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55 MIN READ TIME

Answering the Hard Question

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.

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