Since I've become an atheist and a skeptic, I've been having new thoughts about pseudo- patterns, and coincidences that just seem too perfect to be really coincidental, and apparent signs and omens from God or the world- soul or the universe.
Ingrid and I were going to the fancy organic ice cream place the other night. (Yes, this is a story about atheism and skepticism -- stay with me). As we drove up, we could see that the line was out the door and down the block. We were trying to decide if the ice cream would be worth the wait, when we saw -- wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles -- a perfect, rock-star parking spot, right in front of the store.
And one of the first thoughts that flashed through my head was, "It's a sign. The universe wants us to get fancy organic ice cream."
Now, for reasons that I've gone into at length elsewhere in this blog, I no longer believe that the universe wants anything. I no longer believe in any God, any World-Soul, any sort of large consciousness that has a path marked out for me and is putting signs in my way to get me to follow it.
But I did recognize this as a sign.
No, the parking place wasn't a sign from the universe that we should get ice cream. The universe does not have the capacity for consciousness. And even if it did, it would almost certainly be supremely indifferent to the question of whether Ingrid and I did or did not get fancy organic ice cream on Friday night.
The parking place wasn't a sign from the universe.
But my reaction to the parking place was a sign from myself.
The fact that my first reaction to seeing a parking place in front of the ice cream store was "The universe wants us to get ice cream" was a sign from my own psyche. I knew it was absurd to wait in line for 20 minutes for ice cream, no matter how good it was. At the same time, I really, really wanted to. This is exceptionally good ice cream we're talking about, and we were hosting a family gathering the next day where we knew it would be a big hit. So I wanted a justification for doing this ridiculous thing... and "The universe wants you to do it" was a perfect one.
This is what I'm beginning to understand about my sign- and- omen seeing back in my woo, World-Soul days. When I ran into a drug- dealing friend on a Friday night and took it as a sign that I should trip on acid that weekend, it wasn't the Universe sending the message. When I did a series of Tarot readings in which The Hermit came up repeatedly, and took it to mean that I shouldn't get into another relationship right away, it wasn't the Spirit of the Tarot doing the talking. It was me.
The signs didn't always tell me what I wanted to hear. At times, quite the opposite. (I was very cranky about the "no relationships right away" message.) It wasn't always about rationalizing what I wanted to do anyway. Sometimes it was, of course. But sometimes -- often, even -- it was about some part of me that wanted to talk and wasn't being heard.
And you know what? All of this is still true. Even as an atheist and a materialist and a skeptic, it's still true. The fact that I'm aware of pseudo-patterns and confirmation bias and the fact that our brains are hard-wired to see pattern and intention where none exists... it doesn't mean I'm not prone to seeing signs and going "Oo!" at apparent synchronicities. It just means that I can catch myself at it when I do.
And it means I can read the signs better. After all, I know what they are now: not clues to the will of some universal spirit that doesn't exist and wouldn't give a damn about me if it did, but clues to myself, to my own mind and heart. If I'm seeing patterns and intentions, prophecies and omens, in the chance events of my life, then that clues me in, not to what God or the Universe or the World-Soul wants, but to what I want.
These ideas were developed in a comment thread on Friendly Atheist.
Other posts in this series:
"Everything happens for a reason": Atheism and Learning from Mistakes
Atheism, Bad Luck, and the Comfort of Reason
Not Everything Means Something: Virginia Tech