Sunday, April 27, 2014

Ours Not to Reason Why

A couple of friends shared this meme on Facebook the other day, leaving me baffled.  "For no reason"?  The same people post memes like this at other times:

They're people who post stuff to the effect that God has us in his hands, that he'll never never ever abandon us, he has a plan for us and no one could possibly thwart it.  They also post stuff about how God took someone to be with him, because "He only takes the best."  (The Onion recently satirized this trope, very effectively.)  So how can they say that someone died for "without reason"?  (Which leaves aside the question why anyone who believes in immortality could possibly mourn the death of anyone.  C. S. Lewis said somewhere that there must be an afterlife, and everybody really believes in personal immortality deep down, because every culture has beliefs about it, so it must be true.  Even if that were true [and it's debatable], every culture also sees death as a bad thing, and mourns the loss of those who die, which on Lewis's logic would mean there must not be an afterlife.  If death means going to be with God and your loved ones in heaven (again, this assumes way too much), then why shed a single tear at the departure?  As Sappho wrote, if death were not an evil, the gods would die too.

It's not only Christians who believe in everything having a reason and post material pushing the notion: I have friends from non-Yahwist traditions who make the claim, and I believe some nominal non-theists and believers in science have done so.  In a tiny sense, they're right: except at the quantum level, every event comes from somewhere, so we can say that there's a reason why you were struck by lightning or won the lottery.  If your cat is killed by a drunken driver, there are reasons why: it happened because your cat stepped out into the road, and because someone was out driving under the influence on his or her way home from a basketball game.  Most people don't think in those terms, though: when someone says that everything happens for it reason, they usually seem to mean that some person-like entity intends each event for reasons of its own, usually for our instruction or to show its glory or to give another angel its wings.  They want to believe that there's intention guiding the universe, so that everything happens for a purpose.  And they may be right, who knows?  I don't think they are, but I'm more or less agnostic on the point.  I think, however, that the burden is on them to prove their belief, which they can't do.  And I find it revealing when such people flip-flop and declare that something they didn't like happened "without reason."

Alfie Kohn argued in The Myth of the Spoiled Child that many of the value-laden statements people make ("Children are spoiled nowadays" or "Children need a good ass-whooping now and then to teach them discipline" or "We simply have to trust His will) are not even meant to be statements about the way the world actually works; rather they're about how these people think the world ought to work.  I admit that my distaste for many of their values is connected to my values.  Like the character in a Peter DeVries novel, I don't find it at all comforting to believe in a Cosmic Someone who sees everything that happens but refuses to intervene (or worse, intervenes to make bad things happen).  I find the suffering in the world less upsetting if no one is behind it.  But clearly many (most?) people don't agree with me, which is their right, but it seems that their faith in their Cosmic Someone falters from time to time.