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I hope this should be immediately obvious, but it is not okay to exploit the death of a 12 year old child to score a cheap point against religion. It’s troubling that this is something I even need to say, but Terry Firma and the commentariat at The Friendly Atheist seem far too eager to pin the suicide of a 12 year old child on her belief in heaven.

Here are the facts on the ground, as relayed by Firma and reported in unsourced UK tabloids: 1 a 12 year old girl killed herself, ostensibly distraught by the 2009 death of her father. She left a note that said “Dear Mum. Please don’t be sad. I just miss daddy so much, I want to see him again.”

Firma writes:

But the account also confirmed for me that the idea of heaven can be both comforting and toxic — make that deadly — at the same time. If Maria’s head hadn’t been filled with nonsensical ideas about heaven, where it’s all about the posthumous family reunions, she’d probably be alive today.

Her death is the somewhat prettier equivalent of the Islamic suicide bombers who think they’ll go on to great rewards in the hereafter.

Religion kills.

Let me start by pointing out that we have no reason to believe that any of the reported information is true. Reporting from an unsourced tabloid isn’t something we should accept as reasonable evidence for anything, and neither a google news search of the 12-year-old’s name nor a reverse image search of the photos in the article turns up any sources apart from the UK tabloids and blog commentary. I’ll resist the urge to rant at length that religion is not specially bad and atheists are not specially rational, evidence-sensitive, or less susceptible to the problems they point to in religious believers.

But let’s grant for a second the tabloid-reporting that The Friendly Atheist now apparently takes part in. None of that, if true, would change how factually inaccurate, sensationalist, and exploitative every sentence of Firma’s commentary is.

Even if someone leaves a suicide note detailing their wish to spend eternity with their father, there is no good reason to suppose they killed themselves for religious reasons. It’s telling that Firma looked at a 12 year-old so hurt by her father’s death 4 years prior that she killed herself not as indicative of, say, clinical depression, but rather the asinine and melodramatic conclusion that the belief in heaven—cue dramatic music as I vom everywhere—can kill.

It’s hard to determine causation from a sample size of 1, since there are a host of different causes that might produce the exact same data we have available (i.e the suicide note). Firma says that this girl would still be alive today without the belief in heaven, but there is no way at all to know that—people readily and often construct post-hoc narratives to explain their feelings and behavior, and it’s entirely possible 2 that the child was suffering from an intense mental illness and simply used the death of her father to rationalize the grief, despair, or hopelessness she was feeling. It would make no sense to pin the blame on religion when what caused those feelings to begin with was mental illness.

And again, this is all granted the story is even true and let me repeat we have no reason at all to believe that. Literally none. It’s an unsourced tabloid story that exists on the internet only as a tabloid story why do I even need to write this blog post?

Even more, there’s no way to generalize from that one anecdote to broad psychological facts like “the belief in heaven is dangerous because you might hang yourself to see your dad,” since this anecdote starkly contradicts more or less all available evidence on the relationship between religion and suicide. Religious believers are less likely to kill themselves, and study after study will tell you that. 3 I take it that those (sourced, not tabloid-based) facts don’t quite so conveniently fit Firma’s “religion bad, atheism good” narrative, so I doubt they’ll be mentioned any time soon.

Science, unlike Firma’s piece, isn’t based on confirmation bias and anecdotes. If we want to learn whether belief in heaven is dangerous or might otherwise cause suicides, we need to look further than British tabloids to actual patterns in behavior. Those legitimate looks turn up empty for the “look how harmful the belief in heaven can be!” hypothesis, so the melodramatic clincher that “religion kills”— in line with the rest of Firma’s writing, it seems—looks like little more than irresponsible and alarmist pulp.

Vlad Chituc is a Research Associate in a behavioral economics lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He has a pretty dope dog and says pretty dope a lot and is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

Notes:

  1. and I use the words “facts” and “reported” liberally. Funny how standards of evidence seem so low when it comes to things we want to hear…
  2. read: much more likely than the idea that she just killed herself because she believed in heaven and wanted to see her dad again.
  3. e.g. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15569904
  • gojirama

    Well said! I think NOTHING excuses using the death of a child to advance one’s agenda that way.

    • Jim

      If you think that you might be helping others avoid the same tragedy, it seems like that would be an excuse. My guess is that your beef is with the message, not the method.

  • http://hauntedtimber.wordpress.com/ timberwraith

    Using the Mirror as their “newspaper of record”, are they? It’s a shame that the Weekly World News stopped publishing in 2007. The Friendly Atheist would have had such a fertile wellspring of objective reporting at its command.

    But wait, let me think about this a bit. So, most atheists believe that death is simply the end: no awareness and hence, no pain and no suffering. Now, wouldn’t that present an attractive option to someone locked in the misery of chronic grief and depression? One bullet to the head or a mouthful of sleeping pills and the cessation of one’s torment lies only a few heartbeats away…

    Last week, Hemant posted an article that decried the fact that a candidate is running for congress in California who embraces a New Age belief system. The funny thing is, she advocates progressive values which are in line with much of the Friendly Atheist’s readership and authors, and yet, Hemant would see fit to vote against her simply because of her religious beliefs (as would the many people who agreed with him in the comment section). How does that work, given that so many people would vote against atheists on the basis of atheist’s religious philosophies? I smell the stink of hypocrisy.

    Hemant said:

    While I support much of Williamson’s platform — she will run as an Independent and caucus with Democrats if elected — there’s no reason to support another politician who believes in so many kinds of unsupported, unscientific nonsense. We have more than enough of those in the GOP. Since there’s a perfectly good alternative for voters in the district, let’s hope this campaign shines as brightly as the non-existent aura
    around her.

    That alternative is Henry Waxman, who is progressive and Jewish. I suppose Judaism is somehow more scientifically sound than New Age beliefs? I’m sure that I don’t need to remind folks that Friendly Atheist regularly posts articles supporting the Islamophobic rantings of Sam Harris. How does this behavior not amount to an inconsistent form of religious bigotry?

    Anyway, to make a long story short, this is exemplary of the (low) quality of writing and thought that I’ve come to expect at Friendly Atheist.

    • VladChituc

      I think you raise a few really good points. What if someone wrote in their suicide note that they didnt believe anything would happen when they died, and they just wanted the suffering to stop. No one would seriously blame the belief that nothing happens when you die for the suicide.

      And you don’t need convincing here that a lot of mainstream atheist attitudes towards religion are prejudiced and inconsistent.

      It’s a shame that TFA has been publishing stuff like this recently, since for a while it was the only atheist blog I bothered to even read anymore.

      • http://hauntedtimber.wordpress.com/ timberwraith

        It’s a shame that TFA has been publishing stuff like this recently, since for a while it was the only atheist blog I bothered to even read anymore.

        Tell me about it.

        Ever since Friendly Atheist came to Sam Harris’ defense on the racial profiling of Muslims at airports, I started to deeply curtail the amount of time I spent there. I wish there were more blogs like NPS that were well known.

      • O rly

        “What if someone wrote in their suicide note that they didnt believe
        anything would happen when they died, and they just wanted the suffering
        to stop. No one would seriously blame the belief that nothing happens
        when you die for the suicide.”

        this seems to be quite illogical

        if some one kills them selves and leaves a note saying i wanted to go to heaven, then obliviously there belief in heaven had an some contribution to them committing suicide

        if someone commits sucide and leaves a note saying they wanted the pain to stop and to no exist in any form and they believe when they die they will cease to exist then that belief of course contributed to their committing suicide

        if a person wanted to go to heaven but did not believe it existed they would not commit suicide to get to heaven.

        if some one wanted to totally end their own existence but believed they would go on existing after death they would not commit suicide to totally end there existance

        how can you possible say that some one doing something to achieve a desired result is in no way effected by their belief as to whether or not they can achieve that desired result.

        if i killed my self and wrote a note that i did it because i want to be reincarnated as a cat.
        can you honestly tell me that my belief that i would be reincarnated as a cat had no effect on my decisions to kill myself?

        p.s. i know suicide is a weighty issue and its far more complex than this.

        but to say that someones ideas of what happens when they die has no effect on there willingness or not to kill them selves just seems wrong to me

  • http://hauntedtimber.wordpress.com/ timberwraith

    Last week, Hemant posted an article that decried the fact that a candidate is running for congress in California who embraces a New Age belief system. The funny thing is, she advocates progressive values which are in line with much of the Friendly Atheist’s readership and authors, and yet, Hemant would see fit to vote against her simply because of her religious beliefs (as would the many people who agreed with him in the comment section). How does that work, given that so many people would vote against atheists on the basis of atheist’s religious philosophies? I smell the stink of hypocrisy.

    Hemant said:

    While I support much of Williamson’s platform — she will run as an Independent and caucus with Democrats if elected — there’s no reason to support another politician who believes in so many kinds of unsupported, unscientific nonsense. We have more than enough of those in the GOP. Since there’s a perfectly good alternative for voters in the district, let’s hope this campaign shines as brightly as the non-existent aura
    around her.

    That alternative is Henry Waxman, who is progressive and Jewish. I suppose Judaism is somehow more scientifically sound than New Age beliefs? I’m sure that I don’t need to remind folks that Friendly Atheist regularly posts articles supporting the Islamophobic rantings of Sam Harris. How does this behavior not amount to an inconsistent form of religious bigotry?

    Anyway, to make a long story short, this is exemplary of the (low) quality of writing and thought that I’ve come to expect at Friendly Atheist.

  • Jay

    Good commentary… This definitely appears to be the nicest atheist/humanist blog I’ve been to… I’ve gone to places like TFA and Cross examined, but the level of condescension by some of the bloggers and commenters towards religion and religious believers makes them places I only go to on rare occasions. Keep up the good work.

  • EH

    Hey, Vlad. It looks like Terry Firma may have fallen for another whopper (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/11/27/report-parents-of-injured-baby-choose-emergency-baptism-over-hospital-visit-with-fatal-consequences/ – see comment by reader ‘Michael Kimsal’ second from top). I’ll give Terry Firma a bit of slack. First, although I found his use of Maria Kislo’s suicide to score points rather repulsive, Christians can do the same thing. Remember that boy in Indiana Ryan White who contracted AIDS from some blood products? Apparently, his mother, a Methodist, was told by some Pentecostal friends that if White had been a Pentecostal, he would never have gotten AIDS. Second, Terry Firma has admitted he has had treatment for mental illness. I think we’ve got to be a little lenient with people experiencing mental problems.

    However, I’m a bit puzzled by how the so-called sceptical community seems to take such stories as gospel because they dovetail with their own philosophy. Doesn’t being a sceptic mean questioning everything?

  • Pete

    Just an update, even though I know this was a while back, turns out the information in the English media is wrong. To his credit, The Friendly Atheist has admitted this- (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/10/30/hoodwinked-the-story-of-the-girl-who-hanged-herself-to-be-with-her-dad-in-heaven-was-probably-made-up/)

    I translated some Polish news sites into English and from what I can tell, there indeed was no suicide note and the reasons she took her life remain unknown. Still, even if the Mirror’s report was true, there is nothing to indicate she took her own life because of religion. It could be that, as you say, she was mentally ill or still suffering over her father’s death.