Atheism and Diabetes May 2, 2010

Atheism and Diabetes

40-Year-Old-Atheist has a son with Type I Diabetes. Recently, he went to a conference for families dealing with the same issue and he encountered a lot of religious families.

That set him apart:

I do not ask “Why him?”. Not ever.

But that very question was asked (or at least implied) by several people over the course of the day. It started with the Keynote speaker who frequently invoked God in trying to give comfort to us. “God has a plan” he’d say. “Your child’s diabetes is God’s way of strengthening your character” he’d say.

40-Year-Old-Atheist knows why his son has diabetes. It may not be as comforting as thinking a god has some special plan in motion, but at least it’s honest:

“The reason our sons have diabetes is that one in four hundred children get diabetes and, unfortunately, our children drew the short stick in the statistical lottery. Our sons becoming diabetic is no different from the fact that one in eight women get breast cancer, or that one in four men are bald by the time they are 30. There is no ‘why me?’ to these statistics –- they simply describe the fact that shit happens in predictable frequencies within the population.”

I know being on the short end of the stick isn’t the greatest feeling ever. But sometimes, that works in our favor, too. (We’re alive, aren’t we?)

I find it discomforting, anyway, to think a god’s special plan for me or my family involves our health or physical well-being not being as good as it should be.

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  • Chelsea

    I have type 1 diabetes, and my devout, catholic mom asked herself the “why my daughter” question a lot at first. In fact, it probably is what led her into depression after my diagnosis. At least being atheist, I have fewer questions to answer. She definitely feels that her religion helps her cope with it now, but I don’t think she understands how much easier it would be if she just let go of her beliefs.

  • TheRealistMom/Spamamander

    I mentioned this on the “things xians do that annoy you” post, not about diabetes but in regards to my daughter’s Down syndrome. She is not “god’s special angel”, nor was I “picked to take care of a special child”. seriously, why would a deity create people with developmental disabilities and the challenges that come from them, along with potentially shortened life spans and all sorts of health issues that can crop up? If it was to somehow “strengthen my character” then god would be a right bastard to mess up a child for that purpose.

    The truth is, at age 23 I had a 1/2650 chance of having a child with DS, the lowest risk group possible. Apparently my fertility and easy pregnancies worked against me since an estimated 60-80% of conceptions with trisomy 21 are miscarried. It also worked for me in that I have a beautiful child in her own right.

    I can’t imagine how torn I would be if I had to have dealt with a “why did god do this” complex after her birth, I already went into major PPD…

  • Lukas

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but is this guy really saying “well, God screwed with your children to help you, so you should feel good about it”? I mean, why would you want to worship the kind of God who would do something like that? And what kind of person takes comfort in the idea that his child’s disease exists for his benefit?

  • Claire

    I recently was given the diagnosis of type 2 early onset diabates at only 24 which was a massive blow. I got many of the “gods plan” comments from friends but I think the ones that helpped we’re from my atheist mum “It suchs honey you lucked out on this time, but you still have a lot of things going for you” its not as pretty as gods plan for you but it actually helps you do what you have to do to live with it.

  • nolongercatholic

    I nearly fell through the floor when I read the title of this, lol.

    I have two children with type 1 diabetes. When my daughter was diagnosed, just months after my son had been diagnosed, I spoke to my uncle, who is a Catholic priest, and he said to me (in reverent tones) “The Lord has given you a tremendous burden.” Um…thanks. Its a good thing there are no gods, since if there were I would have to tell one or more of them to go f#@$ themselves for giving a crap disease like this to innocent children _on purpose._

  • gski

    I’ve not been told that god has a plan for me regarding my diabetes. But if I was I would ask the person to explain how they can distinguish between god’s plan and pure chance. If the issue is pressed perhaps it would cause them to think a little.

  • JT

    I personally find the “shit happens” explanation far more empowering and reassuring than the alternative. Your misery is part of an all powerful deity’s plan. How do you compete with that? You can’t. Would curing diabetes get in the way of god’s divine plan? Or would the fact that a scientist eventually found a cure be the convenient manifestation of the plan? How nice of him to cause a lot of suffering so that someone would come along and fix the fact that he made it in the first place.

    The alternative: Your misery is as a result of purely natural shit that could have just as easily happened to someone else? Okay, cool. We overcome natural shit on a pretty regular basis. Let’s do this. There’s a problem, we set out to fix it. Can’t get much simpler than that.

  • It’s also quite a weird view of god that he would make a child sick purely to test the character of their parents. How twisted is this god they love so much?!

  • Heidi

    I’ve often wondered why it comforts religious people to think that some god makes them suffer on purpose and won’t tell them why. That wouldn’t make me feel better. It would make me mad.

  • beckster

    This perfectly describes almost everyone in my family after my brother commited suicide. “Why him? Why our family?” I actually felt that I was better able to cope with the tragedy because I did not have to deal with the crushing feeling that my god was abandoning me or punishing me on top of dealing with the loss of my brother.

  • Kyle

    I developed type 2 diabetes at age 23. It was a combination of bad genes and the “typical” white middle-class American diet without exercise. Both my parents have/had type 2 diabetes. In fact, my mother died at age 44 from complications from diabetes. For a while there, after her death, it caused me to really call into question my faith at the time. Eventually I did fall away from church (also had to do with the fact that I was discovering I was bisexual and also studying witchcraft.) While most of the rest of my faithful family labors under the idea that my mother’s passing was a part of God’s plan, I just realized that she probably killed herself. Late in her life, she had taken to sniffing solvents, having lost the pleasure of her eyesight and gaining a really heightened sense of smell. It’s very likely she “overdosed” on sniffing ligher fluid, her already compromised kidneys couldn’t take the abuse, and she had heart failure.
    Yep. God’s plan. F*cker.

  • Any god that would give a child a disease to test the parents, or for any reason, would be no better than Moloch or the blood thirsty god of the mayans or aztecs.

    It never fails to amaze me how theists stick their god delusion into everything that happens in their lives good or bad. The degree of stupidity, self delusion and gross ignorance is epic.

  • jen

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but is this guy really saying “well, God screwed with your children to help you, so you should feel good about it”? I mean, why would you want to worship the kind of God who would do something like that? And what kind of person takes comfort in the idea that his child’s disease exists for his benefit?

    But that’s exactly what the majority of Christians (if not all of them) believe – that when something bad happens to a person, or a family, or a group of people, it happened because God has a plan and this bad thing somehow furthers that plan.

    Maybe it’s sending a tsunami that kills thousands (many of them Christians) in order to show his displeasure that people in other places aren’t obeying him.

    Maybe it’s giving a child a fatal birth defect that causes the child to live a short, pain-filled life in order to teach the child’s parents or siblings to value the gifts he gave them…

    Seriously. Some child is born with a condition that dooms them to, say, five years of pain before an agonizing death, and they have to find some way to justify God allowing it to happen. “Stuff happens” isn’t an acceptable answer when you claim that there is an omniscient, omnipotent *and benevolent* God – there has to be some reason why he allowed this to happen. So it has to be in order to teach the family something, or to punish someone for something. And as churches have become less willing to tell people that a child died in agony because the child’s parents’ sinned (that seems a little unfair to the child), it has to be that God wanted to teach others about how to endure, or how to value life, or whatever.

  • This is my favorite quote from the science fiction television show Babylon 5:

    “Wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So now I take comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the Universe.” – Marcus Cole

  • Tucker

    My son has a long list of disabilities, so most of my friends also have children with special needs. A few of them are religious and have often told me that they believe we were gifted with these children to either teach us humility (cuz we were all obviously self centered assholes who deserve to suffer) or b/c god has a special plan for my kid. That special plan must be a lifetime of being treated like shit b/c he’s different, laughed at, and having to struggle everyday to do the simple things that we do easily. It only angers me when they say these things. Do they really believe we are so wretched that our children deserve to be tormented by illness to teach us a lesson? That is just sad.

  • Thanks for linking to this, Hemant. Obviously, this is a very important and personal topic for me. From reading the comments both here and on my blog, it’s clear that many people feel as I do… knowing that definitely helps.

    Thanks everyone!

  • Miko

    Statistics are descriptive, not prescriptive. There is no natural law demanding that 1 in 400 children must get diabetes. As such, “why him?” is a decent question.

    As is usually the case, the fact that people ask the question is not the problem; the problem is the lame answer that religion provides.

  • Miko,

    I can see your point. I can certainly ask why my son became diabetic. Science has some theories – part genetic + there may be a virus at work etc etc.

    However, it’s is the motivation for the question that I think we all disagree with. The child was asking why God/Karma/the universe gave him diabetes. He was inferring purpose where there is no purpose. The father, knowing this, was struggling with answering why God had done this to his son.

  • I hate this constant need for religious folks to think that they are special. It leads to all sorts of absurdities. Humans evolved, we are here, and sooner than later we will be gone. We are lucky that we can live with many of the genetic mutations that exist in our population. Most of such mutations in all other animals are fatal. I really wish people would get over this “we are special” shit; it is what drives us to completely destroy this Earth with no regard for the other creatures inhabiting it and at our mercy. Maybe if we had a little less hubris, we wouldn’t be such a disaster for everything else on this Earth. Repeat after me: Just because I am alive, does not make me special; it makes me a statistical anomaly.

  • Brian

    In separate accidents 9 month apart my mother broke her left shoulder then her left elbow. This resulted in constant pain that could barely be aided by strong narcotics -which in turn led to other problems. She also developed type II diabetes and eventually went blind. At her darkest, most pain-filled moments, when the pain killers weren’t doing their job, she would cry out, “Why god, what did I do to deserve this? Why are you punishing me?” So, religion added psychological pain to her physical pain. I never saw her draw one ounce of comfort from the platitudes offered. But guilt? Yes.

  • Jonat

    I feel like it would do some good to have a Christian opinion on this. Don’t worry, this is friendly Atheist, I’ll be a friendly Christian. I’ll just respond to points as I see them

    God’s Plan: I think what a lot of you are forgetting that some good can come from tragedies. Every hardship that you’ve endured in life has given you some sort of experience that you may be a totally different person without. Maybe the earthquake in Haiti inspired someone to become a humanitarian. Living in poverty could teach someone to appreciate what they have. The point is, if we go though our lives without any hardships, there’s no way we’re going to grow as people. Without that diverse list of life experiences and tragedies, we would not be able to develop as highly as we could. It seems like the offensive part about this isn’t the Christian aspect, but that someone wants to look positively at a negative situation; for example, how would you react if someone said “Don’t worry, this experience is going to improve you as a person.” It’s true, but it’s just not what you want to hear. The only difference between this and Christianity is putting God in the sentence.

    “We are special”: If a Christian’s child (or anyone’s child, really) was afflicted with a burdensome like diabetes, I really don’t think superiority over others is the first thing on the parent’s mind. Coping with their child’s diagnosis is. And for a Christian, asking the question “Why us?” is an expected way to cope.

    Son has a long list of disabilities: I don’t see how caring for a disabled child wouldn’t teach you some sort of humility, your religious friends weren’t implying you were extremely selfish to begin with. Humility is as simple as putting others before yourself, and I’d imagine caring for a child wild a long list of disabilities would require putting him before yourself quite a bit.

    Hope this helps 🙂

  • @ Jonat

    Good things that come from hardship has NOTHING to do with “God’s Plan”. It has to do with resilient people who make the most of a bad situation. Life lessons learned have nothing to do with any sort of “God”.

    With respect to my “we are special” comment, I was not referring to these parents thinking they are more special than other people. Humans think they are superior to all other animals. That is the problem. Religion tends to exasperate this because of the assertion that man was created in god’s image.

  • Autumnal Harvest


    Maybe the earthquake in Haiti inspired someone to become a humanitarian.

    It also left a lot of children grieving that their parents were dead. And it left a lot of parents grieving that their children were dead. You can come up with some good results for virtually anything, but are you really saying that every natural disaster has enough good effects that it’s, overall, better that we had them? It seems like you’re saying that God had a plan to kill a bunch of people in Haiti so that some other people could be inspired to he humanitarian. While I acknowledge that I’m not omniscient or omnibenevolent, to me that just seems messed up.

  • Twin-Skies

    When my late uncle contracted lung cancer, I recall that the family priest didn’t even try to use the “why him?” rhetoric on his family.

    Instead, he passed the message to our closest kin, to let my uncle’s family know that they were in their thoughts.

    Just saying this because as much as I think praying doesn’t really solve anything, I do think some priests actually have a sensible way of helping families cope with serious illnesses.

  • Matto the Hun

    It started with the Keynote speaker who frequently invoked God in trying to give comfort to us. “God has a plan” he’d say. “Your child’s diabetes is God’s way of strengthening your character” he’d say.

    Really? Well get me the hell away from your god, I don’t want to know what other sick and sadistic plans he has in store for me. I’ll do just fine on my own thanks.

    What a crappy plan. People can build character in ways that don’t cost them their health.

    Further, anyone who claims “God has a plan” is a liar. You don’t know that, you have no evidence for it.

    Also, everyone who believes “God has a plan” sure as heck better not be praying for their god’s help when Auntie Jane has cancer. If god has a plan, it’s mighty presumptuous that he’d change it for you. If he did, then it couldn’t have been that good of a plan in the first place could it! Especially when that plan involved inflicting pain and suffering (and potentially death) on somebody. So don’t let me catch you praying… because everything is either going according to the (sick and twisted) plan or it’s not. You can’t have both.

  • @Jonat

    I think what a lot of you are forgetting that some good can come from tragedies. Every hardship that you’ve endured in life has given you some sort of experience that you may be a totally different person without.

    Whenever bad things happen to us, we want to get stronger and learn from them. However, as was already pointed out, that doesn’t mean the character building had some sort of pre-determined purpose behind it. What you are describing is nothing more than good ol’ rationalizing.

    Secondly, if you were to ask almost anyone who has Type 1 diabetes if they’d trade the character building for not being diabetic, they’d do so in a heartbeat. I suspect earthquake victims would also go back in time to avoid their tragedies – no matter how much they learned from them as well.

  • Heidi

    @Jonat: I would react exactly the same way to that person as I would to the Christian, or to the guy who says “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I don’t want to BE any stronger. (Yes, I actually have said that to people.)

    If I were to infect a kid with HIV so his/her parents could be stronger, that would make me a monster. So what would that make an omnipotent being who did the exact same thing? Benevolent? Comforting? I don’t think so.

  • Bleatmop

    I think that even if the child in question drew the short end of the stick on diabetes, the largest end of the largest stick possible was already drawn by being born into a first world country. Here diabetes is an inconvenience when managed properly but in the third world it is a slow and agonizing early death sentence.

  • JulietEcho

    The variation I was raised to believe was that, having free will, Satan and demons and humans can all cause horrible things to happen by sinful or evil actions (or maybe even thoughts?) but *because of God’s over-arching plan* good can be harvested from the tragedy/evil.

    I don’t think this is better (or not much better) than less nuanced views – just offering some extra information on the kind of theology behind the ideas.

    On one hand, I don’t blame people for coping with difficulty and tragedy in ways that help them. On the other, I can’t imagine finding the “good will come of this” or “everything happens for a reason” platitudes reassuring or comforting at all. If anything, I suppose I can take “something good can come of this” in the sense that humans can take action to cure diseases, predict natural disasters, etc. and improve chances that future generations of humans won’t have so many bad things to face.

    I think that’s the humanist version of a similar idea – the big difference is that there isn’t a giant asshole with superpowers with a bunch of apologetic followers involved, claiming that he “works in mysterious ways” and has “blessed” them with what should be recognized as horrible and should spur human action to cure/help/prevent and not prayers and reassurances about making us “better people.” You know what would make us better people? Facing the harsh realities that challenge our survival and fighting tooth and nail to improve the quality of life for all people.

  • fritzy


    First of all, thank you for your input.

    All of what you have posited is wild conjecture really. There is no hard evidence to back up your hypothesis and while I certainly find your view much more palatable than the fire and brimstone fundamentalist version of human’s being the recipient of punishment from god(s) for evil deeds, it is certainly no more or less valid.

    And frankly, as has been pointed out, people step up to the plate because we are social creatures, capable of empathy. We need each other. We certainly don’t need some god “testing” us; a concept I find reprehensible (even if it is better than the punishment from on-high version) and incompatible with mercy and love of any kind. Think about it: what is the need for these “tests?” If bad things didn’t happen, there would be no need for us to be strong enough or generous enough or altruistic enough. These kinds of apologetics are circular reasoning. There is nothing logically sound about it.

    This of course leads to the “god works in mysterious ways” and “we mere mortals can’t possibly understand god’s plan for us.” If that’s the case, what’s the point in trying to understand or worship him/her at all? Even if he/she/they exist, by being this “mysterious,” they have made it abundantly clear that they do not seek to be understood or to engage in any kind of personal relationship with any of us.

    FAct of the matter is, what is the need for any diety in these cases? We know the cause of diabetes. We know the cause of earthquakes. And we know that, because these things exist, they are going to happen to someone and there is no reason that someone couldn’t or shouldn’t be you or I.

  • brent

    or you could go the Fight Club route: I think it’s time you face up to the obvious truth that God simply doesn’t like you.

  • Valhar2000

    “God has a plan” he’d say. “Your child’s diabetes is God’s way of strengthening your character” he’d say.

    In that case, fuck my character and FUCK God and his plan!

    He actually said that for comfort? Do these people ever even listen to what they are saying?

  • jen

    God’s Plan: I think what a lot of you are forgetting that some good can come from tragedies. Every hardship that you’ve endured in life has given you some sort of experience that you may be a totally different person without. Maybe the earthquake in Haiti inspired someone to become a humanitarian.

    And what of those who died? What good did they derive from the experience? Are we truly supposed to be satisfied in the belief that a benevolent all-powerful god killed thousands so that a few could rise up and become better people?

    Is it truly okay to you that a child is born with a disease that causes pain throughout that child’s short life, and kills the child before he or she is five? The child wasn’t made somehow better by that pain. If “God” has a plan to make the parents better people by creating a child for the express purpose of improving others through that child’s suffering, then I don’t like the big guy.

    An adult *choosing* to suffer for others can be heroic. A child created to suffer? So that others can be better people? That’s just wrong.

  • Steven

    “I’m not looking for a saviour
    but I wouldn’t say no just the same
    Maybe it makes things easier
    when there’s somebody else to blame.”
    -from “Requiem” by S.M.

    It continues to puzzle me that those who believe in god(s) are not enraged by them. Omnipotent beings who choose to cause pain and suffering for “mysterious” reasons? All of it is somehow OK because it fits into a divine plan? I’d like to opt out of the plan, please. I’d trade every bit of character I’ve gained from lousy experiences I’ve had to erase them completely. Sure, I might end up minus some wisdom, grey hair, and wrinkles but there would be healthy and not-dead loved ones around – more than a fair exchange. If I believed that someone was in charge, that there was an architect of every joy and misery I think it would drive me mad. “Everything happens for a reason” is the coldest, emptiest comfort I’ve ever heard.

  • Ed

    It continues to puzzle me that those who believe in god(s) are not enraged by them. Omnipotent beings who choose to cause pain and suffering for “mysterious” reasons? All of it is somehow OK because it fits into a divine plan?

    I think people don’t get outraged by it because on some level they don’t actually believe it is true. Telling a grieving person that their suffering is “part of God’s plan” may not be said to alleviate the suffering of the grieving person but rather so that the person who said it does not have to feel responsible for helping another person. It is spoken so that the person saying it can avoid examining or experiencing a difficult emotion like fear.

    More often than not it is spoken in the same way someone says “How are you doing” -fully expecting an entirely banal and surface response rather than a real human interaction that might cost something in terms of emotion or time. People don’t know what to say and they don’t know how to deal with their own uncomfortableness so they offer up a trite platitude that they don’t really believe, but that they hope *might* offer some comfort and will also get them out of the awkward situation while preserving their self image as someone “who cares”.

  • SeanW

    Hi, I’ve been following for a while but I felt I needed to comment on this one

    I’ve had type 1 diabetes for 26 years (diagnosed: age 7). I come from mildly religious family though; I am not a believer myself.

    My family always answered the question of “Why me?” with the best data they had at the time. I guess they realized that it was an important question so; they were keeping up (and still do) on the research into diabetes and trying to provide me with an understanding of what the best answer to the question was.

    Though they believe in god, their answer to the question, “Why me?” with respect to my diabetes was never supernatural in nature. Instead, the answers I got were “Nobody knows for sure” followed by some explanation of some of what doctors think may have caused it. They still call me with any news they see from respectable sources.

    From my perspective, this was the best thing they could have done. They fostered this thought process/behavior and I’ve always kept up on research into diabetes on my own. As a result I have always had bleeding edge care and been as active participant in the management of my disease. I’m healthy and happy and have minimal consequences from the disease as a result. I will admit to a bit of rebelliousness in my younger years during which, I did the very minimum in terms of diabetes management and I paid a price for it.

    Sadly, type 1 diabetes is in my family. I saw my uncle get late onset type 1 diabetes after I did. He tried a few holistic “cures” and suffered for it. I wonder now, what the difference between us was. I’ve never believed diabetes was part of someone’s plan so I always knew I needed to take responsibility for it even at an early age. I suspect my uncle was struggling with the question “Why me?” and suspecting that the answer was “it’s part of God’s plan“.

    Logically, maybe at least to him, If it’s part of God’s plan, then maybe God can fix it too. I wonder if this thought process left him open to these alternative treatments.

  • I was diagnosed as a type I diabetic at age 3. My mother had a nervous breakdown partly because she blamed herself for me becoming diabetic.

    I find that being an atheist takes a lot of the guilt and judgement out of one’s life. As a kid I was taught in Catholic school that diseases were punishment from god. As a result of this, when I saw someone with a debilitating illness (including myself) I thought: “well, you must have done SOMETHING to deserve it”.

    When I became an atheist (probably around age 8 or 9) I realized that illnesses are just the luck of the draw. As a result of this brain wave I see someone with a debilitating illness and think: “sucks to be you, wanna go for coffee?”

    PS I to all my IDDM peeps on friendly atheist! I always think I’m the only one. (Hi to all my type II peeps too)

  • nolongercatholic

    I have most definitely learned a lot as the mother of two young children with type 1 diabetes. Are these “life lessons,” these “character builders” really worth the price of my children’s health?! No!! Of course not! I suspect my children would choose their old, “completely-lacking-any-strength-of-character” mom, rather than 4-5 insulin shots per day, everyday, for the rest of their lives. (OK, they are actually on insulin pumps, but you get the idea…)

  • nolongercatholic


    One of the “life lessons” that I have learned as the mother of children with diabetes, is to never assume that what another is going through is a mere “inconvenience.” I am much more aware, now, of how much I *don’t* know.

    Yes, my children are “lucky” to be attached to insulin pumps 24/7. It could certainly be worse.

    Yes, they are “fortunate” to be able to expect to live with type 1 for 75-80 years. They could have been born before insulin was discovered and already be dead.

    This does not mean that they do not go through real pain, physical and otherwise, as a direct result of having type 1 diabetes.

  • Jonat

    @everyone who replied to me.

    I know all of this is true, and I wasn’t trying to assert that the Christian perspective was true. I was really tying to illustrate that, if you were to look at God’s plan in such a perspective, it shouldn’t seem so unreasonable.

    And to be fair, nobody really knows God’s plan, and by saying that as consolation for some sort of misfortune, that person’s really kinda talking out of their ass whether it’s true or not.

    Also, I admit Haiti was a horrible example, but the main point and the other example still stands.

  • plutosdad

    The terrible thing about faith, especially both evengelical and fundamentalist, is that it gives answers like “it’s God’s will” to satisfy people’s emotions and stop them from pursuing answers.

    What if we still thought all disease was God’s will? The result would be no germ theory of disease, no vaccinations, we’d still be dying of epidemics. Sure the scientists who studied and came up with the germ theory of disease were nominal christians, but they were unwilling to accept “it’s God’s will” as an answer. Whenever I didn’t accept that all the “good” christians told me I didn’t have enough faith.

    By saying it’s god’s will and not looking for answers, to me that is a “sin of ommission”, not doing something we should be doing, and people dying as a result. But it is a logical consequence of faith.

    However, I am not so comfortable with the explanation “it’s just statistics”. That helps accept that something happened, but it’s not why it happened.

    We NEED to ask “why did this happen” or maybe a better question “how did this happen” if we are to progress and fight against it. We can accept the fact that “this bad thing happened” but that does not mean we do not ask why or how it did.

    Only recently we have the technology to maybe determine how type I diabetes is caused, and can start to work on solutions (assuming someday we’ll be able to design genes of our offspring). But we won’t do that if we don’t ask why and look for reasons.

    The problem is not that christians ask ‘why’ it’s that they give a safe simple answer that does not address the question, it just makes them feel better.

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