Everything does not happen for a reason.
One of the most pervasive metaphysical or religious beliefs in American society today is the old adage, “everything happens for a reason.” It does not even need to be articulated this clearly. You hear it implied in talk shows, soap operas, and any other form of media you run into.
Of course, the belief in this adage implies belief in some guiding order or force to the universe. For most people this is God, and for even more a specifically Christian God. But it certainly doesn’t have to be. It only requires someone to have a mildly mystical view of the universe to presume that somehow, the minute and major details of their life are ultimately guided by a larger plan book, written either by some inarticulate ghost of intelligence and energy or, by a very articulate, very large giant in the sky called God.
Such thinking is also encouraged by the tendency to supernatural thinking that all of us, whether believers or atheists, share from our biological inheritance. Humans are designed to search for patterns, because whoever could discern patterns the most quickly was probably the most likely to survive back when we were evolving into our current form on the African savannah.* However, some of us are more willing to identify superstitious thinking when we experience it, while others of course do not recognize it as superstition, but realization, often a spiritual one. An event in our lives that initially seems entirely crappy eventually leads to another that ends up quite positive – ah ha, we say, look, everything happens for a reason. Yet, we conveniently ignore all those crappy events in our lives which remain resolutely crappy, or, we chalk it up to the undecipherable nature of God that we cannot comprehend.
What bothers me is that this assumption goes against nearly all observed evidence and everything in the observable natural world. Evolution, contrary to the popular understanding of animals purposely evolving certain characteristics to adapt to certain environments, does not work through a series of purposeful alterations but is a product of completely random genetic mutation and likewise random natural selection. And as quantum physics has been arguing for a while now, atoms don’t even “happen for a reason,” – their behavior is subject to statistical chance. And putting aside science entirely, anyone with a relatively normal life of good and bad events should be able to discern that some of the pain they suffered, if not meaningless in what they took out of it, was meaningless in cause. There is no reason why someone gets terminal brain cancer and another doesn’t, at least no reason in a metaphysical or religious sense (perhaps one of these people unwisely ignored the warnings about Red Bulls and the other didn’t, but you get my drift.) And whenever huge natural disasters occur, and thousands of innocents are killed, only the far right crazies claim it was the result of an angry God – most just shake their heads, say “you cannot know the way of God,” or, don’t even consciously think about how this might challenge the preposition they also hold casually in their minds that, “everything happens for a reason.”
Yet I dare someone to go on public television and assert that this belief is foolish. Just the other day Will Smith was on TV, telling me that when bad things happen to me, it is best to capitalize on what I have to learn from that suffering, because God gave me that opportunity for a reason. While I do not dispute that it is best to make lemonade out of lemons, why does this require a divine intervention? It seems much more straight forward to say that shit happens, and all that anyone can do is try to carry on the best they can. No God required. But while I winced at my television set, Oprah of course nodded approvingly, “absolutely.” I wonder what Smith and the audience’s reaction would have been had she suddenly retorted, “That’s silly, everything obviously does not happen for a reason.”
I will end here, partly because this is getting too long and, partially because I have to think on this a little longer before I extend my argument to why it is bad for people to believe that everything happens for a reason. Emotionally, of course, this is a tricky wager; when things go well or somewhat badly, it can be comforting – there is order to the universe despite it all. But when things are really atrociously bad, and horrific things happen to innocent people, this becomes a tortuous belief, resulting in much anger towards a strangely still believed in God. Much psychological angst would be relieved, I would think, by simply giving up the idea of a guiding order to the universe and realizing that we all are in this shit storm together, for better or for worse but, not for any one particular ordained reason. It opens up possibilities and relieves us of anxieties in many ways; but of course, then you have to give up God. And for many, that is an emotional and psychological cost too high to pay simply for putting to rest the endless question of “why?”
Here is a video from PBS’s “The Question of God” which addresses this issue. I think I can trace my contemplation of this particular question to this particular video, and was also my introduction to Michael Shermer, who is at the moment my favorite of the “New Atheists.” He has a easy going humor that I think displays how happy, in fact, atheists can be; as happy as those who seek to solve the riddles of life through an obstinate belief that “everything happens for a reason.”
Go here to watch the video, a small link above the transcript — I defintely recommend the video over the transcript, as the transcript cuts out the best parts from the first three minutes:
* I steal this observation from Michael Shermer, who talks about it in more detail in How We Believe.