If Atheism Were True, Would Suicide Be A Vice?

Inspired by this excellent book. Strongly recommend.
Article inspired by this excellent book. Strongly recommend.
When we say that something is a “matter of life and death,” we mean to say that it is something that we need to take very seriously. If we gloss over it, somebody may die, and we may be complicit in their death because we could have taken some action to prevent it. Generally, we recognize that if we can save a life, then we have done something good. If a man is dangling from the edge of a cliff, looking down, desperately trying to climb back up, then to stretch out our hand is to do something good. Similarly, if we convince a suicidal person that they should continue living, then we have done something good for humanity and for that individual. This is generally derived from the Christian ethic that all life is precious. As Marvin Perry and co. pointed out on page 191 of their secular textbook Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society, western culture has imbibed from Christian theology and tradition that doctrine of the sanctity of life. But suppose for a moment that atheism were true. If atheism were true, would suicide be a vice?

Notice that in this article, I am not arguing that atheists should commit suicide. Far from it. Just as when I argue that if God does not exist, the universe does not exist, I am not saying that in fact, the universe does not exist. I am saying that atheism is an inconsistent philosophy, because it is predicated upon the presupposition that the universe exists. In this article, I am pointing out that if atheism were true, then suicide would not be a vice. It is about an inconsistency in their philosophy rather than an urging to commit suicide.

The Sanctity of Life

First, I need to begin by pointing out why we recognize that suicide is a vice. As I indicated in my opening paragraph, we believe that it is a vice because we have imbibed the Christian ethic of the sanctity of life. We believe that human beings are made in the image of God. Accordingly, they deserve respect and honor. People have value, are not means to achieve some ends, but are ends in and of themselves. Christianity maintains that we should esteem ourselves less than we esteem others (Philippians 2:13), and that we should sacrifice our pride and position for the sake of another person. We are special creations of God, distinct from the animal kingdom. Consequently, human life is something that is precious. To take a human life is a sin. For a person to take their own life is a sin.

However, if atheism were true, then much, if not all, of what I said in the above paragraph would have to be false. Human beings arose as a product of a long chain of accidents. They are the product of time and chance, and ultimately, their lives have no value (even their most precious pursuits will end in nothing at the heat death of the universe). We are bags of protoplasm. Yet, even most atheists admit that we need to cooperate in society with another, and will suggest that we need to be charitable and kind to each other. That is how a society functions. But even with that being the case, that still does not provide a guard against suicide. If human beings have no intrinsic value (value in and of themselves rather than perceived value that others give them), then what good reasons are there to think that suicide would be a vice? It seems that by adopting atheism, one uproots the doctrine of the sanctity of life at a fundamental level and the mentality of the suicidal man prevails.

Why Not Commit Suicide?

Let us suppose for a moment that an atheist was having a conversation with a suicidal man that he just met. They were talking about life, about how silly Christians were, about how he has brought up the Flying Spaghetti Monster and had started wailing “Who created God?” just before claiming victory. Then one of the men confessed to the other that he just does not see a point in continuing to live. He hopes that he has the courage to commit suicide. Filled with dread, the other atheist tells the suicidal man that he should not do that. He wants to convince him to continue to live. Scouring his mind for a few reasons, he says something like, “What about the people you will leave behind?” The man replies, “I have no children. My wife has passed away. I live alone.” The atheist follows up, “What about the good things you can do for humanity?” The suicidal man nods his head in dismay and says, “It just feels pointless. Besides, I am too old to be any good. And to be quite honest, I do not really want to do that. All I want is to die.” What does that atheist have to say? It seems to me that the silence is deafening. If atheism were true, there really would be no reason for them to abstain from suicide.

This seems to stand in utter contrast with the Christian ethic of the value of human beings. People should not commit suicide because they have intrinsic value and because God commands men everywhere to repent of their sins and believe the gospel. You will notice that the atheist attempted to raise the question of value when he spoke of the people that he would be leaving behind. But his worldview does not permit him to exceed the boundaries of extrinsic value (value that is based on perception, the value that others give him). If there is nobody who values him, then on atheism, he would be truly valueless. Even if there is somebody who values him, his value would be dispensable, much like the value of cash (it is just paper). It seems that within the confines of an atheistic worldview, the question presses hard upon us: why not commit suicide? There are just no reasons to think that it is a vice on atheism.

No Benefit To Society

You will remember that as I briefly expressed typical atheist ethics and the incentive that they have for cooperating and behaving in an acceptable manner, I pointed out that this was typically what atheists will say to the suicidal man. He should not commit suicide because he can be a benefit to society. But there are two problems with this line of reasoning. First, perhaps he would not want to be a benefit to society. Perhaps he does not care about society. Perhaps he is angry at the world and does not want to give it anything. There is just nothing that an atheist could say to such a person. On the other hand, the Christian recognizes that the gospel is the power of God (Romans 1:16), that God will make the suicidal man a new creature (1 Corinthians 5:17), that God promises eternal life to those who put their trust in the Son (John 3:16).

The second problem with the “benefit to society” argument was pointed out by David Hume in his essay on suicide, published posthumously in 1777. He suggested that suicide could itself be a benefit to society. There are some people, such as the hypothetical suicidal man that I mentioned above, who either do not want to contribute or cannot contribute. These people are depleting resources. Hume argued that in some cases, suicide is a virtue rather than a rather a vice. The problem with the argument that an individual can be a benefit to society and therefore should not commit suicide is that it cannot be applied universally. For those to whom it cannot be applied, the atheist (such as David Hume), if they follow their philosophy to its’ logical conclusion, would have to say that suicide was a necessary duty. Why stay alive if you are nothing more than a drain on society, after all? This is what atheism entails.

What About Individual Liberty?

In contemporary society, there is a lot of focus on individual liberty. People believe that they should be permitted to do anything that they would like, so long as they do not violate the individual liberties of another person. Questions of ethics are met with disdain, accusations of judgment, and emotional railing. People believe that they should be able to have sex without consequences, marry somebody when the Bible expressly forbids it, and devote themselves entirely to sin. If it is their chosen lifestyle, then they believe that they should be free to do it. It is a right. It would seem that this ethical outlook easily extends to the so-called right to suicide. After all, it is my body. If I am not hurting somebody else, why should I not be able to commit suicide? This is what happens when you develop ethics without the doctrine of the image of God and the sanctity of human life. Developing a system of ethics within the imago dei is like making a sandwich with no bread.

I should point out that this idea of the right to suicide is not something that I have invented to make a strong point. It is a prevalent concept among academic atheists, expressed further as the concept of individual liberty has been hyper-extended. In 1732, Alberto Radicatti published a book titled Philosophical Dissertation upon Death in which he argued that human beings truly do have the right to suicide. If life no longer yields pleasure, then they should be able to assess their circumstances and determine whether suicide is the best course of action. 250 years later, the right to suicide was championed in the Humanist Manifesto II, signed by several esteemed atheist thinkers, such as Francis Crick, Julian Huxley, BF Skinner, Isaac Asimov, and many more.

Is Murder A Vice Or A Virtue?

In an attempt to lighten the implications of the concept, some have referred to it as “involuntary euthanasia.” Think for a moment about what allowing suicide would have to logically entail. You have stripped humanity of the imago dei. People only have value insofar as they benefit society. If they want to die, they should be able to. What would logically prevent you from saying that it is acceptable to murder people if they are no longer a benefit to society? Suppose they want to live, but they are draining resources without contributing anything. What good reasons are there to allow them to continue to live? Is it only their own, personal desires? But if the benefit of society is a greater good, then what good reasons are there to prevent us from murdering people who are a drain on society?

A possible response to this challenge might be to say that it would create a society of fear. People would be afraid that one night, government agents would come to their house and murder them. There are three things that we may say in response to this objection. First, if people believe that they would be murdered for being unproductive, then that would inspire them to be more productive. There could be a system that checks how much they contribute. People will feel secure because the government knows how much they are contributing. The second point that I want to make is that there would be nothing to stop you from killing just one person, because that would not inspire fear into the masses if it were done covertly. Third, notice that this objection is not that “it is wrong to kill people, therefore you ought not.” After all, that comes too dangerously close to the sanctity of life. My point in all of this is that if you follow the pro-suicide philosophy to its’ logical conclusion, there are other places that you could apply it.

But Not All Atheists Think This

I am confident that when you read the comments on Facebook or if you scroll down on this post, you will find many people informing me that not all atheists think that suicide is an acceptable practice. Some even believe, somehow, in objective moral values and duties. That is certainly true. This is not an article about what all atheists believe. It is about what atheism logically entails. I can say, though, that I am confident that many atheists reading this will have agreed with many of the major points that I have raised. Many of the pro-choice ethics could be applied to suicide, so I would not be surprised at all to find that this position has gained popularity. In fact, roughly half of the American population approved of doctor-assisted suicide in 2013.

This is just what happens when you attempt to develop a system of ethics without the doctrine of the image of God. When you forget that human beings truly do have value, then it becomes acceptable to take a life. A “life and death issue” is not something so severe. The idiom is a linguistic leftover from a culture that believed in the Judeo-Christian principle that human beings are made in God’s image, and nothing more. It is akin to an atheist saying, “Thank God!” when something happens. If we were going to use the phrase “life and death issue” and modernize it, it would mean something like, “Ah, so it is your personal choice.” I would ask, “What flavor of ice cream do you want?” to which you would reply, “It’s a life and death issue. I’m not sure. I will have to see the menu.”

Recommended Reading:
My Pro-Life Convictions Will Always Prevent Me From Being A Liberal
Can Goodness Exist If God Does Not Exist?
Why Does My Life Sometimes Seem So Pointless?
5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Commit Suicide