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May. 4 2009 - 9:55 am | 142 views | 1 recommendation | 22 comments

Does ‘Everything Happen for a Reason’?

A car accident in Tokyo, Japan.

Image via Wikipedia

It’s amazing to me how many people subscribe to the belief that “everything happens for a reason”. In other words, that there’s a design or hidden intent in the most seemingly random accidents that occur every moment on this planet. To adherents of this view, coincidence simply doesn’t exist. Of course, religion is the main reason that this idea has taken hold. God’s plan accounts for every stubbed toe, every fender-bender, every unwanted pregnancy. Here’s Sarah Palin, for instance, espousing this philosophy to an Indiana pro-life group:

“Every innocent life does have purpose, and there is no accident. I’m going to choose the creator’s idea of perfection over our society’s definition of perfection any day.”

Never mind that many societies make conflicting claims about the creator’s views on perfection (and whether we can know them at all), the assertion is that our fate is sealed.

Of course, not every person of faith believes in a predestined script. Belief in a higher power does not preclude the idea that, hey, accidents happen. But our desire to cobble together meaning out of chance is itself what distinguishes us from other species, and may well be the thing that gave rise to religion in the first place.

Isn’t there something terribly vain in the claim that every one of the events in our life has an unexplained meaning? Is this not why we flock to psychologists, fortune tellers, churches and the rest? There may be comfort in knowing that there’s a secret plan in place, even if we can’t have access to it. But faith in such a thing strikes me as awfully misplaced. Moreover, people often use the idea that we’re following a script that has already been written to absolve themselves of any serious engagement with what is a very confusing world. In fact, if everything is predestined, then our ability to label events in the world as good and bad takes a serious hit. After all, how can we question events like war, or rape, or child abuse when these, too, are part of a more important plan?


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  1. collapse expand

    Oh it’s even worse than this, look at what else this crowd believes:

    (http://www.creationmuseum.org/)

  2. collapse expand

    I think this sentiment is interesting because it’s not associated with organized religion (although David’s right, that it might derive from it). I think “Everything happens for a reason” (and it’s other popular form, “I guess it was meant to be”) might be the most pervasive religion in America. Even free thinkers seem to tacitly subscribe to divine reason, especially when things go bad. And I guess it’s when things go bad–in the midst of horrors like war or rape or child abuse–that people need divine assistance to locate the optimism necessary to continue participating in life and society.

  3. collapse expand

    Jeff,

    Yes, I agree that the view is very helpful during times of crisis. It’s as much of a coping mechanism as anything else.

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    I think there are sections of people who believe in God and believe that everything has a purpose, but don’t take it to the extreme of every stubbed toe being carefully orchestrated. Of course, I could be wrong about this, as I am often wrong about things. But here’s the catch-if you believe in a God who is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient (as I do), then you have to concede the point that unlimited knowledge and power can’t be explained away by finite beings. Sure, it’s easy to say “If there were an all powerful, all knowing and loving God, why doesn’t he stop wars or rapes”, but who are we to know the unknowable. Where would free will be if God interfered with every aspect of our lives.

    I won’t get into unplanned pregnancies, because I’m sure the usual posters here know that I am pro-life and I already know they disagree with me. But I think that is on a way different level than a stubbed toe.

    The very fact that God doesn’t interfere in the lives of human beings is what makes us question and shake our fists at the sky when evil permeates our lives and we wonder why God didn’t prevent something from happening, but on the flip side of that coin we are quick claim freedom from micromanaging. Just my own belief.

    I will wait for the scathing comments…don’t hold back Brian, lol.

  5. collapse expand

    The EHFAR idea isn’t exclusively religious, nor is it just a way to apply “inexplicable meaning” to the events of our lives – I argue that it’s instead an idea that is optimistic at heart (or perhaps ‘optimalistic’ is a better descriptive term).

    If one can see a particular incident – be it positive or negative, joyous or heartbreaking – and learn from it, then it follows that they can see a reason for said incident. And as long as both ends of the spectrum are accounted for, I see no reason why the EHFAR idea would need to be regulated to simple coping mechanism either.

  6. collapse expand

    Phillip,

    Thanks so much for your comment. They are always welcome here. A couple of points of disagreement (and what’s wrong with that, anyway?): “but who are we to know the unknowable?” Indeed. We know what we know, and not one thing more. You have a sense as to the amount of daily interference that God plays in our daily lives. That sense is different than mine, and different that most other people of faith, too. How would we go about knowing who is right (assuming there is a God? Your answer seems to be, we can’t know. Well, I’d posit that if God’s will is evident in stubbed toes, wars and rapes, then it is a cruel God, indeed.

    Second point, you make a distinction between stubbed toes and unwanted pregnancies. Why? Because one has greater consequences for the individuals involved? I’d say (as you can guess) that both have more to do with probability than divine intervention. Why? Because condoms are 98% effective.

    I hope this doesn’t come off as anything resembling a scathing comment, rather, a conversation about a very personal issue.

    • collapse expand

      Don’t worry David, you haven’t ever been scathing to me in response to my comments. One of the things I appreciate about you is that even though we disagree on alot of things, you are always kind and respectful when we have conversation.

      I had just written this long response to your response, and for some reason my computer decided it didn’t want to let me finish typing it and just erased it, so I will try to re-write what I was typing before.

      In reference to your first POD (point of disagreement), I wasn’t trying to imply that we can’t know what’s right. In fact, my stance on this is that it isn’t a matter of whether or not God is right, but rather that He is always right. If God is infinite and all knowing, all powerful, and all present, then how can I, a finite being, know how He thinks. My take is that since God can see the broad spectrum, whereas you and I are limited in our perceptions based on what interacts with us, how can we see the big picture? How can we even really accuse God of being cruel if we can’t see how everything affects everything else, either as it happens or over the course of history? Wouldn’t you say that war, however horrible, was necessary for the birth of our country?

      In reference to your 2nd POD, I think we are coming to two different conclusions based on the same facts. The facts are that 2% of the time condoms are ineffective, and that there is a probability that I will stub my toe because I am clumsy (not a metaphor, I actually am clumsy). But I see life beginning at conception, and that’s the difference. An unplanned (and in some cases unwanted) pregnancy isn’t just a part of ones body that is affected by a non-functioning condom-it is a baby who has the same rights as anyone else. Whereas when I stub my toe it affects only me, when the sperm and egg meet it no longer is just the man and woman who are affected. So while I don’t believe God causes people to have unplanned pregnancies, I do believe that He lets this happen because it is a consequence of an action (I don’t necessarily mean consequence in a bad way, but rather as a cause and effect way). It is both probability that I stub my toe and that there is an unwanted pregnancy, and it is probability that 2 out of 100 condoms will be less than effective, but once the pregnancy happens there is an additional life affected by probability. Of course that’s where we differ in our perspectives I suppose.

      In any event though, I hope this makes sense. It’s been a long day, and the first response that got deleted took a lot out of me, lol.

      By the by, I did want to ask your opinion about something: since you have told me before that you don’t believe there is a God, do you believe we are here by chance? Maybe this is topic for another thread…

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand

    Joseph,

    I think you have a cart before horse argument going on here. To have an experience, and then to learn from that experience, is not the same as that experience being predestined for you to learn from.

    While I like the spirit of how you read EHAR, I’m not sure that this is the way the vast majority of people use it. If I’m wrong, then I should clarify that I’m talking only about those people who see specific meanings lurking behind seemingly random events.

  8. collapse expand

    In my opinion, “Everything happens for a reason” is an hommage to reason. “It was meant to be” is an hommage to faith.

    Neither needs to be seen as a crutch used in weakness, or an excuse used by people who can’t think something through logically or who are consciously humbled by what they don’t fully comprehend.

    These phrases are often in play when we reach the limits of what we understand, and don’t necessarily have anything to do with either religion or magical thinking or determinism.

    Organized and structured religion, quite different in my opinion from these placid homiles, is a commitment to living by prescribed rules in order to learn more than you would without them.

    If members of religion abuse this commitment, and in my experience most do, that actually has no bearing on the religion’s ideals, but is instead a history of how it played out in real terms in real time.

    The conflicts between the real and the ideal turn up every day, everywhere, and these two phrases, especially the one you chose, David — “Everything happens for a reason” — is, in my experience, a way to gracefully end a conversation that never truly ends.

  9. collapse expand

    Vicky,
    Thank you for your very interesting comment. Not sure I really agree with your take. I have no problem with people who are humbled by what they don’t understand (in fact, I applaud them) but it seems to me that positing an as-yet-unexplained reason for the unknown is not really such a great accomplishment. Isn’t it more humble to say, “I have no idea if there’s a reason behind x or y”? And just because someone claims to that there is must be a reason behind sad events (or happy, for that matter) isn’t really a testament to reason itself, rather, it’s a faith in the possibility thereof.

    If you mean that people use these expressions in an off-the-cuff way that they don’t really take to heart, sure, I agree. But I have also experienced EHFR in terms of true belief, just as Sarah Palin employed it.

  10. collapse expand

    What if God shares God’s power with each of us as Christian doctrine would say God does through God’s omnipresence? Then what we do influences God’s will, doesn’t it?

    More specifically, though, as I learned from the priest in the movie, “Rudy,”
    “God is God; and I am not.”

  11. collapse expand

    David,

    One of my least favorite things I have ever heard is “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Just because I survived a string of seemingly random acts that were unpleasant with the knowledge there are a couple more on the way, my ego refuses to believe God would do these things to me at all. It is said to console, I believe, and implies I am so remarkable that God has singled me out for the burdens I’ve endured in the last year because I can handle it.

    I can’t and mere survival doesn’t exactly fill me with love and gratitude for God or the person who is misguidedly trying to be helpful. I’m not particularly brave at this point in my life and I don’t find it reassuring that I seem to have survived so much. If nothing was just coincidence, I don’t think I could or would go on…I don’t think all this crap the last year was predestined. My belief in God is far from traditional and I am certainly not on the cutting edge of any religion. If I never had my spiritual awakening with my cat, Maxine, I’d probably be an Atheist. But, no matter how hard I try, I can’t undo that one moment of seeing her perfection and knowing there was a God. Today wasn’t the best day and I know I sound more bitter than anything, but it was the day I had. I can’t be happy and funny every second…well, not sober anyhow.

    Sandy

  12. collapse expand

    If everything happens for a reason, does that mean God is a North Carolina Tar Heels fan?

    Actually, I’m only partly joking. This discussion reminds me of athletes pounding their chests, pointing to the sky and “giving all the glory to God” after winning games. As if some higher power had actually chosen one side over another in a sporting event.

    The stubbed toe argument, indeed.

  13. collapse expand

    The usage is a little different, I think, Viv, and in an important way: If everything happens for a reason, then Michigan State lost the championship because God has bigger plans for them. Or, here’s an even better example: the Depaul University Blue Demons, who were 0-18 this year, are perhaps the team most likely to go home thinking, “well, everything happens for a reason.”

  14. collapse expand

    Jeff,

    Agreed. Don’t get me started on the “God’s on our side” topic.

  15. collapse expand

    Phillip,

    I wouldn’t call it “chance.” Rather, a series of events which led there to be life on Earth that had no real conscious underlying reason.

  16. collapse expand

    Rachel,

    What about it? If you mean that we, as human beings, often have subconscious motivations for our actions, then, yes. If you mean that our sub-conscious is programmed or controlled by a higher being, no. In my humble opinion.

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    I've published two novels: The Secrets of the Camera Obscura (Chronicle Books), and The Third Eye (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). I'm currently working as a journalist for AOL's Sphere. For the past three years I also spouted political opinion for AOL's Political Machine, which I also helped edit. My non-fiction has appeared in places like Men's Vogue, The Wall Street Journal Magazine, USA Today, Newsday, Travel + Leisure, GQ (Spain), and Vanity Fair (Italy). I've dabbled with short stories, publishing in Nerve and a few small journals.

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