Serendipity, Synchronicity, and Signs from the Universe: “Everything happens for a reason,” Part 2

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.

Ice cream 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.

Arrow sign.svg

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

Serendipity, Synchronicity, and Signs from the Universe: “Everything happens for a reason,” Part 2

12 thoughts on “Serendipity, Synchronicity, and Signs from the Universe: “Everything happens for a reason,” Part 2

  1. 2

    This post reminds me of something I’ve been willing to ask you: mystic thinking like those you approached here are very similar in shape and content to artistic and poetic experience.
    How would you value art and poetry in your atheist framework? “Oh, that metaphor doesn’t exist, there is no logical evidence, blablabla”?
    For instance, that Tarot card. There is no World Soul, ok, but your mind was stimulated by the Art in it…
    What I mean is: Is it morally wrong to delight yourself with a poetic idea like “The Universe wants to give me that Ice Cream”, even if you know it is not materially true?
    You know, you just reached C. G. Jung in this post. Religion is not materially true but it is psychologically true… I would like to see you go a little further in this path, if you liked.

  2. 3

    one piece of rational nonwoo from Ron Lippitt: when you’re stuck making a decision, flip a coin. Then ask yourself how you feel about the outcome. Then make your real decision based on that.

  3. 4

    I second Rev. Bob’s suggestion.
    The secret to the coin flipping trick, if you can manage it, is to try to figure out, *while the coin is in the air*, which way you are hoping it will land.

  4. 6

    Is it morally wrong to delight yourself with a poetic idea like “The Universe wants to give me that Ice Cream”, even if you know it is not materially true?

    Interesting question.
    Morally wrong? No. But I don’t think it’s morally wrong to believe it literally, either. I don’t think religion is morally wrong, unless you’re trying to legislate it, or are teaching it to children as if it were fact, or are otherwise forcing it on people. I think religion does more harm than good on the whole; but I don’t think it’s in and of itself immoral. I mostly just think it’s mistaken.
    So i guess I’d re-phrase the question as, “Is it harmful or mistaken, or likely to lead to harm or error?”
    My basic answer would be “No.” I don’t see any harm in amusing yourself with a fun but false notion, as long as you’re aware that that’s what you’re doing.
    But I’m equivocating a little bit. Because I remember from my own woo days how easy it was to slip back and forth between saying that my beliefs were useful and beautiful metaphors, and thinking they were literal truths… mostly depending on who I was talking to, and how hard I was being pressed about my beliefs. So for myself, I try to be careful about the “useful and beautiful metaphor” thing, as it can too easily slip into literal belief.

  5. 7

    I very much like the idea that most woo is really just roundabout ways of figuring out what you really believe or desire. It gives you permission, so to speak, to express a truth that you otherwise might have felt uncomfortable expressing to yourself. If I have to break up with my husband or my wife, it’s hard if I have to do it – but if the universe tells me so, who am I to argue? It’s a neat trick for motivating yourself to do things you might otherwise have avoided.
    On the other hand, this trick can also be exploited to manipulate others. If I run into someone who seems to have an even better idea of what the cosmos wants of me, I’m much more likely to become a follower – even if that person doesn’t necessarily have my best interests at heart.

  6. 8

    This reminds me of the great line from “The Ruling Class,” in which Peter O’Toole plays a crazy English aristocrat who thinks he’s God. When someone (his psychiatrist, possibly) asks him “How do you know you’re God?,” he responds “Because every time I pray, I find I’m talking to myself.”

  7. 9

    The whole “everything happens for a reason” belief is generally unsupportable, but it does have its uses. Suppose, for example, that a habitual drug-user gets busted. If he thinks his arrest is merely a bit of bad luck, that would be a perfectly rational belief — but it would give him little or no incentive to take any action to improve his life. On the other hand, if he were to think “There’s a Higher Power who loves me and who arranged this bust to tell me to get sober,” that would be rather irrational — but it would be more likely to give him the energy and inspiration he needs to clean up his life. So in some cases, one irrational belief (“everything hapens for a reason”) may be needed to counter another (addictive mindset and cravings plus lack of hope or self-respect) before rational decisions can be made.

  8. 10

    Hi again, Greta!
    Thank you for the answer. I 100% agree with you. Although I like fantasy literature and movies like “The Lord of the rings”, I would never accept political decisions about abortion, sexuality, science, life and death based on the writings of Bilbo Baggins.
    But I have “read” Tarot (and I Ch’ing, and Astro Maps) many times and, in the process, have learned that the contemplation of non-verbal symbols (visual arts in general can be used with this purpose) may lead to a more creative mindset. Often, these practices helped me reveal useful hidden thoughts about my own Ice Cream cravings.
    In summary, we can’t live without Art, Poetry, fantasy and metaphor.
    If religion could limit itself to this very simple and vital function, that is, provide us with a poetic view of Nature without trying to impose it as the ultimate truth, it would spare itself from many problems, atheism included.

  9. 11

    If religion could limit itself to this very simple and vital function, that is, provide us with a poetic view of Nature without trying to impose it as the ultimate truth, it would spare itself from many problems, atheism included.
    Most religions (including Christianity) do this, but too many of their adherents don’t have the education or insight to grasp it on that level.

  10. 12

    A couple of days ago, we’d just finished lunch – my girls had had boiled eggs, sliced with an kitchen gizmo egg slicer. Having finished we had some soft kiwi fruit, and while my partner Zoe was looking on the laptop on ebay for a time-delay cat feeder, I absent-mindedly chanced upon the fact that the egg slicer would also segment kiwi fruit. Unfortunately I wasn’t really concentrating and managed to slice a chunk of skin off my thumb with the egg slice.
    About 10 seconds of bleeding later, Zoe says “look at what this person selling the cat feeder is also selling” and it was an egg slicer. And not just any egg slicer, but a Westmark Columbus Egg slicer, exactly the same 1950s vintage model I had just cut my thumb with.
    Maybe it’s a very common thing on ebay? but no, of 87 egg slicers on ebay, and hundreds of thousands of items, this was the only Westmark Columbus. Google had zero hits for “Westmark Columbus”.
    It seems inescapable on analysis of these facts that there must be an interventionist creator power overseeing my personal destiny.
    What is more in doubt is: What is (s)he trying to tell me with the egg slice gambit?

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