Is It Fate or Mere Chance?
FATE took the lives of many and spared others,” declared the International Herald Tribune. Last year, terrorist attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed almost 200 people and injured hundreds. However, “timing blessed the embassy’s most senior diplomats,” noted the newspaper.
These were spared because they were attending a meeting in an area of the building away from the blast. But a high embassy official, who would normally have attended but did not, was in an area closer to the explosion and was killed.
“Fate also dealt cruelly with Arlene Kirk,” stated the newspaper. When returning to Kenya from vacation, Arlene volunteered to give up her seat on the overbooked flight. Other passengers, however, volunteered their seats before her, allowing her to board the plane. As a result, she returned to work at the embassy the day of the blast and was killed.
Man is no stranger to calamity. Yet, explaining tragedy is never easy. Regularly, in accidents and catastrophes all over the world, some die while others survive. It is not just in times of disaster, however, that some wonder, ‘Why me?’ Even when it comes to the good things in life, some seem to have better chances than others. While for many life is a constant struggle, for others things seem to fit into place easily. Thus, you may ask, ‘Could it be that this was all somehow planned? Does fate control my life?’
Looking for Explanations
Some 3,000 years ago, a wise king observed unexpected happenings around him. He offered the following explanation for these events: “Time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11) Sometimes the unexpected happens. There is just no way of predicting it. Remarkable events, both good and bad, often come down to a matter of timing.
However, you may share the view of those who instead of explaining things as the product of chance see the hand of another force at work—fate. Belief in fate or destiny is one of the oldest and most widespread of man’s religious beliefs.* Professor François Jouan, director of the Center for Mythological Research at the University of Paris, says: “There is not an age or civilization that has not believed in some divine master of destinies . . . to explain all that is inexplicable in our existence.” That is why it is common to hear people say: “It was not his time to die” or, “That’s the way it was meant to be.” But what is fate?
The English word “fate” comes from the Latin fatum, meaning “a prophetic declaration, an oracle, a divine determination.” While sometimes a random force is thought to determine the future in an unavoidable and inexplicable way, more often than not, this force is thought to be a god.
Historian of religion Helmer Ringgren explains: “An essential element in the religious attitude is the feeling that human destiny is not meaningless or fortuitous, but has its cause in a power to which will and intention may be attributed.” While some measure of intervention is often thought possible, many people see humans as relatively powerless pawns in a game beyond their control. Thus they ‘meet their fate.’
Theologians and philosophers have long grappled to explain fate. The Encyclopedia of Religion says: “The notion of fate, in whatever variation, language, or shade of meaning it occurs, always retains a basic element of mystery.” One thread running through the labyrinth of ideas, though, is the notion of a higher power controlling and directing man’s affairs. This force is thought to shape the lives of individuals and nations in advance, making the future just as inevitable as the past.
A Determining Factor
Does it make any difference whether you believe in fate? “The circumstances of men’s lives do much to determine their philosophy, but, conversely, their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances,” wrote English philosopher Bertrand Russell.
Indeed, belief in fate—whether or not there is such a thing—can determine how we act. Believing it to be the will of the gods, many passively accept their situation—however unjust or oppressive—as though it were their unchangeable lot in life. Thus, belief in fate undermines the notion of personal responsibility.
On the other hand, belief in destiny has motivated others in the opposite direction. For example, historians trace the growth of capitalism and the industrial revolution to a number of factors. Among them was the belief in predestination. Some Protestant religions taught that God predestines individuals for salvation. German sociologist Max Weber says: “The question, Am I one of the elect? must sooner or later have arisen for every believer.” Individuals sought to find out whether they had God’s blessing and were thus destined for salvation. Weber argued that they did this through their “worldly activity.” Success in business and the accumulation of wealth were seen as signs of God’s favor.
Belief in fate pushes some to take radical action. In the second world war, Japanese suicide pilots believed in kamikaze, or “divine wind.” The idea that the gods had a purpose and that it was possible to play a role in it added religious overtones to a grisly death. In the past decade, suicide bombers in the Middle East have often made headlines with their horrific attacks. Fatalism plays an important part in these “religiously inspired suicidal attacks,” notes one encyclopedia.
But why is belief in fate so widespread? A brief look at its origins will provide the answer.
So pervasive is the notion of fate that when a death is spoken of, often in many languages the word “fate” or “fatal” is used.