We often view ancient people as superstitious, because of how readily they ascribed unusual events to the action of the gods. But a belief in divine intervention isn’t found only in ancient civilizations or in the surviving remnants of indigenous cultures. A 2009 survey of people affiliated with the University of Missouri-Columbia found that “the most strongly endorsed explanations for coincidences were God and fate” (Coleman, Beitman, & Celebi 2009: 269). That is, when it comes to unusual events, more than 200 years after the advent of modern science, God and fate still rank higher among the college-educated than the naturalistic alternative of chance.
Perhaps the explanation for the prevalence of this point of view—both in ancient times and today—is not superstition but personal experience. To take just one example, author Elizabeth Gilbert relates in her best-selling memoir Eat Pray Love how she and a friend wrote a petition to God asking that Gilbert’s agonizing, months-long wait for her husband to sign their divorce papers would finally come to an end. Within hours of writing this petition, Gilbert says, she got the long-awaited call from her lawyer saying that it was done (Gilbert 2006).
When things like this happen to us—and bring life-changing consequences—it can be difficult to accept that they are nothing but the products of chance. And while I do believe that chance is a hypothesis that must be considered (Rawlette 2019), let’s grant for the moment that there are certain coincidences for which chance does not provide an adequate explanation—events that are simply too improbably meaningful to be random. I want to focus here on a further question. If chance is not the culprit, is God the best alternative explanation?
It’s easy to see why many people would think so, especially when striking coincidences happen so soon after praying. However, there are a couple of essential points to keep in mind when considering the possible divine origin of these events.
First, there is increasing evidence that the human mind itself has the ability to produce “coincidences.” We’re talking about more than just selective attention or memory. There are now hundreds of laboratory experiments whose results suggest the existence of unmediated, non-local interactions between human minds, and between human minds and the physical world (Cardeña 2018). These interactions could easily explain common coincidences such as thinking of someone just before they call, finding the right book at just the right time, or hearing a song on the radio that speaks directly to a problem we’re having.
Also, a close look at the way coincidences operate in people’s lives reveals that these events often reflect the mental state of the people who experience them. (See this post for some examples.) Rather than conveying divine guidance, coincidences often appear to act as a mirror for whatever is currently going on in the experiencer’s conscious or unconscious mind. This helps to explain some of the disturbing coincidences people experience, especially when dealing with mental illness (Surprise 2012). In fact, certain patterns we see in coincidences—their tendency to reveal repressed thoughts and emotions and to use personally meaningful symbolism in doing so—strongly resemble the patterns we see in dreams (Eisenbud 1983), which are widely considered to be primarily (if not exclusively) the product of our own minds.
In addition to the importance of recognizing our ability to cause our own coincidences, the second essential point to keep in mind is that, even if a coincidence we experience is caused by a mind other than our own, that mind does not necessarily belong to the God we learned about in Sunday school.
Consider an analogy: When you were young, you might have written letters to Santa Claus asking that he would bring you specific toys on Christmas morning. You may have taken the fact that you received the toys you requested as reason to continue believing that Santa Claus was real. Of course, when you got older, you discovered that your gifts had actually come from Mom or Dad or some other human being who loved and cared about you.
The thing is, our current ideas about God—or any other aspect of the universe that transcends our everyday experience—are very likely as far from the ultimate truth about the world as our childhood belief in Santa Claus was from the reality of our parents’ buying us presents at the store. Of course, this doesn’t mean that whatever transcendent intelligence might exist in our universe can’t choose to respond to our requests, just as our parents responded to our requests directed to Santa. However, it’s important to remember that receiving an answer to a request that you made to a specific spiritual being doesn’t prove that that being exists in exactly the way you imagine them. Research shows that people with different, conflicting religious beliefs experience apparently miraculous events (Pew Forum 2008), so we can’t take a strongly meaningful coincidence as evidence that our particular ideas about God are accurate.
Furthermore, the coincidences we experience can sometimes appear to prompt us to do something that offends our sense of right and wrong. In these cases, we should be especially wary of considering a coincidence as a sign from God. The world is much more complicated than we often recognize, and just because something extraordinary or seemingly paranormal happens to us doesn’t mean it’s automatically to be trusted. Like everything else in our lives, coincidences are something that we have to carefully reflect on, using our own intuition and good sense in deciding how to respond.
Ultimately, meaningful coincidences have great potential to enrich our lives. They can serve as valuable guides to our own conscious and unconscious mental states, opening our minds to aspects of our own psychology that we have been ignoring, and they can also potentially connect us to a form of intelligence that exceeds the bounds of our own minds. However, to reap any of these benefits, we must be careful not to approach coincidences with the idea that we already know what’s behind them and what they mean. Whether they come from within us or without, the value of a coincidence will always lie in its ability to show us something new about ourselves and the world around us.
Cardeña, E. (2018). The experimental evidence for parapsychological phenomena: A review. American Psychologist 73(5): 663-77.
Coleman, S., Beitman, B., & Celebi, E. (2009). Weird coincidences commonly occur. Psychiatric Annals 39(2): 265-70.
Eisenbud, J. (1983). The psychology of the paranormal. In J. Eisenbud, Parapsychology and the Unconscious (pp. 65-79). Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Gilbert, E. (2006). Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. New York: Viking.
Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. (2008). U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices: Diverse and Politically Relevant. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
Rawlette, S. H. (2019). Coincidence or psi? The epistemic import of spontaneous cases of purported psi identified post-verification. Journal of Scientific Exploration 33(1): 9-42.
Surprise, K. (2012). Synchronicity: The Art of Coincidence, Choice, and Unlocking Your Mind. Pompton Plains, NJ: New Page Books.