Why do people see faces in nature, interpret window stains as human figures, hear voices in random sounds generated by electronic devices or find conspiracies in the daily news? A proximate cause is the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model. UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration. Is there a deeper ultimate cause for why people believe such weird things? There is. I call it “patternicity,” or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.
~ Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise,
by Michael Shermer (Scientific American, Dec 2008)
In my recent post If I am an Atheist, why have I kept the Bible Wheel site up? I answered that question as follows:
The main reason is because it is a rare and highly detailed record of the process of deconversion. I began this site in 2001 when I was a fully convinced believer who described himself as a “a non-denominational blood-bought Bible-believing Trinitarian Christian” (see my old FAQ). My transformation, which was a slow process that spanned a few years, is recorded in thousands of articles and posts here on my site, blog, and forum (which began in 2007 and now has about 56,000 posts). It is a very rich resource for personal insight as well as the psychology of belief. I am particularly interested in the role cognitive biases play in the maintenance of unjustifiable beliefs. This has been the focus of many of my recent articles, especially The Art of Rationalization: A Case Study of Christian Apologist Rich Deem.
Consistency is key to avoiding cognitive bias, so I try to apply the same standards to myself as those I criticize in my articles. Was I simply deluded as so many Christian apologists seem to be? This site provides a lot of raw data to help answer that question. I may, of course, find myself hoisted by my own petard. If so, so be it!
As it turns out, I have indeed been hoisted by my own patternistic petard, and I couldn’t be happier for it. I’m actually getting rather giddy debunking myself. The world brightens as blinders constricting my vision to the limits of The Pattern fall from my eyes. Belly laughs erupt as I recognize the folly of my former beliefs. This happened the other day when my wife Rose and I read some of my old writings. We laughed loud and clear for at least 15 minutes. I felt refreshed for days. It reminds me of the last scene in the movie Steppenwolf when Harry laughed along with his judges and so broke free from oppressive fantasies in the Magic Theatre of his mind.
One of the most effective ways I have found to “break the spell” of patternicity is to compare my patterns with contrary patterns promoted by other believers. Like the story of The Three Christs of Ypsilanti in which psychiatrist Milton Rokeach brought together three men who each claimed to be Jesus Christ and confronted them with one another’s conflicting claims, bringing myself face to face with similar but contrary claims helps me see that mine were not really different than theirs, especially when theirs strike me as obviously false and easy to refute (which they usually do, since they are not, after all, my patterns!). And so I free myself.
The Bible Wheel Pattern
The Bible Wheel is a powerful matrix for patternicity. History is littered with circles filled with symbols and geometric forms created by mystics entranced by sacred texts presumed to be divinely inspired. One of the oldest examples is from the ancient Jewish mystical text, the Sepher Yetzirah (Book of Formation) which explains how God created the world through “32 mystical paths of wisdom” consisting of the first ten natural numbers and the 22 Hebrew letters. The text says that God put the 22 letters “in a circle” and by them “depicted all that was formed and all the would be formed.” I was using this circle to categorize the symbolic meaning of the Hebrew letters when I noticed that the 66 books of the Bible could be displayed as three wheels within the wheel of 22 Hebrew letters. And so the Bible Wheel, a modern incarnation of this ancient concept, was born. I explain how this happened in my article Debunking Myself: What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been.
My primary claim was that God designed the entire Bible on the pattern of the Hebrew alphabet. My evidence consisted of examples of “connections” between the themes and content of the books on a given Spoke with the symbolic meaning of the Hebrew letter. As we shall see below, my claims were far from unique.
Contrary Pattern: The Mystery of the Menorah and the Hebrew Alphabet
The authors of this book make essentially the same claim as I did, with one very important difference. They condensed the 39 books of the Old Testament into 22 so they could correlate them with the Hebrew alphabet. They then claimed, as I did, that God designed the entire Bible in accordance with the sevenfold pattern of the Menorah and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Their enthusiasm was extreme, just like mine. They thought they had found patterns that proved the divine design of the Bible, and they repeatedly asserted that the pattern “fit perfectly.” For example, here are a few snippets from the Foreword to their book:
- The concept put forth in this book will give you a renewed appreciation for the divine design of the Bible.
- When we first saw this amazing truth, we were filled with a sense of God’s majesty and perfection.
- The truth of the Bible’s divine inspiration emerged with new meaning.
- The correlation matched perfectly!
- Once again, we found a perfect match!
Their claims, and the enthusiasm it evoked in them, were much like mine. They even put the Hebrew alphabet in a circle on the cover of their book. But there was one little difference – the correlations they found were between entirely different letters and books! This really disturbed me when I was a believer because it gave weight to the skeptics claim that patterns like mine could be found no matter how the books were arranged. I now see they were right. Claims of “perfect correlation” are false and misleading because they represent a tiny cherry-picked collection of “hits” from a vast ocean of misses that they ignored. It is a textbook example of confirmation bias, just like the Bible Wheel.
Contrary Pattern: The Original Bible Restored, by E. L. Martin
In this book, Ernest Martin “restored” the Bible to its “original” structure by following the pattern of the modern Tanakh (Hebrew Old Testament) and the “manuscript order” of the New Testament books. He then enumerated the books in a unique way to arrive at the “perfect” number 49 = 7 x 7 (which is so much better than 66 since that is based on the number of imperfect man (6) and too reminiscent of 666 for numerological comfort).
Martin then displayed his 49 book Bible in a symmetric chart based on the number 22 which he related directly to the Aleph and Tav (first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet). He represented the symmetry by displaying a perfectly balanced scale with the number 22 on either side. This really disturbed me when I was a believer since it directly challenged my claims concerning the uniqueness and improbability of the “divine design” I had found in the Bible Wheel. And worse, the symmetry was based on the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, just like mine! I dealt with this challenge by writing a scathing refutation (see here).
It is easy to see why believers would find this pattern convincing. Martin carefully designed it to be based on the numbers 7 and 22. He amplified the connection with the number 7 by selectively grouping his 49 (7 x 7) books into 7 divisions, much as I did when I created the Canon Wheel. We both thought that the product of our selection was “no accident.” Here is what he said (source):
This number 49 is, of course, 7 times 7, and seven represents the symbolic number of completion or finalization. One could spend many pages giving biblical references concerning the significance of the number seven. … Why are these sevens and multiples of sevens important? They show that it was no accident that the total number of Old and New Testament books came to 49 in number (7 times 7) in the enumeration maintained by the early Jewish and early Christian authorities. But there is more to it than that. There are also (as Christ taught) three divisions to the Old Testament:
- The Law,
- The Prophets, and
- The Writings’ (the Psalms) Division.
To these can be added the four divisions of the New Testament:
- The Historical Books [Gospels and Acts],
- The seven General [or Catholic] Epistles,
- The fourteen [2 times 7] epistles of Paul, and then
- the final Book of Revelation.
When one adds the three divisions of the Old Testament with the four of the New Testament, we arrive at seven divisions for the complete Bible. This seven-fold division was no accident.
No accident? No shit! Martin carefully selected the seven divisions to fit his pattern. There were many possibilities he rejected in the process. And his divisions are not consistent. He arbitrarily grouped the Gospels with Acts to create one division, but then arbitrarily divided the Epistles to create two divisions. Note also that he emphasize the number 7 in the latter while ignoring the number 5 in the former.
Martin’s selection process is particularly intriguing to me because I did essentially the same thing to create Canon Wheel. Like him, I used lots of arguments from history and the Bible to establish the validity of my selection (see here and here). Here are the divisions I used. Only two are the same as Martin’s:
- The Law (Torah)
- Historical Books (Joshua – Esther)
- Wisdom (Job – Song of Solomon)
- Major Prophets (Isaiah – Daniel)
- Minor Prophets (Hosea – Malachi)
- NT History (Gospels and Acts)
- Epistles (Romans – Revelation)
These seven divisions form a very nice pattern when displayed on the Bible Wheel. I said it revealed the “sevenfold symmetric perfection of the Holy Bible.” I considered this to be over-the-top irrefutable proof of divine inspiration. I now see it as the product of selection bias.
Contrary Pattern: The Roman Catholic Bible Wheel
When I was a believer, I thought one of the most significant features of the Bible Wheel was that it settled the centuries-old dispute between Catholics and Protestants concerning the canon of Scripture. I was convinced that the Bible Wheel patterns proved it was designed by God and so necessarily excluded the Catholic canon with its “extra” deuterocanonical books. I just “knew” there could be no pattern, but never actually bothered to check. I have now checked, and much to my surprise I found it very easy to make a Roman Catholic Bible Wheel. I simply followed the order of books as listed in the Vulgate (same as the Douay-Rheims version), and followed the tradition of counting Jeremiah and Lamentations as one to give a total of 72 books. These books can then be displayed on three wheels within a wheel of 24 spokes, corresponding to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet. Thus, Catholics can claim their Bible is “sealed from Alpha to Omega” just as I claimed that that Protestant canon was “sealed from Aleph to Tav.” Only their claim has a much better ring to it, given that the Alpha and Omega are descriptions of the divine found within the text itself and are ubiquitous in ancient Christian art and literature as seen, for example, in the Chi Rho I placed in the center:
I compare the Catholic and Protestant Bible Wheels in my article Battle of the Bible Wheels.