How can I politely rebut "Everything happens for a reason"?
February 8, 2011 6:55 AM   Subscribe

People always say, “Things happen for a reason,” or, “It was meant to be,” or, “God has a plan.” But I don’t believe any of those things, and I don’t know how to respond politely when people say them.

How do you respond when people pay lip service to the idea of predestination/fate/other religious stuff you don’t believe in? I usually just smile and nod, but that feels like I’m lying about something I feel strongly about. Things happen by chance and human will. How do I convey my beliefs about this without getting into a philosophical argument over platitudes? I want to say, “Actually, things happen by chance, and nothing is meant to be, and there is no God, much less a plan!” But a little bit nicer and less combative.
posted by tatiana wishbone to Human Relations (83 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
"What a nice thing to believe!"
posted by supercres at 6:58 AM on February 8, 2011 [17 favorites]

Smiling and nodding is really the best response. They're not trying to indoctrinate you, they're trying to make you feel better, so contradicting them for it will just make them feel rebuked for a kindness.

You could smile and nod, and as if you're just adding to what they said say something kind and vague like, "yeah, sometimes these things just happen, and it stinks. Thanks!".
posted by ldthomps at 6:59 AM on February 8, 2011 [45 favorites]

I personally just ignore it and feel okay by remembering that these people are trying to be nice. They're trying to comfort you and don't know what else to say.

If they wanted to open themselves up to a discussion about theism, they'd make that clear.

They genuinely, truly want you to feel better.
posted by katybird at 6:59 AM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Smile and nod.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:00 AM on February 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

You can be nice to somebody who is trying to be comforting to you, or you can make a philosophical stance. The philosophic stance is explicitly rejecting the comfort they are offering, and will inevitably lead to confusion and hurt feelings, if not outright hostility.

There really isn't a graceful way to do both of these things at the same time.
posted by Andrhia at 7:00 AM on February 8, 2011 [13 favorites]

I only bothering responding to that fluff when they are talking about an event that affects me. I find it off-putting and a little bullying to suggest I should be okay with, grateful even, when bad things happen to me because of their belief. In those cases, when people says that "things happen for a reason", I let them know that those reasons are often very bad. Or more simply, I just say that I don't believe that a let it drop.

If they are talking about an even that happened to someone else, I just let it go. What's the point? What if the person they are referring to does believe that everything happens for a reason?
posted by spaltavian at 7:01 AM on February 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

I always ask, "What about babies that die in fires, or babies that are raped? Is that 'God's plan?'" Pretty combative, but responding with a question puts it back on them, and maybe, hopefully, probably not will make them think about their beliefs a bit.
posted by milarepa at 7:03 AM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Nthing smile and nod. There's no reason to make a spectacle.
posted by catwash at 7:03 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm totally with you on this sort of irritation, but there's little you can do. These utterances are reflective of someone's core beliefs, and they're usually not saying them as a challenge, but merely reflexively. Responding in a combative nature would catch them by surprise as much as if they said "God bless you" when you sneezed, and you responded by "I don't believe in God."

Instead, what I do is to be sure that I have my own set of non-believing platitudes. "Eh, these things happen sometimes," "Shit happens," or "my condolences, that really sucks," all work to continue the conversation without implying there's any Greater Force behind how things happen.

Trust me, it sucks that people manage to slip in, "I believe in God and I'm right," into casual conversation so often, but "I'm an atheist and you're wrong," will never go smoothly. The exception's if they really put it out there, "I know it seems bad, but God really has a plan for us all." Then, you can say, "Thank you for your sympathy, but I do not believe in God, and would rather not discuss it further."
posted by explosion at 7:06 AM on February 8, 2011 [7 favorites]

Just smiling and nodding should be enough. If it helps, try imagining that the person has suffered a recent trauma and is holding that thought in order to comfort themselves.

FWIW I believe both that "things happen for a reason/God has a plan" AND "things happen by chance and human will", but I don't really relish having all that ripped apart by some skeptic's mission to make me WakeUpSheeple. Not because I'm too fragile or anything - it's just gotten old from my point of view.

Is this really what you're asking, though? Or are you asking how to cope when you need to be comforted and sheeple come along and plague you with platitudes? If so, and if you're close enough to them and feeling strong enough, it might be worth opening a discussion with them. You could put your point of view by saying "I believe" because while they can dispute that things do/don't happen by chance and there is/isn't a God, they can't dispute that you believe as you do.
posted by tel3path at 7:07 AM on February 8, 2011 [9 favorites]

"yes, dear"
posted by mooselini at 7:07 AM on February 8, 2011

"Yeah, so it goes."
posted by fatllama at 7:08 AM on February 8, 2011 [24 favorites]

I agree with the answers already posted. It is not practical and not useful to get into an argument anytime someone says something you don't agree with - no matter how foolish they may be. You cannot remedy the foolishness of the human race. However, I have actually been asked (on at least one occasion that I remember) if I believe that everything happens for a reason, and if I am actually asked I am going to give an honest reply, which is that most things happen by accident, not because of some mysterious and incomprehensible plan that God supposedly has for us. If someone actually wants to know my opinion, I am willing to tell them. But if they haven't asked for my opinion, I do not go out of my way to argue with people. Let them believe what they like.
posted by grizzled at 7:08 AM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Them: [meaningless platitude]
You: "Some people think so."

Doesn't dispute their belief, but provides subtext that you don't adhere to it.
posted by anderjen at 7:12 AM on February 8, 2011 [8 favorites]

I don't believe in predestination, but I do believe in trying to find the good that can come out of a negative situation. When someone says one of those predestination things, I just reinterpret it according to my version of that ethos as above, and say "How kind, thank you."
Also, never hurts to just say "thank you" when someone means well, no matter if how they're expressing it goes against your grain - I thank the kindness of the person offering the sentiment, not the sentiment itself.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 7:12 AM on February 8, 2011 [18 favorites]

Yeah, smile and nod. But if the context is more of a discussion about personal philosophies - as opposed to someone telling you about their house burning down - I might say something like, "Hmm. I don't believe that things happen for a reason, but I do think sometimes good things can come from horrible situations, and that people can, sometimes, control how they react and end up learning something/helping someone else/improving conditions/etc."
posted by DestinationUnknown at 7:13 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You can be nice to somebody who is trying to be comforting to you, or you can make a philosophical stance. The philosophic stance is explicitly rejecting the comfort they are offering, and will inevitably lead to confusion and hurt feelings, if not outright hostility.

You can avoid rejecting them outright but avoid the implicit agreement of a smile and nod by just going with a "Meh" response or shrug or other nonverbal non-enthusiastic response. Normally I would agree with the advice to just be nice and play along, but for me at least the "Everything happens for a reason" comments seem to be saying "It's actually good that this bad thing happened to you, for magical reasons that you don't believe in" so I don't feel the need to be very receptive to them, unlike "I'm praying for your family" or other comments that don't have that connotation.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:14 AM on February 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

tel3path: "Just smiling and nodding should be enough. If it helps, try imagining that the person has suffered a recent trauma and is holding that thought in order to comfort themselves."

I agree that you should say nothing. People say these things for any number of reasons but unless you think they're saying it to hurt you, why challenge what is essentially a platitude? It's like arguing with people that say "Bless You" when you sneeze.
posted by victoriab at 7:17 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could pull a Hemingway and say, "Isn't it pretty to think so?" Bonus points if say it in a gravelly voice, squint, and take a pull of whiskey immediately afterwards.

More seriously, I think Andrhia has it - it's tough to be noncombative and still take a stance against the latent assumptions of their statement. Your best compromise is probably a non-answer ("I really hope things get better soon.")
posted by superfluousm at 7:18 AM on February 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

None of the examples you gave require any response at all. A smile is probably best.
posted by rocket88 at 7:19 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, since you're in Florida (according to your profile), a sarcastic "Bless your heart" ought to do just fine.
posted by cooker girl at 7:21 AM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Yeah, so it goes."

This. You can even leave out the "Yeah" if you think it's too much in agreement.

Or you can go with the non-committal, "That's what they say" - you acknowledge receipt of their intent to comfort.
posted by muddgirl at 7:21 AM on February 8, 2011 [7 favorites]

Whenever people (usually my religious family members) say to me, "you're in my prayers," or "I'm praying for you," I try to make a point of saying, "you are in my thoughts," or "I'm thinking of you." Because that's really all they're saying. They're thinking of me, but they have to filter it through a god-addled brain before it comes out their mouth. By responding that I'm thinking of them too, I'm saying, "noted, and thank you for caring about me. I care about you, too. But you know I'm not down with that god stuff."

I usually only run into the "it's all part of God's plan" crap if I've been talking with someone about stuff for a little while. And frequently, it's about stuff that's been going wrong, where you share back and forth. (So-and-so will complain about something, I'll complain back, and so on.) If I get the "it's all part of God's plan," sometimes I like to toss back, "OK, well you let me know when he helps you out with that busted transmission of yours; I've got leaky faucet that needs fixing," or whatever fits in with what they'd previously been talking about.
posted by phunniemee at 7:21 AM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've said, "Yeah, that would be nice, wouldn't it?" But mostly I don't respond unless, of course, the person who says it is my mother. but I'm working on shutting up even then. People aren't really looking for you to agree, and most of the time, whatever they assume about you is irrelevant.
posted by Buffaload at 7:21 AM on February 8, 2011

Best answer: "So I've been told" is usually my response.
posted by cgg at 7:26 AM on February 8, 2011 [20 favorites]

Back when my wife and I were still dating and she was having a tough time in grad school, I once told her, in an effort to cheer her up, "You are exactly where you need to be to do the work you need to do at this particular point in life."

Her response?

"Yeah, unless I'm not."

Seemed the perfect counter argument, plus it had the added benefit of making us both laugh.
posted by Rewind at 7:26 AM on February 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

If you feel like it, you can ask them about some things in their life that happened that helped them see things that way. Then you're out of the philosophical/abstract and into the sharing of personal experiences and meaning-making, which could be a more meaningful and personal conversation.
posted by Salamandrous at 7:28 AM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

I like what ldthomps said above: say something kind and vague like, "yeah, sometimes these things just happen, and it stinks. Thanks!".. 98% of the time I find that people say things like that because they just don't know how to explain it and they've run out of things to say. I'm sure they believe it (heck, I believe in a combination of pure chance and "meant to be" myself depending on the situation) but unless they get into a conversation about faith and God they aren't trying to indoctrinate you...they are just trying to find something peaceful to say. Since they feel better when they think "God has a plan", they use that to attempt to give you some peace as well.

Personally, I'd just go along with it and don't be combative (unless they are just being intrusive). If you do choose to argue back you could be opening up a bigger conversation with them. I'd go with the "yeah, crap happens huh?" kind of response.
posted by MultiFaceted at 7:28 AM on February 8, 2011

What's the context? Who are you talking about?
posted by John Cohen at 7:32 AM on February 8, 2011

I guess the question is, what do you hope to gain? I can think of lots of stuff you could say that would get angry responses, for instance.

Smiling and nodding for the win, from a "we all have to live together and it's nicer to be friends" POV.
posted by SMPA at 7:33 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

My stock response to "Everything happens for a reason" is "That ... is my greatest fear."
posted by adipocere at 7:34 AM on February 8, 2011 [17 favorites]

"Thank you so much for thinking/feeling that way, because right now I don't feel like that at all."
posted by TheBones at 7:34 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

No reason to be combative. People have different beliefs. Part of peacefully living in a pluralistic society is accepting these differences. Someone who simply declares "Things happen for a reason." is simply being honest with themselves, just as someone who drops a torrent of F-bombs is being honest with themselves.

They aren't pushing their beliefs on you. They are merely being who they are. You should appreciate the honesty.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:35 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is not so much a statement in a belief in predestination, as it is a platitude that will bring closure to an unpleasant line of conversation. See also: "If there is anything we can do, just let us know." This is rarely an actual offer of babysitting or yardwork, but it is a way for people to acknowledge your pain, feel like a good person, and bring conversation to an end.
posted by pickypicky at 7:35 AM on February 8, 2011 [9 favorites]

I guess the question is, what do you hope to gain?

This part. Do you hope to bring them around to your POV, the same thing that you are criticizing them for doing? Smile and nod.
posted by fixedgear at 7:36 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Honestly, if it's not me with the situation, I sometimes say to the person, "Please don't say that to PERSON. It will make her feel like you want her to be grateful or happy that TERRIBLE THING happened." I came to this decision while watching a friend of mine grieve when her baby died suddenly of some kind of respiratory failure. It was a terrible, terrible time even for her friends, and those platitudes hit her really hard.

I believe that it's important to learn what will be comforting things to say and what won't, and to learn to say the least doctrinaire thing possible when in doubt. There is nothing wrong with "I'm so sorry that this has happened."

I personally don't trot out my deeply held beliefs about social class, health, knowledge and access to medical treatment when dealing with a friend's illness, for example, even though I really, truly believe that inequality worsens outcomes--that is, unless I know for sure that "When you're working class in this society you sure do get it in the neck, huh?" will be received as a condolence.
posted by Frowner at 7:36 AM on February 8, 2011 [8 favorites]

You know, I say "things happen for a reason" all the time. To me it means: there are causes for every effect, and sometimes we are not aware of all of the causes, and it may be good for us to take a step back and think about what the causes for this situation may have been. It can help us plan our next course of actions appropriately. And especially with emotional situations, we are often not aware of our own or others' motivations until we stop and think about it. Also, you say "things happen by chance," but while perhaps that may have been true at some point in the chain, things are pretty damn causally connected. And there is nothing remotely mystical about this fact (it is, in fact, a fact that things are causally connected...this is the basis of science, for example).

On the other hand "God has a plan" or "it was meant to be" or anything that is pre-destination oriented is not what I'm into. I'm a firm believer in things not being predetermined (other than perhaps in a phenomenological way which I don't know if we're capable of understanding or acting on practically anyways, and which regardless doesn't absolve us of taking responsibility for our own actions).

Anyways, this is just to say, not everyone who says that will mean what you think they mean I suspect.

But as far as those who do? Seriously, just smile and nod. You're not going to win that one and you're just going to look like an ass when someone is end the end just making conversation. If they are trying to get you to go to church or take a copy of their religious pamphlet, that's one thing...but making conversation? Ignore it. Choose your battles: life will be full of them.
posted by dubitable at 7:36 AM on February 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Try not to get hung up on the terminology they're using. I do what L'Estrange Fruit does and silently reinterpret it to make more sense to me and my beliefs, which makes it easier to feel grateful for such sentiments.

If you're having trouble with "everything happens for a reason", well yes everything in fact does happen for a reason. It's Newton's third law.

You don't have to mentally qualify it as a good reason, but I find it helps most people to accept what has happened in the past as out of their control and instead focus on the future. It's not really a specifically religious sentiment:

"It is not he who reviles or strikes you who insults you, but your opinion that these things are insulting." - Epictetus
posted by symbollocks at 7:37 AM on February 8, 2011 [10 favorites]

someone is end the end just making conversation --> someone is in the end just making conversation
posted by dubitable at 7:38 AM on February 8, 2011

People say those things because they don't know what else to say. They don't know why something happened, but they feel like they should try to respond to it in some way, for your sake. For them, it is more comforting to think that there's a reason for things than to think that there's no reason. They're trying to pass on that comfort. There's no need to rebut it, just as there'd be no need to rebut your comment of, "Things happen by chance."

I do think there are circumstances--when you are suffering a terrible loss of some kind, like a loved one's death--when it is appropriate to gently push back with, "I know that that is comforting to you, but I don't feel the same way," or "I know that you take comfort in your faith, but I'd urge you to think twice before suggesting my loved one died because God wanted him to." Do this kindly and you may prompt the person to be more thoughtful in the future. But do it because of how the person's words made you feel, not because you disagreed with the person's religious or philosophical background.

I mean, there's a time and a place for sharper comments--if someone is trying to hurt you rather than comfort you by saying something about God's plan (I don't know, something like, "Oh, your husband left you? Well, everything happens for a reason"), then sure, a sharp, "What an ugly thing to say," would be appropriate. But if someone is trying to be encouraging, and the best she can come up with is, "Things happen for a reason," just smile and nod. Saying, "I appreciate your encouragement," isn't the same as saying, "I agree with your philosophical point of view."
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:41 AM on February 8, 2011 [10 favorites]

Context is important, as is your goal. In difficult circumstances (funeral, hospital, etc.) it would seem to me there's almost nothing to be gained by being confrontational and disagreeable. In other circumstances, consider what you hope to gain by confronting someone with what you believe to be their ignorance, and what might result if they are upset at your confrontational, snide, or sarcastic (depending on which advice from this thread you take) response. Of course, only you can weigh the possible outcomes (offense, upsetting the person, damaging a family or friendly relationship) against what you might have gained (self-satisfaction, unburdening yourself, releasing pent-up frustration) to determine whether it's worth it in a given context with a given person - there's really no generalizable formula for all people in all contexts.
posted by aught at 7:43 AM on February 8, 2011

Note: I am an agnostic, but a physical determinist. So, I like, kinda believe in fate, too.

I have a policy of not trying to convert the religious, and arguments over stuff like this is usually just upsetting to both parties. I'd just say "thank you."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:46 AM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

The person's core beliefs are certainly more subtle and nuanced than the platitude to begin with. That's one reason why a combative response is rude: it assumes an intent that is not there. Often people repeat comforting phrases because they are so gobsmacked by the situation that they have no words. Occam's Razor would lead to the explanation that they are merely sharing a kindness, and not trying to indoctrinate you with their beliefs.
posted by Skwirl at 7:46 AM on February 8, 2011 [11 favorites]

I think ldthomp hit the nail on the head. Smiling and nodding is a perfectly good response. These are after all platitudes meant as expressions of sympathy. But you absolutely can say "Yeah, I wish I believed that" or something to that effect. And if you want to make them feel better, you can dress it up a little: "Yeah, I wish actually believed that, but, you know, maybe [insert hopeful scenario here]. But thanks for being concerned."

In other words can say, nicely but truthfully, that you don't actually share the beliefs in question, and that you appreciate their sympathy, without starting an argument over predestination or theism.

Keep in mind that people who say things like "it's all in God's plan" or "there's a reason for everything" don't always believe in those statements very deeply.. They are platitudes after all, and if you actually sat down and talked to people about their beliefs in different circumstances you might very well get answers like "Well, of course it's a matter of faith anyway, we can't actually know that" or other disclaimers. And people are aware that not everybody shares their beliefs.
posted by nangar at 7:47 AM on February 8, 2011

"I guess this proves that God DOES answer every prayer, but his answer is usually "NO."
posted by timsteil at 7:50 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Being mean to people who are trying to be comforting to you is rude.

Etiquette is pretty clear: do your best to make others not think you are an asshole. Etiquette is like the right-of-way in driving: you can only give it, you can never take it.

If someone is saying something like that to you, you can be pretty sure *your beliefs* are not the topic at hand.
posted by gjc at 7:51 AM on February 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

Smiling and nodding. This is not the moment to piss people off by telling them you don't believe in whatever they believe. I only tend to react when, say, they're saying that the "reason" that AIDS exists is because God is trying to wipe out gay people.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:59 AM on February 8, 2011

If someone were saying something like this about their own adversity or that of someone close to them then of course the correct thing to do would be to keep your mouth shut about your views on causality and, if you are so inclined based on the relationship you have with them, remind them that you are there for them.

If someone is talking about something that is for them and you personally neutral, an abstraction or a war somewhere else or Charlie Sheen's personal problems, you know, I don't see that you aren't free to say "I don't believe that. I think what happens in this world is the outcome of chance and human actions" or whatever. Be aware you are potentially starting a disagreement about religious beliefs by doing this, if you don't feel like having one of those, you know, don't. But if you do feel like it, you know, have at it: they started it.

If someone is trying to comfort you about adversity in your life, though I personally feel like this approach (assuring someone that they are suffering according to God's Plan) is kind of tone deaf and obtuse, it seems worth considering that perhaps what this person is trying to express (from within their own context) is that they are sorry for what you are going through, but they believe that the meaning and significance of your life nevertheless transcends your adversity. A response that affirmed their good will without agreeing with their particular theology might be something like "thank you for caring about me."
posted by nanojath at 8:02 AM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

I say aggressively confront it. This rationalization is why people are dying of hunger in a world filled with an abundance of food. When "god's plan" is used to excuse inexcusable, allowing that rationalization to go unchallenged perpetuates the problem.

Non-believer: Look at the homeless problem in our city.
Believer: Well, everything happens for a reason. God has a plan.
Non-believer: Homeless happens because of our collective decisions as a society. God has nothing to do with it.
posted by hworth at 8:03 AM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think most of the time this is just a polite way of ending someone's whining and complaining, and that it's generally not intended as a statement of literal belief. Some ways to reduce it:

Quit talking to peoplel who say things like this.

Quit complaint to, or seeking comfort from, people like this.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:11 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Choose your battles.

In some cases - like the one that hworth cites above - confronting it may be appropriate.

In others - specifically when people are simply using a cliche to try to fill space or make you feel better - deflection may be appropriate. In these cases, I prefer something like "Maybe, maybe not, but it still seems wrong to me/feels bad/whatever."
posted by googly at 8:14 AM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Accept comfort when it is offered. It's difficult for people to know what to say, and they might wind up saying things like these because they think that's expected -- it's just default comfort speak, an ice-breaker, one step above, "I really don't know what to say, or how to help."

And thus, you can always guide the conversation in another direction, and tell them how to help. Tell them what you need, what you're feeling, ask questions, etc. etc. Or you could gently say, "I prefer to think that..." and then share a thought reflecting your own beliefs that gives you comfort.

Or just say thank you and move on. I guess you can always turn these moments into opportunities to feel smug or demonstrate intellectual superiority if you prefer it, but it's probably best to smile and nod.
posted by hermitosis at 8:28 AM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Speaking as a moderately aggressive atheist, I'll Nth the people who recommend a non-committal but polite response. Generally that sort of talk comes out as a semi-automatic response to a bad situation and they think they're being comforting. Like the "they're in a better place" stuff that religious people tend to automatically say at funerals.

Obviously if the person is being obnoxious the story is different, but if they're offering it as a genuine attempt at comfort I'd say put off the philosophic debate for another time.

That said, I agree completely that it can be not only annoying, but completely, 100%, non-comforting. "Really asshole? You think it's part of a wonderful plan that my best friend has terminal cancer and will die in agony? Fuck you and your delusions!" I can sympathize, I've felt that way myself. It seems to trivialize both the situation, and seems like they're asking you to agree that it's good that something bad is happening.

But, except for the real jerks, they don't mean it that way, and even if I'm irked by a non-comforting attempt at comfort I don't think it's a good idea to jump people for simply mouthing what they see as a comforting platitude.

Later, after the situation is over, you might consider talking to them about philosophy and why you find those sorts of platitudes to be non-comforting. But at the time the platitude is offered? Take it in the spirit it was intended.

If, of course, they mean it in a nasty way, rip them a new one. But that's vanishingly rare.
posted by sotonohito at 8:29 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

A: Look at the homeless problem in our city.
B: Well, everything happens for a reason. God has a plan.
A: Homeless happens because of our collective decisions as a society. God has nothing to do with it.

B: I never said we shouldn't do anything about it. But it doesn't make sense to try and carry the world's problems on your shoulders.
A: But your attitude perpetuates the problem.
B: You clearly stated that the problem was our decisions as a society. Everything we do that isn't directly leading to the homeless finding homes is perpetuating the problem, including this conversation.
A: Let's do something then. Maybe we could try X, Y and Z possible solutions.
B: Ok, let's do it.

[Occuring in clouds overhead]

God: That was my plan all along.
Physics: That was my plan, too.... Oh wait I'm not conscious so i better shuddup.
God: LOL. Physics, you so funny.
posted by symbollocks at 8:37 AM on February 8, 2011 [12 favorites]

If someone says that in a situation where it really makes you feel worse, it's appropriate to respond with something like "I appreciate your trying to reassure me, but that's not much comfort right now." Otherwise just say something like "that's not what I believe, but yeah, life goes on and who knows what tomorrow will bring. We do the best we can, ya know?"

Passive aggression - and regular aggression - may make you feel better and right, but pissing off people doesn't win them over.

Often these sayings are more conversational strokes than attempts to inject religion into a situation. I'm agnostic, but I say "bless you" instead of "gesundheit" because it has fewer syllables.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:41 AM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

If someone says "Everything happens for a reason," I tend to respond with a nod and saying, "Mm. Suppose it might."

It's non-committal, expresses no opinion, and is kind of hard to respond to.

So there's that.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:44 AM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Don't argue with people who are trying to make you feel better.

Yes, it was ineffective help, but they still haven't helped you less than anyone else has, right? Just smile and thank them.
posted by rokusan at 8:47 AM on February 8, 2011

Shrug. If you want to be more vocal about it, you could add a half-sighed "that's-total-bullshit-but-it-doesn't-really-matter-so-whatever" version of eh. (Not meh or feh, mind you, as those would be too overtly dismissive.)
posted by Sys Rq at 8:47 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I understand wanting to be intellectually and emotionally honest, and not misrepresent yourself. And there are some good ways to do it, without coming across as a jerk. My favorite simple deflecting technique, which sometimes seems to get people thinking about what they said, goes like this:

[Bad stuff happens]
Religious Person: Hold out hope. God has a plan for you!
Me: It's comforting to know that you're thinking of me. I appreciate that.

Usually that ends the conversation right there. Every once in a great while, it will continue, with something like this:

Religious Person: I'm saying it's not just me thinking of you, honey. God loves you, and this will all work out in the end.
Me: I don't share your faith, but I will certainly be working hard to make the best of a bad situation.

And then I disengage, as quickly as possible. They're trying to share the things that sincerely are comforting for them, and if they don't get from the initial response that I don't find it nearly so comforting to think that a big invisible dude in the sky has had this in mind all along, then it's not really worth subjecting myself to their brand of comfort any longer.

So, in brief: acknowledge what the other person is trying to convey. If they're trying to convey "I care. I worry. I want you to feel better. I don't know what else to say. I really believe it'll come out ok in the end" then they'll take away your thanks. If what they're really trying to say is "no, seriously, believe like i do and it'll go better for you" on top of all the cuddly stuff, then, hey, they're free to believe that and you're free to smile and walk away.
posted by lriG rorriM at 9:02 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Thank you for your kind intentions."

If they press, I explain to them about how Gandhi points out that almost all of us follow the religions of our mothers, and that my mother had no religion and did not believe in any higher power. I say I take great comfort in my memories of her, and though if she were alive she would roll her eyes at all this talk of God, I understand that people tend to think that what comforts them, comforts others; their intentions are appreciated and their care is comforting even if their religion isn't.

If they continue to push the issue, I say, "Please respect my mother and the way she raised me; one day I may do the same for you."
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 9:15 AM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Possible responses to "everything happens for a reason":

"True, and that reason is that Baal is mighty and he hates fornicators. I hope YOU will soon learn that your lifestyle choices are unaceptable to all-seeing Baal."

"Did you just say, 'everything happens for Will Wheaton'? Are you crazy? That guy is a jerk!"

"I used to think that everything happens for a reason, but what possible reason is there for Two and a Half Men? I mean, no-one deserves that. NO-ONE."
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:19 AM on February 8, 2011 [7 favorites]

Honestly, I just say either, "Yeah, well I don't believe in that crap" or "Oh really? Prove it."

I long ago passed the point where I'm prepared to indulge this behaviour.
posted by Decani at 9:37 AM on February 8, 2011

As a religious person, I think that "God has a plan" or "Everything happens for a reason" are some of the shittiest things you can possibly say to a person who is undergoing a personal tragedy. It's invalidating and minimizing and really just horrible. And while the intent of the person may be to comfort and soothe, I don't think it's your responsibility to hide it from them if their words actually hurt you. I got told "Maybe it's not in God's plan for you to have children" after my second miscarriage, and I swear to you I nearly punched the speaker in the face, and my actual verbal rejoinder was quite rude. (and HILARIOUS, if I say so myself.)

But if their words just irritate and tire you rather than being actively painful, I suggest the "Yeah, that's what they say" or "I guess some people believe that" or even ". . . Okay!" responses. (For maximum impact, draw a breath like you're going to say something, then pause for a second or two, and then exhale and say "OK," like you've thought better of whatever it was you were going to say. This has, in my experience, a really chilling effect.) Just something to let the person know that you're not going to get into it, but their comforting missive was a dud.

I love, LOVE the "That is my greatest fear" response, though, and may borrow it.
posted by KathrynT at 9:41 AM on February 8, 2011 [13 favorites]

I usually go with "That's what they say." And silently think to myself 'they=idiots who think babies should die of cancer'.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 9:46 AM on February 8, 2011

It's all about context, and knowing how to pick your battles. Some platitudes deserve to be rebuked, politeness-be-damned.

Most of the time, people really do mean well, and they want to be comforting and/or encouraging, and in those cases it's always best to give them the benefit of the doubt and respond with kindness.

BUT, there are other people out there who use innocent-sounding religious and/or spiritual platitudes as weapons, and those people deserve to be called out for their nastiness.

For instance, sometimes people say "Everything happens for a reason" with their own judgmental explanation for WHY tacked on at the end. It can either be overt or implied, but they usually don't leave any room for doubt (e.g. "Everything happens for a reason, and the reason your baby died is because you gave birth out of wedlock and your boyfriend doesn't have a job.") -- Yes, an eldery woman actually said that, albeit in a saccharine "tsk-tsk, there-there, dear" way, to a friend of mine.

Another instance, some people say "I'll pray for you" in a condescending way with a spoken or unspoken "because I think you're a heathen and you're going to hell" tacked on at the end.

So, basically, learn to accept the vast majority of people's platitudes gracefully and without retort (even the misguided ones, as long as their intention is benign) but don't be afraid to assertively chastise the small percentage of people who are spreadng evil under the guise of concern.
posted by amyms at 9:47 AM on February 8, 2011

I respond to this sort of thing the same way I respond when my crazy sister freaks out on me for buying lip gloss with lanolin in it (IT WILL MAKE MY LIPS FALL OFF! she says). I simply look at her thoughtfully and say, "Huh." Then I carry on with my business. I find this diffuses 98% of passionate statements without me actually having to express any opinion at all.
posted by routergirl at 9:53 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I usually go with a quick, "That's one theory," or a, "Hope you're right."

I'm an apathetic agnostic who doesn't really believe in anything.
posted by Hugh2d2 at 10:28 AM on February 8, 2011

Read the book Beyond Fate by Margaret Visser. It might help to give you some talking points.
posted by fso at 10:29 AM on February 8, 2011

Like most reality show participants, you could say "It is what it is..." and people would probably think you're agreeing with them even though you're not, really. Similar to the "so it goes..." that people mentioned earlier but thought I'd mention it so you could mix it up every now and then.
posted by thorny at 10:30 AM on February 8, 2011

I think it's kind of pushing their religious viewpoint, and it annoys me. If God has a plan, why are things so screwed up? Maybe God should plan for horrible tragedies to not happen to innocent babies/kittens/people I love. But. People embrace religion because this exact viewpoint comforts them and eases their mind/pain. The most I might say is, "Well, God and I are going to have some serious discussions about this one day" but mostly I thank them for their concern.
posted by theora55 at 10:30 AM on February 8, 2011

When my grandpa came down with Parkinsons, my ma got a lot of these, and (though it takes a familiar relationship) my favorite was, "It's a shitty plan."

I had a prof who responded to platitudes like this by saying things like, "Only man makes justice," or "Fairness comes from the mind." They're bite-sized, and people offering platitudes often didn't seem to realize that they're fairly opposed statements.
posted by klangklangston at 10:47 AM on February 8, 2011

People who say those sorts of things generally have pretty impermeable membranes. So I'd go with either no response, or, "please don't distract me with that kind of idiocy."
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:58 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another response, "That sounds to me a lot like blaming the victim. I don't want any part of that."
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:00 AM on February 8, 2011

"I wish I could believe that."

"Well, the master plan sucks for me, personally."

"Maybe so, maybe not. We'll see."

If it's someone you know well, and you will see again, don't make it look like you subscribe to what they say. It means you'll just hear it again.

"Thanks, but I don't really believe that." Friends will respect this.

If it's a complete stranger and not a friend, smile and nod.
posted by Sallysings at 11:33 AM on February 8, 2011

You know, I say "things happen for a reason" all the time. To me it means: there are causes for every effect

Ah - but according to one interpretation of quantum theory there are random or uncaused events at the micro level. So those would be exceptions -- those events do not "happen for a reason" even in the sense of "having a cause."

So when someone says "everything happens for a reason" you can say "not according to quantum theory!" Har har.

(But of course, for all the reasons above, I actually go with "mmm" in response.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:38 PM on February 8, 2011

I wouldn't necessarily assume they mean this literally. I'm agnostic, basically, and certainly don't believe that God's invisible hand is meddling in my daily activities. Even so, "Everything happens for a reason" is something I can imagine saying when at a loss for something to say. Think of it more as a "when one door closes, another door opens" kind of thing, which is more of a silver-lining idea than a divine-plan one.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 12:42 PM on February 8, 2011

(Of course, depending on the context, "Look on the bright side!" might also be an incredibly patronizing thing to say to someone.)
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 12:43 PM on February 8, 2011

I don't believe in predestination either, but I definitely believe in not being a total dick when people are trying to be nice.

When someone says to me, "Merry Christmas", I say Merry Christmas back, not "Oh, I don't believe Jesus ever existed. You mean Happy December". Likewise, I understand that when someone says "bless you" after I sneeze, they are not critiquing my world view or imposing their religion onto me. They are saying "I am a polite person who is responding to you with courtesy, and acknowledging this sitatuion has an established social protocol with which to express that". And I in return say "Thank You".

Smiling and nodding would be decent of you. "that's a nice thought", "life is sure funny sometimes", "sometimes it seems that way doesn't it" -- these are all ways to express your approval of the gesture (which you should feel) without saying what it seems like you're saying, which is "I am taking this opportunity to scorn your politeness and using it to challenge your belief system, which differs from mine". Yeesh. If you want to return the kindness, just smile and nod.
posted by custard heart at 1:04 PM on February 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

For the record, even for those of us who do believe those things, it's still a pretty crappy thing to say to someone who is hurting. So there's that.

I think it's okay to say to someone that " that's a pretty crappy thing to say to someone who is hurting." Or however you prefer to word it. Because, when the chips are down, that's not the time to say a platitude.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:50 PM on February 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all your input. As I said in my original post, I *do not* want to be rude or combative, especially because the people who say these things are always, like, people I work with or my future mother-in-law or my elderly aunt. I'm also mostly talking about when people mean this literally, like, "xyz happened specifically because of some unknown plan that your human brain just cannot grasp." I'm ok with a comforting platitude - everyone uses them and I agree that it's often just what flies out of people's mouths in uncomfortable moments - but agreeing with someone when they use this as an actual explanation for an event makes me feel ick. I like "So I hear."
posted by tatiana wishbone at 1:52 PM on February 8, 2011

“Things happen for a reason,” or, “It was meant to be,” or, “God has a plan.”

"Wait - you're a Cylon?"
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:31 PM on February 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Ignore it. Smile / nod. Roll your eyes in your head if you really want to. Let it go. In the end, who cares if you think differently to them and they're not aware of it - you know what you believe, that's all that should matter. By doing anything else you're actually just doing what they're doing.
posted by mleigh at 10:19 PM on February 8, 2011

custard heart, I don't think it is being a dick to respond to a "Merry Christmas" with "I don't celebrate Christmas, but I hope you have a good one." It is a gentle reminder to folks that not everyone shares their beliefs.
posted by hworth at 5:14 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

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