Writing my first column for spiritualnaturalistsociety.org , I’m going to assume, appropriately or not, that I’m addressing people who, like me, reject supernatural explanations for all phenomena but have some kind of active spiritual life. Believers are tested in their faith in countless ways and learn over time to read the universe in particular ways that strengthen their faith, so even these tests eventually make them feel more secure in what they believe. What tests a naturalist’s or atheist’s faith? Many things as well, but I want to look at unexplainably meaningful coincidences, because these allow us to test the strength of our naturalism and our spirituality at once. I’ve made up the following absurd hypothetical example about a character based on myself with the aims that it be: 1) unlikely to the point of near impossibility, 2) emotionally meaningful, and 3) suggestive to a naturalist that there might be a God.
I have an opportunity to open a bookstore, an atheist bookstore. It’s my lifelong dream, but utterly impractical. I’d have to quit my job, and probably lower my family’s standard of living. But an existing bookstore, in a great location, with much of the inventory I’d need, has suddenly appeared on the market, cheap. I could buy it, but I’m afraid. I’m agonizing about it, desperately wanting to say yes, but the uncertainty is too scary. I’m walking down the street, engrossed in my struggle, when I stumble and see that I’ve just kicked a big book lying on the sidewalk. I stoop and see that it’s a Bible. I pick it up and $5000 in $100 bills fall out of the pages. I gather up the money, look for signs of ownership on the money and Bible, and find this inscription on the inside front cover: “For my dear child, Mortimer. Follow your dreams. Dad. 1932” As it happens, my grandfather’s name was Mortimer, the only member of my extended family ever to succeed in business. For the sake of argument, we’ll further say that considerable efforts fail to uncover the money’s owner or any prank or setup — it’s just a fluke, or a sign from some providence I don’t believe in.
What do I make of it? I know that the random, meaningless collisions of atoms and molecules and Bibles and people in the universe will occasionally produce events that seem impossibly unlikely and meaningful. If I had the slightest tendency towards agnosticism or supernatural beliefs, this incident might convert me altogether, but I’m a hard-core atheist.
I’ve met believers who have dozens of stories almost as implausible as this, serving as undeniable proof (to them) that God has a devoted concern for their well-being. The danger in believing the universe when it seems to be sending very clear advice, which it will do at times, is, of course, that the advice may well be terrible. Some people’s minds are finely attuned to this kind of message.
My example involves the interpretation of coincidences. T.M. Luhrmann (When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, 2012, Knopf Doubleday) provides a sensitive account of the way evangelicals learn to hear God’s voice in their own minds, and part of that skill may include this kind of interpretation of events in the world. As naturalists we tend to attribute the believer’s claim to discern God’s voice from events in the world or in his mind to wishful thinking, superstition, gullibility, or madness. Lurhmann makes a strong case that this skill is valued by the people who learn it and is not to be confused with madness or superstition. I would suggest that it is indeed a valuable skill, and one that can be learned by naturalists even while completely rejecting the possibility of God’s existence or of events happening according to some supernatural intelligence or intention.
The fact that the money came to me in a Bible might be unnerving given that I’m intending to open an atheist bookstore. But if I am secure in my atheism, I will laugh that off as one of those jokes the universe manages to tell through pure, senseless randomness — and my own inescapable proclivity for finding meaning in things that happen to me by chance. I could even go so far as to say — “IF there’s a God who would hand me $5000 to help open an atheist bookstore, He or She must approve of my atheism, so I’m sticking with it. And, if that God did intend to spook me out of my atheism by this stunt, I’m not falling for it. If I start letting weird coincidences convince me of things that defy my better judgment, I’m on my way to insanity.”
This is the crux of the matter. We don’t want to let superstition or weird interpretations lead us down unwise paths or bolster our rationalizations for decisions we want to make but feel are suspect. But it’s possible to err on the side of heartless rationality as well: Should I pocket the money, throw the Bible in the trash, and consider the whole incident to be completely irrelevant to my bookstore decision?
What if the story continues this way: I get home; my wife is out with the kids somewhere; I sit on the back porch gazing at the trees and sky, take a deep breath, and suddenly start crying. I’m filled with a sense of love for my grandfather and a thousand memories of the precious moments I spent with him in his store. My anxiety drops away. I feel completely able to face the huge risk I’d be taking with my family’s welfare, but I am sure my wife and I have the skills and resources to recover if the bookstore fails totally. I know that $5000 won’t have much effect on the bookstore’s ultimate success, but the whole incident leaves me suffused with a sense of possibility and optimism. I won’t make any decisions immediately, I’ll discuss the whole thing with my wife, but I find that this sense of possibility and optimism stays with me over the following weeks and months as I make the decision and begin to implement it. — Or, my wife convinces me that it’s still impractical because we have some large medical expenses to deal with and can’t afford to lose the health insurance from my job this year. And I find that the sense of possibility and optimism still stays with me as I sadly turn down the opportunity to buy the bookstore now, but have resolved to do everything I can over the coming years to make my dream a reality in some other way.
This is a healthy response. I haven’t allowed an amazing coincidence to override my judgment, but I have allowed myself to act as though the universe had spoken to me in deeply meaningful way that could change the course of my life, despite my conviction that there was no intelligence or intention behind the events that spoke to me so clearly. My experience of having heard a message, as if from a benevolent universe, released my anxiety and replaced it with a sense of peace and optimism. I don’t fool myself that the message came from an intelligent source — other than the intelligence of my own interpretive powers provoked by a natural stimulus — but neither do I fool myself that such messages, when they can have beneficial effects, should be ignored on principle. Even in the case of a common event, an overheard phrase, a suggestive image in the clouds, or a stray thought, if it can serve to revivify my sense that everything will be ok if I live according to my deepest values, I’ll take it.
Luhrmann (pp. 80-81) quotes a young evangelical woman interpreting a vision:
Last summer I was trying to figure out whether I should date this guy or not. Like, what’s God’s plan for me? In church I had this image of the cross, with rivers coming out of it in different colors, and the rivers were around me and washing me, and I ended up at the foot of the cross, looking up at Jesus. Then I felt like it didn’t matter so much whether I dated that person or not, that I didn’t need to be so worried about what I was doing.
The vision might have been experienced and interpreted in any numbers of ways, but the specific interpretation here strikes me as wise and sensible. She attributes the vision to a supernatural source, presumably, but the message she derives from it assumes no privileged foreknowledge of the future or any supernatural assurance that one path is better than other. The wisdom seems to be something she knew all along, but receiving it in this vision makes it palpable to her so she can really embrace it.
I don’t imagine I’ve made a convincing argument, or even provided a clear picture of how naturalists might seek out and use these unexplainably meaningful experiences, but I hope I’ve introduced the topic in an intriguing way, encouraging further exploration.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Born-again atheist, Sigfried Gold, author of tailoredbeliefs.com, invented a non-existent God to serve as his higher power in a Twelve-Step recovery program. He prays fervently, consults his non-existent deity for guidance, respects religious people, and does other things that, in his words, “unfortunately and unintentionally mystify and piss off many non-spiritual atheists”. He agitates for a world in which every person, no matter how skeptical or idiosyncratic, can find a suitable community to help her live according to her own values, and where religious difference sparks curiosity, not animosity. Professionally he designs information visualization software to help people understand complex data. He has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and a Master of Arts in Biomedical Informatics. He lives in Takoma Park, MD with his wife and two children.