“Everything happens for a reason.” I’m sure you’ve heard these words as often as I. The best I can say for the phrase is that it is usually meant to comfort someone who’s experienced a bad turn of fate. (OK, I admit “fate” is an unfortunate choice of words for me.) Life is fraught with ups and downs, so I suppose you could make a case that since ups follow downs, a down is the only way to get to the next up!
However, there is normally more meaning invested in the phrase than a word picture of a line graph. There is a sense that the down is “caused” by (or dragged into the future by) the up that requires the down to have come first. The uncomfortable or painful down is a prerequisite, that is, its reason for existing is derived from that which follows it.
The religious version, “God has a plan for my life,” is quite similar, but goes further to give a divine origin to the sequence. In the religious usage, that which follows may not be an up, but does have value in that it fulfills divine purpose. Non-religious persons who maintain that everything happens for a reason rarely notice how much their teleology is like a religious pronouncement. More than they realize, they are being religious without being religious.
The problem in either phrase is its basis in teleology, the practice of explaining an action or circumstance by citing what it becomes, is expected to become, or inexorably leads to. It is the ascribing of purpose by reference to some end-state. Much of life can be described as first this happens, then second this happens, then third this happens, then fourth this happens, and so on. What happens fourth may well be a result of what happened third; that is not teleological, but simply cause-effect. However to say first this happens because second has to happen later, then second happens because third has to happen later, and so forth is teleological, more-or-less an instance of effect-cause.
Frankly, religious people are more disclosing about their teleological thinking. They invoke a named supernatural cause which has an end in mind and the power to assure that whatever course is taken, the assumed path reaches the desired end. Non-religious people base their teleology on unstated and unnamed spiritual forces whether or not they are explicit about it, as if the universe in general has purpose.
But wait. Isn’t it true that each stage in a construction project is a step on the path to a completed project? So how can I accuse teleology of resting on supernaturalism? When a demonstrable purpose exists (for example, as stated by a designer), teleology refers to the “pulling” factors that guide the rational arrangement of components necessary to fulfillment of that purpose. People can form purpose; construction components cannot. A horse can form purpose (albeit less complex than humans); a tree cannot. To say the universe has purpose is to vest the universe not only with the ability to purpose but the power to promote and cause a path of action.
In expressing that everything exists for a purpose or that my life has a purpose (though I might not know it yet), I will have claimed that there is a purposing actor of some sort—identified as God in some cases or as an unseen force in others; both of these are essentially religious claims. To be assured that everything happens for a reason is to believe that some external power is exercising control.
So what is the alternative? Simple. Everything does not happen for a reason. In fact, nothing happens for a reason beyond the purpose we give it—which essentially nullifies the statement. We are freer than our supernaturalism and spiritualism want us to believe. For if the universe or a god is not in charge of our lives, then we ourselves must be. It is one of the tragedies of religious thinking that a universe lacking supernatural controllers is felt as foreboding and unprotected, that we are insufficient to the opportunity of forming our own lives. “Everything happens for a reason” is merely superstition.
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