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
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
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