Answering the Hard Question

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“You’re an Atheist?! How Do You Find Meaning and Morality in Life if There Is No God?”

By Ralph Lewis |

As a psychiatrist working with people facing many kinds of adversity, sometimes people ask about my own religious beliefs. In those cases where it is appropriate for me to provide a frank and direct answer to this question, it is not uncommon for some, especially religious believers, to respond with the question “You’re an atheist?! How do you find meaning and morality in life if there is no God?” What follows is my answer, addressed to a religious believer.

The age-old assumption that there must be some sort of higher purpose to life fits with an intuitive human tendency to think that “everything happens for a reason” (and it’s all about us). This assumption has powerful potential to affect motivation— positively or negatively. The belief that life has inherent purpose is a double-edged sword: It can be reassuring and comforting, but can also lead to bitter anguish and feelings of abandonment when suffering cruel adversity (“Why me?!”). In contrast, the realization that life is fundamentally random is anxiety provoking, but liberates people from destructive unfounded self-blame, and the realization that meaning is something we make for ourselves can be empowering.

I see how the human tendency to think that events have inherent purpose and to think that such purpose refers to oneself (“everything happens for a reason and it’s all about me!”) becomes magnified ad absurdum in psychiatric disorders: as paranoid delusions in psychosis, grandiosity in mania, and irrational magical thinking in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many aspects of human nature, and our many cognitive biases, are writ large in mental disorders, exposing the flaws in these intuitions more plainly. Interestingly, there are evolutionary reasons why we all have this tendency to mistakenly overidentify pattern and purpose.

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