"If I were an atheist, I don't know why I wouldn't just kill myself," the speaker declared. People in the crowd shouted back incredulous responses, and the tone of the whole open-air discussion made a poor turn. It was years back when I was in college, and the speaker was a professional evangelist/apologeticist who at the time had a great deal to do with myself eventually becoming a Christian, despite a number of things he said that day that were offensive to many in the crowd, even myself.
The thing is, though, that particular statement did not offend me. In a way, it was something that I had contemplated myself at times. The odd thing about so many religions (and I'm including atheism under that umbrella for the sake of this discussion, whether proper to do so or not) is that from a certain perspective, it seems like suicide is the ultimate logical expression of faith. Nonetheless, as a subject that is sort of a subset of the ideas in my previous post on practical religion, it is interesting that people of just about all religions are, contrary to this, far from likely to commit suicide.
While far from the first time the concept was presented to me, the example from Buddhism may be the best. See, the central idea behind Buddhism (of the standard non-Tibetan variety) is actually a very atheistic one. An enlightened Buddhist will come to realize that God does not exist, material possessions are not important, and in fact, their own sense of self is essentially an illusion. The true goal then, is to realize that this world is nothing but illusory suffering, and to become released from it by denying its existence. The logical question that is often asked by non-Buddhists is, if the goal is to release yourself from the illusory suffering of this imagined material plane of existence, wouldn't the easy thing be to just kill yourself? After all, (non-Tibetan) Buddhists don't believe in reincarnation, so suffering would simply cease, right?
Well, the enlightened person realizes that this is false. If your material and mental self is but an illusion, then aren't you kowtowing to the power of that illusion to solve the problem by material means? Maybe if you could simply cease to live that might be acceptable, but to, say, take an illusory knife and slit your illusory throat? It's not the terminology a Buddhist would use, but that would be admitting defeat. In fact, the true Buddhas that have been enlightened realized that leaving the physical plane was not as great a thing to do as to stay and teach others that have not yet found enlightenment! Oddly enough, although this seems self-sacrificing, I wonder if an enlightened Buddhist would agree, since there is no "self" to sacrifice.
Which hints at the state of affairs for a Christian, both on an individual scale, and on a grander one. If going to Heaven to be with Jesus is the greatest thing a Christian can attain, then why not kill yourself after you give your life to Him? In the Bible, Paul addresses the matter (although the passage is not discussing suicide, but execution):
"For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me." -Philippians 1:21-26Yes, while it seems a Christian might desire to die, the fact is, we remain because there is still work to be done here on earth, and it wouldn't be right to take the "easy" way out. Some religious leaders have claimed that a suicide cannot go to Heaven, since that would be a type of murder, and one that can't be repented of. I don't think this is true, but one can see a certain arrogance in the idea of claiming to be a follower of Christ and deciding on God's behalf when it's your time to go to Heaven.
And as I said, this is also perhaps a reason for the long delay before the "second coming" of Christ. I've heard many a pastor say that every day Jesus delays His return, many, many more people have a chance to turn to Him and be saved. (It may beg the question that if indeed this is so good, why would Christ ever return? No matter for this discussion.)
A Hindu, or member of some other religion that does believe in reincarnation might also be tempted to leave a life of suffering to re-enter with a blank slate, but most belief systems that include reincarnation don't include the idea of being born with a blank slate, but must reap the rewards of your past life, so ending one life with a selfish and violent act is not likely to put you in a better place.
So, back to the atheist, the one that started the discussion. Why is it that I (and the speaker) say an atheist might desire suicide? Well, the world is full of suffering and strife (a belief common to all the religions mentioned here) and one of the main things we strive for in this life is to escape from this (ditto here). If you truly believe there is nothing, absolutely nothing in store for us after this life, then why not simply go to oblivion? I've always thought, why would an atheist be afraid of dying? Ceasing to exist couldn't possibly hurt, right?
The counter-argument that I think would be the most popular is that since there is no afterlife, then this life is all we have. Why give up everything for nothing? There seems to be some reason in this, certainly, but then, well... Maybe it's a bit of a linguistic problem rather than a real problem, but if you cease to exist, then there is no "you" to have lost any "life". Really, you can't lose your life, can you? You can only stop being you in a very final manner by cutting off your life. You don't cut it off from yourself, but from everyone else, because you're not there after life exists. So is life what you have, or what you are? Either way, is anything really lost to you?
So why do atheists not long for death? Do atheists, like Buddhists, want to keep living to spread the atheistic Gospel to the masses? Or is it merely a biological directive built into us by evolution that tells us to keep existing as long as we can, so that we can keep the chance to propagate our genetic materials in one way or another? Maybe the atheists are the right ones, and it's more straightforward to them. The rest of us need to invent reasons why we want to live, while they simply know that we want to live just because it's human nature.
You know, there's a big part of me that doesn't want to publish this post. It's probably vain conceit on my part, but I fear I may drive some atheist somewhere to kill themselves, which I certainly don't want to do. Most likely, any atheists that read this will either laugh at it, or be somewhat offended, or maybe they'll give me better answers to my questions and make me feel like an idiot (it's not hard to do, and I wish more people would tell me I'm full of it--and why--just so I know people are reading this). But whatever people do in response to this or any other blog, I hope they find a reason to live, whatever it may be.
But also, don't be afraid.