An Atheist Considers God’s Plan

by Akim Reinhardt

Oprah quote“It's all part of God's plan.”

That's bad enough. But I go a little nuts whenever someone says: “Everything happens for a reason.”

After all, if you actually believe that we're all just mortal puppets dancing on a divine string, then there's really no point in us having an adult conversation about cause and effect.

But unlike God's plan, “Everything happens for a reason” does not suggest a deep detachment from reality, which is precisely what makes it far more exasperating than assertions of, say, childhood leukemia being an important cog in God's grand machinations.

Rather than embracing wild delusion or concocting a fantastic blend of paternal benevolence and cruelty, “everything happens for a reason” suggests a far murkier and depressing version of surrendering reality. Like the “God's plan” adage, it indicates the speaker just can't live up to the horrors of life, and is wont to soothe oneself with the balm of inevitability. But it also leads me to suspect that while the speaker is sane enough to dismiss sadistically intricate divine plans, s/he has been reduced to hiding behind the gauze of unstated and unknowable “reasons.”

Everything happens for a reason.

In other words, even the worst of it can be justified, even if we don't know how.

To say childhood leukemia is part of God's plan is to give that reason a name. Specifically, God's plan is how one justifies the horror. That's pretty awful.

But to say childhood leukemia happens for a vague, unnamed reason is to accept that it's justified in some way, but to not know what the justification is. That seems even worse.

Both proverbs, to my mind, are patently dishonest sentiments. But while I can easily dismiss the former as delusion in the face of pain, the latter reveals just enough self-awareness to anger me.

God's plan is the refuge of those who, unable to face up to harsh realities, opt for fantasy. But to recognize that childhood-leukemia-as-God's-plan is a form of lunacy, yet hide your own weak-kneed desperation behind claims of “reason,” is really insulting. It's one thing to dismiss rational thought altogether when attempting to face life's horrors. It's quite another to bastardize and mangle rational thought to create a shield against life's horrors.

Or so it seemed to me when I first considered these aphorisms.

But such a critique, while containing some important truths, is also very problematic.

One problem, of course, is that it's a bit cruel. After all, life can be a real motherfucker. It's wholly understandable that people would struggle to cope with the existence of something like childhood leukemia, especially when it afflicts and claims a loved one.

Whether seeking shelter from the storm of pain and misery in supernatural mumbo jumbo or ill-defined inevitability, that pain and misery is nevertheless very real. If someone hides behind one of these veils to help them make it through, so be it. It might be nonsense, but that's absolutely no reason to belittle or insult someone wrestling with deep anguish, or to feel personally betrayed by their approach.

The other problem with the above critique, however, is that it completely misses a fundamental truism about the saying “Everything happens for a reason.”

That maxim isn't just a middle-of-the-road crutch for dealing with emotional and psychological torment. It also reflects a much broader human inclination.

To say everything happens for a reason is to voice support for the system. It is an expression of conformity. It's a refusal to fight for fundamental change.

To understand this one axiom, perhaps it is best to call upon another: Better the devil you know.

Generally speaking, most people do not want to experience profound change. Even when things are bad, people typically don't want something radically different; they want a better version of what they already have.

As someone who thinks radical change is usually not given due consideration, I struggle to understand why people prefer the devil they know. Why so many people, no matter how bad it gets, do not take more risks.

I suspect there are probably evolutionary and neurological factors at play, but those are bit beyond my scope. There are also probably cultural and social factors at work, and I might explore those in the future. But for now, I would likGod's plane to focus on more an explanation that considers individuals: the possibility that most people fear the unknown and/or lack imagination.

I do realize that that sounds incredibly patronizing. But I don't mean it as such, and I do think it's fair, because it's not just about people's shortcomings. It's not just about what they run from and fail to do, but what they are drawn to and the faith they have.

Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. But it is also provides a sense of security. Like Linus clutching his blue blanket, people fear loss, even of that which can be readily improved upon. They cannot imagine what comes next, so they cling to the threadbare and make the most of it. They will defend what disappoints them, arguing for its lesser merits and hoping for its marginal improvement.

In one way or another they say: this thing, this not very good thing, this unreliable thing, this unsteady thing, this broken thing, this thing of betrayal, it is my thing. It is our thing. It is what we have. So please, do not make me dispense with it. Do not pull it from my grasp. Do not make us break it. It may be bad, but you are wrong. It is all we have, all we know, so let us put faith in its restoration instead of in the unknown future.

That attitude often causes me no small degree of consternation. And the frequency of my dismay only reinforces how widespread such recalcitrance really is.

When faced with circumstances ranging from the unpleasant to the dire, many if not most people will corral their sadness and anger, and steer it into calls for improving what's wrong instead of demanding that the offender be dismissed and replaced with something else altogether.

It's why they choose the Democrats over the Republicans or vice versa, instead of looking to a third party, or supporting measures to make additional political parties more viable, or advocating other more substantive changes to the political system, despite their near perpetual disappointment in the major party they do support, even when it wins. Especially when it wins.

It's how the American Revolution in some ways wasn't very revolutionary at all, but was rather a movement by colonial elites to modify the old British monarchal system by, among other things, replacing the hereditary monarch with a nominally elected president, and replacing the hereditary House of Lords with Senators selected by regional elites.

It's acquiescence. It's complacency.

It's sending your child to college when he or she would do better to wait a few years.

It's staying in that shitty apartment, shitty job, shitty marriage.

It's why people crave ideology and rules.

It's why people choose Pepsi over Coke. Or Chipotle over Taco Bell. And insist they've made a choice.

Linus from Peanuts by Charles SchulzBurmese political activist Aun San Su Kyi's famous critique of colonialism and totalitarianism is entitled Freedom From Fear. The truth, however, is that many people fear freedom.

When the possibilities are limitless, many people freeze. But when options are limited, people often have an easier time making decisions. “Do this or that” focuses people in a way that “Do whatever you want” does not. And so “Do whatever you want” becomes something to avoid, something to be feared and despised.

As recently retired NFL football player Nick Hardwick put it:

In theory, freedom sounds great. We all want more freedom. But when I retired and I had all the freedom in the world, the only thing I craved was that structure.

The expressly divine: It's all part of God's plan.
The vaguely secular: Everything happens for a reason.

At first glance, sentiments such as these are not just coping mechanisms for those dealing with real anguish. They also seem to be expressions of timidity and impotence.

Don't question it. Don't try to imagine a radically different alternative. It's already bad enough as it is, so don't risk making it worse by introducing unknown variables. Just accept it.

But such sentiments are so widespread as to make one wonder what's normal or right. When so many people eschew freedom, is it fair to label them as unimaginative cowards? Is it actually unreasonable for people to err on the side of caution?

Am I the unimaginative coward for not understanding better those who see God's plan or put faith in the haze of unknowable reasons?