No, A Belief In The Afterlife Alone Cannot Be Responsible For A Suicide

Trigger warning: Discussion of Suicide

I wrote a pair of posts excoriating both theists and atheists who make crude attempts to pin suicides on each other’s position on whether there is a God. A couple atheists have balked at my posts. In this post, I will answer the insistence that if a religious belief in an afterlife ever plays a role in a specific person’s explanation of her suicide, Religion is to blame and can be said to be a Killer. I will break down more points related to suicide and atheism in another follow up post.

In my post criticizing an atheist I argued that even if occasionally a religious believer commits suicide with a supernaturalistic religious belief (like one positing an afterlife where she can be reunited with a loved one she is grieving) factoring into their thinking, that does not, itself, make Religion culpable. There are numerous reasons for this. For one thing, Religion is not any one thing. There are multiple religions and their teachings on what happens when we die are hardly the same. A Hindu who believes in reincarnation would have no reason to believe that committing suicide would reunite her with her loved one.

But even within a belief system that posits an afterlife where one is reunited with one’s loved ones, this belief itself does not entail any specific prescriptions. So someone believes she will live after death. This in itself tells her nothing about whether she should kill herself now. There are all sorts of goods that she can (and the overwhelming majority of believers in heaven do) prefer to experience on earth for as long as she can. Further, the very belief system that tells her there is an afterlife may have safeguards built into it to discourage suicide to get there. Most of Christianity, for example, has strong prohibitions against suicide that come with threats of hell that Christians were shrewd enough to build into their faith. So if you adamantly believe in heaven and hell and adamantly believe that the punishment for suicide is hell then you have an even stronger incentive not to kill yourself than a non-believer in the afterlife. In fact a study of the religiously unaffiliated finds that religiously unaffiliated people in fact report less moral objections to suicide and commit suicide at higher rates. So, on net religious affiliation, empirically is proving more effective at preventing suicide.

Further, there is the issue of how the belief in the afterlife functions in the religious believer’s life. There are some people living in intolerable earthly conditions who hang on because of the promise of a better life beyond if only they are faithful to the end of this life. They believe that obedience to God’s will means not killing oneself but letting Him be the arbiter of who lives and dies. Psychologically they interpret their resilience in terms of this hopefulness that this life is not all there is. Now, minds are stronger than religious people often theorize. They may very well find a different reason to be hopeful were they to lose their faith in the afterlife. But for our purposes here, ideologically it is consistent with belief in the afterlife that someone is motivated to live this life hopefully.

Also there are people like a man I met once who said something heartbreaking to me. He said he believes in the God and the afterlife because his child died and he cannot bear the thought of never seeing him again and would find life not worth living were he never to see his child again. Now it is extraordinarily likely that he would find the will to live even without his faith, if he really had to. But it is also possible that the prospect of never being reunited with a loved could lead some people to find this life not worth finishing out to its end. That can happen. I don’t think it’s a rational way to interpret the non-existence of the afterlife (and it’s certainly not statistically likely), but it’s a possible psychological outcome. For those people, faith in the afterlife could be keeping them from suicide.

Ultimately religions exist because they serve some functions for societies. I think in numerous ways they have outlived their usefulness and are now albatrosses over humans’ necks. But nonetheless, they evolved and became so entrenched in power because they did things for people. They didn’t just inspire mass suicides. Some fringe cults or sects of major religions or slivers of major religions’ practices involve suicide prominently. But on the whole, religious stories about living after death in one way or another served some function people cleaved to without performing the function of inspiring self-destruction. As organisms whose brains and body, when healthy, are naturally deeply invested in their perpetual life, we have strong impulses towards self-protection and it usually takes a lot more than a simple palliative belief in an afterlife to override our more basic drive to live.

Our brains are fantastic at compartmentalization. Believers in the afterlife are quite often no more serene in the face of death than those who don’t believe in it. They get comparably as scared at the onset of illness as non-believers. They mourn their lost loved ones as excruciatingly as non-believers. Unless they suffer mental illness or undergo common natural causes of despair they want to stay alive on earth as much as anyone else. Under normal conditions, they access their nicely compartmentalized life after death beliefs only when trying to cope with their fear of dying, not as an enticement to die. It is their strategy for talking themselves, as desperately as possible, into believing death is not really real. Their belief is usually a symptom of their vice-grip attachment to life, not a symptom of a wish to die. Where it is a wish to die, it is a last ditch desperation because they have lost all hope in this life. And it does not take religious beliefs for someone to lose all hope in this life.

So, no, except where a specific religious belief is observably correlated with injunctions to suicide and people who carry them out, belief in the afterlife neither logically entails nor rationally predicts suicide. Even though some rare people will mix up the function of the life-after-death belief in a way most believers never would, that does not mean the belief itself culpably must be denounced as a road to suicide. Even though some people who have mental illness or personal despair over their circumstances may manifest or rationalize their suicidal ideation with religious forms that does not mean that the religious belief in the afterlife is the decisive cause. The belief probably follows and expresses the mind’s turn towards death wish. It does not likely in most cases cause it and it’s not especially predictive of it.

Atheists rightly bristle at leaps of prejudicial, demonizing logic that say because atheists don’t believe in God it somehow “necessarily entails” that it’s “logical” for them to be murderers (since they’re not accountable after death to a deity) and get morally furious when Christians take murderous atheist dictators or individual atheist killers as evidence of the “logic of atheism” or call such people “logically consistent atheists”, so atheists shouldn’t leap from a specific religiously interpreted suicide to a prejudicial, demonizing, bigoted generalization like “Religion kills”. Between any one belief and action there are numerous other beliefs, values, reasons, and psychological, sociological, biological, political, historical, and philosophical motivations to actions.

Atheists need to behave and reason like sensitive, nuanced, critical thinkers, even (and especially!) when analyzing and opposing religions. We must not mirror the prejudicial, demonizing bigotries we are often on the receiving end of.

For my thorough attack on theistic apologists attempts to convince atheists that atheism logically entails suicide, see my post Ray Comfort Exploits An Atheist’s Suicide With Reckless Disregard For Atheists’ Mental Health.

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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.

  • Marta L.

    I agree with most of what you say here and in your previous posts, but want to point out something else about the psychology of suicide, at least as I understand it. (This is mostly anecdotal, from people I’ve known who completed or attempted suicide, rather than more generalized; so take it for what it’s worth.)

    Most people I’ve known who’ve struggled with various shades of suicidal ideation haven’t wanted a better kind of life; they’ve simply wanted out. They’ve wanted an end to existence, and serious belief in an afterlife precludes that. I’m thinking of one particular religious person I know, a very devout Catholic, who struggles with mental illness and suicidal thoughts, who once told me that her religion is a large part of what keeps her from actually attempting suicide. It’s not that her religion considers it sinful; it’s that suicide wouldn’t actually end her life, it would just force her to continue it in another guise.

    In a way, I suspect true suicide is incompatible with belief in an afterlife. If people really killed themselves because they thought heaven would be better than their current life, this seems more like a very extreme form of trying to get a more fulfilling job or get married or have a kid to get a better kind of life, rather than a desire to end the one you have. Looked at that way, atheism or at least insincerity of belief (or the kind of mental illness that keeps you from holding on to that belief) seems like it would be more conducive to true suicide, the desire to end your existence. Not that I’m saying atheism makes people commit suicide; this is an act of nonrationality, and I suspect it’s a mistake to think what you believe about any topic has much of an affect in this kind of scenario.

  • Derek

    I purposely avoided speaking to the issue of ‘Religion causing suicide’ in my response to your article decrying the Friendly Atheist’s post. Considering that the case in question at the heart of that story seems to be largely untrue, I felt no need to defend the author and largely agreed with your assessment.

    What troubles me here, I think, is that you seem to be saying we should not decry ‘Religion’ as a cause of violence (self directed or otherwise). It strikes me that there are plenty of examples where ‘Religion’ as broadly understood does indeed cause violence; whether it is physical, emotional, mental, self directed, or towards others.

    Again, in the piece involving the young girl from Poland is concerned, it is appropriate to call foul on linking her suicide to her faith, given the absence of evidence to support such a claim. However, if there were clear evidence of a person linking their suicide to their faith, why is citing that tragedy as a failure of religion more distasteful than citing any other religious failures as perceived by atheists?

    Tl;Dr: Clarify; are you trying to assert one should never say ‘Religion’ causes violence?

  • Liralen

    The strongest point about religion causing suicide is refusal on the part of some religions to recognize that mental illness requires treatment.

    Very ironic that an atheist doesn’t recognize that. Kudos to you for seeing it.

  • UWIR

    On of the most important parts of any argument is to have a clearly defined thesis. The title of this post says that belief alone cannot be responsible for a suicide, but the actual introductory paragraph just says “I will answer the insistence that [...] Religion is to blame”. This strikes me as equivocation: you are trying to sneak the word “alone” into the position that you are opposing. Just because there are other casual factors at play does not mean that religion is not culpable.

    “For one thing, Religion is not any one thing. There are multiple religions and their teachings on what happens when we die are hardly the same.”

    More equivocation. Science is one thing, even though there are different sciences. Sport is one thing, even though there are different sports. English allows the same word to be used for an instance of a category, and the category itself. Would you take issue with the claim that bacteria are dangerous, since there are lots of different types of bacteria?

    “A Hindu who believes in reincarnation would have no reason to believe that committing suicide would reunite her with her loved one.”

    But if they believe that suicide is a more honorable, and that being honorable will cause them to reincarnate as a higher being, they have a reason to commit suicide.