Imagine you have just visited the doctor and have been diagnosed with a highly fatal disease.
“Give it to me straight, doc,” you say.
“Well, your chances are not good,” he replies. “This disease has a 99% fatality rate. You have a 1% chance of survival.”
Then, a few months later — miraculously — you survive!
Inexplicably you just get better, and the miracle of your recovery affirms your faith in God… I mean, why not? You only had a 1% chance of survival — and you survived!
But what does a 1% chance mean? Consider it this way, in college I had courses with more than 100 students. Statistically speaking if everyone in my class had this disease, one would survive. His or her survival would have nothing to do with gods or miracles; it would be a matter of math. Of the 100 people in my class, we would expect one to get better; it would be a surprise if one did not.
Now, if the whole world contracted this disease and it killed 99% of the world’s population, there would be 65 million people left (about the population when Homer wrote the Odyssey).
Considering that the odds of winning the Powerball are 1 in 146,107,962 (like recovering from a disease with a fatality rate of 99.9999993%), and considering that every few weeks or so, somebody wins (again, I assume this is without divine intervention — unless the Lotto folks have contracted with God to perform 10-20 miracles per year), then why would we ever call a 1/100 chance a “miracle”?
We really set the bar low for classifying something as miraculous. I often hear childbirth called a miracle, but the odds of carrying a baby to term are actually with us, not against us… I mean, wouldn’t the miracle be if pregnant women overwhelmingly were not having babies? If pregnant women didn’t give birth, our very existence would be… er… well, a miracle!
We are such suckers for coincidence or any old semi-rare occurrence that we leap to call such things miracles. People greedily grab onto the slightest incongruence or randomness that our lives offer and hold it up as evidence of God or fate or purpose or a plan or I don’t know what… but isn’t it all a bit silly?
Don’t get me wrong. If the doctor said I had a 1 in 100 chance of survival, I would resign myself to dying and be pretty bummed out about it. And if I should live, I’d consider myself one lucky bastard… but the recipient of a miracle? No, I don’t think so…