We’re all looking for signs. Most of us are looking in the wrong places.

Notre Dame Cathedral spire collapses

A spire at the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris collapses after a fire broke out on April 15, 2019.
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A spire at the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris collapses after a fire broke out on April 15, 2019.

Many linguists argue that English has more words than other languages because English has appropriated words from many other languages.

As a writer, I am fascinated with the power and beauty of words and the precision with which they can describe the world. Two of my favorite words are apophenia and pareidolia. Apophenia is defined as the tendency to mistakenly perceive connections between unrelated things. Pareidolia is a special case of apophenia wherein people interpret a vague stimulus as something that is known to the observer as, for example, when people see shapes or faces in clouds.

All of us have experienced this in our lives, but I have noticed that people with strong religious convictions are particularly prone to these feelings. People see Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast or the condensation patterns on water towers. Of course, these perceptions are meaningless because no one knows what Jesus or Mary looked like. People are seeing an image that vaguely resembles some artist’s rendering of what these people may have looked like. We hear people relating stories about these experiences around Easter and Christmas.

One of the most common objects to which people attach significance is a cross that reminds them of the crucifixion of Jesus. Crosses are universal symbols in cultures around the world that predate the Christian era by thousands of years so not every cross image is related to crucifixion. Interestingly, the people who notice crosses around Easter ignore all the crosses that are telephone poles they see every day.

During the recent fire at Notre Dame Cathedral people saw a gold cross left undamaged by the fire and touted it as an example of a miracle. The melting point of gold is 1,948 degrees Fahrenheit, and wood ignites at 356 degrees; the maximum temperature of the fire was about 1,500 degrees so this is not miraculous.

All of these observations are good examples of something I call cheap piety. People claim to see these things because they are particularly reverent in religious matters. In their minds, this gives them the right to judge other people. This is nothing new: Jesus condemned the Pharisees for making a show of religious ceremonies without embracing the real significance of the ceremonies. The people who profess to see these visions as proof that they are enjoying some special relationship with God are exposing their ignorance of the Scriptures. Throughout the gospels, people importune Jesus for signs or miracles but he refuses and warns people that false prophets can dupe gullible people with chicanery. Faith based on signs is not faith at all, for faith is believing in things unseen.

All one has to do to see the veracity of Jesus’ words is to watch the tele-evangelists proclaim they have received special prophecies from God himself and see how these snake oil salesmen attach meaning to some insignificant sign. The fire and brimstone brigade is particularly fond of forecasting the end of the world based on some event they have singled out as propitious. A common catalyst to bring about the end of days is to invoke issues about gay rights and same sex marriages as the ultimate sins that will be the ruination of the human race.

In 1998, Pat Robertson prayed for a hurricane to ravage Orlando’s Disneyworld because it celebrated a GAY DAY. The hurricane missed Disneyworld entirely but caused severe damage to Virginia Beach where Robertson’s broadcasts originated. Robertson never explained how God got things so wrong. Given that symbols can possess only the meaning we attach to them, it seems to me as Christian, if I want to see evidence of Jesus’ teachings I should look into my own heart or in the way true Christians exemplify his teachings by the good works done in his name. Otherwise, our religious faith has no more meaning than the daily horoscopes.

Roger Guffey of Lexington is a math professor. Reach him at rlguffey1@insightbb.com.