Writer and comedian Seth MacFarland (of Family Guy fame) was suppose to be on the September 11th plane that was hijacked and flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center. He was running late that day and missed his plane by just a few minutes. When asked what significance this plays in his life today, he said:
One of my favorite quotes by Carl Sagan is that we are as a species, and as a culture, we are significance junkies. We love attaching significance to everything, even when there really is no significance and something is just a coincidence, and this is a perfect example to me… Obviously the day itself was a tragedy and a disaster, but if we’re just talking about my case, it doesn’t strike me as something that I am attaching an unbelievable amount of significance to.Seth McFarlane: TV’s Family Guy Makes Music, Too (Interview with Teri Gross, Fresh Air, October 17, 2011)
In 1997, Carl Sagan published a book called The Demon-Haunted World, which has a chapter called “Significance Junkies”. In this chapter he writes about the way we misinterpret statistics and replace them with magical thinking instead of clear-headed reasoning. He talks about the hot and cold streaks that athletes attribute to quasi-mystical sources:
We seek meaning, even in random numbers. We’re significance junkies… So what? What’s the harm of a little mystification? It sure beats boring statistical analyses. In basketball, in sports, no harm. But as a habitual way of thinking, it gets us into trouble in some of the other games we play.The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, page 349 (Carl Sagan, 1997)
I believe religious people are wired to be “Significance Junkies”, and Mormons are Significance Junkies on Steroids! Contrast MacFarlands view of what happened to him against all the faith promoting stories that spread around Church about a group of missionaries that were suppose to have a Zone Conference that day in the Towers, but got caught up in traffic/missed their train/got sick (pick one) with God protecting them.
The word “junky” is well picked. We crave significance just as an addict craves their drug of choice. When significance is not readily available, then we invent it. We imagine significance all around us. When we do this with games and entertainment, it is harmless, but can cause problems when we apply this to other events in our life.
The examples of this in Church abound. We have all heard talks and stories about lost keys found, child saved from falling tree, miraculous curing of cancer, future prophet saved from certain death after engine of small airplane explodes in a fireball (or not) and they make an emergence landing. This randomness of life cannot stand. We need a God that is pulling the strings and saving us.
What is the harm with this? What is the impact to the person sitting in the audience that had a close relative die in a plane crash? A widow sitting with three young children morning her husband who died of brain cancer after many priesthood blessings. By attributing saving events to a benevolent God, and not just random events causes real harm to those who lost in the grand lottery of life.
But the sad fact is that we matter less than we think we do, and the universe is more random than we want it to be, and those can be painful truths to accept. We crave significance and invent meaning not because we’re stupid, but because we’re creative: it hurts to admit our insignificance. Religion provides order in the random chaos of the universe.
I think this quote from mathematician and philosopher Henri Poincaré sums it up well: We also know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether delusion is not more consoling.
1. Have you had events in your life that you attributed to a higher force, which in hind sight you now recognize as just a random event?
2. Have you even been harmed by others who assigned miraculous meaning to a random events?
3. It there a way to believe in a God, and still acknowledge the randomness of the universe? Maybe a non-interventionist God?