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?
POST SCRIPT: Technology to the rescue
So you and your band mates are ready to belt out Sweet Georgia Brown but don’t have a percussionist. What to do? Not a problem that an old tractor and Swedish ingenuity cannot solve.
If you’d like to hear more tractor music, here’s your chance.