We’re storytellers all. We describe what happened to us on our trip. We tell about that wreck we were involved in. We wax nostalgic over our vacations. And when it comes to religion, well, everybody has a story about that, too. The story validates one’s belief, gives what seems to be a reasonable argument for the existence of a god or the truth of one’s beliefs.
But how valid are the stories? I’m not speaking only of the time you prayed for grandma and she came home from the hospital when everyone thought she was going to die. There are as many verifying vignettes as there are Carter’s Little Liver Pills.
I may have already mentioned the fellow who assured me that he knew there was a god because God told him what was going to be the next song on the radio. There are those who are in mortal danger from a gunman and they pray and are spared. There are stories of praying for rain and then being deluged with torrential rains after a drought. Surely, these tales must all lead one to believe that there is a gracious God and he cares for each and every person on Earth.
So, where’s the flaw in anecdotes? Why are they not convincing to everyone as they are to those who tell them? Is it that perhaps the person recalling the events has framed them in ways that are particularly important to themselves? If I said that I had a cat that could clearly speak eleven words of English, would someone else not have been able to make out those clear words? Am I hearing what I want to hear?
In the event of knowing what song would be on the radio next there are many explanations that are more reasonable than a magisterial God taking the time to use its powers for such trivial purposes. Those unfamiliar with radio may not know about cueing – the radio host listening to the beginning of the next song while playing another, with the studio mike not all the way off so that a listener can subliminally pick up the sound. And modern stations usually play the same songs in the same order for a period of weeks, and it’s common to “hear” the next song when we’ve heard the songs in the same order before.
Grandma got better when you prayed? The real question that should be asked is if she would have gotten better if you hadn’t. How would you be able to determine that? Which is more likely – that granny just got better or that magic was done because of your incantation?
The biggest problem with anecdotes is the irregular workings of the mind. We don’t remember things accurately. Accident witnesses will say that the same car was variably red, blue, or gray. Those stories we tell each other always sound better if we arrange them to be more interesting. It’s not that we’re intentionally being dishonest, but rather that we just put our stories together this way. Over time, the stories seem to get even better.
And of course, correlation does not imply causation. Did the person in the apartment upstairs stop making noise because you pounded on the ceiling with a broom handle, or because they were finished making noise? Did granny get better because you prayed or because of the care she was getting?
Rain is a bit difficult to predict. Does praying or doing a rain dance help? And when someone claims that they prayed and torrential rain resulted, do you suppose that they checked the weather forecast before they prayed or perhaps they left it out of the story because they didn’t want to diminish the effect that they thought prayer should have?
Anecdotes are affirming, but by their nature they must not be too closely examined. Sometimes an anecdote will be impossible to discount because no easy explanation can be made, but anecdotes depend upon what the listener does not know. Perhaps the teller does not know, either.