as sticking with the original choice, a result that seems counter-intuitive to many.

      • It’s interesting how unintuitive probability seems to be to humans. I guess evolution didn’t give us that.

      • Jim Jones

        Yes. People are bad at math already. Add logic and they’re useless.

      • Lurker111

        Yup. SMBC had a GREAT comic on this, here:

        And don’t forget to hit the big red button at the bottom of the strip, for a great postscript!

        And, BTW, I wonder why no one ever applied a more complex version of the Monty Hall Problem to playing that moronic TV game, Deal or No Deal.

        • Greg G.

          I have read SMBC for years but never paid any attention to the big red button. Now I have to go back and click it about a thousand times. Is this a blessing or a curse?

        • Lurker111

          Bwa-ha-ha-haa …

        • Lurker111

          Well, not all the postscripts are as great as this one. One that comes close is the one here:

          Enjoy! 🙂

        • Otto

          Heeeyyy….I resemble that comic!

        • ildi
        • Greg G.

          That’s from way back… before the mouseover jokes. We get the main graphic jokes, the mouseover text joke, and the big, red button minimalist graphic. I wonder what other Easter eggs we are missing.

        • TheNuszAbides

          apparently i have been under the mistaken impression that the big red button merely selected a random comic from the archive.

      • MadScientist1023

        That one at least makes more intuitive sense if you increase the number of doors. Let’s say instead of 3 doors there’s 10. You pick door #1. The host opens everything but door #1 and door #6 and asks if you want to switch doors. You’re still left with the same second question, where you have to choose between two doors, but most people would realize at this point it’s unlikely you picked the right one out of 10, so the car is probably behind door #6.

      • This problem is so simple and yet so perplexing that evolution didn’t do a great job in giving us good intuition in this department. This post goes into a little more detail on the Monty Hall problem:

        • Lurker111

          Hey! No mention of Math Goblins! 🙂

    • Lurker111

      I actually did the math once for the 24-people-in-a-room / birthday problem, and with 24 people it’s like a 53% chance of a duplicate birthday, if I recall correctly.

      If you don’t want to do the math and can program in BASIC, or Visual Basic, just set up 365 or 366 buckets (depending on how you want to treat Feb. 29) and do a Monte Carlo simulation: take the random number function, map its result from 0.0 to 1.0 ==> 1 to 365 (or 366), and add 1 to the corresponding bucket. After 24 throws, see if any buckets hold a value > 1. Works pretty well.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    I read a book yesterday that did not have even ONE MONKEY in it. Then I read this post today. This must means you all need to send me money or else god is going to get all King Kong on your asses (;

    • ThaneOfDrones

      I am currently reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which, so far as I have noticed, contains no monkeys. However, it was obviously one of the inspiration for King Kong.

    • I’m convinced. No other interpretation is possible.

    • Guestie

      My check is in the mail!

    • Michael Neville

      King Kong was not a monkey so NYAHHHH!

  • Damian Byrne

    As a child, I was heavily into star trek. I wrote fanfic outlines, among which was that Riker would be promoted to captain, he’d marry Troi and his ship was called Titan. Clearly God spoke to me…or maybe I simply heard somewhere plot details about the Nemesis movie and those details stuck in my subconscious

    • Otto

      I just watched Nemesis last week, I haven’t watched a Next Gen movie or show in the last 10 years…and now you write this where I read it.

      • Damian Byrne

        Clearly a miracle. Praise Jesus!

  • ThaneOfDrones

    Repo Man

    A lot of people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidents and things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. Give you an example, show you what I mean: suppose you’re thinkin’ about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, “plate,” or “shrimp,” or “plate of shrimp” out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin’ for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.

  • MR

    Two nights ago I was helping an elderly woman on the computer. Someone in the room mentioned Bloomington, Indiana. “I’m from Indiana!” she cried enthusiastically and made such a fuss to find out more details about Bloomington, Indiana that I showed her how to bring up Google Maps and we wasted a good 20 minutes talking about blooming, Bloomington, Indiana.

    The next day I connected with an old friend. In catching up on our lives, I mentioned that a couple of my family members had moved to Indiana a few years ago. “Oh, where? My wife’s parents live in Bloomington, Indiana.”

    Sheer coincidence. I’m not the least bit superstitious. But I guarantee you that I will do whatever it takes to avoid ever setting foot in Bloomington, Indiana.

    • Greg G.

      What a coincidence! I have never been to Bloomington, either!

    • Tommy

      Terre Haute is nice, though.

  • Lex Lata

    Coincidentally (OR IS IT?? [IT IS]), my favorite personal coincidence story involves Seattle.

    I grew up in Santa Fe, NM, and, after many travels and adventures, ended up living in Wisconsin in my 30s. For a while at the time, I was part of a small, close-knit circle of amateur bloggers around the world, one of whom was a wise-cracking mommy-blogger living in Seattle.

    Out at lunch one day (I learned later), my blogfriend was chatting with her waitress, who mentioned that she was originally from New Mexico, before moving to Seattle.

    “Oh, do you know my friend Lex Lata?” asked the mommy-blogger, of course expecting a no, given the absurd odds.

    Turns out yes. The waitress and I had graduated from Santa Fe High School together, fifteen+ years earlier.

    So, either this was an amazing coincidence, or–and this is my preferred theory–I really am the center of the universe. 😉

  • epicurus

    The number nine apparently had lots of significance for John Lennon – born on the 9th, bunch of dates and events relating to 9 happend in his life – was a reason he called his white album revolution song number 9, and was killed on the 8th, so almost 9.
    I read all that in a Beatles biography years ago, but sadly can’t remember which one.

    • The whole “Paul is dead” thing relied on coincidences, assuming nothing was actually orchestrated, as the Beatles claimed.

  • Michael Neville

    The oddest coincidence that ever happened to me was about ten years ago the wife, daughter and I were driving to a mall in Rhode Island. I saw a sign for Woonsocket, RI and that triggered a memory. In 1969 I had a friend in the Navy who came from Woonsocket. I mentioned this to the wife and daughter and told them a funny story about me and my friend. But I couldn’t remember his name. I was wandering around the mall and saw a shop sign that said “Peabody’s”. That was the name. I said it out loud: “Roger Peabody”. A man turned around and said: “Yes?” It was the same Roger Peabody who I had known forty years before.

    • Otto

      Wow…that had to have been pretty weird. Did he own the store?

      • Michael Neville

        No, he had nothing to do with the store. After he got out of the Navy he moved back to Woonsocket and worked as a HC&R tech. He just happened to be in the small mall as me at the same time. This wasn’t surprising for him since he lived less than ten miles away but I lived over forty miles away and when to the mall because the wife wanted to see if a particular store there had something she wanted.

        • Otto

          I was thinking if he owned the store it would still be odd, but a little less so. To be in the same place and close enough to actually hear you say his name after not seeing him for 40 years is pretty wild.

  • Rudy R

    I’ve never experienced a coincidence. So are the odds of that happening the same odds of life happening on earth by mere chance?

    • gusbovona

      It must be a miracle that you’ve never experienced a coincidence!

      • bbeck

        Typical response. Cute.

    • RichardSRussell

      Perhaps you’ve never noticed a coincidence, but that can be explained as easily by obtuseness as by the fact that one had never occurred.

  • bbeck

    I guess I’d believe your miracle if god, in person, would tell me about any miracle to my face.

  • Max Doubt

    “Noteworthy and even startling coincidences are easy to find.”

    Yes. Unlikely, rare, uncommon, unusual events occur all the time. All. The. Time.

  • RichardSRussell

    Million-to-one shots happen 8 times a day in New York City.

    • Greg G.

      If you make an observation about once every second and a half during your waking hours, you should see a one in a million event once a month.

  • carbonUnit

    Wow. This post went up the same day as my copy of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake arrived. The book is dedicated to Perry and reportedly includes some of his writings. What a noodly miracle!

  • Greg G.

    Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater.
    Kennedy was shot in a Lincoln, a brand made by Ford.

    Lincoln is known to have visited Monroe, Maryland.
    Kennedy is known to have visited Marilyn Monroe.

    • Otto

      >>>”Lincoln is known to have visited Monroe, Maryland.
      Kennedy is known to have visited Marilyn Monroe.”

      You win today’s internet.