A reader recently e-mailed me to say she believes in God because, when she was 14, she prayed one night that she would get her period and, the very next day, she did. When I suggested to her that her "divine proof" might be a mere coincidence, she balked. She refused to believe that these two events — the prayer and its answer — could be unrelated. Never mind the fact that she was 14 and — barring any medical dysfunction — was pretty much guaranteed by biology to start menstruating at any time. In her mind, there's a strict cause-and-effect here: She had asked God for something, and God had answered.
Of all the absurdly touching little scenarios that people cling to when they try to justify their religious beliefs, this is by far the most memorable I've ever heard. (A friend of mine encapsulated my correspondent's theology as follows: "I bleed; therefore God is.") It takes a stunning amount of myopia to assume that you got something — especially something so very mundane — simply because you prayed. (How do you account for the infinitude of other people's prayers that go unanswered? Oh, wait, now I remember: "God works in mysterious ways." Isn't that convenient? If it goes your way, it must have been God. If it doesn't go your way, it was also God, and it's not your place to complain or to ask why not.)
The thing is, I might have been a little more swayed by her testimonial if she'd prayed for and received something a bit less predictable. If she had asked the so-called Almighty for $20 million in bearer bonds, or an overnight transformation from female to male, or a pair of scissor-hands like Johnny Depp in that movie, and found that prayer answered the next day, even a thoroughgoing skeptic like myself might think, Hmm . . . how fascinating.
Instead, what fascinates me most is how resistant this woman is to the very idea of coincidence. She isn't alone, of course. Most of us don't understand the nature of probability, and are apt to impose meanings upon or see connections among things that are actually random events. As writer Lisa Belkin notes an article in The New York Times Magazine of Aug. 11:
"The law of large numbers says that with a large enough denominator — in other words, in a big wide world — stuff will happen, even very weird stuff. The really unusual day would be one where nothing unusual happens," explains Persi Diaconis, a Stanford statistician who has spent his career collecting and studying examples of coincidence. "Given that there are 280 million people in the United States, he says," 280 times a day, a one-in-a-million shot is going to occur."
Mathematicians can demonstrate the high probability of events that seem profoundly unlikely to the rest of us. For example, if you crunch the numbers correctly, you find that it only takes 23 people in a room to get a 50/50 chance that two of them will have the same birthday. "Using similar math," Belkin writes, "you can calculate that if you want even odds of finding two people born within one day of each other, you only need 14 people, and if you are looking for birthdays a week apart, the magic number is seven."
But even knowing the odds doesn't keep us from feeling awed when we happen to meet someone who shares our birthday, or who also has two brothers named Eric and John — or from thinking we must be a bit psychic if we happen to dream something that actually comes to pass the next day, from getting shivers when we learn that both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same July 4, exactly 50 years after the ratification of the Declaration of Independence. We focus on these coincidences but fail to notice all the times weird symmetries did not happen.
Belkin writes that some scientists now believe, "as a species, we appear to be biologically programmed to see patterns and conspiracies, and this tendency increases when we sense that we're in danger." Being the self-involved, self-protecting little critters we are, we also tend to read greater significance into coincidences that happen to us, not others. It may bruise our egos, but, as Belkin writes, statisticians "emphasize that when something striking happens, it only incidentally happens to us. When the numbers are large enough, and the distracting details are removed, the chance of anything is fairly high. Imagine a meadow . . . and then imagine placing your finger on a blade of grass. The chance of choosing exactly that blade of grass would be one in a million or even higher, but because it is a certainty that you will choose a blade of grass, the odds of one particular one being chosen are no more or less than the one to either side."
Among the world's billions, we are basically blades of grass, and at any given moment it is possible we'll be rained on, plucked, plowed, peed on by passing dogs, chewed by cows, desiccated by drought, immolated by brush fire. But we don't like to contemplate the relatively immense puniness of our little lives. So we fancy ourselves being watched over by a personal divinity, and when our prayers aren't answered, we say, "God works in mysterious ways." Secular translation: "Shit happens."