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Austin Cline

Everything Happens for a Reason?

By May 28, 2013

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Sooner or later, every skeptic will encounter the belief - a firm conviction - that "everything happens for a reason." You'll find this in pretty much every demographic - liberal religious believers, conservative religious believers, fundamentalists, and of course New Age believers. They all disagree on where the "reason" is coming from and why it exists, but they are equally convinced that there are reasons and that they are important.

The belief that everything happens for a reason is employed as an explanation for just about everything that happens - every good and every bad thing that occurs in people's lives is "explained" in this manner. It reinforces the idea that we are subject to forces beyond our control and should perhaps submit meekly, hoping for the best. This is a big part of what's wrong with this belief. It encourages passivity in the face of life's problems.

In Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, Ronald Aronson writes:

The most common and least recognizably weird of weird beliefs is: "Everything happens for a reason." We hear the phrase at every turn in the United States today: spouses telling why they met each other or why they broke up, one baseball player explaining why he didn't make the team, another explaining why he made the team, or anyone reflecting on a coincidence a student softening the blow of a failing grade, a cancer patient coming to grips with her illness. Good happenings or bad, personal tragedies, disasters, matters of chance, striking coincidences, enormous disappointments, the unexpected - all become rationalized as being part of a larger plan.

The maxim mixes events that have comprehensible causes beyond our control or that we produce from our own actions, with things that are pure accidents. All become the mush of a totally deterministic universe in which every last thing has a meaningful cause (but no one knows what it is) or is planned by a superhuman mind, presumably directing things for the best (and whose logic is also unknowable). Our map of interdependence is erased, with all of its specific detail supplanted by a vague and unrecognizable force or will. One's responsibility for oneself and the world dissolves into this. And those who may be held culpable, individuals and institutions, are spared any reproach for whatever goes wrong. As this low-grade sense of fate or God or whatever percolates below the surface of American life today, many of us who lack a sense of control over our lives fall back on it, as do many traditionally religious people - and so do many others.

And it cannot be completely dismissed. "Everything happens for a reason" claims, vaguely; that what we experience, but whose reasons we can't comprehend, is part of a larger pattern - which is often true. It expresses people's hunch, often quite wise, that what happens is linked to larger forces and causes than those we have been trained to grasp. And it is often a wish to see justice done, even if only ultimately; and a hope for real meaning where there seems to be sheer randomness. But the event winds up buried in a half-baked sense of destiny. Life's disappointments and absurdities, its systematic evils and unspeakable barbarities, all become less disturbing, accidents are banished, an overall order is proclaimed to govern us, and bad things only happen for a larger good. Everything, after all, is meant to happen.

But this casts things in a way that usually ends discussion rather than beginning it. A healthy sense of linkages, larger purposes, and logics and forces beyond our control might lead someone to an environmental, epidemiological, sociological, political, economic, and historical study, and yield important insight. What if we work at making this vague intuition concrete rather than recirculating empty profundities? We can often get somewhere - as long as we are willing to admit that things may be happening randomly, or for no reason at all, or for dozens of reasons. We can connect the dots if we see a discernible pattern, and we have to learn how to shrug our shoulders when they don't.

Yes, much of life happens because we ourselves have brought it about, and if we take responsibility for this and bring it into the light of day rather than assigning it to forces beyond our control, we can begin to understand our fate a little better. But also, much of life happens by chance, is inherently beyond anyone's control, and if we strengthen our ability to tell when this is happening and when it is not, we'll be better able to know when to submit and when to resist. Making sense depends on knowing when to deploy the one approach and when to give up and use the other.

It is, of course, true that there are "reasons" for everything that happens around us - so the statement "everything happens for a reason" is true, but only in a trivial sense and not in the sense that people intend it. When people say this, they mean there is some sort of plan or guiding force behind everything that happens around and to us. It is, however, not our plan and not our will behind it. This means that we don't need to feel responsible for it - not for it happening and not for changing or fixing it, if there's something wrong with it.

Sometimes the lack of responsibility can be a relief. Sometimes we really can't do anything about what's happening and being told that there's a "reason" or "plan" may help make it easier for people to deal with this. In principle, there's nothing inherently wrong with this, but it comes with the risk of preventing us from recognizing those other times when we can do something. Maybe we won't be able to do much, but we can act if we choose to do so and it would be wrong to miss the chance to affect events around us simply for the sake of some extra comfort on other occasions.

Comments
December 18, 2013 at 2:03 pm
(1) Father Lawrence of Arabia says:

“This is a big part of what’s wrong with this belief. It encourages passivity in the face of life’s problems.”

As is often seen when atheists comment on matters of faith, the claims of superficial or simple-minded acceptance that atheists make for believers is more than matched by the lack of depth the atheists possess when it comes to spirituality and the dynamics of living with a belief in something greater than ourselves.

You may be correct when it comes to the untroubled believer of all cultures but I can assure you that the greatest minds in every philosophy of religion or spiritual pursuit are almost unanimous in proclaiming the responsibility to live an active and purposeful life, leaving the results to the greater plan you that are dismissive of.

I don’t expect to change your mind about this but you really should do more research before you claim to profess an understanding of how believers live their lives. It’s so far off the mark it just makes any claims for superior understanding on the part of atheists ludicrous on its face.

January 2, 2014 at 10:07 am
(2) Austin Cline says:

You may be correct when it comes to the untroubled believer of all cultures

So, you join me in criticizing the belief in question? Then why not actually say so?

I can assure you that the greatest minds in every philosophy of religion or spiritual pursuit are almost unanimous in proclaiming the responsibility to live an active and purposeful life

Only if they reject the belief in question.

I don’t expect to change your mind about this but you really should do more research before you claim to profess an understanding of how believers live their lives.

I didn’t make any claims about how all believers live their lives. Perhaps you should work a bit harder at reading something before presuming to critique it?

It’s so far off the mark it just makes any claims for superior understanding on the part of atheists ludicrous on its face.

As opposed to you “understanding” of what I wrote?

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