It was a dark and stormy night, the night my god saved my life.
As the revival crowd began to pour out of the church into the rain-slicked parking lot, I felt like I was walking on air. It’d been an awesome service and even as late as it was–after midnight at least–I was so energized I felt like I could dance all night. I talked to my friends and my boyfriend, Biff, as my little group walked toward the van that’d brought us all here tonight. Usually I drove myself and Biff to church in my rusted POS Cutlass, but owing to how crowded the parking lot would be that night, our pastor had asked those who could carpool to do so. So I had come here with Marf and Bebo, a pair of middle-aged twin sisters, and their families and several other college students, all piled together in Bebo’s battered old van. Now it was time to make the trek home.
Bebo opened up the van and people poured into it like it was a reverse clown car, grateful to be in out of the rain. The van had long benches on either side of its length and like most 70s-era vans it was carpeted floor to roof in disreputable dark-gold shag that smelled of dog when damp. I ended up sitting right behind Bebo as she put the van in gear and began navigating the thick rain and the beehive cluster of cars all trying to get home. Getting out of the parking lot was just part of the church experience; it was plain to me that, like most of Houston’s roads, this parking lot had been an afterthought.
We talked and sang and chattered among ourselves. First Bebo was heading to the university to drop off the college students like me and Biff, so I couldn’t wait long to say whatever it was I had on my mind. I was all but sitting in Biff’s lap and leaning forward crosswise to talk to Marf in the passenger seat about something. The freeway was more or less empty at this late hour; the music was playing; people were singing; it was so perfectly Pentecostal.
Suddenly the wheel spun in Bebo’s hands. I mean it spun, I saw it spin whilly-nilly to the left. She screamed. I was pitched onto the floor along with a number of other passengers.
I scrambled to my knees just as she was regaining control of the van, which had pitched leftward so sharply that I’d felt the wheels leave the ground. “What happened?” I gasped.
“I don’t–” she began to reply, but then we both stared at the sight of two bright high-beams piercing the darkness ahead of us in the right-hand lane where we’d been just moments ago.
Is that actually someone’s high-beams? I thought, and then we got close enough for me to perceive, in the pouring rain, in the storm, a sedan that had apparently skidded in a circle and was now facing oncoming highway traffic. The driver was trying to free herself and had lit the torches to try to alert people.
I will never forget the pure whites of her huge eyes shining in the darkness behind the front window as she locked eyes with me. I will never forget the “O” of her mouth, open in horror or perhaps in screaming, as Bebo’s van sailed on past safely in the middle lane. We passed emergency vehicles clawing their way to the driver, and everything was back to normal.
For a moment we were all very quiet; all I heard was the noise of the wipers rhythmically pulsing so futilely against the glass. Then Biff shouted, “It’s a miracle! Praise God!” And we all cheered.
This account is as accurate as I can remember it–I’ve been very careful to include everything I can recall about that event. This near-accident really happened to me. For many years I thought I had been the recipient of a miracle. I used it in my testimony. Told it with wide blue earnest eyes to non-believers as proof and evidence of my god’s hand upon me.
Now, I told you this anecdote for a reason. I want you to keep this “miracle” firmly in mind, and I want you to be turning it over and over as I talk about open-mindedness.
A few days ago I ran into a Christian who claimed he’d left Christianity to become an atheist but had re-converted because he’d seen a healing one night at a church and realized that this meant that the Bible’s god was real and that Christianity had to be as well. He presented this to me as absolute proof that Christianity was true. I’ll be straight up here: I don’t even think most Christians would have thought what he described was miraculous; the ailment described was vague in the extreme, the healing iffy, the whole event marked by that peculiar gullibility you only see in highly religious accounts where nothing makes sense unless you tilt your head, squint your eyes, and blur your vision deliberately like you were looking at a Magic Eye picture.
I was skeptical. This is your proof? I asked in turn. Was the healing written up by any physicians? Is this a verified miracle or just something you saw that you assumed was a miracle? What steps did you take to rule out other explanations? He got downright squiffy for a guy who’d just expressed a great deal of pride about his rationality. “You’re just not open-minded!” he finally thundered at me. I am, I said, but your ignorance about what happened doesn’t constitute a miracle at all to me. Wouldn’t you rather know if you were misplacing all your faith in something that wasn’t really a miracle? Then he got miffed that I’d called him ignorant (and in truth maybe I could have worded it a little better than that), and things went downhill from there.
But here’s the thing. I absolutely am open-minded. I’m so open-minded that I don’t just settle for someone’s say-so about why something happened. I don’t want to make assumptions about something as important as a god’s touch upon the world. I want to know as much as I can before I’m willing to render a verdict. And I certainly don’t want to put all my money on an answer without having made sure I’m right before I do so. The last thing I think an open-minded person should do is take the first explanation that comes his or her way without examining carefully every plausible explanation. That to me is what being open-minded is. I’m not sure how it got any other definition, but that definitely isn’t how I see Christians using the term.
No, I think this guy meant by the term what most Christians mean by the term. When he said he wanted me to be “open-minded,” what he really meant was that he wanted me to view the event from his point of view and come to the same conclusion he did about it. When I didn’t do that, when I didn’t take the anecdote at face value and reach the same conclusion he did, he felt threatened by my refusal to accept his explanation. I’d directly impugned his rationality by questioning his acceptance of the supernatural as an explanation for what he’d seen. Even worse, by asking rational questions about his story, I’d made him aware that he certainly hadn’t asked those same questions before settling on his “miracle” answer. He was willing to accept a preposterous explanation on flimsy grounds, and he thought that willingness was a virtue.
Interestingly, instead of wondering if perhaps there might actually have been some better explanation for his “miracle,” he got mad at me for suggesting there might have been a thoroughly non-divine explanation at all. Oh well. Messengers get shot all the time.
Remember, a miracle is not a miracle if it’s purely subjective and has to be viewed from a sympathetic lens to see it happening at all. If there’s some other better explanation for what happened, then it can’t be a miracle by default. In the Bible, accounts of miracles never ended with “Well, you might not think it’s a miracle, but it is to me!” because they did not need to end that way–anybody seeing what happened would know that there was no way that could be normal. Loaves and fishes don’t multiply like that on their own. People don’t get up from the stinky level of deadness and walk. Amputees don’t just regenerate on their own. Christians aren’t even aware of how badly they cheapen their religion’s miracle claims by making every little coincidence, bit of luck, and example of hard work and effort into a divine intervention. They create a lot of noise when you’d think they’d want signal.
To me, the definition of someone close-minded is someone who insists that this one explanation is the right one when it contradicts known facts and does not account for the known elements of the story, but then refuses to consider other explanations that do actually account for other factors and do support known facts. Alas, to the close-minded, anybody who disagrees is the close-minded one–they think of themselves as open-minded because they’re willing to consider preposterous, ludicrous explanations as valid when others might consider those explanations but then discard them in favor of better ones that fit the situation better. Me, I’m willing to listen, but being open-minded doesn’t mean I accept something that turns out not to be the most plausible explanation for an event. I do not consider being open-minded the same as being gullible or overly quick to leap all over any old explanation.
You needn’t even restrict yourself to religion to encounter close-mindedness masquerading as open-mindedness. The Penn & Teller “Bullshit!” series highlights a number of ways that people can be close-minded: anti-vaxxers, chelation fanatics, breatharians, 9/11 truthers, birthers, UFO fanatics (trufax: one of my best friends in high school turned into one of the Big Voices in the UFO movement–go figure!), pet psychics, the list goes on and on. I know how seductive it is to imagine a world filled with spiritual things–remember, I moved and walked through that world for most of my life–but that still doesn’t make such explanations more plausible.
Regarding this Christian’s anecdote, more likely he ran across a very sick young boy who got prayed over and, like many people who get prayed over, he knew he was supposed to say he felt better so he did. I’d be willing to bet my favorite pair of cruel shoes that the boy did not experience a permanent improvement, nor that any temporary improvement lasted more than a few days if that. The “healing” did not occur in a church the Christian habitually attended, so he had no way of knowing just how sick the boy was, nor how the boy did after that service. Like every “healing,” this one went totally unnoticed by the medical community, so there’s no external verification of anything the Christian asserted about the matter.
If he had been thinking this thing through, though, he’d have rejected a miracle claim immediately just as I eventually did for my near-miss on the highway that fateful night. You know what’d be a real miracle? For his god not to have let that poor kid get sick at all–or for that matter to have allowed some terrified-beyond-all-recognition woman to spin out at all on that highway. The idea that a god would allow these things to happen just to show off later sounds to me exactly like one of those douchebags who starts fights with his/her romantic partner just to enjoy the make-up sex afterward. I’m not impressed by a healing anecdote or a near-miss anecdote because the question needs to be asked right off: why would a god let the situation get that bad before intervening? Why is something so horrific required to happen at all? Oh yay, a god healed a kid–but now there are millions more not getting healed. And then when you find out that people are still having horrific car accidents and that magically-healed sick kids are still sick, it definitely doesn’t impress anybody much.
So.. let’s return to the scene of the near-accident that night.
A close-minded person would say “ZOMG! MIRACLE!”
An open-minded person would instead consider the situation. It’s dark, super-rainy, an uphill highway curving into the darkness, puddles of greasy, oily water all over the ground. Likely Bebo hit the same exact slippery patch that spun-around driver had, but because she drove very carefully and slowly, only hydroplaned a little before regaining control of her van. The other driver very likely hit that patch and might have been going much faster or being less careful, so she spun 180-degrees and totally lost control of her car. Bebo might also have subconsciously seen the high-beams the woman had frantically lit and reacted before she even identified what was causing her reaction. People spin out all the time or lose control of their vehicles for just a moment without thinking it’s divinely caused, but this one time it was very memorable because of how dramatic the scene was and how close we came to hitting someone.
This explanation takes into account things we know to be true–hydroplaning, skidding, the power and incredible speed of human perception–and doesn’t require any deity at all to have caused it, which is good, because again, if one did, then I’d want to know why he allowed that other driver to be put into such a terrifying and perilous position in the first place. Also, this explanation does not require the direct assistance of a being whose existence has never been credibly demonstrated, nor the moral issues of this being deliberately putting others into peril and fear to demonstrate his power when he could have used that same power to avert the situation entirely.
So yes. I’m open-minded.
And that is exactly why I no longer think this anecdote describes a divine intervention.
I accepted that idea for a long time, but as time went on and I began to look at what happened with more critical, questioning eyes, I began to realize that there was a much better explanation than the one I’d initially seized. And I’m neither glad nor sad about it. The universe doesn’t exist to make me happy. It’s under no obligation to give me what I want one way or the other. I’d really like there to be some supernatural element to the world, but the simple truth is that so far, the supernatural is more or less, well, superfluous to this world’s workings.
We’re going to talk about superfluity and Occam’s Razor next, and I invite you to join me here.
And this is a cool first post in a series about open-mindedness from Dan Fincke over at Camels with Hammers, a blog you should read like crazy if you don’t already. It was weird to see he was planning this series about the same time I initially planned this piece, and he probably covers the subject a lot better, but I still like him. 😉