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Persistence of Belief in a Purposeful Universe

OVER THE LAST FEW CENTURIES RELIGION HAS BEEN slowly eroding in Western societies—a process that has accelerated in the last few decades, especially in recent years. Despite this decline, many people still cling to vague notions of some sort of purposeful universe by way of a higher power and higher plan.

I see this in many of my patients, like Liam (the patient’s identifying details have been altered to preserve his anonymity). He was referred to me for psychological support after his wife Angie had been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer two months earlier. He had taken on the massive responsibility for devising a cure for Angie and this had left him overwrought with anxiety and exhaustion from staying up night after night researching alternative cancer therapies and spiritual healing. This had also left him with no energy to devote to the couple’s two preschool children during the day. Initially fired up with motivation and optimism by taking this on, his feeling of responsibility had rapidly turned into a crushingly heavy burden. He felt that her life depended on his getting it right. Liam was a devotee of Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, taking to heart Chopra’s claim that 95 percent of our genes can be influenced by our consciousness and Tolle’s exhortation to undergo a transformation of consciousness and spiritual awakening to achieve a life of health and bliss.

Liam and Angie had stopped attending their Catholic church years before, partly out of disillusionment and disgust about sex abuse scandals and partly because they felt they had outgrown what they considered an outdated system of beliefs inherited from naïve ancient cultures. They had come to consider themselves spiritual but not religious: They believed in a higher purpose and higher power in the universe, but not the personal God of the Bible. To them, the universe was at some profound level suffused with consciousness— some sort of eternal universal consciousness that was the primary driving force underlying everything—the force that had brought everything into existence. Liam was persuaded by Chopra that we live in a “human universe”—one that depends upon humans for its very existence, making us not just an accidental byproduct in some remote corner of a vast indifferent cosmos. Liam was also impressed by Chopra’s theory that our minds are the creators of external reality at all levels, from the creation of the universe as a whole to the genetic mutations causing cancer.

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About Skeptic

THE RISE OF THE NONES Imagining No Heaven — The Rise of the Nones and the Decline of Religion; Never Doubting God — Surveys on Belief in God’s Existence; Persistence of Belief in a Purposeful Universe; Honor, Dignity, Victim — A review of The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars; The SkepDoc — Premature Ejaculation in the News: How Headlines Influence Our Thinking; Is the Earth Flat? Flat Earthers Are Back — How do You Best Make the Argument for a Round Earth?; Conspiracy Theorists and the Harm They Do; Bruce Perkins and Another Terrible Tragedy of the Recovered Memory Movement; Deterrence and Its Discontents: Now That Nuclear War Seems to Be Getting More Likely Again, It’s Time to Turn a Skeptical Eye on Deterrence; Reality Need Not Diminish Our Concept of Our Place in the Cosmos; Junior Skeptic — Perpetual Motion; and more…