Believers are wiser than they seem. At a glance, this idea, “everything happens for a reason,” seems the most absurd, sometimes offensive, wishful thinking. The Holocaust happened for a reason?! Tell me, what could God have possibly had in mind to justify that?
But, taking it down a notch, even if we decide from the outset that the universe is a big, dumb machine, devoid of intention, purpose or intelligence, we can see the wisdom in ascribing meaning to events — when we can. If I almost get run over by a car, and I happen to believe that everything happens for a reason, I can recollect my wits, take a deep breath, and say, God or the Universe or Whatever wants me to look both ways before I cross the street.
But if I’m a completely irreligious materialist, my likely response may be closer to: “The universe is throwing huge, speeding hunks of metal all over the place and is liable to kill me at any moment.” As an afterthought, I may resolve to look both ways before I cross the street, but my psychological universe is less safe after this incident, my anxiety is increased. A close call is a random event, having no intrinsic purpose, but reminding me how dangerous life is.
For the believer, as I’ve painted the example, the event actually makes the universe a more comforting place, but not in a naive, wishful thinking way. There is an implicit recognition that the next car may well run me over. But I’ve applied my intelligence and my belief to discovering how deeply the universe cares about my well-being, that it would send a car to almost but not quite kill me, so that I would be more careful in the future. I may feel shaken, but not anxious, because I feel grateful.
Objectively, the universe shows no evidence of having intelligence or intention, and things don’t happen for a reason, there is no meaning in natural events, but you don’t have to read all the existentialist philosophers who ever lived to understand that people make meanings. Believing that everything happens for a reason is not idiotic wishful thinking, it’s a skill. On the surface it’s a weird belief, but it functions to engage our creativity in the vital effort to make the universe a gentler place. The belief teaches us to find the meaning that soothes or ennobles us. And if we are challenged to find the meaning in the Holocaust or other horrific events, we don’t say, “Oops, you’re right, I was an idiot for believing everything happens for a reason.” Rather, we respectfully admit that our meaning-making skill is not sufficient to the task, but it is not an insult if we hold out the hope that a greater meaning-maker than ourselves might accomplish it.