The view that everything happens for a reason — that the world is fair as-is — is one of the most harmful views we can have.
I’m not refuting the literal meaning of the phrase, of course. Causality isn’t up for debate here. What I’m referring to is the detached short-cutting of troubling ideas that some of us use to justify our actions. We don’t want to think about a chaotic uncaring universe, so some of us keep ourselves from letting our minds drift in that direction by believing there’s some cosmic order in place.
“Everything happens for a reason” is a display of survivorship bias that distorts a person’s subjective reality in ways that allow them to be indifferent to the suffering of others. This is especially true during the most common times when someone utters this phrase: after tragedy. Speaking the phrase “Everything happens for a reason” nearly always comes from an advantageous position. This is nothing less than an act of cruelty.
An Omniscient God that Works in Mysterious Ways
DISCLAIMER: Christianity is the most popular religion in the U.S., and it’s also the one I’m most familiar with. I will use Christian references throughout this article, but none of the problems I’ll discuss are exclusive to Christianity. Every religion has similar problems.
The hardest question for a religious person to grapple with is theodicy — “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
To those that gleefully run away with the ball, it’s not a huge leap to look at a homeless person and assume they did something terrible to deserve ending up that way. Their subjective reality is one of divine order and benevolent intent. Everything is in its rightful place and their agency in that system is to simply continue on the path they’re on without a second thought.
It’s comfortable, but is it virtuous?
The times we most often hear the phrase everything happens for a reason are when the world appears to be its most bleak. I’m sure that most of the people saying it have positive intentions, but it only serves to amplify how distant that person is emotionally from the person they say it to.
For example, someone telling a widowed spouse at the funeral that everything happens for a reason could have a profoundly positive meaning to the person speaking it. They probably intend it to mean:
- “God will take care of both of you.”
- “Everything will be okay.”
- “There are still good things in your future.”
But what the distraught person often hears is:
- “God is punishing you for something you did.”
- “I’ve secretly judged you for your lifestyle or beliefs, and this is proof that I was right and you were wrong/sinful.”
- “Because I view God as all-knowing and infallible, I’m suspicious of what you did to make Him believe you deserved this.”
- “Your suffering is part of some sadistic and mysterious plan.”
- “God did this to you on purpose.”
- “My continued belief in this deity means I’m okay with what happened.”
- “Something good will happen later that will make you glad this happened!”
- “Life goes on. Get over it with this detached platitude.”
- “It’s more important to me to reinforce my worldview for myself than it is for me to empathize with you.”
- “I feel like I should say something to you, but I don’t have a personal or unique thing to offer.”
Burdening the Burdened
Saying that everything happens for a reason in traumatic circumstances places an additional emotional burden on someone who is already at maximum capacity. The victim has to put in additional effort to stop themselves from spiraling down into the terrible thoughts that the phrase triggers.
After that, the victim must also make an effort to see someone who says this as a person they can trust again. They have to look past how what they said makes them feel and try to glean their positive intentions from it. It is selfish and tone-deaf to do this to someone experiencing grief.
If we want to say one of the positive things intended by the phrase everything happens for a reason, we can just say the intention and skip the problem phrase.
The Prosperity Gospel
“_____ is rich, so they must be great. _____ is poor, so they must be awful.”
Another reason believing that everything happens for a reason is harmful regards financial and social class.
Prosperity theology is very popular in the U.S. We see it in the lavish mega churches of charlatans like Joel Osteen every Sunday. I grew up hearing about it from televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart. They are like today’s version of the selling of indulgences by the Catholic church that spawned the entire protestant movement.
These people believe that being prosperous on Earth is proof that they are good in God’s eyes, despite the story of Jesus being almost entirely about:
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus, in Matthew 19:24
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.
And as he taught them, he said, ‘Is it not written: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of robbers”.’
The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
I believe that America is a place where this sort of philosophy takes root very easily because of the way that we’re indoctrinated into believing that we’re a free, fair meritocracy. Or as Ronald Wright (or perhaps John Steinbeck) put it, “not an exploited proletariat, but temporarily embarrassed millionaires”.
Not All Religious People
This isn’t to say that these logical leaps are inescapable. An empathetic and caring Christian might interpret things a bit differently. They may see a homeless person and feel pity or guilt, and then believe that God gave them that feeling to inspire them to act. They might donate something to that homeless person or offer them assistance in some way. They might support local efforts to improve affordable housing, public healthcare, free rehabilitation services, or food banks.
I rarely hear compassionate religious people say everything happens for a reason though. They generally realize that what happens in human society is often far from God’s intentions. And they generally feel that God acts — or fails to act — through us. These compassionate people are a credit to religion.
An Inspiring Success Story
People in power want the rest of us to believe that everything happens for a reason. It means we forgive them their sins, glorify their success, and blame ourselves for not having the same power. To buy into this idea while being advantaged (“I got where I am today because I’m better than everyone else”) is naive, ungrateful, narcissistic, and most likely false. To buy into it while at a disadvantage (“I deserve to suffer because I’m not as good”) is Stockholm Syndrome.
Possibly even more harmfully, it sets us up to pave our own roads to success to match the ways they did it. Even if that means lying, cheating, or stealing. Even when that person has purposely left obstacles behind to make it harder for others to be successful the same way they were. They are funneling others into a predictable pattern that they can exploit to keep their power and elevate themselves farther above the rest of society.
The Invisible Hand
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
Many Americans have done what religion has warned us about and deified capitalism. Imagining a powerful invisible entity that neatly organizes everything into its proper place is essentially the same as believing in a paradoxically all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful god. Believers think the invisible hand makes it so everything happens for a reason in the worlds of business and economics.
Everyone old enough to vote has dealt with terrible customer service combined with a lack of alternative options. The market victimizes consumers regularly and gives them little recourse. Our tax dollars even pay for the regulations (and lack there-of) that make us the metaphorical fish in a barrel.
Example: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and other cable providers are known for:
- High prices
- Most of the content is pure advertising. Even outside commercial breaks, there’s product placement, infomercials, sponsored content, and propaganda.
- Abysmal customer service
- Suppressing competition
Many of their customers openly acknowledge these facts. They stick around only because they have no other feasible options in their area.
Belief in the invisible hand propels monopolies and collusion between large companies in shared industry spaces. People who put blind faith in the market to correct anything wrong, elevate the fittest, and punish bad actors have done exactly the same thing that charlatans do to their followers. They have allowed the foxes to guard the hen-house.
Believing that everything happens for a reason allows us to continue to put ourselves in the jaws of foxes.
History is Written by the Survivors
“_____ won the election, so that must mean they are the best person for that job.”
“_____ lost the election, so they were the inferior candidate.”
Depending the present political climate comparative to our beliefs, these two quotes will ring true or false to us.
It’s dangerous to believe that everything happens for a reason because it makes it difficult for us to correct mistakes. We’ve all had a time when we believed that the country was heading in the wrong direction. Believing that power and prosperity aren’t attained undeservedly allows us to accept terrible things that our leaders do. It pushes us to go along with status quo. It makes us docile. Domesticated. Subservient. In a country that aims to be democratic (at least on its surface), it makes us complicit.
Forgetting the mistakes of our ancestors betrays them. It shows a willingness to erase history rather than improve ourselves. Not teaching future generations these lessons is the same as forgiving or even encouraging them to happen again.
Misinformation has been present in education since before we built the first schoolhouse. My schools taught me that Columbus was the first person to discover that the Earth was round. They taught me that marijuana was more dangerous than cigarettes. Every year public schools teach thousands of children that condoms don’t work in sex ed. These lies corrupt our future generations and foster a foundational distrust in authority and expertise.
Believing that everything happens for a reason is similar to believing that the ends justify the means. Teaching that America has always been great, that “our forefathers” were the greatest people ever, and that those in control today got there by benevolent means is extremely dangerous.
Where Does “Everything happens for a reason” Lead Us?
It leads us toward social Darwinism. It leads to garbage like “[White people / Men / Heterosexuals] are clearly superior because they’re in power.” And then “The ends justify the means.” It leads us toward war, greed, and a class-divided society.
It leads toward serfdom, where every election has only the richest among us as candidates. The political dynasties we’ve been seeing for the last few decades are just the beginning if we truly believe that those in power are meant to be there. Our democracy will turn into a pseudo-monarchy.
Many people consider themselves wage slaves today. Wait until our politicians take away our healthcare, continue to allow wages to stagnate, and make it increasingly difficult for anyone who isn’t rich to get any of the limited resources (homes, jobs, clean air/water, healthy food, essential technology, etc.) our country has left away from them.
The Reasons Things Happen
If any of us want to continue believing that everything happens for a reason, we can do so without taking agency away from ourselves and the bad actors of our society. We can believe in determinism if we so choose, but be wary of short-cutting our logic to that immediately.
If something tragic happens, we can be more compassionate, empathetic, and effective if we confront the tragedy in the present and within our grasp as a society. To say everything happens for a reason is to pass the buck. It’s tweeting “thoughts and prayers” and doing absolutely nothing else.
When great things happen, we can show more gratitude to the people around us. After an athlete wins the Super Bowl, they can thank their parents, coaches, teachers, and other people who supported them along the way instead of simply believing that God chose them to be special. When firefighters, EMTs, doctors, soldiers, or other brave human beings save someone’s life, we can be thankful to them for taking action when others wouldn’t or couldn’t.
Even if we do believe in God, we can allow that god to work through people. Being grateful and kind to God’s children is part of the gospel after all. Blaming God for preventable disasters, using God as an excuse avoid empathy, and allowing ourselves to think God will solve problems for us without any action on our part is apostasy.
Let’s Be Better
Let’s be more thoughtful about what we say to one another. We can hold the powerful accountable and take action in the real world to prevent tragedies from happening again. Charlatans don’t have to prosper at our expense if we’re willing to follow through.
Let’s be the reason good things happen.