Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Is Suicide A Result of Atheism/Secularism?

I recently received a message from a friend on Facebook. This came a day or so after the fourth suicide of a young gay man was reported within the previous week or so. Much was being made of this tragic trend and I had just reposted a short video message that Ellen Degeneres had sent out about the matter. I certainly don't want to embarrass my friend so I've reviewed his comment carefully and removed any information that might identify him. I promise you the character and content of his argument has remained intact as it was offered:

Hi Nate, you know I think you are a very Smart man, and I respect you. I guess I don’t comprehend why you find it so hard to understand in today’s society That some young people see ending it all as a pliable option when met with one life’s many seemingly insurmountable challenges. In a secular society you tell him he is just a biological accident, he is jus one of thousands of species of animal, that is evolving. There is no creator that loves him enough to die for him. He has no God ordained purpose in this life. His goal in life is simply to pursue happiness, do what is rite for you. Then all the sudden something happens, and happiness is fleeting. And you feel nothing but pain. Your sure you will never be happy again,Without hope (faith), wanting to stop that pain, is a very logical conclusion, especially if it has no eternal ramifications. Where is the surprise? I think are going to see more and more of this sad sad event happening, with the direction our society seems to be taking. Buy the way this one is reguarding a being gay issue, but it could be his Girlfreind left him or I did not make the football Team ect.ect. What do you think?

I read the missive to my fiancée and pondered it for several days before replying. This is what I wrote back to my friend. Again, I've redacted any personal information to protect his privacy:

Hi xxxx:

Sorry I didn't respond sooner. I wanted to dwell on what you said before I responded. You actually cover quite a lot of territory here. It's always difficult to respond effectively without being able to go back and forth until I'm sure I know exactly what your argument is.

Since we're using this medium, I'll just say that I think the crux of your argument is that a faith in god is the ultimate justification for stepping away from thoughts of suicide. That it is the hope of a better eternity that will act to restore one's hope here on earth and pull them back from the edge...from ending it all.

My initial thought is that, steeped in the pain of abuse, bullying, abandonment, debilitating physical pain, etc., a believer would find comfort in the idea of ending it so they can finally be in the peace and comfort promised in heaven. It's my personal opinion that the Catholic church recognized that very danger long ago and created the threat of eternal suffering for those who take their lives just to make sure they didn't go that direction. In other words, they recognized the inherent risk in an eternity based focus as opposed to a temporal one.

Secondly, in order to assert the position you've taken, I think you would have to demonstrate that most, if not all, suicides were committed by non-believers. I don't know if such information even exists out there, but I'm confident that no one can make such an assertion successfully. Therefore, any argument that faith in god is the solution to the problem of suicide fails on the empirical evidence alone.

Thirdly, sort of as a reverse argument to my first point, it is my own opinion today that since I don't hold out hope that there will be something better after my time on earth, I find the need to make this life relevant far more compelling then I ever did before. In other words, since this is all I have, my thoughts always bring me back to...make it as good as you can while you're here. This notion flies in the face of arguing that it's easier to kill myself if life becomes too difficult.

I believe it is deeply ingrained in our "lizard brain" to stay alive. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence for this argument in the world. We don't gleefully run in front of cars. The rustling in the bushes sends us running the other direction for fear of being eaten. The essence of most of our instinctive fears lies in the concern that we will die. It is that force, more than any other, that prevents their being a much greater number of suicides among the human population. Consider the Jews in Nazi Germany. Up until they were thrown into ovens or gas chambers, in the most horrific physical and psychological pain, they clung to life.

From that I would turn to what I see is the real issue that needs to be addressed in this specific case. I realize you argue this is a broader issue then homosexuality, but I think that's a red herring. The statistics show that young gay men are four times more likely to take their lives. A combination of youthful ignorance about the nature of life and the unceasing social judgement that takes many forms, including bullying and physical abuse, convinces way too many of these young men that they aren't worthy of life. Imagine for a moment that you lived in a world like that xxxx, that society told you something you were born with...something you had no control over (yes, I know that you will argue this point, but I am convinced homosexuality is as biological as black skin so I'll make this argument) brands you as less valuable than other humans.

If you have trouble with this argument, take a moment to substitute black for gay because the exact same ratio of suicides existed among black people during the decades of racism in America. At the heart of this problem is not a belief in god, but old fashion human prejudice, how we treat others. I too worry that we will see more of these tragedies, I simply disagree with the cause and the solution that you propose. In fact, it is quite possible that one of the reasons behind some of these suicides is the certainty these young men carry in their heads that the christian god hates them and considers them worthless.

In the face of relentless negative social messages, rejection by family members, notions of supernatural hatred, is it any wonder that so many young people look out into the future and see darkness? This is a problem that we can easily fix by turning our back on dark age mythology and embracing human kindness, greater empathy and education. This isn't a spiritual problem. The solution lies here on earth, in the hearts of men.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last sentence: The solution lies here on earth, in the hearts of men AND women. Thanks,

October 6, 2010 at 1:53 PM  
Blogger Nate Phelps said...

I plead the universal "men" as my meaning, but acknowledge your point.

October 6, 2010 at 1:59 PM  
Blogger Deane said...

In my country (South Africa) Whites and Coloureds (overwhemlingly Christians) showed the same pattern of suicide as America and Europe (high) and Indians and Africans (Hindu, Muslim and Traditional African Religion) had a much lower rate.

All this has changed over the last few years, and all population groups are tending to the same (high) suicide pattern. It is difficult for me to accept that the reason for rising suicide rates amongst Indians and Africans is because they are becoming more Christian. Something has changed in our society, but it is our not religion.

A peculiar feature of White suicide in the past has been a man killing his wife and children and then himself. Always the same elements are present: (1) He thinks that he is the head of the household and totally responsible and answerable for the wellbeing of its members (2) He has been fired from his job or is performing poorly and faces financial ruin (3) He believes that he is taking his whole family with him to a better place in the hereafter [these guys almost always leave suicide notes for their friends and relatives explaining this last aspect]. In the last few years this has become more frequent amongst African men also, but is unheard of amongst Indian and Coloured men.

God knows, from Durkheim onwards, we have wrestled with this problem and still have no plausible answers.

October 8, 2010 at 5:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much Nate for your wise words. You are doing good work writing in this blog. I found your website by 'accident' this morning and will bookmark it so I can come back again.

October 10, 2010 at 7:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a wonderful post. I have always felt the same way about realizing that this is it so make the best of it and feel that the religious are confused and misguided if they think that religion stops suicide.
-Ursula in USA

October 17, 2010 at 7:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful post Nate.

"A combination of youthful ignorance about the nature of life and the unceasing social judgement that takes many forms, including bullying and physical abuse, convinces way too many of these young men that they aren't worthy of life."

That is all too true. As a survivor of both abuse AND an attempted suicide, I can honestly say that this is definitely the mentality of suicidal people, that they feel worthless and that they don't deserve/have a purpose to be here, which is far from the truth. We all have a purpose in life, and we are all here for a reason, and we are all deserving of the same love and happiness that everyone else has. Sometimes, all it takes to show them the light is a helping hand, which unfortunately, most people overlook, especially when it comes to something that is beyond a persons fault, like skin color, or sexual orientation. However, it can take less than that for a bully to start on their prey (Like in my case, I was weak when this happened, but this experience made me stronger, and I won't put myself in this position again).

I would like to know whatever happened to the golden rules of religion, that seem to be the same no matter what religion one is. Whatever happened to "Love thy neighbour as thyself" and "Treat people the way YOU would want to be treated"?


October 25, 2010 at 9:12 AM  
Blogger Knitman said...

I took my own life for one reason only: I wanted the pain to stop. I word it as I do because this was not a cry for help, I knew it would be 12 hours at least before any possibility of being rescued. As it turned out I only put myself in a coma for 9 days. I was terrified and in pain and had been for many years. First because of abuse and then realising I was one of those evil perverts-a homosexual. Living with terror and pain 24/7 was not viable any longer. I came to think that Hell could not be worse. To suggest that it is unbelief that allows people like me to take our own lives is denial at best. I do enjoy mu life now, I have much to be grateful for and I do enjoy it muchly BUT given the choice I'd rather not have had one in the first instance. No I am not miserable nor wanting to die, the opposite is the case but it has been extremely hard fight to get here and I would rather not have been in that position and knowing that I will die and so will the man I have shared love and life with for 30 years, and my friends and my dogs, I'd still rather not have come to be.

December 20, 2010 at 6:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i love the way you structure an argument.
keep on keepin on.

January 11, 2011 at 4:43 AM  
Blogger Robert said...

You all have forgotten Satan and are in denial, and have no effective defense against him. That is exactly the reason Archbishop Fulton Sheen stated that the entire world was in satan's hands, but the Catholic was the special target, because he/she had all the Sacraments necessary for salvation, which the world continues to utterly deny. Hence, the massive priestly vocation crisis since Vatican II and Pope Paul VI's famous observation, "Da qualche fessura sia entrata il fume del satana nella chiesa del Dio?" Listen to for the Truth!

March 2, 2011 at 11:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your words speak the truth. I had just found out about you not long ago. I was raised in what I have for several years describe as "Westboro Lite".

When I say this I mean that the church my parents attended had the same doctrine of Westboro but, used false love to lure in people and were much more subtle. They also thought that gays could be cured through verbal abuse and constant prayer.

I'm going to give the short version because some events I do not want to recall. My own path was to remain silent about my sexuality and I was afraid of rejection and condemnation from everyone. I didn't think my parents would love me if they found out. I found out I was a "fag" before I even knew what being gay was.

No amount of prayer, torturing myself, helped anything. I went through my 2nd stage when I was around 15 and that was rebellion because there was nothing left. I figured if God hated me for something that he didn't seem to want to fix then screw him.

In time my rebellion faded to apathy and I sought help because I still had the urge to die. I have been in therapy/psychiatric assistance now for more years than I ever attended the church. My problem is labeled"religious abuse" but, I am the lucky one.

One of my friends from the church admitted to the church that he had homosexual feelings and wanted help. He was a 15 year old teenager and these mobsters went behind his back and had him committed to a camp that was designed to convert gay men to heterosexual. What they did to him was nothing short of torture. He is currently in a mental hospital and has been for years.

His explanation is that after all these years that he is like a dog that has been beaten by his master and no matter how good things become just a wave of the hand the dog remembers the shame. In those times he still tries to commit suicide.

There were 3 more that I found about from our church. They are all dead. Most tried to live as heterosexual men and got married and had children but, they could not escape themselves. They all committed suicide.

2 our of 5 ain't bad huh? Nice work. Event today the more "liberal" Christians try to convey messages that "God Loves You" or something to that effect I automatically tune them out. I know that they mean well but, that message is now lost to me as it always brings back the child sitting the church pew trying not to breathe for fear of being found out.

March 25, 2011 at 8:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. The emotional weight behind this post and some of the comments I read is staggering. I want to say I support you, Nate Phelps, with everything I have. I am Christian, I have several gay friends, and my church, Mosaic, is probably the most diverse and welcoming congregation I've encountered. Just this week I saw several youtube videos about your family I hadn't seen before, and while before I felt hopeless about Westboro, your story and the story of others who have escaped The Place filled me with hope.

I agree that the church is largely responsible for the overwhelming negative perceptions the gay community has to deal with. I agree that this is a problem of old fashioned human prejudice, of how we treat others. But I suggest that that old fashioned problem is related to our belief in God. While I agree that the solution lies in the hearts of men, in embracing kindness, empathy, and education, I believe the only way to change a human heart is through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I believe the only solution to old fashioned human prejudice is old fashioned Christianity. And I mean old-fashioned; straight from the Gospels, taking the whole of Christian tradition in context, not the unhealthy exaggeration of misinterpreted ideas that has given Christianity a bad name.

I hope I don't seem preachy, I'm just pointing out what I see as a way of connecting the two views without contradiction. I think we agree on the problem, and I think our solutions come to the same place, but from different starting points.

But aside from the backstory behind this issue, I am so glad you're exercising love in your family and community, and working to alleviate tensions and bring harmony. Thank you for being such a beautiful example to everyone!

This whole issue of Westboro Church and the gay community and everything in between reminds me of two amazing books that I recommend: "Love is an Orientation" by Andrew Marin, and "UnChristian" by David Kinnaman.

January 19, 2013 at 4:50 PM  

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