Faith and reason: Our lives no longer written in the stars

People grounded in this secular century will happily let ideas about fate go, writes Ian Harris. They will accept the responsibility that is properly their own.

How come you are here, living in this time and place?

Previously, I suggested the answer lies in chance upon chance over scores of millennia, producing the mystery that is you. Others, however, would put their existence down to fate or its grander cousin, destiny.

Such a view once belonged naturally within a religious view of life, flowing from the conviction in ancient times that the gods, later supplanted by an all-wise and all-seeing God, must have a purpose for each of his creatures and tribes.

Our human role was to accept whatever life served up as the gods' (or God's) will.

Success or failure in an enterprise, health or disability, death or survival after an accident, your life partner - there are still people who assume fate or destiny lie behind each of these.

Our language reflects that. We may say of a marriage that it was "meant to be". Faced with an incurable disease, most people will "accept their fate", usually because they have no option. They can then either live as positively as they know how for as long as they are able, or grow bitter at the unfairness of their fate.

Before a sick or an old person dies, we may say their life is "hanging by a thread". That taps into a fate-laden image in Greek mythology of three crones, or "Fates", who controlled everyone's destiny from birth to death. Clotho spun the thread of each person's life on to her spindle, Lachesis allotted length of life by measuring the thread, and Atropos chose the manner of death, cutting the thread when life had run its course.

Soldiers in battle face the prospect of "their number being up", or a bullet "having their name on it".

Behind those phrases lies the notion, here tipping over into fatalism, that events are beyond our control and nothing we can do will change the outcome - which sometimes will be true.

Literature is laden with fate.

Romeo and Juliet are "a pair of star-cross'd lovers". In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Hardy's "President of the Immortals" sports cruelly with Tess.

Fatalism gains religious force when people believe God has both a plan for each person's life and the means to ensure it happens. Every event, good or bad, is then seen as God's will, and the role of his creatures is to submit in obedience and humility. The more a life or event is thought to be destined, however, the more helpless each of us will feel, and the less responsible for the way events turn out.

On a larger scale, does anyone think wars and their outcomes are predetermined by God?

Or that the position of the stars influenced the wheelers and dealers whose machinations triggered the global financial crisis in 2008?

Hardly. Men in high places took the decisions that culminated in war and meltdown, and it was totally within their power to choose otherwise. In this secular age nothing, but nothing, is bound to happen because the stars or a divine puppeteer ordain it.

Humans now realise they control their own destiny to an extent unknown before. We cannot plead diminished responsibility by reason of fate, destiny or divine will.

Responsibility for human affairs, and even for the future of the planet, lies squarely in human hands.

All these modulations of fate and destiny are evidence of the basic human impulse to find meaning in our experience, and all flow from a pre-secular way of seeing the world.

They point to a hidden power and purpose, positive or sinister, behind every event.

Fate and fatalism have a negative bias, while destiny is usually more positive: you suffer fate passively, but you participate actively in your destiny. We may say it was Abraham Lincoln's destiny to save the union of American states, but it was his fate to be assassinated after the civil war was won.

Since ideas of fate and destiny depend on belief in supernatural forces and beings, it is difficult for anyone fully at home in our secular world to take them seriously - though zodiac charts, horoscopes, tarot cards and crystal balls show some people still do.

Embracing any of these implies a belief or practice for which there is no longer any rational basis, however credible they must have seemed according to the lore of former times.

Today they have shrivelled into superstition. People grounded in this secular century will happily let them go, and accept the responsibility that is properly their own.

 - Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.