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Last month, construction was in progress at the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, the holiest mosque in Islam, when a heavy crane collapsed in high winds and crashed through the roof of the mosque. Over a hundred pilgrims were killed and almost 400 were hurt or trapped beneath falling debris. An employee of the Saudi Binladen Group, which had been operating the crane, said this about the disaster:

“What happened was beyond the power of humans. It was an act of God.” (source)

But this wasn’t even the worst catastrophe in Mecca this year. Just two weeks later, during the annual Hajj, there was a deadly stampede on the approach to the Jamaraat Bridge, where Muslim pilgrims symbolically stone the devil. Over 1,500 people (possibly many more) were trampled to death. This is just the latest in a series of crowd-crush disasters as Mecca strains at the seams to accommodate the world’s growing Muslim population. Yet, again, the disaster was labeled inevitable, this time by the Grand Mufti, the most senior religious authority in Saudi Arabia:

“You are not responsible for what happened”, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh told Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in a meeting in Mina on Friday… “As for the things that humans cannot control, you are not blamed for them. Fate and destiny are inevitable.” (source)

As columnist Mustafa Akyol points out, this kind of fatalistic resignation is all too common when disaster strikes Islamic countries:

In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede caused mainly by a lack of ventilation. Nonetheless, the king at the time, Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, then argued: “It was God’s will, which is above everything.” “It was fate,” he added.

…Even in Turkey, which is much more modern and secular than Saudi Arabia, “fate” has frequently been invoked by various officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as an explanation for colossal accidents on railroads, in coal mines and on construction sites.

However, it’s not just Islam that encourages this kind of weary fatalism. It happens right here in America, where it’s all too common to see people respond to the latest bloodbath of our gun-sick culture with a shrug of their shoulders. Here’s one example where a 5-year-old in Kentucky shot his sister to death with a .22-caliber rifle he was given as a toy (!!):

Family members of the boy and his dead sister painted the accident as if it was just a weather event. “It’s something that you can’t prepare for,” said one.

“It was God’s will. It was her time to go, I guess,” said another. (source)

Obviously, there are self-serving motives for excuses like these. Religious fatalism is a very useful tool for corrupt rulers and venal politicians. It’s an argument not to look too hard at why bad things happen, so that the culpable can escape blame, and the masses will accept preventable disasters with mute resignation and without demanding change. We can expect that the wealthy and powerful to continue to promote it for that reason alone.

Still, as abhorrent and callous as this apologetic is, one has to concede that it is a logical consequence of monotheistic belief systems. If God is omnipotent and in control of the world, then by definition, everything that happens can be attributed to God’s will, so it’s useless to ask why some particular event happened or whether it could have been prevented. (Even religions that believe in human free will also insist that God is capable of foreseeing and accounting for people’s choices, so that nothing can thwart the divine plan.)

Religious fatalism, as a doctrine, plays a similar role as the just world fallacy. It offers people a way to cope with evils they feel powerless to change. But like all theodicies, it inevitably discourages people from trying to stop the evils they can change. As I said in “All Possible Worlds“:

The insidious effect of theodicy is that it encourages complacency, or worse, approval of the world’s suffering based on the assumption that whatever happens is God’s will… When we wait for divine deliverance that inevitably never comes, when we turn our efforts to prayer and worship instead of action, we expend time and resources that could more usefully have been spent on working to lighten the weight of suffering.

This brand of fatalism, in particular, hearkens back to the most pitiful and primitive form of religious mysticism: the kind where the world is a chaos of supernatural powers, where there are no dependable natural laws and everything happens because of the caprice of beings beyond human comprehension. It denies not just moral culpability, but human agency itself. If everything happens because of “fate” or “destiny”, then none of the choices we make truly matter. Why not cram thousands of pilgrims into a single street, or hand out loaded guns to toddlers, or build your house on a flood plain, or drive with your eyes closed? If God wills a disaster to happen, it will; if he doesn’t, it won’t. Preparation, precaution and forethought are all useless.

Atheism is the answer to this bleak attitude of resignation. Atheism means that there’s no fate, no foreordained destiny, no karma that condemns us to suffering or relegates us to lowly roles, no supernatural beings steering events behind the scenes. It means that our choices are real and meaningful and that people bear responsibility for their actions. While that’s a solemn burden to shoulder, it’s also a source of hope and joy. And I have one more reason to offer, a thoroughly practical one: in the end, people who believe their choices matter are likely to win out over those who don’t.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...