Everything Happens For A Reason?

Just the other night at dinner with my heathen friends, a woman I had just met (who labels herself something like "nonreligious") had this mini conversation with us:

Woman: "Everything happens for a reason."
Me (to myself): cough cough... Bullshit! (I couldn't think of a nice, non-aggressive way to say this so I took another bite of my dinner)
Butch (my atheist husband): "I don't believe that it does. Think about all the bad things that happen to good people."

At which point I can't remember what happened. I think someone changed the subject.

But I get this a lot. And to be honest, it probably wasn't that many years ago that I used to believe it myself.

If you're religious, which most people are, I understand your thinking that God and Satan basically guide you, tempt you and otherwise have a hand in your life. Ok. You have a personal god who is active in your life. You are a puppet.

But when a nonreligious person says it, then I start to wonder a bit more, and of course it makes me reflect on my progress from Christian to Spiritual to Skeptical Naturalist/Atheist.

Just because someone doesn't believe in gods, it does not follow that they automatically don't believe in anything supernatural. Even though I know this intellectually (and went through that spiritual/new age phase myself after becoming an atheist), I still find it jarring.

My question to you, though is, Why? Why do think that there is an invisible force acting in your life?

Usually this expression is said optimistically. When something bad happens, someone says it to feel better. They want to believe that a bad thing happened because it will eventually lead to better things in the future. They just can't see the whole picture. But god or the universe is watching out for them and taking care of them. (Their ultimate father figure)

Occasionally, I hear this in reverse, but it's usually a little different. It goes something like this, "What goes around comes around." Which is to say that karma is a real force in the universe.

Karma is fascinating. The Universe ('Capital U' universe, now with Bonus Consciousness!) keeps a tally on every thought and action you do. Good returns good to you. Bad returns negative to you. This is very handy, and I've even heard Christians follow the principle.

So, a baby is born prematurely with a heart defect. The first 5 years of his life will be spent in and out of hospitals and surgeries. He will be lucky to live to his 8th birthday. So what do people say? "Everything happens for a reason." or "He must have been Hitler in his past life." (I actually knew a little boy who this happened to. It was agonizing to watch him suffer)

They sound like such flippant comments, and maybe they are. But if you call someone out on these "blame the victim" sayings, people will usually reiterate their belief in them.

I think part of this belief is cultural. It's so prevalent in this society, but it also fits in with what Michael Shermer talks about in The Believing Brain, that we are all prone to agency and patternicity to some degree or another. We see patterns when they are there, and even when they aren't. And we ascribe agency even when something is random.

But what is actual reality? Well, it can sound a bit cold, which is probably why most people find it so unappealing:
  • There is no evidence of gods
  • There is no evidence of the supernatural
  • There is no evidence of a soul. All evidence is that we are our brain. When the brain dies, we cease to exist. Our consciousness does not survive our death
  • There is no universal justice or karma. But humans create our own justice and morality
  • Shit happens. It just does. No one is watching over you. You are not being punished or rewarded by a supreme being for your thoughts or actions
  • Your thoughts don't leave your head except by what you say or communicate to others in tangible ways. The universe is not monitoring your thoughts and keeping a tally (several articles I've written about "The Secret is Bullshit" - see below)
  • Humans are naturally prone to Agenticity and Patternicity.
    • Agenticity: invisible agents control the world
    • Patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise
So I guess for most people, it's much more appealing to believe that someone is looking out for you. Here are two quotes that sum up how I feel on the subject:
"It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World
"Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Some people find that thought disturbing. I find the reality thrilling." Richard Dawkins
Previous articles about the Law of Attraction and The Secret:
Books that I've found useful on this subject:


  1. I just want to say that in life, your "fate" is determined by two things. Just 2: your actions and random chance. People don't like to hear that "shit happens - for real" but it is what it is. I won't ever die in a sky diving accident. Because, I never skydive (my actions). But a skydiver could fall on my head and kill me (random chance).
    Simple as that. Just Deal with it.

  2. I absolutely detest the saying that "Everything happens for a reason." It’s trite and callous, it’s an abdication of responsibility for making things better.

    There is a limited version of this that makes sense — the attitude we present to the world and the things we do are usually more likely to be reflected to us, but there’s nothing sure-fire about this. And of course our actions have consequences that can shape what happens to us, but chance is also a big element. Some of us start life with obstacles we’re absolutely not responsible for — poor, sick, unloved, etc. Saying that there is “a reason” is blithe and insensitive; hinting at karma is blaming the victim.

    Why do we do this? Sometimes it's to have something well-meaning and reassuring to say to those in distress. It may also be to reassure ourselves that everything will be all right in the long run. And more insidiously, to discharge ourselves from the moral weight of the issues.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly, Anemone!

    Yes, I was trying to keep things simple (which I probably failed at) so I didn't mention how we Do affect things with our words and actions, but only to a certain extent.

    For instance, if I meet you for the first time and poke you in the eye with a sharp stick instead of smile shake your hand, then your reaction is going to be based on my action. But, it will also be based on the kind of person You are. The variables are endless.

    Another example: if I walk around miserably moaning about everything, I'm only going to notice the negative stuff, and probably dismiss the positive stuff that happens to me. So your attitude does matter. But only really in your worldview, your perceptions of the world, not in the Universe tallying off your happy thoughts.

    Also, if you are really negative, you might dismiss opportunities that a happier person would take. Or if you are fearful, you would miss possible good things by avoiding what frightens you and anything associated with it.