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Nov 25 2011

Superstitious Faith

[Originally published July 30, 2007]

Via Dr. Joan Bushwell’s Chimpanzee Refuge, we have a good example of the “superstitious” apologetic for faith in God:

My relationship with God isn’t based on wishful thinking, it’s based on the fact that I actually am blessed to have a relationship with God. Basically, you must simply dismiss any supernaturally-caused experiences I’ve had or events I’ve witnessed that are reasonably unlikely to occur through sheer chance and coincidence without divine guidance as being simply by-products of a sort of mental illness.

Notice what his “evidence” for God is: “experiences…that are reasonably unlikely to occur through sheer chance.” In other words, his faith isn’t based on God actually showing up in the real world. If he had a genuine real-world manifestation of God, like say a video or audio recording of God preaching, then he’d have it up on YouTube or something so that the rest of us could be edified. But no, nothing like that. His faith is based on his own subjective opinion that some of the things which had happened to him were “reasonably unlikely” to have happened through chance alone.

This is a classic case of superstition in action. The believer takes certain ordinary, everyday events (which, by the way, aren’t even supernatural/miraculous events), and attributes them to an unseen Cause, though he can neither document the connection between this purported Cause and his experiences, nor even give a reasonably specific description of what the connection would be if it did exist. It’s all just magic, you see (a “miracle,” if you prefer). Whenever you “explain” real-world events by ascribing them to an invisible cause that “magically” (and indetectably) caused them to happen, you are being superstitious. You’re being no different from the Little League ball player who claims his team won because he wore his “lucky” (magic) undershorts to the game.

The appeal to “events…that are reasonably unlikely to occur through sheer chance” is a common red herring in this sort of apologetic. All it takes for some event to appear “unlikely” is for people to make inaccurate guesses as to what the actual odds are. That’s an embarrassingly common experience. People routinely miscalculate the odds of something happening, especially since no actual calculation even happens. People expect things to turn out a certain way, and when they don’t, they must either admit their inability to predict the future with 100% accuracy, or else invoke some kind of divine intervention to explain how they could have been so surprised. Unfortunately, a lot of people prefer the latter alternative.
It doesn’t take a miracle to produce a chain of events that surprises people. Each of us has a common sense, intuitive ability to judge what we should and should not expect to see happen. This intuitive sense, while often correct, is not infallible or omniscient, and is not infrequently wrong. When it’s wrong, we’re surprised–things turned out in a way that we thought was “reasonably unlikely” to occur. And that’s when the superstitious among us cry “Miracle!” But it’s not a miracle at all, it’s just ordinary human fallibility and pride. We think that things should turn out the way we expect, and we’re so conceited that we think it takes divine intervention to make them turn out differently.

This is not “mental illness” of any kind. It’s simply human fallibility and superstition. The future scares people by being unpredictable, and people console themselves by believing that life will only surprise them when a loving God supernaturally intervenes to change things for the better. Such a nice, comfy view! But sadly, people to take this easy road to perceived security often find themselves at a loss when things like 9/11 happen. And even more tragically, they tend to react in extreme, and sometimes violent ways to such disillusionments. But that’s a subject for another time.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Reginald Selkirk

    The believer takes certain ordinary, everyday events (which, by the way, aren’t even supernatural/miraculous events)

    The standards for “miracles” have come down considerably.

    NBA Lockout: Striking Deal Would Be Christmas Miracle

  2. 2
    dcortesi

    Well, and, unusual events do actually happen to people. Lightning does strike. Lotteries have winners. Cancers do rarely exhibit spontaneous remission.

    When something that is genuinely statistically unlikely befalls you, that doesn’t mean anything except that you happened to draw that one lottery ticket (metaphorical or real). It was going to happen to somebody among the Earth’s seven billions, or among your city’s millions, and on that occasion, it was you.

    However, the really unlikely event that befalls one is pretty sure to be treasured in memory, and it is hard not to assume agency behind one’s selection. And that’s all it takes to support a lifelong conviction that you are a privileged child of god.

    My point here is, you don’t need to question the actual likelihood of somebody’s personal miracle. It might have been genuinely unlikely — actually “miraculous” in the common meaning. That doesn’t make it divine.

  3. 3
    naturalcynic

    You’re being no different from the Little League ball player who claims his team won because he wore his “lucky” (magic) undershorts to the game.

    Hey, Nuke, it was the garter belt, wasn’t it?

  4. 4
    jakc

    I dunno – I prefer to take the guy at his word and regard him as mentally ill.

  5. 5
    Tige Gibson

    It does however become mental illness if that person is driven to political activism or violence as a result of not being able to bastion his faith against the evidence.

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