First you need to understand what providence is. To quote a Christian scholar:
“Providence, then, is the sovereign, divine superintendence of all things, guiding them toward their divinely predetermined end in a way that is consistent with their created nature, all to the glory and praise of God.”
This is a bit of a mouthful, unfortunately, so to break it down a little the concept is the God has his hands in all things, and all things work to his plan. While not all Christians will understand what “God’s providence” means as a term, this is a central tenet to their beliefs.
In the most Christian-centric sense, Jesus came to Earth as a sacrifice for the remission of sin. This was a prophesied event, and was part of the plan from the beginning of the universe. It is even said Jesus was there at the beginning (John 1) and it was through Jesus that all things were made.
So from here spring many other elements of Christian faith, including prophecy, predestination or predetermination, grace via the will of God, and numerous other aspects.
This is also used as one of the evidences of God. People will explain God exists as without God a certain situation would be different, Broadly this would be “We wouldn’t exist” or “There would be no universe”. On the more personal level “I would never have met you/him/her” or “I wouldn’t have survived”. Down to the trivial “I wouldn’t have found that car park” type of examples.
Providence can be an awkward topic for Christians as well, as it refers to a predetermined outcome. This also flies in the face of the concept of free will, which is also a central tenet of Christianity.
For the moment let’s disregard the trivial for exactly what it is: trivial. It is on the same level as superstition, and is as meaningful an argument for the existence of God or the authority of scripture as having a four-leaf clover or rabbits foot. Very rarely has locating a convenient car park been used as proof of divine intervention.
So then on to the personal level. While there is a similarity in the trivial and the personal, the personal tends to be far more significant on a life changing level. However the pattern of these remains remarkably similar:
• Event happens (normally tragic)
• Event has unforeseen outcome
• Unforeseen outcome results in spiritual shift
How this works as a biblically based example:
• Judas betrays Jesus (tragedy)
• Jesus dies for the remission of sins (unforeseen outcome) • Mankind is saved from sin (spiritual shift)
In personal testimony style this usually works along the same lines:
• I was diagnosed with cancer (tragedy)
• I ended up in hospital with a preacher (unforeseen outcome)
• He taught me about the love of God (spiritual shift)
• I was in a horrific car accident (tragedy)
• I survived by the grace of God (unforeseen outcome)
• As he saved my life I am in his debt (spiritual shift)
As mentioned before, the event does not need to be tragic:
• My fiancé asked me to go to her church before we married (event)
• The priest was an old school friend and we started talking (unforeseen outcome)
• He taught me about etc. (spiritual shift)
Or to steal the lyrics from “If you’re feeling sinister” by Belle and Sebastian
• Hillary went to the church because she wanted information (event)
• The vicar, or whatever, took her to one side and gave her confirmation (unforeseen occurrence)
• St Theresa’s calling her the church upon the hill is looking lovely (spiritual shift)
The issue here is that each unforeseen occurrence is seen as the hand of God, where in reality it is a random roll of the dice as to what the outcome could be. The logical fallacy is seeing a pattern in events where none exists. This is a known psychological phenomenon known as apophenia.
As defined by Wkipedia, Apophenia /æpoʊˈfiːniə/ is the human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data.
A sub-category of apophenia is pareidolia, where patterns are seen in visual or auditory stimulus where none exist.
On a visual basis one of the more famous examples of this is the face on Mars, where a photo taken of the surface of Mars in the 70s showed an image that looked something like a human face. For many years conspiracy theorists suggested this was evidence of extra terrestrial intelligence, or some more outlandish theories. This continued until the 90’s when another photo was taken of the same terrain, with higher resolution and a different angle of light, which showed that it was simply a trick of shadow.
I recall when the second photo was taken there were some conspiracy theorists who suggested the aliens came back and destroyed the face due to some human failing, as some beliefs are hard to shake.
The reliance in beliefs that have no rational basis is is a form of psychological heuristic; a belief that impacts on rational judgement making. Once this heuristic is in place it becomes difficult to move outside of it.
So perceiving God’s providence is not an indication of stupidity or gullibility, it’s completely normal from a psychological basis. What it will does come down to though is regularly coming to judgements based on a belief with no rational support.
A similar psychological heuristic is exemplified by the Monty Hall problem. For those that aren’t aware, the Monty Hall problem is named after the previous host of a game show Let’s Make a Deal.
The scenario is the host presents a contestant with three doors. Behind one door is the big prize, the car. Behind the others, nothing. The host asks you to pick a door, and you pick door 1. The host then opens one if the remaining doors to show you that behind that door, say door number 2, is nothing. The host intentionally chooses a door knowing there is nothing behind it. Now the host gives you a choice to stick with your first choice, or to switch.
Common misconception is that the remaining doors have equal chance of having the car behind them. A 50/50 chance. In presented with this most contestants choose to stick with their original choice.
Mathematically the odds are that by switching you are twice as likely to get the car. The way that works is your initial choice is a 1/3 chance of being correct, and there is a 2/3 chance that the prize will be behind one of the other doors. By the host opening a door where there is nothing, he eliminates the chance of it being behind that door, but the odds that the first choice are correct are unchanged, still 1/3, and the location of the prize has not changed. The odds of it being behind one of the other doors is still 2/3, but by eliminating one of the doors the odds of the remaining unchosen door is now the 2/3.
However people choose the first door with no foreknowledge and no reasonable capacity to give that door any more likelihood than any other. But having made their decision people are far more remain fixated on that decision.
One study (Granberg and Brown, 1995) examined the response of subjects faced with the Monty Hall problem with no foreknowledge of the mathematics behind it. Of the 228 subjects tested, only 13% chose to switch. Or in other terms, only 1 person out of every 8 switched.
So when presented with arbitrary outcomes, people are significantly more likely to fall back on a predetermined belief. There are many other examples that illustrate this type of phenomena, and it’s also the basis for many prejudices, such as xenophobia or misogyny.
So seeing God’s providence is quite normal, but logically fallacious. Let’s go back to the pattern again and look at it in a few examples.
• I went to the casino and put everything on red (event)
• it came up red, and I won big (unforeseen outcome)
• We then had enough money by the grace of God to build a new church (spiritual shift)
• I went to the casino and put everything on black (event)
• it came up red, and I lost everything (unforeseen outcome)
• My family gathered around and supported me in my time of need, and I learned there are more important things than money (spiritual shift)
Regardless of the unforeseen outcome, it can be any outcome, and it can still have a similar shift.
• I was diagnosed with cancer (tragedy)
• My cancer is now in complete remission (unforeseen outcome)
• God has saved me (shift)
• My cancer had dramatically progressed (unforeseen outcome)
• God has taught me to value each day as my last (shift)
Or as another example:
• My wife left me, and I prayed each day for her to return (tragedy)
• My wife came back to me (outcome)
• God answered my prayer (shift)
• My wife never came back (outcome)
• God introduced me to my new wife, the woman I was meant to be with (shift)
And the list of these examples can go on. The point is that the event/tragedy will lead to an unforeseen outcome. Depending on your perspective that outcome can be used as evidence of whatever relates to psychological heuristic.
Let’s take that last example:
• My wife left me, and I prayed each day for her to come back (tragedy)
• She never came back (unforeseen outcome)
• Prayer doesn’t work, so there is no god (shift)
• She came back (outcome)
• If there was a god she would never have left to begin with; No god encouraged her to come back (shift)
There is an adage “there are no atheists in foxholes.” It is the argument that presented with sufficient motivation – mortal fear – that everyone will turn to a god.
When I was a much younger man, and in a brief period of theistic mindset, I was on a tram with a friend of mine and was accosted by a gentleman of a particular mould. He was an elderly gentleman of a particular bearing who demanded I give up my seat to him as he was a returned veteran, and proceeded to tell me about everything that was wrong with society, starting with a criticism of the tram driver’s ethnicity.
My friend and I attempted to continue our conversation, speaking of the comparative differences in Catholicism to Judaism. The gentleman was obviously upset by the lack of attention his earlier xenophobic diatribe was garnering, and decided to explain to us why there was no god.
He explained that he was in a war zone, and was hunkered down in a ditch during a fire fight. Bullets whizzing everywhere and in mortal fear. He’d seen his friends dying and could see no way out of the situation he was in alive.
And so he prayed. He made solemn vows and deals with god, and begged for relief, for a way out of there. And no help came. So he stopped praying, grabbed his gun, jumped out of his ditch and started fighting his way out of there. The moral of his story was that if there had been a god he wouldn’t have been abandoned there, and it was him jumping up and fighting his way out that saved his life.
By this time I’d gotten to a point that I’d found the old man tiresome, and pointed out that maybe god had stopped him being hit by bullets after he’d jumped out of his ditch. The conversation derailed there somewhat, but fortunately the tram didn’t and not long after we both alighted.
Now the event was identical, and the outcome was identical, but the interpretation was the diametric opposite.
So herein lies the crux of the issue of using “personal testimony” or “personal experience” as evidence of God’s existence: It’s a logical fallacy based on a preconceived belief.
Once the belief pattern is established, it continues to be reinforced by using the same heuristic to judge new experiences. It also involves using the same heuristic to disregard contrary experiences.
I referred earlier to the “atheist in foxholes” adage, and showed a contrary example. This also works when reviewing many of these other examples.
For the argument of the person who’s cancer was in remission, there are always examples of the person that has died of cancer without “being saved”. For the person who survived the car accident and without the intervention of god wouldn’t be here today, there are the examples of those that didn’t survive the car accident.
There are the wives and husbands who never returned. The person who turned to religion to get off heroin but went back on the gear. The person who was given the sports car by god, and the entire countries god allows to suffer from famine.
The short answer is that personal experiences of God’s providence are logically as meaningless as following a gamblers fallacy.
Where there is a random element is at play in a person’s life there will always be the good things that happen, and there will be the bad things that happen. Saying that the good is all due to a divine presence that is unable to be verified, and then saying the the negative things are due to evil, sin, or man is simply adding a preconceived belief on a roll of the dice.
Alternately, it can be said all the good things are the work of fairies, and the bad things the work of imps. As evidence of the existence of supernatural entities, the logic is identical.
As an aside, I would recommend listening to Belle and Sebastian’s album “If you’re feeling sinister” at some stage if you haven’t already listened to it.