Ask Richard: Perplexed by Irrational Religious Explanations for a Suicide


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?


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.


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