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?” 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.