False Pattern

Ladies and Gentlemen, Jesus Toast:

                                Taste and see.

This serving of crispy-chewy-cheesy goodness gets a mention in the “Cosmos” series starring Neil deGrasse Tyson, in the context of today’s subject:  Pattern recognition.  Namely, the human tendency to perceive false patterns.

I would have let it go, except that this silly mantra has been trotted out ad nauseum as a way of dismissing belief in God.  The thinking goes that much of belief is perceiving divine intervention where there is none.

Now, it won’t do any good to interject, because the cynic is about to pontificate:  Naturally, pattern recognition has been a great boon for humans.  This ability enables us to recognize friends and foes, to classify good foods and harmful foods, to distinguish a predator from the background noises of nature.

Just as naturally, our capacity for pattern recognition is bound to produce false positives:  You think there is someone in the room with you, but you come to find you are alone.  You get a string of green lights on the way to work, and you imagine some intelligent agent has cleared the way for you.  You notice a large – what is that, a bear? – in the forest, but upon closer inspection, it is a hallowed out tree.

It is the same way, the cynic wants to say, with religion:  We are universally prone to this flaw in our thinking, and so a great many of us have been led to believe there is some kind of divine agency where there is none.  It is like seeing a ghost, which is to say, there’s no such thing.

The cynic intends for the conversation to be over at this point.  You ought now to be humble enough to admit that your brain is faulty, and so these beliefs of yours cannot possibly be true.  And yet, we resist the cynic’s conclusion.

A bit of pedantry first:  The claim is often that we perceive a pattern where there is none.  But this is a perfect error.  We perceive a pattern because there is one, not because there isn’t one.

That is, when you think you’re seeing a bear in the forest, that’s because the proportions and features are such that they really do resemble a bear.  They exhibit the same pattern a bear might, up until you reach a certain level of clarity.  Once you realize that it was a log, and not a bear, you don’t deny that you actually recognized a pattern; you deny that it was actually a bear.

The stronger version of the cynic’s claim, then, is that we perceive false patterns when we imagine that “God” or any other divinity has intervened in our lives.  No such thing has happened.

This conclusion does seem odd, doesn’t it?  After all – like a great deal of the cynic’s claims – it simply assumes atheism is true.  If atheism is true, then it follows that there is no divine intervention.

Otherwise – if we don’t all assume atheism is true – it is quite an intrusion into a person’s interior life.  And if the claim is to be taken seriously, it is quite an intrusion into the interior life of every single religious person in the world.  The cynic would do well to have some Jesus Toast and mind his manners.

And what about Jesus Toast?  Well, one can see how the image kinda looks like Jesus.  So what?

(Cynic, take note…)

What does it matter to you, or to me, or to Neil deGrasse Tyson if a person finds some significance in that pattern?  Or if they think God sent them five green lights in a row?  Are you sure He didn’t?  (Please, enlighten us!)

These things are not the substance of Christianity (or any religion that I’m aware of), so if the plausibility of religion or the question of God’s existence are at issue, we will certainly dispense with Jesus Toast.  But then the cynic should also dispense with fried bread in general when he wants to make his case for atheism.

At the Sunday School BBQ, on the other hand, the best Jesus Toast gets a blue ribbon.

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