“Everything happens for a reason”: Atheism and Learning from Mistakes

I’m not sure when I started noticing this turn of phrase. But I think it was during one of our Project Runway marathons. When designers lose a challenge and get kicked off the show, roughly half of them say something along these lines:

“Obviously I’m disappointed… but I think everything happens for a reason.”

And it’s driving me nuts. Not just when I’m watching Project Runway… but all the time. Whether it’s presented in conventional theistic terms — God has a plan for us all — or in more vague, woo terms — X happened because it was meant to happen, it happened to teach me a lesson, I guess the universe is trying to tell me something — it still drives me nuts. (I think it drives me especially nuts because I used to believe it myself, and I’m always more irritated with irrational beliefs that I used to hold myself.)

I mean, in the most literal sense of the words, of course everything happens for a reason — if by “for a reason” you mean “as a result of cause and effect.” Earthquakes happen because of shifting plates in the earth; I got pneumonia because I got bacteria in my lungs at a time when I was physically vulnerable; designers get kicked off Project Runway because the judges don’t like their designs. And since every effect has its own cause, you can trace that chain of cause and effect almost as far back as you like, until you run out of either knowledge or patience.

But that’s clearly not what people mean when they say that everything happens for a reason. They mean that everything happens for a purpose. They mean that everything that happens has intention behind it. They mean that earthquakes and illnesses and getting kicked off reality shows are part of a plan, either a conscious plan of God or an unconscious plan of some vague Fate or World-Soul or Universe… a plan to teach us lessons, or to point our lives in new and fruitful directions, or to give us things we need and don’t find it easy to accept.

And it bugs me.

It bugs me for the obvious reason: I think it’s mistaken, and I think it’s a mistaken idea that does more harm than good — if for no other reason, simply because it is mistaken.

But it also bugs me because I think it hinders the learning process. It gets in the way of learning from your mistakes. It’s not like every bad thing that happens to you is a result of your mistakes, of course. But if you think that every bad thing that happens to you happens because it serves some larger purpose, how are you going to figure out which bad things are things you could have avoided, and could avoid in the future? How are you going to have a clear perspective on which parts of your life are things that you caused, which are things that other people caused, and which are just accidents that nobody could have any control over?

And it’s so unnecessary. I understand that “Everything happens for a reason” is often a way of saying, “This happened so I could learn from it.” But it’s completely possible to learn from our mistakes and failures and pain, without believing that someone or something made those mistakes and failures and pains happen, on purpose, in order to teach us a lesson. In fact, it’s not just possible — it’s easier. What with the clearer perspective on cause and effect, and all.

More on all that in a bit. I think there are a few basic processes driving this kind of thinking, and I want to take a quick look at them all so I can take them apart.

1. False perception of intention. The human mind has evolved — for very good evolutionary reasons — to see intention, even when no intention exists. Michael Shermer talks about this in How We Believe. Example: When shown triangles moving about on a screen, people tend to describe the action as the triangles “chasing” each other or otherwise acting with intention… when in fact the pattern was completely random.

2. Rationalization. Saying that “everything happens for a reason” can be a great way to evade responsibility when the “everything” that happened is, in fact, your fault. “Yes, I didn’t study and I flunked chemistry and now I can’t go to medical school… but everything happens for a reason. I guess I wasn’t meant to go to medical school. I guess I was meant to repair VWs and grow marijuana.”

3. Saving face. This is a lot like rationalization, except that it’s less about making a good excuse that you yourself can believe, and more about not wanting to look like a loser in front of others.

4. Wanting to find meaning. This one I have more sympathy with than any of the others (although I actually have at least some sympathy with all of them). Believing that everything happens for a reason is a way to make the lousy things that happen in your life feel like they have some meaning. If you can convince yourself that there’s some Greater Purpose to getting laid off and your car breaking down… well, some people find that more comforting than thinking that Sometimes Shit Happens, with no purpose or function. (I sure don’t, but that’s another post.)

So let’s take a look at these.

1. False perception of intention. Not sure what else I have to say about this. Again, the human mind has evolved to see intention even when none exists. If we see our lives as shaped by some external guide, when that guide doesn’t really exist, it skews our ability to see how we affected the situation ourselves… and what we might do in the future to make things turn out differently.

2. Rationalization. I get that we all rationalize our mistakes and failures. And I even get that rationalization is psychologically necessary, to let us make decisions and live with them and not have dark nights of the soul every night. I just think that “Everything happens for a reason” is a particularly pernicious rationalization, one that mucks up the learning process and creates a passive approach to life. Try some other rationalizations instead. “I was having a bad day,” “I didn’t understand the instructions,” “I guess you can’t please everybody”… these are time-honored rationalizations that let you sleep at night without convincing yourself that your mistakes and failures are all part of someone’s brilliant master plan.

3. Saving face. Again, I get it. You flunk out of chemistry or get kicked off Project Runway; you don’t want to look like a loser in front of your friends and family and millions of strangers. But again, there are better ways to save face than the “Everything happens for a reason” trope — ways that don’t encourage passivity and get in the way of learning from mistakes. The losing “Project Runway” designers who didn’t say, “Everything happens for a reason” had some excellent ones. “I’m sorry I lost, but I’m proud of my work, and I wouldn’t have done it differently.” “This week’s challenge was hard for me, and I didn’t do my best work — I’m just sorry I didn’t get a chance to show the world what a great designer I am.” And my personal favorite: “I learned a lot from this experience, and I’m going to come out of it a better designer.”

4. Wanting to find meaning. And again, I get it. Mistakes and failures and pain… well, they suck. Believing that they have meaning can help make them suck less. But I think there are far, far better ways to get meaning from your mistakes than, “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s completely possible to learn from our mistakes and failures and pain, and to weave them into the meaning of our lives, without believing that someone or something outside of us made those mistakes and failures and pains happen, on purpose, in order to teach us a lesson.

It seems to me that the “Everything happens for a reason” philosophy is kind of a passive one. It’s a philosophy that sees the plan for your life — and the meaning of that life — as belonging to someone other than yourself. It’s a philosophy that looks out in the world for signs and clues about what you should be doing, instead of looking at yourself and your own life.

And it’s a way of avoiding responsibility — not just the obvious responsibility for your mistakes, but responsibility for the desires you have and the choices you make. Saying, “I guess I wasn’t meant to go to medical school” means you don’t have to say, “I guess I don’t actually want to go to medical school,” or, “I guess I screwed up my chances of going to medical school.”

Or, for that matter, “I guess if I want to go to medical school, then I need to make some serious changes.”

I remember this vividly from my own woo days. The number of times that I said to myself. “I guess I was meant to do X,” or, “I guess I wasn’t meant to do Y”… it’s embarrassing to think of it now. I was meant to live in San Francisco, and to work for On Our Backs; I wasn’t meant to stay in my first marriage, or to go to nursing school.

It would have been a lot more honest for me to say, “I guess I really want to do X,” or, “I guess I really don’t want to do Y.” But it was so much easier to interpret the successes and failures of my life, and the happy and unhappy accidents, as signs and symbols from a benevolent spirit guiding me to my path, then it was to think of them as my own damn choices intersecting with random chance. The benevolent guiding spirit of the universe seemed so much kinder and more thoughtful than the indifference and stupidity of random chance; and it seemed about a thousand times smarter and wiser than I knew myself to be. It was a belief that let me avoid taking responsibility for my choices and desires — and the ways that they shaped my circumstances and opportunities — without feeling like a piece of paper being blown about by the wind.

But I can’t believe it any more. The evidence just doesn’t support it. And letting go of that belief has made me both more responsible and more accepting. It’s like the atheist version of the Serenity prayer. Letting go of thinking that everything happens for a reason has helped me have more courage to change things that I can, more serenity to accept things that I can’t, and more wisdom to know the difference.

“Everything happens for a reason”: Atheism and Learning from Mistakes
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20 thoughts on ““Everything happens for a reason”: Atheism and Learning from Mistakes

  1. 1

    Or, as my GF likes to say, “It sucks being an atheist: you can’t blame anyone for what happens to you.”
    I’ll also add that in the phrase “Everything happens for a reason”, the reason is assumed to be a good one, i.e., it’s not just God messing with you because he’s a dick.

  2. 2

    Ah yes, “everything happens for a reason” is one of my pet hates. It drives me crazy, that one. I think it’s – at leats sometimes – a dangerous delusion.
    Yet another beautifully-written post. Good to see that your writing at least is fully back to its best.

  3. 3

    I have been on the “shit happens” crusade for years.
    This nonsense (something happens for a meaning) gets trotted out especially when someone dies (and even more so if I child dies). Some people, for reasons that escape me, seem to take solace in the phrase “God did it” rather than “It is no one’s fault, it just happened.” To me that makes no sense.
    Worse of course is the “God needed a new flower in his garden (or an angel or whatever)” level of crap. This just means that God is a selfish asshole (were such a thing actually to exist) who can’t wait his turn for the company of the dead person even though he is going to get them for eternity after they die anyway.

  4. 4

    In 1995, the woman I was engaged to broke up with me because she became convinced, through a number of irrelevant happenstances and a scary dream, that we were not “meant” to be, and that she was displacing my “destiny” with a much better woman by being with me.
    I think we would have broke up anyway, eventually, and for different reasons. However, the really bad thing is I had to watch as the same kind of magical thinking led her down a life path that she just plain didn’t take any control over: A failed marriage, three unwanted children, no education, and no child-support.
    At each and every stage, the same kind of thinking: I won’t use protection and I’ll only get pregnant if it’s “meant to be”. I won’t sue for child support, and if he choses to pay, it’ll be because it’s “meant to be” etc.
    It drives me nuts: An IQ of 195 and SAT scores that would have given her a free ride at most universities, and her life has crashed into a ditch because there was no one at the wheel.

  5. 5

    This one drives me nuts. There’s just nothing to be gained from viewing everything as driven by a purpose, and a lot to be gained from examining the causes of what happens.
    I’ve made some mistakes in the last few years that negatively affected my ability to go to grad school, but by taking responsibility, both for making the mistakes and for fixing them, I think I’ve come out ahead.

  6. 6

    Oh, man, am I familiar with the extra-level annoyance with things that I used to believe and now find silly. It’s not just that I don’t believe in a god or spirits or anything like that anymore, it’s knowing that I tried desperately to do so, once. It fills me with the same teenage anxiety that made me seek out and try such woo the first time, just thinking about the woo now. Ugh.

  7. 7

    Great post. I would add that this line of reasoning is used in some churches/denominations to keep believers in line. People should stoically accept whatever shit is shoveled at them because God is teaching them humility, making them stronger, etc. It’s a nasty piece of manipulative rhetoric.

  8. 8

    I can accept that people might use this slogan to comfort themselves when things in their lives are bad. But what I find truly exasperating, and insensitive, is when it’s turned outward – and the well-meaning (or maybe not well-meaning) believer tells *others* that their misfortunes are the result of a cosmic plan we fail to grasp, that everything was meant to happen as it did even if we don’t see the reason.
    No! There is no plan! When ten thousand people lose their lives in a mudslide or an earthquake, or a thousand are killed by a terrorist attack, there is no higher reason. It’s not just false, it’s absurd and offensive even to say so. What sort of message does that send the grieving survivors, that the deaths of their beloved were foreordained? It’s a travesty to suggest that such an evil could ever be justified, no matter what good might come out of it.
    In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, there’s a scene where the skeptical Ivan tells his brother Alyosha that the suffering of innocent children is too great an evil to countenance for any reason – that not even some future divine harmony would be justified if it cost such a high price to bring it about. That’s a far superior attitude, in my view. Evil just happens, and it’s futile to try to divine a deeper purpose behind it. We should be rolling up our sleeves and doing what we can to help, and to hell with hidden harmony. It may not sound comforting to believe that evil is often senseless, but in the long run, adopting that attitude will give us a far better motivation to end it.

  9. 9

    Try some other rationalizations instead. “I was having a bad day,” “I didn’t understand the instructions,” “I guess you can’t please everybody”… these are time-honored rationalizations that let you sleep at night without convincing yourself that your mistakes and failures are all part of someone’s brilliant master plan.
    Yes, but that doesn’t have quite the same punch as ‘The Universe hates me.’
    False intention that I don’t believe in, here I come.

  10. 11

    Instead of “everything happens for a reason”, how about “I can create a reason/purpose, if I need to, out of anything that happens”? I think it makes sense to stop seeing your life as a story written by God or Fate and start seeing it as one you write yourself. There are contraints put on you by what happens to you, of course, but you have some power over what happens — and you have *ultimate* power over the meaning you choose to give it.

  11. 12

    Jebus Greta you’re a fucking goddess with the critical thinking and rationality whatnots. I’ve HATED this phrase for a long time too but could never articulate it nearly this well. My parents use it all the time and it drives me crazy. All I can ever think of to respond with is something like “really. interesting. I wonder what the reason was for ~4,000 kids dying today of simple, fully preventable starvation was then.”

  12. 13

    I think you are forgetting one meaning of the phrase (which is how I use it): “I sure know why it happened and could kick my own ass for being that stupid but I sure as heck won’t share with YOU!”

  13. 14

    Excellent post as usual, Greta — highly cogent. This phrase is a pet peeve of mine as well, and it’s good to see it get a proper thumping. I have always seen it as little more than a claim of victimhood — even if it’s often a willing victim.
    Whenever someone says something of the sort to me, I usually respond with something like, “Yes, and you know what that reason is? Hydrogen. Ultimately, that’s what it all goes back to.” I could say “The Big Bang,” of course, which would probably be more accurate, but “hydrogen” tends to get more satisfyingly confused looks when I say it!
    ~David D.G.

  14. 15

    On the one hand, I agree with every word of this, most especially the monumental irritation with every variation on the offending “everything happens for a reason” concept. On the other hand – and isn’t there always another hand – everything DOES happen for one unifying, meaning-giving reason: The Universe hates you. It’s out to destroy you. It wants you dead… and someday, it’s going to succeed.
    I’m not a raving paranoid (he says, adjusting his foil hat). I’ve just found a certain peculiar solace in the recognition that the universe is, on the whole, overwhelmingly inhospitable to life as such. Every individual life is a struggle against entropy, and every such struggle eventually fails. “Shit happens” captures the essentially uncaring quality of the universe vis-a-vis our insignificant selves, but it doesn’t really capture the full reality that eventually some of the shit that happens is gonna kill you. But it will. And, oddly, everyone I know who faces that reality fully and honestly seems to be a happier, more vibrant person for it.
    For myself, I find that embracing mortality – really, truly knowing that the universe is out to get me (oh, not me personally, but me as a living creature) – helps me keep a certain… perspective. Every moment of joy and pleasure is wrested from a universe that grinds inevitably on towards my demise. Every life I touch, every lesson I pass on, every student I influence is me touching and shaping the future beyond my own inevitable demise. Every moment of my life embodies some spark of wild chutzpah that I can only describe in metaphors: I particularly remember a 70s t-shirt with a cartoon of a massive eagle descending on a hapless rodent who looked it in the eyes and flipped it the bird: I kind of feel like that every day. Or at least I feel like that on all my BEST days.
    It’s me against the universe, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sure, I’ll lose eventually; but I aim to make a lot of noise going down, and pass my fighting spirit on to as many as I can…

  15. cl

    nice post greta. this is exactly how i feel about the unscientific, presumptuous phrase “you only live once.”

  16. cl

    @ Colin:
    No, it wasn’t a joke, but rereading it I could easily see how it comes across that way! I’d better learn to be more clear or Greta’s going to ban me from here.
    What I mostly meant to attack was the presumptuous aspects of that phrase, which parallel the presumptuous aspects of the phrase Greta addressed. I don’t think anyone can say empirically whether we only live once, or whether everything happens for a reason.
    on the other hand, the fact that all people seem to be born, live and die is of course very scientific and in perfect accord with what we observe in actuality.
    I just meant that science is not at liberty to say whether we only live once or whether everything happens for a reason. Those are questions for religion and metaphysics.

  17. cl

    Man, am I blowing it. My above comment should have begun:
    @ Oolon
    My dislexic tendencies made me see “Colin” – sorry!

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