Atheist Blogger Exploits A Girl’s Suicide To Malign Religion

Trigger warning: Discussion of Suicide.

In the companion post to this one, I discuss how Ray Comfort exemplified a cruel, reckless, and exploitative strategy whereby Christian apologists try to inextricably link atheism and suicide in people’s minds. Unfortunately, an atheist here at Patheos last month went and did something similar and comparably morally ugly and irrational. Terry Firma at Friendly Atheist, commenting on a newspaper story about a 12 year old girl who he had believed killed herself to join her deceased father in heaven (a story that turned out to be “substantially untrue”), wrote this scare tactic piece of morally abysmal, exploitative, factually ignorant, prejudicial dreck:

But the account also confirmed for me that the idea of heaven can be both comforting and toxic — make that deadly — at the same time. If Maria’s head hadn’t been filled with nonsensical ideas about heaven, where it’s all about the posthumous family reunions, she’d probably be alive today.

Her death is the somewhat prettier equivalent of the Islamic suicide bombers who think they’ll go on to great rewards in the hereafter.

Religion kills.

“Religion kills?” The mind reels. “Religion” is not a monolithic thing out in the world indiscriminately killing people. There are harmful ideas and behaviors that take distinctly religious forms but that is not all “Religion”. The moral irresponsibility, scientific illiteracy, cultural illiteracy, and innumeracy on Firma’s part here is Ray Comfort kind of bad. It is inexcusable that he couldn’t calculate probabilities and figure out just how often “Religion” (with a capital R as though it is some spooky monolithic force) directly kills people, compared to how often other things like Diseases, Accidents and Starvation do. Billions of acts of Religion that involve no fatalities are being carried out daily.

There are some distinctively religious evils, but suicide is not usually one of them. There are some evils which have religious dimensions to them but where the religious dimensions are not sufficient to explain them in their entirety. And there are some evils that simply manifest with religious forms but which are not caused by Religion itself. Relatively few of the billions of religious adherents in the world are killed directly by Religion or by a religious zealot. Relatively few of the billions of people who believe in an afterlife will kill themselves primarily on account of that belief.

There are specific religious kinds of suicides prescribed by specific religions or specific, narrow sects and cults that you could name and denounce with particularity. You might be able to write about the general phenomenon of suicide cults if you researched them and distinguished them from all Religion. And specific religious beliefs held by specific religious groups can certainly contribute to the matrix of factors that lead people to kill each other in war or to commit hate crimes, and we can call out specifically religious violence and prejudice and crime as such. You could even locate any identifiable patterns of that indicate a problematic tendency within religious practice generally. There have been wars where religious beliefs were an integral factor in their instigation, perpetuation, and/or escalation. And certainly religious belief is manipulable for purposes of war propaganda and to motivate soldiers to be willing to die.
And specific religious beliefs manifestly are a culpable >part of terrible social, cultural, moral, and political policies and practices that can be identified and morally denounced for oppressing people and leading to social and economic ills and moral evils in numerous cases throughout the world. Call those things out by name. Analyze all the contributing factors to moral and cultural and economic regressiveness and stagnation at work. And where, and to whatever extent, some religion is guilty, give it hell. And where there are philosophically demonstrable negative structures inherent in the logic of religions generally or in a specific one, or where there are empirically demonstrable patterns of negative effects within religions generally or within a particular one, you can go after those things too.

But, no, Religion does not, as some monolith, kill. It does not generally enjoin people to suicide and murder any more than Atheism does. And there is neither a magic belief nor non-belief that keeps people from killing themselves. Neither simple religiosity itself, nor irreligiousness itself, drives people to suicide. Irreligious people can fall into any number of irrational beliefs too and any number of those irrational beliefs can be brought to bear (or arise in the first place) when the mind feels like dying. Seizing on a suicide of a religious person, even one carried out in a distinctively religious state of mind and trying to extrapolate a larger moral that “Religion kills” is recklessly prejudicial and exploitative. Our criticisms of religious evils must be scrupulously honest and specific. And no one should be playing with fire by trivializing the life and death complexities of mental illness as part of using them as a football in the contest between theism and atheism.

After Firma was convinced that he had been misinformed by the newspaper article about the 12 year old killing herself to reunite with her family, he doubled down on the attempt to pin on Religion isolated anecdotes about children merely contemplating suicide or violence and children making the foolish and atypical choices to inflict violence on themselves or others because of religious confusions, as though with any statistical regularity whatsoever children kill themselves or inflict violence on others because of their religious beliefs or as though the religious beliefs are always the real underlying problem when they do, rather than some deeper violent tendency or random violent ideation rationalizing itself religiously. It’s a fact: some kids have violent thoughts and do violent things. It’s a fact: sometimes kids think irrational nonsense generally and sometimes this gets mixed up with religious nonsense taught to them. That sometimes the violent thoughts relate with religious imagery, fantasy, and belief is not an argument against all of Religion. Not when an overwhemling amount of the time kids are able to keep the nonsense they get from Religion as well partitioned off from dangerous actions as they keep, say, the violence they see in kids movies from manifesting as behaviors.

Only where something specifically religious in character enables or exacerbates the inevitably manifest dark sides of human nature or has the general disposition to thwart a good potential in people should we go after those specifically religious culprits.

For a more detailed analysis of why a simple belief in the afterlife by itself cannot be blamed for a suicide of someone who reports wanting to go to heaven see this follow up post.

Thanks goes to Vlad Chituc for condemning this moral and intellectual travesty at Friendly Atheist first.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Derek

    It seems like there is an arbitrary distinction being made here about what is, or is not encapsulated by ‘Religion’. It seems to me that only the people taking action (whether it is killing, self harm, or other acts generally accepted to be harmful in some way) can accurately list what their motivations were. Given that many people who commit harmful acts directly cite god, or some component of their faith as motivation, it seems fair to me to assert that Religion (as a catch all for god-related things) does in fact lead to violence, either against self or others.

    • Chris

      People who commit atrocities need some way by which to excuse them of normal moral culpability, and God’s will is an easy outlet for doing this. However, violence and moral depravity is a risk any time we start drawing lines between “us” and “them.” Gang violence, while it may have occasional religious undertones, is essentially about the authority of the group against those others over there.

      For me and for many people whom I know, religious convictions have led us toward humanism and love for all people. “Religion” is not some universally detrimental concept.

  • Cogito ergo sum atheos

    I understand you’re trying to portray yourself as being fair to both sides so you’ve written this article with some extra flamboyant faux-vitriol directed inwards, but it’s not exactly intellectually honest. If it’s an attempt to appease the simpletons who dry-hump their bibles then you should reconsider. They’d be viewing this from a biased perspective anyway. Comfort’s exploitation is not at all comparable to the extremely valid point that religion kills (yes, religion, the ideology, the motive, the gun and ammo that all serve as the executioner in need of any brain-dead vessel to occupy for the task).

    Wake up already. We’re done singing “kumbaya my darling” as we sit cross-legged in harmony circles smoking peace pipes. Atheism is intellectual freedom. Militant anti-theism is the ideological weapon that will brings us physical freedom. And it all starts with honesty.

    • Chris

      So because he is not wholly anti-theistic, the implication is that he is not intellectually honest? Because he rightly called out the exploitation of a girl’s death, he is sitting an enemy of freedom? What sort of logic is that?

      Religion kills… sometimes. Atheism kills… sometimes. Neither religion nor atheism is, as he says, some monolothic, universal standard. And if you think the simple lack of a belief in gods will bring physical freedom, then you are sorely mistaken. You will need to validate your claims rather than rely on assertion.

    • UWIR

      “So because he is not wholly anti-theistic, the implication is that he is not intellectually honest?”

      No, CESA’s clearly saying that because Daniel’s pretending that the two sides are equivalent, he is being dishonest.

      “Because he rightly called out the exploitation of a girl’s death, he is sitting an enemy of freedom?”


      “Atheism kills… sometimes.”

      Atheism cannot kill, not in the same sense that religion can kill, because atheism is not a thing, it’s an absence of a thing. There have been plenty of murders where the murder weapon has been a gun, but for how many murders has not-a-gun been the murder weapon? And I don’t mean something other than a gun, I mean the abstract concept of lacking a gun.

    • Chris

      Dan didn’t make religion and atheism out to be equal. If he really felt that way, he wouldn’t argue so strongly for atheism. Yet he believes also in a sense of objective morality, in which exploiting someone’s death to make a naive ideological point is a bad thing.

      I’m well aware of atheism being a lack rather than anything definite; however, belief in God or gods has been the direct target of violence even in the 20th century (presumably also in this century). Thus, it is only a semantic point that atheism does not exist in such a way that it might kill.

      Apologies for that confusing sentence about “sitting.” Phone autocorrect did that. Not sure what it was supposed to say.

    • UWIR

      “Dan didn’t make religion and atheism out to be equal.”

      The two sides in question are not atheism and theism, but “atheism kills” and “religion kills”.

      “Yet he believes also in a sense of objective morality, in which exploiting someone’s death to make a naive ideological point is a bad thing.”

      “exploit” is a rather pejorative and subjective term. Dan considers it immoral to make an argument he disagrees with? Either you are putting words in his mouth, or he has a rather disturbing “morality”.

      “I’m well aware of atheism being a lack rather than anything definite; however, belief in God or gods has been the direct target of violence even in the 20th century (presumably also in this century).”

      There is a difference between atheism and anti-theism. And there is a difference between atheism and anti-clericalism. The Russian Orthodox Church was complicit in the oppressive Tsarist regime (and have now aligned themselves with the Putin regime). The Bolshevik attacks on the ROC were motivated by revenge and a desire to eliminate a rival power base, not atheism. When has belief in God, in and of itself, been a target of violence?

    • Chris

      Given that “exploit” is in the title of this article, I don’t think I’m stretching Dan’s argument.

      As for anti-theistic violence, numerous countries, esp. Asian countries, have anti-theistic tendencies; however, even in the example you cite, of course there are reasons behind it. There are reasons behind religiously-inspired violence, too. Take the crusades, for example: religion was an excuse, but there were reasons to take back the Holy Lands. So does that make it less of religious violence?

      I will grant, though, that God is an easy tool for abuse. He allows people to outsource and absolve their moral guilt by proclaiming their judgments as divine rather than mundane, ridding themselves of the hard task of having to reason about ethical dilemmas. At the same time, any sort of authority figure or group can potentially serve the same role, and thus we must be careful not just about God but about how we relate to authority in general. Authority should never serve as an excuse for our behavior.

  • Peter

    Thank you for this, something that does need to be said. I was reading a story from the CBC this morning about how those poor people in the Philippines are turning to their priests and pastors for comfort from the trauma they experienced. Even their clergy can’t answer their questions of “why?” But I can almost guarantee some atheist zealot out there will scorn them for their beliefs. What would they do give for these people in mourning give them a lecture on their irrational beliefs and a copy of Hitchens God Is Not Great?

  • Delphinius

    Thank you for touching on the importance of having specific criticisms if one is critical of a group. This is analogous to best practices in individual relationships as well…it’s neither helpful nor productive to tell your partner “You *never* pick up after yourself,” or “You’re constantly forgetting to lock the car,” or some such. Sweeping generalizations are rarely useful and most widely employed as a license to complain and stereotype. All/none and never/always don’t work to solve any issues. There are underlying forces in our culture that might be a better focus for our anger and intent to change rather than classifying suicides as “a Christian suicide” or “an atheist suicide.”

  • Mike aka MonolithTMA

    Thanks for writing this, Dan. I appreciate what you do.

  • Anton

    I’m a progressive Christian, and I agree with Sam Harris that beliefs are the basis of actions. There are instances where otherwise sane people starve their children, deny them medical attention, and kill them during exorcisms because of what they believe about religion. There’s no point in denying that religious belief is at the core of such incidents.

    We live in a very sentimental culture where people profess to believe that we somehow survive our physical deaths. John 3:16 has become the defining cant of countless modern Christians. Why is it so outrageous to conclude that people literally believe in an afterlife, and that their behavior derives from that belief?

    I know the blogger at Friendly Atheist went a bit too far, and it turns out he was mistaken about the apparent motivation for the suicide. I agree that we can’t generalize about all religious behavior on the basis of a few isolated incidents. But am I wrong to recognize that certain tragedies make sense in terms of what people believe about reality?