The Numbers Game
By Lisa Regula Meyer
I make no bones about the fact that I’m an atheist. I was raised in the United Church of Christ, and was pretty actively involved in my childhood church. I started questioning when I was a teen, like a lot of teens do, and especially after my dad’s death. I kept questioning when I learned more about other religions. Eventually, I concluded that there just wasn’t enough evidence in favor of some sort of divine being for me to put stock in it. Yes, part of my decision was based on science and evidence in the natural world, but mostly it was an opinion that I didn’t feel the need for some form of divinity that required so much suspension of disbelief and interpretation. I realize, too, that plenty of people are OK with loose interpretations and that’s fine; so long as any person’s religion doesn’t interfere with other people’s lives, then they can believe whatever they want, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a personal matter and none of my business.
It’s not that I don’t understand the draw of divinity, the idea that something is in control, miracles happen, and there’s something bigger out there; it’s just not my cup of tea. I’m the type of person that makes sure my kid understands that his holiday gifts come from me and my hard work, instead of a fantasy Santa, so maybe I’m just a broken person. I don’t get the idea that only religion brings about a sense of wonder and awe, either, and from my experience and that of many of my friends and colleagues in the sciences, there will always be enough that we don’t understand to keep us intrigued, and frankly, knowing statistics has instilled more of a sense of amazement than I ever had before.
So many events in life have such improbable odds, and yet do happen all the time, and that’s where my sense of wonderment comes from. The birth of a healthy child takes extraordinarily long odds, and if they knew all the odds against it happening when one considers the rate of infertility, birth defects, miscarriages, and everything else that can go wrong, no reasonable person would place a bet on a couple having a healthy baby within a year- yet it happens every single day. Whether there’s any form of divine intervention or not, that makes a miracle, in my book. The odds that a given person will find their soul mate, fall in love, and stay together for a significant time are similar, and just as much a miracle.
As far as what happens to us after we die, well, I know our bodies get either chucked into the ground with or without various preservation methods, or we go into an incinerator. Other than that, I don’t know. I haven’t seen any evidence of any kind of soul that someone has found, but there’s a big chunk of energy involved in brain waves, the nervous system, and the heart, and that energy has to be dealt with in some way. Considering that, the fact that we are very literally made of the “star stuff” (i.e. atoms), and the power of the human imagination, there are nearly infinite explanations for ghost stories and the like. We’ll probably never stumble on the correct answer, and I for one, am fine with that. The world would be an endlessly boring place if we discovered all the answers to our questions, and a lot of researchers would be out of jobs. If nothing else, the human desire for knowledge is a great jobs initiative, right?
So you’ll imagine my surprise when my husband received a text the other night, accompanying a picture of a blanket like one I had as a child:
Hey Lisa, found this under one of the beds. Wish we could have found it before Dad left. Is he back with you now? Love, Kim
It turns out it was a wrong number and a simple mistake, but all the odds against this exchange left me more than a little shaken. Even the most improbable things happen once in a while, and they definitely make life interesting when all the odds line up just right. Well played, Universal Statistician, well played.