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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Suicide, Catholicism, and Atheism

"The Suicide" by Edouard Manet. Source.

"Save Send Delete" is a hard book to pigeonhole. It's been compared to "Griffin and Sabine," "84 Charring Cross Road," "Eat Pray Love" "Life of Pi" and C. S. Lewis' work.

Marketers ask who my audience is. "Intelligent people who like to laugh and who aren't put off by the occasional dirty word and who want the big answers or at least the big questions."

"Save Send Delete" is really a long conversation between two people: a devout Catholic (me) and a celebrity atheist (Anonymous – but he jokes that he wants to play himself in the movie version.)

One of the big questions that the Catholic and the Anonymous Atheist discuss is suicide.

People are so steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition and its values – like a fish, they don't realize that they are in water.

In fact, though, there are value systems in which suicide, and, indeed, infanticide – killing your own children – make sense. In some value systems, they are required. In Ancient Sparta, for just one example, deformed or weak infants were left to die. Suicide in Japan is seen very differently than in the West.

But we are in water – we are surrounded by Judeo-Christian values. And so we automatically assume that suicide is a tragedy. We make this assumption whether we are Christian or Jewish or not. We do so because of the values of our culture, a culture based on the Judeo-Christian tradition.

What if the New Atheists had their way? What if we eliminated the Judeo-Christian tradition, and its influence on our values? Would the New Atheists be able to offer any intellectually coherent argument against suicide?

When I was writing "Save Send Delete," I asked that question on an internet discussion board for atheists. The question aroused some anger – sometimes I wonder if you can say anything to a New Atheist without arousing some anger.

But no one was able to offer a response. If material reality is all there is – if the only reality is what we can hear, smell, see, touch, taste – if there is nothing unseen by us – if there is no God, no soul, no afterlife – if the Judeo-Christian tradition is wrong and there is no hell, no heaven, no eternal consequence for every choice we make, every action we perform – what argument is there against ending an unhappy life? None, maybe. I'm asking, here.

For Catholics, of course, suicide is a huge taboo. I remember a priest mentioning, during a sermon I heard in my childhood, that suicides could not be buried in consecrated ground. This sent a chill through me. For a sin to be so heinous that the sinner's dead flesh could not even be allowed contact with something as common as dirt, no contact with soil that had been blessed by a Catholic priest – shudder. That solemnly flamboyant sacramental rejection struck me as the worst kind of exclusion a human being might ever experience.

The Catholic rejection of suicide is consistent with what Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called the "seamless garment." Catholicism supports the life of each individual. Abortion, suicide, euthanasia, unjust war and the death penalty are all big no-nos in the "seamless garment" school of Catholic thought.

I thought about this debate while reading the New York Times on Sunday. There were two prominent articles about suicide.

"Increasingly, Suicide by 'Economic Crisis' Is a Symptom of the Downturn in Europe" talked about an "alarming spike in suicide rates" among men in Europe killing themselves because of the economic crisis there.

A 53 year old Italian man, Antonio Tamiozzo, hanged himself in his warehouse after debtors reneged on their debts. Giovanni Schiavon, 59, a contractor, shot himself after contemplating Christmas firings of workers. "Sorry, I cannot take it anymore," his note said. A 77 year old retiree shot himself outside the Greek Parliament on April 4.

In Greece, the suicide rate among men has increased 24 percent from 2007 to 2009. In Ireland, suicides among men rose 16 percent. In Italy, suicides increased 52 percent. In Veneto, Italy, thirty small business people have committed suicide in the past three years for reasons related to work. One Irish businessman considered suicide after a banker said to him, "Save the sob story. We want our money. If that means taking your family home, we'll do it." The man did not kill himself; rather, he went on to found a group to help struggling businessmen.

The Times attributed the spate of suicides in Veneto, Italy, to a lessening of the centrality of Catholicism in people's lives. "Work became the religion here, and over time it has weakened the family, because if all you do is work, work, work, you have little else to fall on when work fails." Caritas, a Catholic charity, is trying to help businesspeople cope. In Ireland, a Catholic church in Clonmel offered a three-day seminar, "Suicide in Recessionary Times."

The second article on suicide in Sunday's New York Times was "A Veteran's Death, the Nation's Shame" by Nicholas D. Kristof.

This article about military suicides contained truly shocking numbers: "For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands…Veterans kill themselves at the rate of one every 80 minutes. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are logged every year – more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined…For men ages 17 to 24, being a veteran almost quadruples the risk of suicide."

Kristof focused on one suicide, Ryan Yurchison. Kristof asked his mother, Cheryl DeBow, why she was allowing him, Kristof, to draw national attention to her son's suicide. "He was willing to sacrifice his life for his country," she said. "And he did, just in a different way, without the glory."

I'm guessing that anyone reading this post feels, as I did, sad when I read of these suicides among businessmen in Europe and veterans in the US. Our reaction is based on the assumption that each individual human life has value. We could have a very different reaction. We could say, Well, these men have failed, and it is good that they have ended their lives. In many cultures, that would be the "normal" response.

1 comment:

  1. Krystyna Mew sent the following comment:

    With regards the first article that you have mentioned my answer to what is wrong with ending an unhappy life, assuming that your faith beliefs do not forbid it, is simply that it is a very selfish act, leaving those close to you devastated and having to pick up the pieces. Not having the parameters of religion to guide one on whether suicide is or is not acceptable does not preclude the possibility that one can think that suicide is not acceptable on moral grounds.
    In the case of the second article about veterans in the US (and it is the same in the UK), the suicides seem to be a result of the complete lack of support and care, both physical and particularly mental, which leaves these poor people, who have witnessed and experienced things most of us could not even imagine, unable to face life anymore. That is a terrible indictment on how we treat our retired servicemen.