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May 17 2010

On suicide

One of the oddest arguments made to atheists is that if they do not believe that the universe has a meaning, then they need to explain why they don’t immediately commit suicide. Usually I can understand the arguments of religious people even if I don’t agree with them but this one truly baffles me. It strikes me as a weird idea that simply because we and the universe are not part of a grand cosmic plan, our lives are not worth living. This argument is often presented along with Albert Camus’ essay The Myth of Sisyphus because Camus poses this issue: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Really? They fundamental question of philosophy is whether one should commit suicide? Come on, Albert, surely you jest. Frankly, I think very few people, except perhaps a few philosophers and the clinically depressed, get up each morning wondering whether life is worth living and entertain thoughts about ending it all. Most people, even under the bleakest of conditions, seem to want to live, even if they cannot articulate why, and whether or not they are religious. The desire to live is just taken for granted. In fact, there are good evolutionary reasons why we seem to have an innate will to live that has nothing to do with philosophy or the existence of meaning. Organisms that have a will to live and an aversion to death or suicide have a selection advantage over those that easily give up, and the latter trait would have been selected against and disappeared a long time ago in our evolutionary history.

I think this suicide argument represents a good example of projection, imputing to others what you yourself think or fear. An externally imposed meaning given by god seems to be so important to some religious people (and philosophers) that they think life would be not worth living without one. Since atheists do not believe that god exists to give the universe meaning, religious people think that we must be suffering from existential despair. It is perhaps from this premise that atheists are sometimes asked why they don’t commit suicide. That is the best reason I can come up with for this baffling argument.

But that argument is false. Atheists accept that this is the one and only life we have. We know that we are here because of both chance and the many, many contingent events that occurred in history. If any one of the vast numbers of my ancestors had not chanced to meet and mate with another particular ancestor, I would not be here. There is nothing inevitable about any of our existences. However difficult our personal situation may be (and for far too many people today life is a grim struggle for survival), we are simply fortunate to be alive at all. Why would atheists, who of all people understand particularly well how contingent our lives are, want to prematurely end it?

In fact, it is religious people who should be more tempted by suicide since they are the ones who disparage this Earthly life in comparison to the wonderful heavenly life they imagine having after they die. Since life after death is highly valued and praised in many religions, premature death should be considered a good thing by believers. They are the ones who should welcome death instead of avoiding it. This is why martyrdom is used as a motivating force to induce people to commit deadly attacks against others without regard to their own well-being. The belief that one will be richly rewarded in heaven for your acts can overcome one’s natural instinct for self-preservation.

Of course, martyrdom is not quite the same as suicide. The former implies that one dies in pursuit of some goal that is deemed to be noble, though in the eyes of the world it may just be a murderous act. Suicide does not require such a purpose. But for the purposes of this discussion as to whether nonbelievers should be more suicidal, the distinction does not matter.

Fortunately for the rest of us, it looks like very few religious people seem to genuinely believe that stuff about life in heaven being so much better than life here and now, and seem to value this life as much as atheists do, thus greatly limiting the pool of would-be suicide assassins.

Next: What does the Bible say about suicide?

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4 comments

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  1. 1
    Jared A

    Hi Mano,

    I am confused about your reaction to The Myth of Sisyphus. Are you disagreeing with Camus that suicide is a thing that many people think about (perhaps not as a serious choice but as an abstract concept), or are you agreeing with him that the very ability to consider suicide negates its necessity? Or both?

    I have only read the last chapter of The Myth of Sisyphus (which is the part you linked to), but I quite like it. This last passage from Sisyphus is beautiful:

    “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

  2. 2
    Mano

    Jared,

    The only thing object to from Camus is the sentence I quoted which seems to give way too much weight to thoughts of suicide in people’s minds. Sure people think about it occasionally, usually when they hear of people who commit it, but is it really the question that is the most important in philosophy?

    What I really take exception to, however, is people implying that even if it is the most important question in philosophy, that it somehow implies that atheists are more likely to commit suicide. I just don’t see the connection.

  3. 3
    Kyle J

    I don’t think Camus was intending to imply that suicide is the most practical and important philosophical consideration for the *typical* human. He was only considering suicide from a specific perspective – the view of one who has completely realized the absurdity of the conflict that pits human hope and desire for clarity against the inherently unreasonable chaos of the universe. He does go on to determine that, even once absurdity has been realized, suicide is not the logical response. I didn’t interpret his consideration of suicide’s importance to be a recommendation so much as an abstract thought exercise. I could be wrong about him though. :P

    Camus criticized philosophers who took a leap of “philosophical suicide” by turning to a higher power as the answer to the conflict, rather than following the logical path to fully realizing the absurd condition. If for some reason you were to decide that suicide is in fact the logical response to the realization of a meaningless world, wouldn’t that suggest that those who make that leap and don’t view the world rationally (i.e., the religious) would be less likely to commit it? I guess that’s one potential way to justify viewing atheists as more likely to end their lives, though a bit of a stretch.

    Realistically, as an atheist, I do generally take offense to the idea that I can find less reason to live than a religious person.

  4. 4
    Jared A

    Mano,

    Ok, I understand your position now. I think Kyle is right that Camus didn’t exactly mean that in context. Perhaps another way of putting it is that many fundamental questions in philosophy reduce to this question. Sort of like how any NP-complete problem can be reformulated to be the same as another NP-complete problem. Maybe.

    And I absolutely agree that people suggesting that atheists have less reason to go on living than theists is silly.

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