Coincidences or God Incidences?

“Answers with Joe” is a YouTube series that I occasionally run across. As a science lover, I enjoy them. Yesterday, though, I saw Joe Smith trying to explain some amazing coincidences. He appealed to the same thing that Richard Dawkins does: when there are seven billion people on the planet, some billion-to-one coincidences are going to happen.

Joe’s effort to explain this, though, tanks on the very numbers he appeals to.

Joe gives 10 amazing coincidences, then explains the math on just one of them. Before he does this, he relates a common example: a person dreaming about a loved one, and then the loved one dies the next day. Because dreaming about loved ones is common, and because it is not rare that people die, it is almost inevitable that this occurs regularly. That’s a legitimate argument that an atheist can make, sure.

The problem is that although Joe then gives 10 amazing coincidences, he only does the math on only one of them. The story he does math on is the story of an American lady who was visiting France and saw a book in a bookstore that she had loved as a child. She decided to buy it, and when she took it home, it had a note in it. It turns out the book was the very one she had read as a child. Because of the circumstances involved, Joe computes the chances of this happening as 3,331 to 1.

I am sure that Joe would admit that calculation is not very accurate, but I agree with his point. It is very unlikely, but not impossible, that an American’s childhood book would make it across the sea to France, where she would find it in an English-language bookstore. There are only so many of those in France. Also, to help the odds, her childhood book was part of an estate that was sold, and so the book could have gone anywhere at that time.

On the other hand, one he did not explain was the story of Laura Buxton. Laura was a little girl who let a helium balloon loose with a note on it, a “letter in a bottle” kind of thing. She was living in Staffordshire, England, and the balloon traveled 140 miles to land in the yard of another 10-year-old girl, also named Laura Buxton. They met, arrived in similar clothes, and found out that they both had the same pets: a grey rabbit, a black labrador, and a guinea pig. This happened in 2001 when the population of England was 49.5 million.

According to The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, there are 6,822 Buxtons in England. So the odds of the balloon reaching a Buxton was 1 in 7,256. Laura is not in the top 100 British girl names, so let’s say 1 in 500 girls in the UK are named Laura and multiply that 7,256 by 500 to get 3,628,000.

Now we have to calculate the odds that both girls were ten years old. Snopes and other sources point out that one child was 9, though they were only a few months apart in age, so let’s say the average age a UK woman lives is 70. The odds, then, that our two Laura Baxtons would be 9 or 10 is 1 in 35. Our odds are now 1 in 126,980,000.

Let’s ignore the fact that they were the same height, wore the same hair style, and each showed up wearing jeans and a pink jumper sporting their pet guinea pigs with similar markings. Let’s just add in the odds of both having a grey rabbit, black ladrador, and similar guinea pigs as their three pets! I am going to argue that is no less than a 1 in 100,000 chance, which assumes there are 495 people with that exact combination of pets. That is very generous. Adding five zeroes to our odds, we are now at 1 in 12,698,000,000,000. So with generous numbers and ignoring a few factors, we are at 1 in 12 trillion, over 1,000 times the population of the world.

I do have to point out that the true story is that a neighbor of the second Laura Baxter found the balloon, thought it was his neighbor’s, and he gave it too her. If we include Laura Baxter’s neighbors, the numbers are smaller, but not 1,000 times smaller. And remember, I left some things out.

No, Joe and Richard, we cannot explain away everything that happens by crunching numbers.

To make this post more worthwhile, let me summarize the story I saw on Youtube right after Joe’s failed mathematical defense of his disbelief. You may enjoy watching the video, though.

A man who had been raised by his mom only (possibly a stepfather) longed to know his dad. He knew only his dad’s name, Larry Lambert. Once he got married, his wife saw that he was obsessed with finding his dad. She told him he should start looking, but he had no idea how, so they prayed. That Sunday, a lady named Mary was late to church because she could not find her Bible. She grabbed her old one, the one with her maiden name on it. You guessed it, that week, she decided to sit in a different seat than she normally did, and it happened to be right in front of the man. Her maiden name was Mary Lambert, and her dad’s name was Larry Lambert. Better yet, he had the “Lambert nose,” and his dad was thrilled to find him.

Go ahead and run the numbers. Keep running them over and over and over as odd coincidences and answers to prayer pile up. I prefer to just enjoy the life of Jesus and the answers to prayer that come on an ongoing basis.

One last note. I had a discussion about this very topic on an evolution vs. creation forum a long time ago, 15 years or so. I started giving them stories. The comments slowly changed from “that was chance” to “spontaneous remission happens all the time” to “I think you’re lying.”

The “all coincidences can be explained by probability” argument just does not work, Mr. Scott and Mr. Dawkins.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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8 Responses to Coincidences or God Incidences?

  1. Nice post. I’d be interested in you posting more examples of “coincidences” that you have witnessed as they are encouraging to read.

  2. Paul Pavao says:

    Hi Vel,

    Confirmation bias is as subject to evidence as anything else is. Most of us know that eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable, but that is only true in comparison to being completely reliable. Eyewitnesses are still used in court because they are evidence, and the corroboration of eyewitness testimonies still carries in court because you can piece together a story using eyewitness testimony. We all do it in our lives every day.

    Confirmation bias is no different. Confirmation bias affects scientific studies, sometimes even when it seems impossible that it will. Nonetheless, we still do scientific studies because we learn from them, especially if there are lots of well-designed studies to compare.

    Thus, confirmation bias needs some knowledge of the evidence a person is working with. When you apply confirmation bias to a scenario you know nothing about, that is not a proper use of it. It is not a general rule that precludes anything spiritual or other-worldly from ever having happened or ever happening.

    I did call you a religious fanatic, and for good reason. You draw universal conclusions from a very limited amount of data you have access to. You are so confident of your universal conclusions that you feel free to call people you have never met liars.

    Now based on your experience, I have no problems with you not believing me. In your shoes, I probably wouldn’t either. However, you are not doubting my claims. The only reason it is bizarre that you claim you are doubting is because people in general are so unreasonable. You are not doubting, but concluding that my claims are baseless or made up without even examining them.

    That is what religious fanatics do, and even atheism is a religion. Thus, my accusation that you are a religious fanatic is entirely valid.

    Just to repeat the point. If you had really said, “I don’t believe you until you show me medical records,” as you imply that you said, I would have answered with, “That is reasonable enough.” Then I would have left it at that because I would have expected you not to believe even if we did show you medical records.

    You have not said that, however. You have said that it is impossible that my friend was divinely healed, that the child’s tumor in India was divinely healed, and that any other healing or seeming miracle I have experience is not a miracle. That is not reasonable, those are the claims of a religious fanatic.

    I don’t want to beat this into the ground, and this is my blog, so I am going to have the last word. You have already stated your case in regard to not being a religious fanatic, and I have granted to you that you have no reason to believe any of us without examining our claims better than by reading a blog. That seems a good place to end it.

    If you want to say more, you are welcome to email me. My email address is paul @ christian – You have to take out the spaces of course. I blocked you from commenting further, although I’m sure with a little effort you can get around that. I’m not sure why you would want to.

  3. “The “all coincidences can be explained by probability” argument just does not work, Mr. Scott and Mr. Dawkins.”

    And no coincidences can be explained by invoking some god. We have yet to see any Christian do the miracles promised in the bible. No Christian has shown up at a VA hospital to heal amputees, nor any Christians show up at a pediatric cancer unit to heal the kids there.

    • Paul Pavao says:

      True enough. I admit that healing cancer–having the doc go in and be shocked that there is nothing to remove–doesn’t happen very often, though it did happen last fall to a close friend of mine after our prayer at a men’s meeting. He had a colon cancer, near the rectum, that the doctor had biopsied, then marked for surgery. (I don’t know what he did to “mark” it for surgery, but my friend did have a pre-op appointment for that.) Yet when surgery came, there was no cancer to remove. The doctor was shocked. I cannot explain why that does not happen always. There are tons of stories of villages in India that believed the Christian Gospel because a person in the village was miraculously healed after prayer from an evangelist. There are also stories where the evangelist shows up, and the village kills him. Since I would love to go through a pediatric cancer unit and heal all the kids there, I am disappointed that God does not let me or someone have the power to do that. I had acute leukemia, also lymphoma, and I had no immune system for 9 months. I hate the idea of a kid having to go through that. I have no explanation for you why we are powerless to do what you described, but I cannot deny that.

      Not all of this answer is for you, clubschadenfreude (interesting handle). This part is for others. I saw a documentary on a couple in Canada. I have a missionary friend in Kenya who knows of her. She experiences a lot of divine healings. Her explanation? “I pray for more people to be healed than most people do, so I get more healings. It is still only a percentage that are healed, but God seems to have given me special faith for opening deaf ears.”

      I don’t get it. I do get, though, that my prayers are often answered. Just last night, I felt led to lay hands on my 29-year-old son. I am sure that a couple times over the last 37 years I have put my hands on someone’s head and prayed for them like a lot of other pastors are prone to do, but only a couple times. Last night, as we were praying together, I felt God urge me not only to pray for my son, but to put my hand on his head while doing so. When I was done praying, he looked at me in surprise and said, “I physically felt that prayer.” My wife asked him to explain, and he said, “It was felt like I got a posture adjustment, and I sat up straighter.” Hopefully, that means the prayers I prayed for him would be answered too.

      Back to campschadenfreude, you have a good point. I can’t be atheist or even agnostic, though, because my experiences since I acknowledged Jesus as Son of God have been so real for so long.

      • You claim that a “close friend” had cancer removed by prayer. Do you have any evidence for it? An anecdote doesn’t work if there is no evidence, and again, no Christian ever goes and prays over sick kids and they get well. The same for amputees. It’s something than can’t be faked like claims that cancer was removed. The doctor could have been wrong about the cancer, and usually marking for surgery is just literally a magic marker. I had a breast reduction and I got drawn all over while a medical school class watched. And sometimes cancer just disappears, no prayer needed, no cause and effect from divine origins.

        There are indeed tons of stories from villages in some hard to reach area, and no evidence is given. Funny how these “miracles” don’t happen in places where people can easily check the story. Gods of other religions are claimed to heal, just like yours. Do you accept those claims as true? Why or why not? And you are correct, Christians are killed, and they are killed just like any other human being. Nothing shows that Christians are any different. It’s just like your god doesn’t exist at all.

        Your bible says that any baptized believer in Christ as savior can heal, just like Jesus, so there is no reason why, as a Christian, you can’t do it. Unless the bible is wrong. Is it?

        Club Schadenfreude is the name of my blog. You may call me Vel if you’d like. The video (I will admit that Christians always make claims of these supposed videos but never can actually tell me the names of them or where to see them) seems to be nothing more than an example of confirmation bias. This woman claims to pray about people but has no evidence they are sick nor that her prayer did anything at all. Her “healings” are nothing more than coincidence, placebo effect or simply lies. You also claim that your prayers are answered, but again it seems that is nothing more than confirmation bias, and that you have an excuse why prayers to heal people don’t work for you. You said you “felt” that you needed to lay hands on your son. This seems to indicate you want me to believe this did something. What did your action do? What did any of your prayers do? And people often claim they are sure that something happened, believers in all religions. It’s easy to claim that a prayer worked if you don’t tell anyone about what you said. Then they can’t point out when it fails.

        Most believers of any religion will make the same statement as you do, that you can’t believe anything else because you assume you get miracles. You also invent excuses when your prayers don’t work e.g. “it’s god’s will that “x” won’t be healed.”, “X didn’t pray enough/the right way so they weren’t healed”, etc.

        • Paul Pavao says:

          Confirmation bias is not the grand excuse you think it is. After a few unexplainable things, it doesn’t matter how many explainable things there are. Further, similar to confirmation bias is our subconscious ability to pick up patterns in things. Our subconscious sees relationships between cause and effect before our conscious mind does. Malcom Gladwell’s Blink talks about this, but he is hardly the only one who does. When a Christian subconsciously begins to expect answers to prayers–in my case, only in certain circumstances–it is because there is a real pattern.

          Here is one video from Heidi Baker on Youtube, who is the lady I mentioned. Glenn Roseberry, who visits me every time he is in the US, is the one who knows her, or at least of her. Your statements about “coincidence, placebo effect, or simply lies” is your response to situations you have not experienced nor known anything about.. You weren’t there, know nothing of the situation, and yet you are willing to call her a liar. Wow, talk about religious fervor. You are not the only atheist I know with such close-minded religious fervor accusing Christians and other of being like you. Admittedly, a lot of them are. Just as true, though, is that some are not religious like you. They are open-minded, and they have been convinced by real evidence.

          For example, at the end, you write, “You also invent excuses when your prayers don’t work.” Sure some do, but if you want to deal with the reality of the conversation you are in, then you should look at our exchange.. I did not invent excuses for why prayer does not work sometimes.

          You also asked about miracles from other religions. Yes, of course, I believe those can happen. You act like you know what we believe about the Bible, then you should know that I believe that satan and his demons can work miracles, and I believe that God sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Those are both biblical teachings. Thus, that God would kindly work a miracle for an unbeliever, or for a person from a different religion, is well within my belief system. By the way, the many books and videos recounting those miracles are pretty hard to discount, except by clinging to your atheism religiously, clamping your eyes shut, and saying “lies, coincidences, placebo effect” over and over again.

          I have already been through a discussion like this on many years ago. I gained a lot of respect there because I was one of a couple Christians there who realize that the evidence for evolution is undeniable. When I suggested God answers my prayers, I got pretty much the same response you gave, at least from a couple of them. However, as I told story after story after story, the accusation of confirmation bias disappeared, and those couple people switched to accusing me of lying. That’s convenient, but I wasn’t lying.

          The case you have presented is that Christians can’t heal the way Jesus did. Jesus did indeed tell the apostles that they would do greater works that he did, which I guess is why you think Christians ought to have the power to empty a children’s cancer ward. That’s one valid argument against Christianity. But it is a silly argument against miracle in general. It is a silly argument against the non-existence of spiritual things, especially compared to the many firsthand experiences so many of us–us being both Christians and others.

          You act like I gave you things that cannot be verified. The young man who was healed of colon cancer is a neighbor, and he works for me. I see at least twice a week, sometimes more. I know the circumstances. The cancer did “just disappear” as you suggested, but the timing was right after the men of our church gathered with him to pray the night before.

          I have a lot more stories. I was in India with Pastor K.V. Daniel when a man came running up, all excited, and rattling away in Malayalam. I had to wait for an interpretation, and what had happened is that Pastor Daniel had been there the month before and prayed for a small girl with a tumor in her stomach. It had gone away after the prayer, and he had run up to thank Pastor Daniel.

          Of course, you don’t believe that even though you were not there. Why? Because you are an unreasonable religious fanatic. I understand that. A lot of Christians are like that too. I have devoted a lot of my life to cultivating honesty in myself so that I would not be unreasonable. Otherwise I would be just like you and a lot of atheists and a lot of Christians. It would do you good to get freed from that.

          • Paul Pavao says:

            Oops, I mentioned a video from Heidi Baker, but here is the search results on your tube for several of her videos: The video I saw on her was a documentary. I can’t remember whether it was on YouTube or on a video, but there are plenty of videos on that page.

          • Unfortunately for you, Paul, confirmation bias explains your claims and the claims of other theists who claim that their gods heal, etc. If there is a pattern in things, then you should be able to tell me what it is. Can you? What are these “certain circumstances” your prayers always get answered positively and immediately like the bible promises?

            When a Christian begins to expect answers to prayers, and his faith depends on it, then confirmation bias kicks in. Just like you, with the excuse of certain circumstances, you try to ignore the times your prayers don’t work.

            So, we have a video of Heidi Baker, who you don’t know if your friend knows her or not. She makes claims without evidence. Yep, I wasn’t there and neither were you. So, you know nothing about the situation. I know that it is terribly unlikely that anything magical happened, because it doesn’t happen and Christians can’t heal people. With no evidence, and a woman who has plenty of reason to lie to support herself, yep, I think she is lying. I’m going to guess you think that other theists who aren’t Christians are lying too when they claim to heal people. Do you? And no, Paul, I am not close minded. I think and I question, and I don’t take accept things blindly because I wish they were true. You have yet to produce evidence. And which atheist have accepted your claims? You seem to be claiming lots of people agree with you just like Trump does, with no evidence of these people’s existence.

            Baker claims to have been healed. She has no evidence that she was. No tuberculosis diagnosis, which would have been reported to the authorities, no healing. We also have that it was claimed in an article in the Southern Medical Journal, a publication by the Southern Medical Association (not affiliated with the various state medical associations), that there supposedly was magical healing being done at her mission. There is no other research that shows this is true, and it appears to be confirmation bias by the researchers all of whom were not medical professionals in a ridiculously small sample size of 24 people. We also have the same journal/ association that publishes papers about how religious affiliation might affed HIV viral load, and does say that the hypothesis was wrong.

            You have said that your prayers are only answered in “certain situations”, so yes, you have created an excuse. And it’s no surprise that you want to baselessly accuse people of having Satan heal them. Shall I remind you of what you told me about not being there and add that you have no idea if other gods exist or not. There is nothing to show that your god would bless an unbeliever, and that’s only a Christian trying to claim healing for a his god when again, you have no idea.

            I can easily discount books and videos that are nothing but baseless anecdotes, Paul. Just like I can discount claims of seeing Jesus on a piece of toast. No evidence of anything happening, so all you have are stories. No one’s leg magically reappearing. Indeed, one can ask why your god evidently hates amputees since it can’t do anything for them. Yep, I can point to your claims and indicate when a lie, a placebo effect and coincidence are at play, just like I can point to Christians who laud their god but avail themselves of modern medicine rather trusting that their god will take care of them like the birds and the lilies. And no, Paul, no matter how many times a Christian tries to lie and call atheism a religion it doesn’t become that.

            I have no respect for someone who accepts a well-documented fact; that’s what anyone should do. Evolution is true and it is no surprise that a lot of Christians agree with it and now insist that their genesis story is just that, a story. Religion always plays catch up to science. You got more than disbelief about your prayers coming true than a “couple” of atheists.

            Jesus wasn’t written only telling the apostles they could heal, Paul. Other Christians have tried this and it doesn’t work since I’ve read the bible and know what it says. In the gospel of Mark: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. 16 The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”” It doesn’t limit anything to the apostles, only to believers.

            And James says “13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.” Here prayers will be answered and are promised to affect the real world, not just the “spiritual” world like many Christians try to claim.

            It is not “silly” at all as an argument against miracles as you claim to have had happen. Sorry, Paul, but until you can show medical records, I have no reason to trust you since I know that Christians have no problem in making false claims when convenient. That Christians who claim healing also refuse to provide evidence that they were ever sick is a big tell in that their claims are not truthful. This holds true for your story about the girl with the tumor.

            It’s unfortunate that you must rely on bearing false witness about me by accusing me of being an “unreasonable religious fanatic”. Being an atheist, I can’t be religious, and I am not a fanatic for daring to doubt your baseless claims. If I were a religious fanatic, I could be like you and insist that some evil force had healed people with no evidence just like you.

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