Suicide And Secularism

Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, argues that in “the decades leading up to the Englightenment … open-minded questioning of religion became increasingly associated with an acceptance of suicide”:

Christianity did not initially reject suicide…. In fact, Jesus’ death was understood by many as voluntary. In the Book of John, Jesus says: “No man taketh [my life] from me, but I lay it down of myself.” Then came the martyrs. Some did not want to die, but many did. “I am yearning for death with all the passion of a lover,” wrote Ignatius of Antioch. … The rage for martyrdom went on for centuries. …

The defense of suicide was taken up most forcefully by David Hume in Britain and Baron d’Holbach in France. In their writings, neither man dwelled on the horror that a suicide can bring to family and friends, nor did they consider that suicides, if saved, might get over their misery, averting a tragic error. Hume poked fun at the church, arguing that if death were entirely the purview of God it would be a sin to avoid a stone that falls toward our head. D’Holbach pitied those forced by their belief in God to endure sadness rather than end their lives at will. Both Hume and d’Holbach considered suicide a valid escape from misery.

Hecht continues, “That view, now a defining stance of secular culture, is a mistake and needs rethinking”:

No matter how much of a burden a person thinks he is, it is nothing compared to the burden of his suicide. People do wrenching damage to their communities when they kill themselves. Studies have shown that when parents of children under 18 kill themselves, their children are three times more likely to kill themselves than children who make it to 18 with both parents alive. When one person in a community kills him or herself, the suicide rate in that community spikes. Sometimes it is called “suicidal clusters,” sometimes “suicidal contagion,” sometimes “social scripting,” but the sociology, epidemiology, and psychology literature clearly shows that if you kill yourself it is likely that others will follow you into the grave.

Suicide contagion has been most exhaustively studied in high schools and colleges. It seems that the first suicide normalizes suicide for those who follow; victims give each other the idea that suicide is an acceptable way to deal with problems.

Previous Dish on suicide here, here, and here.  The Dish thread “Suicide Leaves Behind Nothing” is here.