Religion and Suicide at The Friendly Atheist

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I hope this should be immediately obvious, but it is not okay to exploit the death of a 12 year old child to score a cheap point against religion. It’s troubling that this is something I even need to say, but Terry Firma and the commentariat at The Friendly Atheist seem far too eager to pin the suicide of a 12 year old child on her belief in heaven.

Here are the facts on the ground, as relayed by Firma and reported in unsourced UK tabloids:[ref]and I use the words “facts” and “reported” liberally. Funny how standards of evidence seem so low when it comes to things we want to hear…[/ref] a 12 year old girl killed herself, ostensibly distraught by the 2009 death of her father. She left a note that said “Dear Mum. Please don’t be sad. I just miss daddy so much, I want to see him again.”

Firma writes:

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.

Let me start by pointing out that we have no reason to believe that any of the reported information is true. Reporting from an unsourced tabloid isn’t something we should accept as reasonable evidence for anything, and neither a google news search of the 12-year-old’s name nor a reverse image search of the photos in the article turns up any sources apart from the UK tabloids and blog commentary. I’ll resist the urge to rant at length that religion is not specially bad and atheists are not specially rational, evidence-sensitive, or less susceptible to the problems they point to in religious believers.

But let’s grant for a second the tabloid-reporting that The Friendly Atheist now apparently takes part in. None of that, if true, would change how factually inaccurate, sensationalist, and exploitative every sentence of Firma’s commentary is.

Even if someone leaves a suicide note detailing their wish to spend eternity with their father, there is no good reason to suppose they killed themselves for religious reasons. It’s telling that Firma looked at a 12 year-old so hurt by her father’s death 4 years prior that she killed herself not as indicative of, say, clinical depression, but rather the asinine and melodramatic conclusion that the belief in heaven—cue dramatic music as I vom everywhere—can kill.

It’s hard to determine causation from a sample size of 1, since there are a host of different causes that might produce the exact same data we have available (i.e the suicide note). Firma says that this girl would still be alive today without the belief in heaven, but there is no way at all to know that—people readily and often construct post-hoc narratives to explain their feelings and behavior, and it’s entirely possible[ref]read: much more likely than the idea that she just killed herself because she believed in heaven and wanted to see her dad again.[/ref] that the child was suffering from an intense mental illness and simply used the death of her father to rationalize the grief, despair, or hopelessness she was feeling. It would make no sense to pin the blame on religion when what caused those feelings to begin with was mental illness.

And again, this is all granted the story is even true and let me repeat we have no reason at all to believe that. Literally none. It’s an unsourced tabloid story that exists on the internet only as a tabloid story why do I even need to write this blog post?

Even more, there’s no way to generalize from that one anecdote to broad psychological facts like “the belief in heaven is dangerous because you might hang yourself to see your dad,” since this anecdote starkly contradicts more or less all available evidence on the relationship between religion and suicide. Religious believers are less likely to kill themselves, and study after study will tell you that.[ref]e.g. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15569904[/ref] I take it that those (sourced, not tabloid-based) facts don’t quite so conveniently fit Firma’s “religion bad, atheism good” narrative, so I doubt they’ll be mentioned any time soon.

Science, unlike Firma’s piece, isn’t based on confirmation bias and anecdotes. If we want to learn whether belief in heaven is dangerous or might otherwise cause suicides, we need to look further than British tabloids to actual patterns in behavior. Those legitimate looks turn up empty for the “look how harmful the belief in heaven can be!” hypothesis, so the melodramatic clincher that “religion kills”— in line with the rest of Firma’s writing, it seems—looks like little more than irresponsible and alarmist pulp.

From the archives: the vanguard fallacy and embattled purview
Chris Stedman on MSNBC: "This is a really good thing, and I think people of faith should agree"
Trigger warnings are more important than spoiler warnings, so why are they more controversial?
My Interview with David Pizarro for Religion Dispatches
About Vlad Chituc

Vlad Chituc edits NonProphet Status. He's a researcher at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, and sometimes economics at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He likes the South very much and lives with his dog, Toad, who is great. In 2012, he graduated with a B.S. in psychology from Yale University, where he spent a lot of time reading philosophy and learning to write.


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