Trigger warning: Discussion of Suicide
In August Ray Comfort released an instantly infamous video called Evolution vs. God. At one point in it, Comfort attempted to debunk an internet meme that had tried to claim eight of the most revered minds in history for atheism. One by one, Comfort showed that each of the first seven of them was not exactly an atheist but rather affirmed some sort of God concept (even if for most of them it wasn’t at all the personal, interventionist Christian God that Comfort himself hawks).
Finally, he came to the last alleged atheist, Ernest Hemingway. Comfort conceded flatly that Hemingway was an atheist. Then without any explanation or set up, Comfort read out the portion of Hemingway’s biography that gave a blow by blow description of his suicide. And that was it. Comfort’s manipulative, exploitative, fear-mongering, misrepresentative desired message was clear: atheism logically leads to suicide and was responsible for Hemingway’s death and could be responsible for the death of you or your loved ones should any of you go down that bleak path.
This sort of sick vampirism is only proof of the corrupting influence of religious partisanship on otherwise moral people’s fundamental decency and honesty.
Dangerous suicidal ideation usually comes from severe and tangible neurological and social problems related to mental illness, clinical depression, anxiety, psychosis, drug addiction, social isolation, divorce, bereavement, financial ruin, and similar problems. The thoughts it expresses itself through can be rationalizations that take forms consistent with a person’s beliefs without those beliefs being the actual cause of those thoughts. That is, a religious person may make sense of his or her brain’s suicidal ideation in religious terms and a philosophical nihilist may conceive of it in nihilistic terms.
This does not mean that any religious or nihilistic beliefs themselves have any rational implication that anyone should kill themselves, or any psychological likelihood that they will induce suicide just for being abstractly held in the mind. It just means that when one’s mind feels strongly inclined for neurological reasons to see the world as bleak and empty, philosophical or theological notions of the emptiness of life will just be naturally more appealing or seem truer. Or when one’s despair over lost love or a lost loved one leads to undervaluing all of life as a loss, this too is more about one’s depression guiding one’s thoughts than some detached, rationally clear inference about what one’s philosophical or theological belief system entails.
Plenty of healthy minded people who are not undergoing traumatic life circumstances don’t despair at all for not having supernatural beings in their lives. Supernatural beings are not really at all necessary for much of anything good about life in the real world in the first place. Even many philosophical nihilists are cheerful people on a daily level. And plenty of healthy minded people believe in a paradise in an afterlife but would never dream of killing themselves to get there sooner; they love this life or the people in it too much. And any number of people who believe there is no afterlife might cling to this life more fervently precisely on that account. And any number of believers in the afterlife might cling to this life for fear that taking their own life is punishable by damnation.
But nonetheless plenty of religious mentally ill people find their unique torment is shaped by their religious beliefs. They live wracked with fear of hell or with a perpetual consciousness of their supposed sinfulness or in fear their children will go to hell or in fear God has abandoned them or with delusions they are incurring God’s wrath or that they have some divine mission, etc. You even have awful cases of mothers suffering from mental illness murdering their children out of fear they’d grow up to not believe.
And when atheists, being human and subject to the same mental illnesses we all are, suffer their suicidal thoughts, caused by their struggles with mental illness or downturns in life, these sometimes take nihilistic forms.
What disturbs me is that reckless religious apologists like Ray Comfort routinely seek to both create and exacerbate precisely those nihilistic thoughts and feelings of despair that one finds plaguing distinctly suicidal atheists and religious doubters. It is like they take the scripts of suicidal atheists’ dangerous ruminations and publish them as widely and influentially as possible among believers (who may one day be atheists) and non-believers (who may already be susceptible to suicidal ideation) and do their fucking damnedest to convince everyone they can (with no real, rational justification) that these ideas are the best and most logically necessary possible interpretation of atheism. They even go out of their way to accuse non-suicidal atheists of being in denial and not being true to the real implications of their atheistic, naturalistic beliefs about the world. They actively want atheists (and potential apostates) to associate atheism with suicide as the logical path for non-believers. It is fundamentally craven, sick, inhumane, and reckless with human psychology. (They also, perversely, want to convince us we have no reasons not to be amoral monsters for so long as we are atheists!)
This bogus paradigm that without God the road leads straight to suicide is promulgated in hopes to make people despair enough that they desperately reach out for God to alleviate their depression. Some atheists and doubting believers who cannot (or do not even want to) bring themselves to believe the palpable faith-based falsehoods promoted as the solution to nihilism nonetheless wind up buying into that absurd argument that everything is “meaningless” because there is no Absolute meaning. And should these doubter and atheists happen to go on to experience mental illness, they might just have a harder time grasping why their desire to die is so irrational. How often does this happen? I have no idea. But it plausibly could and it is unconscionably careless to risk it.
Atheism does not logically entail suicide. A reason-based perspective on the world that activist atheists advocate would not make suicide enticing. For various reasons, I think a naturalistic ethics would rule it out as a good option in all cases that did not have extremely serious countervailing goods at stake. It is not a rational option. As an inducement to death, suicidal ideation is a symptom of mental sickness; i.e., something that tends towards the diminishment or destruction of the powers of an organism. It’s not healthy and there is nothing inherently truer or more honest about judgments that say it is a rational option. Only the false belief that a God is needed for rationally motivating forms of meaning, purpose, and value to exist make it seem to anyone like atheism entails seeing life as having no meaning, value, or purposes worth motivating oneself to live and thrive. And only in the hegemonically religious milieu in which people are atheists is atheism bad for people’s health.
Unfortunately, suicide is higher among religiously unaffiliated people. When one looks at the findings of research into why, it seems clear that these were people who, typically, were also more socially isolated. In fact, note that the category itself divides people along lines of religious affiliation rather than belief or non-belief. It’s not just atheists they are talking about but people who do not attend religious services and whose behavior correlates with other indicators of social disconnection. They were “younger, less often married, less often had children, and had less contact with family members” and they “perceived fewer reasons for living” than the religiously affiliated and they had “fewer moral objections to suicide”. It is quite likely they perceived fewer reasons for living not because they lacked a belief in God but because they were more socially disconnected. For many it is the intimates and dependents in their lives who provide important reasons to live during their darkest hours, who prevent the onset of loneliness and depression, and who are successful at intervening before downward spirals into depression proceed too far.
Other research has shown that the generally better health outcomes religious people in a number of areas actually correlate not specifically with religious beliefs but with attendance in religious community. The problem for atheists is not that it logically or psychologically entails despairing nihilism but rather that religiously unaffiliated people miss out on the naturalistically explicable humanly social benefits that religious social activities provide. And, we may speculate, the people who wind up atheists or religiously unaffiliated in the first place might more often just be the kinds of people who are more comfortable being different than other people and disinclined to be “joiners”. This may play a role in why they don’t go along with everyone else in believing in absurd religious dogmas in response to the social pressures and conditioning that those who wind up more religious prove susceptible to.
What atheists need, if they are to match religious people in health outcomes and stop having higher suicide rates, are more robust fellowship alternatives to religious ones. And that can happen with atheists banding together as having positive identity connection with each other, rather than continuing to perceive themselves as having no reason to have anything to do with one another and outright opposed to joining up with fellow atheists as a matter of principle for fear of being “like the religious”.
I have no idea about what the actual correlations are between religious messaging about atheism entailing nihilism and atheists themselves adopting nihilistic views. Neither do I know whether philosophically convincing people of nihilism in the abstract can be shown to increase those people’s feelings of negativity, despair, or suicide. I also don’t know if causation works the other way round and prior mental illness or emotional negativity are the predictors of philosophical nihilism.
All I have seen empirically (in the same study I linked above) is a claim that the religiously unaffiliated are less likely to have a moral objection to suicide and this partially accounts for their higher suicide rate. This does not mean that objectively atheists who believe suicide is morally acceptable are more rationally consistent atheists than those who do not think it is moral (bracketing outlier cases of euthanasia for the terminally ill who are excruciatingly suffering). I think, for philosophical reasons that I think are more than simply rationalizations, that conclusions favoring suicide on account of atheism are fundamentally irrational.
Atheists having less objections to suicide could be just as much a byproduct of them holding on to religious prejudices that moral censure of suicide could only come from a God, combined with their being disconnected from any kind of community that is focused on explicit moral reflection and formation. In which cases, the solution for making atheists feel less morally okay about suicide probably involves more robust secular communities for active moral reflection and formation, and less religious messaging about there being no meaning, value, purpose, or morality apart from God.
In either case, I would not play with fire were I a religious apologist–at least not if I genuinely cared about atheists’ well being. What atheists don’t need is manipulative messaging from theists that tries to exploit any suicidal ideation they may already be experiencing due to mental illness. They don’t need people telling them that it is only rational for them to think that way and, worse, to follow through on it. If Ray Comfort and other theists cared about atheists’ lives as much as they purport to care about their souls, they wouldn’t even dare think of trying to make atheists associate their non-belief logically with suicide on the off-chance it might backfire and contribute to their depression and suicide instead of their conversion.
They also would not promulgate or perpetuate nasty stereotypes and stigmas like Comfort does using Hemingway. If you have prejudices against a group, whether proudly or unhappily or unconsciously, then when a member of that group shows some sign of weakness or badness, you take that as evidence of that whole group’s tendencies, rather than as being about that specific person. So, to a Christian bigot, if a Christian is an alcoholic or mentally ill or suicidal, that’s a particular person who has a problem. If an atheist is any of these things, it’s proof of “where atheism leads”. That’s morally reprehensible prejudice at work in confirmation bias.
Prejudicial religious beliefs and attitude’s like Ray Comfort’s can cause religious people to think and say horrible things which can have devastating consequences for the mental well-being of atheists or others they bigotedly disparage as “sinners”. In some cultures we’re dealing with religiously influenced honor killings, jail for apostasy, and religiously inspired vigilantes who rape lesbians to “convert” them to heterosexuality. In North America we have an epidemic of gay teens and transgender people driven to the streets and to suicide by religious messaging that they’re sinners. I have friends disowned by their parents for being gay or for being atheists (or both!). This summer an atheist woman told me that when her father learned she was no longer a Catholic after she became an adult, he told her it would have been better off that she’d have died at 10.
Religious prejudice against atheists and other falsely accused “sinners” are a tangibly greater and more remediable threat to their mental well being than philosophical nihilism. The idea that we all need to cower and cling to religious faith or we’re going to have a rash of suicides is false and dangerous. We need a rational approach to reality. That means we need people to stop putting their prejudices, including their “faith” above reality, and stop looking at other people’s psychological variances or differences of belief through the judgmental lens of dogmatic prejudice.
Sadly, last month a comparable sort of unnuanced prejudice came from the atheist side of the aisle. I have written about this in two posts: No, A Belief In The Afterlife Alone Cannot Be Responsible For A Suicide and Atheist Blogger Exploits A Girl’s Suicide to Malign Religion.
Of Nihilists Mourning Their Christian Soul Mates
Love Is Not An Illusion. Rebutting Nihilism and Other Superstitions of Disembodied Atheism
Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?
The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?
A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism
Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory
Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist
If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either
The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)
Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)
Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities
Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts
Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means
The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity
Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality. Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.
How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways
How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity
From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism
Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?
Contextual Purpose (Reconceived of as Unguided Effective Functionality):
Can Good Teaching Be Measured?
Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers
Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example
On Nietzsche and Contextualized Truth:
Mostly True, Not Mostly False Evolution and Epistemology
On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Viewpoints