Ask Richard: Perplexed by Irrational Religious Explanations for a Suicide

Richard,

I would like your advice on the following:
I’m an atheist, my wife is a fairly liberal cafeteria christian. Recently her good friend, an evangelical christian, committed suicide. No note was left, no reasons were given. At the funeral, 3 of the speakers blamed her death on “Satan” as his evil thoughts caused her to take her own life, and said that she was now in heaven. The entire ceremony spoke of her entrance to heaven, but I know from my understanding of their faith that suicide is a major sin. As an atheist, how should we deal with such a massive affront to reason in light of contradictory statements? A part of me understands their desire to see this person again in the afterlife and find an explanation for their actions, but I can’t reconcile things. How can logical people hold these massively contradictory beliefs?

-Daniel-

Dear Daniel,

The suicide of a friend or loved one brings up many conflicting feelings toward the deceased, including grief and anger. We have our loved one, the victim of a killing for whom we grieve, and the killer of our loved one at whom we are angry, rolled into the same person. Many complex and subtle factors in the circumstances and the relationship will affect the proportions of that mix of feelings, and that mix will change over time.

If the deceased was well known to be suffering for a long time from painful illness or loneliness, then people will tend to have more forgiveness for the suicide and less feeling of injustice. But if, as in this case, it seems to come out of the blue, as it can with a well-hidden case of depression, then people are shocked, incredulous, and have a stronger reaction of outrage. They don’t feel comfortable with dumping all that outrage on the deceased, so they look for a scapegoat, a surrogate “villain.” Satan has always been a very convenient target for this, since he never speaks up in his own defense.

People can hold conflicting ideas and beliefs because of the mind’s remarkable ability to compartmentalize, like pigeonholes in a mail sorting room. They can think one thought, then move to another compartment and an opposing thought does not connect or collide with the other. They just don’t experience the conflict. Some minds are more compartmentalized than others, and I’m not sure, but I suspect that religion tends to increase this. Atheists, having stepped out of, or never been in that process, tend to have minds more like a large room with only a few compartments, where just about everything can see everything else. So contradicting ideas don’t last long, and atheists can sometimes have a harder time being patient and understanding of people who harbor contradicting ideas.

But atheists are still capable of empathy and compassion, and they should exercise those when they see people in anguish, regardless of the illogic.

As an atheist and as a husband, I think the thing for you to do at this point in time is to focus on how you can provide human-oriented comfort and support primarily for your wife in her grief, shock and loss, and secondarily for her friends if need be. You’re not going to be able to change their beliefs, but you can be valuable as a human to a human in need. Be an open ear with an open heart. Encourage your wife to express any and all of her feelings as she goes through the process of grieving for her good friend. No feelings are “bad” or “good,” they are just there. Give permission, over and over, for her to express whatever she feels. Don’t argue with any of the illogic in the theology. That won’t help the suffering and bewilderment of the human beings around you. Right now, they need a safe place to grieve without tension from intellectual arguments. Grief comes in waves with pauses in between, diminishing over a long time. It takes as long as it takes.

Daniel, you have a clear, rational mind. Sometimes the best use of that kind of mind is as a teacher who challenges irrationality, and sometimes it is best used as a companion who comforts and heals pain.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    That was excellent, a great balance of insight and sensitivity.

  • mikespeir

    “But atheists are still capable of empathy and compassion, and they should exercise those when they see people in anguish, regardless of the illogic.”

    That is good advice.

  • ColinSFX

    I’m guessing because you said evangelical Christian that the suicide was not a Catholic?

    Having grown up in a deeply fundamentalist Southern Baptist family, I can say that suicide wouldn’t be considered an unforgivable sin by most Protestants in the same way pop culture paints the Catholic relationship with suicide. It’s a sin, but it’s one among many that one asks forgiveness for as a matter of course. The one time act of salvation is understood to save one’s soul from from hell, permanently.

  • llewelly

    Daniel:

    How can logical people hold these massively contradictory beliefs?

    Being logical is hard under the best of circumstances. Being logical while grieving for the death of someone you cared for … that is, I think if we are honest with ourselves, beyond all but the best of people.

    Richard:

    Don’t argue with any of the illogic in the theology. That won’t help the suffering and bewilderment of the human beings around you.

    Although people are less receptive to logic than usual while grieving, once the grief lightens, I think it’s important to look for opportunities to convince people that suicide, like all behavior, is the result of neurochemistry. It is usually the result of depression, or some other disorder, which can sometimes be treated by modern medicine; scientifically treated depression is associated with a lower suicide rate than untreated depression. As with many other diseases, the right drugs have the potential to save a person’s life, and it’s important to spread this knowledge, to increase the likelyhood that depression will be detected and treated before it results in suicide.

    On a different note – this brings to mind a question I have had from time to time – which charities do the best job of getting treatment for depressed people?

  • Daniel

    Thank you again for responding to this! The funeral was last Tuesday, and already things are getting better. This is some of the best advice I’ve seen, and I really appreciate the time it takes to discuss such challenging issues.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    I know the funeral has passed but such a situation is never a good time to point out inconsistencies in logic or to challenge anyone on their deeply held religious views. Even months (years) later being reminded of a loss can be traumatic. Those beliefs are a stabilizing force for many.

    When people use platitudes like “he’s in a better place” they are lending support to themselves and others based on their belief system. There is an assumption that such things will help rather than anger. You can’t blame them for such errors in judgment, not when it is their coping mechanism. Personally I hate such things but I don’t want to challenge people when they are vulnerable.

  • Abbie

    The “contradiction” of their faith isn’t all that interesting or surprising. Of course everyone YOU love goes to heaven. That’s kind of how all religions work. It’s supremely irrational, but… duh? It’s RELIGION. Pointing that out ain’t helpful.

    I’ve wondered if religious faith is a useful deterrent to suicide. Does the fear of hell (or any afterlife consequence) really stop anyone? Are suicide rates the same for theists and atheists?

    As an atheist, I can rationalize suicide quite easily. But having a chance to be alive and experience the universe is kind of a privilege… There may be no cosmic “purpose” we should seek, but who says we need one?

  • Epistaxis

    Wow, this is really good stuff. Perhaps a regular column in Free Inquiry or equivalent is in order?

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    That was good advice. I was recently part of an evangelical small group were they regularly prayed to God for all sorts of favors large and small. One of the members was dying of cancer. This was obviously a time of major vulnerability for the group in why God was not answering the prayers for this very religious man. Even though I was an atheist, I chose to not exploit everybody’s time of vulnerability to evangelize atheism. I would bow my head in support of everyone else’s prayers.

    Ironically, a few months after he died, there was a major evangelism effort at the church with supporting books and materials from the likes of Rick Warren and Bill Hybels were they specifically said to exploit such situations when people are vulnerable to turn people to faith. I think such exploitation is disgusting.

  • mikespeir

    The one time act of salvation is understood to save one’s soul from from hell, permanently.

    If you’re a Calvinist, ColinSFX. Not all Protestants are.

  • Cypress Green

    I’ve worked for years with many dying cancer patients and their families. I’ve heard so much religious illogic, rationalization and interest in alternative treatments that sometime I want to scream! Not to mention the tracts and gifts.

    But these people really just want loving support so I listen, try to make them laugh and wish them the best. It’s the most kind. The time to reach people is before a crisis. Or long after.

    I am touchy on the subject of suicide as I am bipolar, have been suicidal, have a family history, and lost a cousin and friend both to it.

    It saddens me when I hear people are so misinformed about the causes, partly because it means they’re misinformed on the signs. If they understood how depression works, they could help the still living AND still believe the dead went to heaven. Win-win. Bonus: poor maligned Satan gets a pass.

    All the people closest to me have a copy of the signs of manic depression (and permission to call my husband about it) to help me keep an eye on myself. People in a manic phase will INSIST they are just fine. That needs special watching.

    I think part of the reason people hold conflicting beliefs is because they just don’t understand suicide.

    The catholic church no longer considers suicide to be a ‘mortal sin.’

  • ash

    Abbie;

    I’ve wondered if religious faith is a useful deterrent to suicide. Does the fear of hell (or any afterlife consequence) really stop anyone? Are suicide rates the same for theists and atheists?

    religion may well be ‘a useful deterrent to suicide’, but it’s only helpful if it has any effect on the person’s mentality – else you get left with a miserable suicidal person too wretched and terrified to do anything but merely exist. Not a good thing, and whilst some religion for some people can provide a lifeboat, obviously for this person it wasn’t enough.
    I just hope that for her, thinking suicidal thoughts didn’t hold sinful ramifications that made her unable to reach out to her community.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    In England suicide is still illegal. I’m just saying that if you come over here and feel like topping yourself then it’s not a good idea. You’ll just get in trouble.

  • J. Allen

    This may be a touchy subject, but I have a suspicion that religion and suicide are correlated together. Religious people tend to avoid secular therapy. They take on many sufferings as ‘tests’ from God. They are always trying to live up to impossible standards.

    This could just be my bias though.

  • Cypress Green

    @hoverFrog…the hell with THAT worry. I ain’t killing myself. I just don’t want to share a jail cell with someone convicted of suicide.

  • Alexis

    I agree that the funeral is not the time to bring this up. But here in this blog: in my experience you can either express yourself, or repress yourself . Repression leads to depression, or anger,or anxiety. If you live in a religious community where expressing yourself (closeted gay? closeted atheist? in love with the ‘wrong’ type of person?) can be dangerous (loss of friends, loss of family approval, community shunning), then when your views begin to diverge from theirs, you might feel you must repress yourself. The internal pressure builds up and at some point an explosion occurs. In such a situation, the person may feel a damned if you do, damned if you don’t feeling. Been there, done that, lived to get the t-shirt. Back in the 70′s a baptist minister told me that ministers’ wives have one of the highest rates of suicide.

  • http://twitter.com/Autarkis Autarkis

    I must disagree with the neurological implications of your explanation of compartmentalization.

    The mind isn’t compartmentalized, it is context-sensitive.

    You inspired me to write my newest blog post on reasoning though, thanks for that: http://is.gd/1scJn :D

    I’m following you on Twitter and regularly read your blog. :) Good stuff!

  • http://www.atheistcrow.co.cc Luke Crowe

    Excellent and caring advice. The final “you have a clear, rational mind… and sometimes it is best used as a companion who comforts and heals pain.” is both insightful and very helpful.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    @J. Allen, suicide rates are actually slightly higher in nations that are less religious. Sweden, perhaps the least religious nation in the world, has 13.3 suicides per 100,000 head of population compared to the USA’s 11 per 100,000. Iran in 0.2. Of course religion isn’t the only factor.

    Also suicide rates increase slightly following widely reported celebrity deaths. Something else I can cite as evidence that the media frenzy of Michael Jackson is a ridiculous waste of time.

    @Cypress Green, I know. Talk about depressing.


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