Question of the Week: Do Atheists and Believers Need Each Other?


cosmos Question of the Week: Do Atheists and Believers Need Each Other?Here’s the question that comes up every holiday season, sometimes explicitly, often not: “Is there a God?”

You already know the answers. Some say yes, others say no, and then we argue about it ceaselessly.

But here’s a different way to look at it: through the lens of “basic beliefs.”

A basic belief is one that we feel needs no proof: for example, that one plus one equals two.*

This idea gets at something I’ve long felt — that faith, and the lack thereof, are both basic beliefs we’re probably born with. All the arguments we marshal for and against faith are window dressing, ad hoc justifications for something we feel at a gut level.

But unlike other basic beliefs — like one plus one equal two — when it comes to religion, not all humans have the same one. On the contrary, we have two seemingly irreconcilable basic beliefs:

Exhibit A, on the theist side: “I think there is such a thing as a sensus divinitatis [an innate sense of the divine], and in some people it doesn’t work properly,” says the theist philosopher Alvin Plantinga (according to a fascinating New York Times piece by ideas writer Jenny Schuessler).

And on the atheist side: In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud wrote that he couldn’t relate to the “oceanic,” eternal feeling that religious believers experience, and posited that religious certainty arises out of “the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father” and “became connected with religion later on.”

These clashing “basic beliefs” mostly cause strife between atheists and the faithful. Each tries to bring the other ’round to the “right” way of thinking. Usually, that’s a lost cause.

But if there’s one thing my background in introversion and extroversion teaches me, it’s that these sorts of fundamental differences between people make humanity stronger and richer.

So when it comes to religion, I suspect it’s a good thing that we come in two flavors. We just have trouble seeing that.

I’m going to take a crack at explaining why atheists and believers need each other — with no offense intended to either side.

Here’s why atheists might need believers:

Many of the metaphors of religion speak the truth, even if you believe that the particulars are debatable. For example, Jews don’t eat milk and meat together, as a way of signaling respect for the mother-infant bond. This practice is also a reminder that an animal gave up its life for you, that eating is a meaningful act, and that life depends on life.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop atheists from studying holy texts and arriving at these interpretations for themselves, but they’re less likely to direct their energy this way. They can benefit from the company of people who do. Similarly, the edifices of religion can uplift us all. You don’t have to believe that Jesus was the son of God to feel exalted by Manhattan’s magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

And here is why believers might need atheists:

Believers must necessarily direct energy to reconciling religious teachings with scientific inquiry. Many arrive at this reconciliation smoothly enough, but it still takes time and attention to get there.

For example, if you don’t believe that morality is handed down from God, then you’re more likely to spend time investigating humanity’s innate sense of morality — the things that we believe to be good or unconscionable, independently of religious tradition — and to try to understand the moral lives of animals as a clue to the roots of humanity’s sense of compassion and justice. Scientists are starting to make gains in these areas that may prove illuminating for believers and unbelievers alike.

So, in the spirit of the religious holidays/the Winter Solstice (take your pick!), this is a call for mutual appreciation.

What do you think of this theory? 


*I started thinking about the notion of “basic beliefs” courtesy of Jenny Schuessler’s article, mentioned above.


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  1. Stabby on 21.12.2011 at 22:22 (Reply)

    Good post, I like parts of it and it got me thinking, bare with me…

    Does it really makes sense to call positions of default skepticism basic beliefs like that I can hear things with my ears? Is lack of a belief in magical gnomes on the moon or that inanimate objects are watching us a belief or is it just incredulity at things that are untenable by any normal measure of evidence? There are certain ways of thinking that are tied to religion, like ascribing agency to everything, or inherent meaning to life, or even inherent values in ideas and practices, but the specifics of religions with the big ol’ man in the sky and the strict moral code are less so, and the incredulity at their validity isn’t really comparable. Most who go around calling themselves atheists have a sophisticated explanation for why they don’t believe that touches on philosophy.

    As for your thesis, you seem to be right that there are things that each side can learn from the other. But we could easily replace religion with a vague term like “spirituality” without implying a deity, and we could probably replace atheism with philosophy, atheism itself has no real content, but it should hopefully lead to secular philosophy. There are religious people who I respect intellectually, who don’t think that it is enough to parrot their religion, like Blaise Pascal.

    Spirituality (sense of awe at life, good relationship with one’s conception of oneself and one’s existence, reverence, etc, Science (the study of the observable, material world) and Philosophy, the analysis of the relationship between the world and people, are usually beneficial, but none of them are really exclusive to religion or atheism.

    But the central point seems to be that people might want to open themselves up to new possibilities and get out of the box that they are expected to be in all the time - to expand themselves, and in that I agree, and that’s why I like this post.

  2. Casey Bell on 22.12.2011 at 01:21 (Reply)

    Sorry, but religious beliefs are quite different than basic beliefs such as 1 plus 1 equals
    two. Religious beliefs are generally the result of prolonged and intense indoctrination
    from an early age. If you don’t believe me, just drop by a catechism class or a madrassa and
    watch how the little darlings are brainwashed by their teachers.

    Why do they feel the need to use the threat of eternal damnation and the promise of eternal
    reward in order to make kids accept their teachings? If belief in god was a truly basic belief
    there would be no need to use threats and flowery promises in order to turn kids into believers
    now would there?

    People tend to believe what they are taught from an early age. That’s why kids
    born into christian cultures tend to believe in Jesus, while kids born into islamic
    cultures tend to follow the teachings of Mohammed. Swap two babies between middle
    america and the middle east at birth and they will almost certainly develop totally
    different views on religion.

    Lots of people who were raised in religious families grow up to question and perhaps
    reject much of what they were taught. But I’ve never ever heard of anyone who rejected
    the fundamental truth that 1 plus 1 is two. Have you?

  3. Janet Rock on 22.12.2011 at 09:00 (Reply)

    Thomas Aquinas:

    “Give me the children until they are seven and anyone else may have them afterwards.”

    Jerry Falwell:

    Christians, like slaves and soldiers, ask no questions.”

    Thomas Aquinas:

    “Beware the man of one book.”

  4. Kristen on 22.12.2011 at 10:09 (Reply)

    As cliche as it is, religion and spirituality are not the same thing. Religion adheres to cultural and political practices and is “trapped” there.

    Spirituality (oh, I wish we had a better word for it!)is about being in touch with something outside our limited senses.

    An atheist might appreciate concepts promoted by such great thinkers as James Hillman and Joseph Campbell that myth is metaphor and can be explored differently from linear thinking. But, there is exciting news that there is way more to reality than we ever expected. The old scientific paradigm is giving way to Biocentrism, based on several experiments that show there is no independent external-observer relationship, that an observer is required for waves of energy to collapse in a locally defined manner.

    This is not new age stuff, it is based on the double slit experiment and others. Entangled particles separated from each other over huge distances still communicate. Einstein called this “spooky action from a distance.”

    I ecourage anyone who is interested to check out Robert Lanza, reading his book changed my life. I used to be more of an atheist, not anymore. HE blew my mind.

    From Discover Magazine:

    Robert Lanza:

    HE is not a new age guru, but a reputable scientist, check him out!

  5. Kristen on 22.12.2011 at 10:09 (Reply)

    As cliche as it is, religion and spirituality are not the same thing. Religion adheres to cultural and political practices and is “trapped” there.

    Spirituality (oh, I wish we had a better word for it!)is about being in touch with something outside our limited senses.

    An atheist might appreciate concepts promoted by such great thinkers as James Hillman and Joseph Campbell that myth is metaphor and can be explored differently from linear thinking. But, there is exciting news that there is way more to reality than we ever expected. The old scientific paradigm is giving way to Biocentrism, based on several experiments that show there is no independent external-observer relationship, that an observer is required for waves of energy to collapse in a locally defined manner.

    This is not new age stuff, it is based on the double slit experiment and others. Entangled particles separated from each other over huge distances still communicate. Einstein called this “spooky action from a distance.”

    I ecourage anyone who is interested to check out Robert Lanza, reading his book changed my life. I used to be more of an atheist, not anymore. HE blew my mind.

    From Discover Magazine:

    Robert Lanza:

    HE is not a new age guru, but a reputable scientist, check him out!

  6. Grace on 22.12.2011 at 11:07 (Reply)

    To me, the basic beliefs thing makes sense. I was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic school up through 8th grade. At some point, I became really disenchanted with Catholicism, and through that, religion in general. However, I know that I am a spiritual person, so being in that state of doubt and frustration wasn’t good for my anxiety or stress, among other things. I’m finally starting to settle back into religion, and I think it is making a huge difference in my life.

    But that’s me. I have plenty of friends who experienced the same sense of disenchantment that I did and are perfectly happy to not return to a religion. Everyone is different, and I think (going along with your basic belief idea) that some people need/want/have spirituality or religion, while others just don’t. And that’s ok.

    As for theists and atheists needing each other, I’ve felt the same way for years, but you managed to put it into words.

  7. Phil Holmes on 22.12.2011 at 11:43 (Reply)

    Susan, I admire your courage; these are not easy waters to negotiate. I look forward to upcoming posts on abortion, gun control, the proper role of taxation in a free society, and the Palestinian question. :-)

    I was raised in one of those families where everyone said they believed in God, but no one ever went to church. In fact, I did not see the inside of a church mysefl until I was 15 (and that was for my older brother’s wedding). I was baptized after college, was a strong believer for a few years, and then grew disenchanted and cynical. At the moment, I’m not sure what word could describe my feelings about God or spirituality.

    Over the last couple of years I’ve read many of the “New Athiests” (Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens) and while I find their arguments compelling (and often entertaining), I’ve come to believe that the essential difference between many athiests and believers is the utterly different (and mutually repulsing) language they use to describe the things we are all trying to understand.

    True, some fervent athiests are responding to hellish experiences with organized religion. But, if you remove them from the equation, and look only at those who arrived at the athiestic viewpoint as a result of analysis and introspection, you will often find people with very analytical, logical, and scientific mindsets. This mindset just does not understand the flowery, figurative, and frankly squishy soft way that many believers describe their belief. (I suppose I’m also removing from the believer population those people who believe that God is an old man with a white beard sitting on a cloud and keeping an eye out for the occasional rocket or space shuttle.) Carl Sagan can describe the awesome mystery of the universe in ways that athiests will understand and applaud. But, he is still talking about mystery and awe. In the end, mystery is mystery, and awe is awe.

    Of course, the two camps are tied, if only because a thing must always have its opposite. But, most athiests would not say that they need believers, and would be unlikely to take your position (that they can learn from belief), because the source of religious wisdom is inherently and irretrievably suspect. And frankly, whenever scientists find innate or biological reasons for altruistic or moral behavior, most believers probably are either a bit threatened, resort to the old “my, doesn’t God work in mysterious ways” explanation, ignore it as irrelevant, or dismiss the science as flawed or subjective.

  8. Ralph Bormet on 22.12.2011 at 17:36 (Reply)

    Probably my favorite quotation is: “If you took all the wisdom from all the sages, down through the ages, and put it all into one word, it would be this: love. We are born to love and to be loved.”
    Probably a big part of why I love that quotation is that it comes from me. Of course atheists and believers need each other. We all need each other. Each one of us is a passenger on this spaceship Earth and each one of us has a vital job to perform in order to keep the craft in good shape and our journey on course.
    There are two kinds of truth: reasoned truth and revealed truth. Most believers accept revealed truth, as well as reasoned truth. Atheists only accept reasoned truth. Yet most of them would also admit that there is mystery in the universe, and that mystery in unexplainable. Believers know about mystery and accept things on faith. As the old saying goes: For those who believe, no amount of proof is necessary; for those who do not believer, no amount of proof is sufficent.

  9. Cathy Thornburn on 22.12.2011 at 20:22 (Reply)

    I love the beautiful photo of the night sky with trees. Whose photo is it?

  10. Susan Cain on 22.12.2011 at 21:48 (Reply)

    Hi all, thank you so much for these comments. This has got to be the most thoughtful group of blog readers ever. Will try to reply more tomorrow. (I’m just back from a Toastmasters meeting, and tired!)

    In the meantime, @Cathy, I wish I knew whose photo it was. Found it online and i love it too. @Phil, your comment about future posts on gun control etc. was hilarious.

  11. Caitlin on 23.12.2011 at 06:59 (Reply)

    I grew up mere blocks from St. John the Divine. I love that place, and I am an atheist. But the question of the existence of god is not central to my thoughts-so I may need a new label. Who likes to be defined by what they are not, right? Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

  12. Tom Rhoads on 23.12.2011 at 10:00 (Reply)

    I would be interested in digging into this subject. I think maybe people need each other despite religious differences. I see many religious views, including no religion or metaphysical religions already mentioned, as a way to fit into our tribe. However, I think that what makes us human is empathy and that tribalism only limits our empathetic reach. If we can expand our tribe, those fellow humans we trust and respect, then maybe we can look past our differing views. I would like to think that is true, anyway.

  13. Janet Rock on 23.12.2011 at 12:20 (Reply)

    I have issues with organized religion having grown up Catholic.

    I came across this quote today by the Dalai Lama, which I found speaks to both camps:

    This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.

    1. Darren on 29.12.2011 at 06:08 (Reply)

      I’m with you Janet.

      I was raised ‘christian’ by the most bigoted and un-compassionate people imaginable.

      Four years ago I independantly found myself drifting toward Buddhism and this year declared myself a Buddhist on the UK census form.

  14. Canaan on 26.12.2011 at 18:56 (Reply)

    Once again, thx everyone for the lively and thoughtful posts. The older I get, the more I come to abjure dichotomies. I just don’t think the secular - spiritual continuum on the one hand and the religious - theist continuum on the other are in fact totally different. Alabama Football, for example, is every bit a religion. But it’s (mostly) secular. I often find pluralities of folks in religious communities whose public expressions of fidelity to the Deity are in great tension with private doubts and certainly behaviors. I once spent a lot of time with a soldier’s father whose son had fallen in a war he believed was 1) unjust and 2) had a nefarious religious motive; he was an extremely religious man; he kept asking G-d, “were’s the Grace?” (in that war and in the rush to that war) Grace, this Sunday school teacher felt, is so central to the doctrine, so fundamental to the Christian “religion” but so, so scarce in practice. So, what if you’re religious but lack Grace? The Holiest man I ever met, a religious scholar in Jerusalem, told me that if G-d exists, he wants to bring him down to earth and charge him with crimes against humanity. I know an outwardly somewhat profane woman who volunteers every Sunday to teach kids Religion at Sunday school. If you can get past her serial profanities, she’s one of the G-dliest people I’ve ever met. I just think the dichotomy is very blurry in real life. None of this is normative, just descriptive. Anyway I think the power of the introvert extrovert dichotomy, as developed here, is that it forces us to tackle the validity of the dichotomy…or not…as is often suggested here…that we need each other, that many of us are ambiverts, that we change across time and situations, that we are complements to a personality whole, not really poles on a bell curve.

  15. Mark on 27.12.2011 at 20:37 (Reply)

    I think part of the theism vs. atheism argument has to do with how far we’re prepared to go in finding answers to what’s happening in the universe we inhabit.

    If we look hard enough at complex issues, we usually find that science generally has a believable explanation for why things work the way they do.

    Other things may still seem mysterious, but it generally means we as a species need to spend more time thinking about finding the answer.

    Others who may not want to struggle with the answers find it easier to chalk things up to “God’s will”.

    As Stephen Colbert noted in regards to Bill O’Reilly’s oft-repeated religious explanation for tides and sunsets: “Like all great theologies, Bill’s can be boiled down to one sentence: there must be a God because I don’t know how things work.”

  16. Ralph Bormet on 29.12.2011 at 06:24 (Reply)

    Science helps explain the how of reality. Religion helps explain the why of it.

  17. Burt Lundgren on 30.12.2011 at 13:57 (Reply)

    You are right — this is the most thoughtful group of commenters ever. I am so tired of reading comments on other sites that are angry and spiteful. This blog opens a space of peace and calm. Coming here feeds the soul.

    And Kristen, I went straight to amazon and ordered the Lanza book! — sounds terrific.

  18. Jane on 13.01.2012 at 21:23 (Reply)

    Susan, I’m a bit late for holiday contemplation, but it is better late than never. What a wonderful post, and how I agree! I consider myself atheist because I do not believe in the deities literally, but I love the fantasy of literature and myth. I see every human being as an author and their lives as a novel, and seeing the world through the eyes of different “authors” (people) is emotionally enriching. When I was a teen I had a tendency to debate about these topics, but not anymore. I just listen and enjoy through the lens of another. Even if I don’t agree, it doesn’t threaten my stance to listen; and if it threatens it, it probably wasn’t a solid stance to begin with. Either way, it’s a win-win situation. :) Happy new year, by the way!

  19. Ryan on 25.01.2012 at 23:23 (Reply)

    Some interesting thoughts. I think I have some perspective on this issue having spent various parts of my life on both sides of the aisle. I grew up in a conservative-religious family and I had many positive experiences in our Southern Baptist church. I believed in God and the divinity of Jesus from a very young age. Then we moved and started going to a more rural evangelical church. The atmosphere in this church was comparatively stern, arrogant, ignorant, intolerant, uneducated, unsophisticated, and somewhat paranoid. I had a horrible time in this church and this is where I first realized that there was something very wrong with organized religion. And eventually, many years later, I realized the absurdity of this ancient idea of “God” that was based on ancient teachings and not on modern understanding of objective reality.

    Unfortunately, this atheism vs. religion thing is not so clear cut. There are some great churches out there that do a lot of good. However, the truth is that a very large portion of religion in this country is harmful, conservative religion. This form of religion is informed by ever-present and non-existent threats like the devil, the homosexualization of America, teaching the horrible lie of evolution in schools, etc. For the true believer there is always an enemy lurking just around the corner, waiting to destroy them.

    As an atheist, non-theist, agnostic, realist, whatever you want to call me, I believe that we should be taking the BEST of every creed, religion, and philosophy whilst discarding the rest. Also, we should be paying VERY careful attention to the scientific evidence for our beliefs. I don’t have “faith” anymore, I have “trust”, trust in the process of the scientific method. The scientific method has EARNED my trust. That’s why I named my site Scientific Awakening.

    The truth is we need more calm, compassionate, atheists and reasonable, thoughtful religious people. Hmm, that sounds like I’m saying we need more introverts, and maybe I am.

  20. Janet Rock on 26.01.2012 at 08:44 (Reply)

    There is so much faking of “evidence” in the science that I have no faith in that either.
    And many of the scientific “truths” I learned as a child have been debunked. An interesting book about one person’s crisis over losing faith in science, is Persig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.

    1. Ryan on 27.01.2012 at 22:53 (Reply)

      That is simply not true. Faking of evidence? In what field of science? Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, Geology, Biology, Neuroscience? There are always going to be a few crackpots in any field of study and we should always be skeptical of dramatic new claims, but there is no widespread faking of evidence in science. If you are referring to global warming models in climate science, those are predictions about the future and any predictions about the future should be taken with a grain of salt.

      Increases in scientific knowledge led to the eradication of smallpox (killed 300-500 million in the 20th century alone), a dramatic lowering of infant mortality, and all of the other amazing advances in the developed world that are now so ubiquitous that we take them for granted. Always remember George Orwell’s words: “seeing what is in front of one’s nose takes a constant struggle.”

  21. Janet Rock on 28.01.2012 at 09:19 (Reply)

    Perhaps I have a more broad view of science.

    The first thing that comes to mind is an anthropology faking in Britain that was discovered 40 years after the fact known as “Piltdown Man”. A modern human cranium was fused with an orangutan jaw with filed down teeth and presented as the missing link. This took place in December 1912.

  22. Ryan on 28.01.2012 at 11:52 (Reply)

    Actually, I think your view of science is quite narrow. Just about everyone interested in science has heard about Piltdown Man. These kind of cases are the rare exceptions that prove the rule.

    Here are some modern examples of scientific fraud:

    UConn cardiovascular center director fabricated research 145 times.
    Link between MMR vaccine and autism was a fraud.
    South Korean lab falsifies stem cell research.

    But what about the thousands upon thousands of studies and discoveries that are not frauds that further our understanding of ourselves and the world around us?

    The discovery of DNA, the discovery of the FACT of human evolution, breakthroughs in our understanding of mental health, etc:

    When you point to a scientific outlier like Piltdown man it sounds to me like a classic example of the confirmation bias.

  23. Janet Rock on 28.01.2012 at 16:23 (Reply)

    When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Yes, of course, I am steeped in confirmation bias. And I have issues with trust, which must be obvious! Jaundiced, cynical, skeptical, wary.

    I am not at all scientifically oriented. The older I am the less I know about myself and the world around me; the older I become the less this world of ten thousand things interests me.

    The inner life is what fascinates me, the mystical. The unknowable. When Zen Master Dogen returned from China to Japan a monk asked him what he had learned: “My eyes are horizontal and my nose is vertical.”

    That said, you did reel me in about one thing: When did Evolution transmute from a theory to a FACT? Missed that!

  24. Ryan on 28.01.2012 at 18:29 (Reply)

    A lot of creationists harp over the fact that evolution is “only a theory”. I know because I grew up in that kind of household and in those kinds of churches. However, a “theory” in science often means something very different from the conventional use of the word. A scientific theory often means “an explanation whose predictions have been proven true by experiments or other evidence”. In this context the word “theory” does not mean the idea is pure conjecture, there is solid evidence to back it up.

    Evolution is widely considered both a theory and a fact by scientists.

    So I don’t like to say “theory of evolution” anymore because most people get the wrong idea when they see or hear the word “theory”. As Wittgenstein pointed out, definitions for words are a function of the society and culture in which they are used. Most people reading this on the Internet are not coming from a strictly scientific background and the word “theory” does not convey the proper meaning to them.

  25. Britt on 30.08.2012 at 02:10 (Reply)

    Thank you for another beautiful article!

  26. Michael on 15.11.2012 at 08:09 (Reply)

    I like this article and the discussion it brought because I think we need more insight about religion and how it affects humanity.

    Besides people who struggled as children by their religious environment, many atheists react for other reasons, like the fact that they find organized religion a dangerous meme. They wouldn’t for example like to see our civilized world destroyed by a third world war brought by religious fanaticism. And it’s what already happens to some parts of the world that seems so absurd, people killing each other about “imaginary” deities. And personally I do like the initiative of outing oneself as an atheist and discussing about it because the world needs to change it’s view on religion to survive.

    But I don’t think this is the solution and I don’t think it speaks for everyone. There are people in either side, religious or atheists that are more thoughtful, more prone to listen, having a higher self-awareness than most. From the religious side, I discover sometimes people that I admire for their wisdom, people who wouldn’t fall in the trap being fanatic. Many atheists wouldn’t believe that because they think a religious person lack of logic, yet I have found some very insightful believers. I think that some atheists lack of understanding different mindsets and many religious persons are too fanatic to understand how wrong it is to fight over beliefs. But in both groups, there are those individuals who are either a bit more spiritual or more scientific but are more thoughtful and wise enough to not get into conflict.

    Some days ago, I realized that the biggest revolution in terms of religion would not be the outing of atheists (which is already happening), but if the more thought and more peaceful and aware believers stand out against their own fanatic religion and declare that, yes they do believe but they wish religion would be something personal and something that would help people find their way, not a political establishment or a reason for war. Who knows, maybe the more self-aware and thoughtful are also the less prone to react and out themselves (needless to say it might be dangerous in some countries) but this would be the hit for me, if an important part of the believers speak out themselves against their own organized religions from the inside.

    Personally, I do not believe, though while I would look like as an atheist to my friends, I am more like a person who doesn’t feel like taking part in some kind of atheism revolution. Yet religious fanaticism scares me. I am somewhere in the middle. But my view on the matter is not that of theism versus atheism but of accepting different mindsets, see how we can manage to get along together.

  27. Ralph Bormet on 15.11.2012 at 16:41 (Reply)

    While I enjoyed reading over the comments one more time (including my own, of course), I was struck by the sense of fear, and perhaps anger, expressed on both sides of the belief aisle. While I do believe in God and I am a member of a major religious denomination, I feel no need to prove that my faith is justified nor compulsion to convert everyone else to my way of thinking. I also do not feel “trapped” by the leaders of my religion. Quite frankly, I also find nothing that science has discovered to be in opposition to the truth that I have found in my religion. The two are compatible. As I said before, religion/faith is a matter of FAITH, which requires no proof. My faith explains to me why I was born, why I exist and why I must die. My rational mind only takes me so far in answering those questions.

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