Turning to the right page, the right text, at the right time.

You may have asked yourself this question many times: 'When I have a question for God, when I'm searching for an answer to a problem that is troubling me, I open my religious scripture, and there on the very first page I turn to, lies my answer. What a miraculous sign from God, isn't it?'

There are several issues to consider here.
  1. Firstly, how likely is it that there exists a passage of immediate relevance in the religious text?

  2. Secondly, how specific and relevant does a passage need to be, before we construe it as a direct reply to our question?

  3. Thirdly, if such passages exist, what’s the likelihood of our turning to one of them?
How likely is the existence of a passage of immediate relevance in the religious text?
The answer depends on the length of the text, the writing style, the subject matter, and the nature of your question.
  • Length of text and writing style:

    Religious scriptures are vast. They contain a high volume of content. A substantial proportion tends to consist of passages that, besides being beautifully written, offer words of great wisdom and advice. Such passages provide encouragement, comfort, affirmation, and sometimes, much-needed criticism.

  • Subject matter and questions asked:

    Our religious text chronicles the experiences and notable events in lives of human individuals. The range of experiences is wide- parables and accounts of intriguing incidents provide us with examples and advice on how to live life and deal with its problems.

    The fact is that the overwhelming majority of problems faced by people are not unique to particular individuals- if you're experiencing hardship, emotional turmoil, or indeed, any emotion, whether positive or negative, you can be certain that other people have faced similar situations, and felt similar depths of emotion, even if the details of their particular situation differ somewhat.

    Since human nature is a feature we all have in common, there are many pieces of advice which all of us, at some time of another, would deem directly relevant to our situation. Since other people have faced similar difficulties, it's unsurprising that at some stage in human history, these circumstances have been noted down and addressed in a religious context.

    The text in the Bible, Koran, Torah, and other such resources has been skillfully and creatively written, edited, and refined, by numerous authors over vast lengths of time. Little wonder, then, that so many passages exist, which seem to speak directly to us, and describe the issues we face in eloquent detail.

    As for the questions we tend to ask while turning to our texts for guidance- they often relate to some specific issue in our lives, such as our relationship with particular individuals, or tricky situations.
We see immediately that on many of the counts listed above, religious texts are highly likely to contain a passage that addresses our question to some extent- the texts are lengthy, they cover a wide range of subjects, and they vary in style, from authoritative and specific, to metaphorical and widely open to interpretation.
How specific and relevant does a passage need to be, before we construe it as a direct reply to our question?
The answer is, not very. The fact that certain passages of the scriptures still strike a chord with us today is to be expected.

Our minds excel at extracting information and forming connections between pieces that may be only marginally related. This ability gives rise to creativity, when used effectively, and paranoia, when taken to the extreme. When we ask questions about specific subjects, our minds are actively searching for answers, in whatever form, from whatever source available. (For more about our tendency to detect patterns and draw connections, refer to the section on Probability.)

We may (and often do) encounter information that is phrased in loose, general terms, and which does not directly address our question. Yet, our mind interprets this piece of information and makes it fit the circumstances. It’s like a sculptor moulding clay- provide us with material that's pliable enough, and we'll shape it to meet our needs.

This is why so many people read the horoscope report in the daily newspaper, visit fortune tellers, and seek psychotherapy. Even when their situation felt unique, and the information given was generic, people often come away feeling satisfied with the answers received from these secular sources.

The advice given by the scriptures and self-help books, the predictions of the day's horoscope, and the sympathy offered by your counselor- all have these characteristics in common: they're phrased somewhat ambiguously, are open to interpretation, can be applied to a wide range of situations, and are relevant to a large number of people.

Remember, too, that the wise words in our religious texts are spoken and written by people- real, articulate, sensitive human beings. They are products of the human mind. There's no reason to invoke the existence of an external god to explain their origins.

Also note that such advice is not unique to the scripture. Numerous texts, both religious and secular, provide people the world over with inspiration, guidance, and comfort. How many times have you glanced at horoscope sections (cynically or otherwise) and noticed that entries for multiple star signs could be interpreted in the context of your own situation? These pieces of writing are designed to be applicable to a wide population of readers. Claims are kept deliberately ambiguous and non-specific, and can be interpreted as the reader desires.

Many people are deeply satisfied with the scope of their religious text. Its content is wide-ranging and informative enough to cover their emotional and psychological needs. This is because it examines general principles that are broadly applicable to the majority of life’s circumstances. It might be one of the few texts, or indeed the only text, that they read on a regular basis.

However, for information which is more detailed, technical, and applicable to modern times, it'd be impossible to rely on the religious text as our sole source of information. We can't leaf through it to learn the specifics on how to mortgage our house, use software on our computer, or read the latest in international news. The content of the scripture can be applied to a limited, albeit fairly large, range of contexts, but it definitely can't answer all the questions we face while navigating everyday life.
If such passages exist, what’s the likelihood of turning straight to one of them?
Next, let’s examine the likelihood that one's able to locate a relevant-enough passage, with great speed, given that such a passage exists in the text to which one is referring.

As explained above, there're many passages in the religious text, each of which could be considered relevant, to begin with.

However, the facility with which we thumb to a relevant passage also has much to do with our human ability to deal with vast amounts of information, and extract the pieces that are essential to us. People are extremely good at storing memories and tapping into these repositories of data at the opportune time.

This occurs even while we don't consciously realise that we're absorbing and storing pieces of information. People who own vast collections of books are often able to go straight to the page they want, when they have to look something up.

This partly due to our mental capabilities, and also to the way in which information is divided into chapters and text is distributed across pages. I've often had the experience of picking up a sizeable dictionary, and opening it at the very page I am looking for (or 1 or 2 pages removed).

Our ability to estimate the locations of certain passages should not be underestimated. The writing style in different sections often varies greatly- some portions are narrative and descriptive, some consist of lists such as genealogies and commandments, some passages are gentle and soothing while others are excoriating and humbling.

A cursory glance at the pages while you're leafing through them often provides enough clues (such as the arrangement of paragraphs, annotations in margins, and sentence structure) to tell you where you are.

The Bible, for example, contains chapters such as the Proverbs, with densely-packed passages of advice, and the Ephesians, with doctrines on how to conduct oneself.

If we manage (and it's not hard) to land in one of those sections, the chance of spotting a likely candidate is high. Promising-looking content tends to spring out at us- it draws our attention and conveys the impression of being directly applicable to our situation.

Neither should we underestimate our ability to judge the location of a page, based on the thickness of the entire volume, or our ability to use our sense of touch to identify sections that we turn to most frequently. We all share the innate human ability to make precise judgments about where and how to open a book.

Frequent engagement
with the text not only aids our judgment when we’re looking for a particular passage- it also makes the document more physically accessible, through creases in the spine and notes in the margins, for example. Facility with our text applies all the more to those who read their scripture frequently.

It might seem as though the page to which you turn is ordained by God, but in reality, it all comes down to a combination of skill, coincidence, and your willingness to interpret passages in the light of your beliefs.
comments courtesy of Disqus

background image