Why is belief in fate so widespread?

A picture of bombed buildings.

Fate in real life

"Fate took the lives of many and spared others,” declared the International Herald Tribune.

The year was 1998, terrorists attacked 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.

Human's are no strangers 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?

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 human’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.”

Fate definition

A picture of fate of humans.

What is the meaning of 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.

Does it make any difference whether you believe in fate?

English philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote:

The circumstances of men’s lives do much to determine their philosophy, but, conversely, their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances,”

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.

But why is belief in fate so widespread?

A brief look at its origins will provide the answer.

A widespread belief

Picture of tarot cards.

WHY is belief in fate so widespread?

Throughout the ages, humans have sought to unravel life’s mysteries and to find some purpose in unfolding events.

Historian Helmer Ringgren explains:

It is here that the categories ‘god’, ‘destiny’, and ‘chance’ enter the scene, depending on whether the events are derived from a personal power, an impersonal order, or no order at all,”

History is replete with beliefs, legends, and myths relating to fate and destiny.

Assyriologist Jean Bottéro says:

We are largely formed in all aspects of our culture by the Mesopotamian civilization, it is in ancient Mesopotamia or Babylonia that we find “the oldest perceptible reactions and reflections of mankind on the supernatural, the oldest identifiable religious structure.”

It is also here that we find the origins of fate.

According to French scholar of ancient civilizations Édouard Dhorme,

as far as we go back in Mesopotamian history, we find the soothsayer and the idea of divination.”

Divination was an integral feature of life.

Indeed, Professor Bottéro says that,

everything could be considered as the possible object for examination and divinatory deduction . . . The entire material universe was taken as the evidence from which the future could in some way be extracted after a careful study.”

The Mesopotamians were thus fervent practicers of astrology as a means to predict the future

In addition, the Babylonians used dice or lots in divination.

In her book Randomness, Deborah Bennett explains that these were to,

eliminate the possibility of human manipulation and thereby to give the gods a clear channel through which to express their divine will.”

However, the decisions of the gods were not considered to be inexorable. Help to avoid an evil fate could be had through an appeal to the gods.

In the 15th century B.C.E., there was extensive contact between Babylonia and Egypt.

Religious practices connected with fate were included in the cultural exchange that ensued.

Among the many Egyptian gods, Isis was described as the “mistress of life, ruler of fate and destiny.”

The Egyptians also practiced divination and astrology.

One historian says: “Their ingenuity in questioning the gods was without limit.”

Egypt, though, was not the only civilization to borrow from Babylon.

Among the ancient literary styles were the epic, the legend, and the tragedy—in which fate played a key part. In Greek mythology, man’s destiny was represented by three goddesses called the Moirai.

Clotho was the spinner of the thread of life, Lachesis determined how long life was to be, and Atropos cut off life when the allocated time had expired.

The Romans had a similar triad of gods whom they called the Parcae.

Ideas about fate, though, are by no means limited to the ancient world.

Revealing their belief in destiny, many Muslims say “mektoub”—it is written—when faced with disaster.

While it is true that many Oriental religions emphasize the role of the individual in personal destiny, there are, nevertheless, notes of fatalism in their teachings.

Karma in Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, is the inescapable destiny resulting from acts in a previous life.

In China the earliest writings discovered are on tortoiseshells that were used in divination.

Fate also formed part of the beliefs of indigenous peoples in the Americas.

The Aztecs, for instance, devised divinatory calendars used to show the destiny of individuals.

Fatalistic beliefs are also common in Africa.

Some christian religions teach that God predestines individuals for success.

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.”

In the past decades, suicide bombers have often made headlines with their horrific attacks.

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.

Fatalism plays an important part in these “religiously inspired suicidal attacks.”

John B. Noss, in his book Man’s Religions, acknowledges:

All religions say in one way or another that man does not, and cannot, stand alone. He is vitally related with and even dependent on powers in Nature and Society external to himself. Dimly or clearly, he knows that he is not an independent center of force capable of standing apart from the world.”
The widespread acceptance of the concept of fate actually shows that humans have a fundamental need to believe in a superior power.

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