Depression is a serious problem with in the greater atheist community and far too often, that depression has led to suicide. This is something many of my fellow atheists often don’t like to admit, but it is true. I know a lot of atheists, myself included, would all like to believe that atheists are happier people than religious believers and in many ways we are. But we also have to accept the reality that in some very important ways we are not.
There are of course many valid reasons why atheists are sometimes more prone to suicide than religious believers. Interestingly enough, one of those reasons is religious believers themselves. We live in a world dominated by people who often fervently believe ancient superstitions and who many times demonize, harass, ostracize, and disown those who lack belief in those ancient superstitions. Atheists on the receiving end of this treatment are understandably stressed and isolated. They often experience anxiety and depression as a result.
Imagine you are a young person who has just come to the realization that God is imaginary. You have just realized that everything your religious tradition and your parents have taught you is make-believe. Your whole world has just come undone and for the first time in your life, you now have to wrestle with the great existential questions of life on your own and without any support networks. What does it mean to live a meaningful life without a supernatural deity? Without an afterlife to live for, what is the purpose of life?
Not only does this young person have to struggle with these existential questions on their own, but they also have to do so under the backdrop of fear and anxiety about revealing their doubts and atheism to family and friends. Maybe they already have and as a result, they have been ostracized and/or disowned. Left with no friends, no family, no church community… they are alone, in the philosophical dark, and probably facing the bullying and harassment of their former religious community.
I wrote about atheism’s suicide problem before and got a variety of responses. Some atheists questioned whether the statistics actually showed that a problem exists at all. For the record, it does. I can also tell you anecdotally, that it does. Like I said in that previous article, I have had friends who have died or who very likely have died from suicide. Since that post, I know even more atheists who have taken their own lives. But even if the suicide rate among atheists were exactly the same as among religious believes, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to lower that number. This life is after all the only life we have.
There were Christians who responded both privately and publicly to my previous article on this subject. They were often quick to point fingers and say things like, “See, atheism causes suicide,” or “Maybe atheists have a higher suicide rate because they know that their life means nothing without God, but are too arrogant to beg him for forgiveness even though they know inside they are guilty, they choose to die forever with their sin.” Yes, those were real comments from real religious believers. It is what has been called, #ChristianLove. Even the odious Bill Donohue of the Catholic League got in on the action. In his book, “The Catholic Advantage: Why Health, Happiness, and Heaven Await the Faithful,” Donohue mentions me by name as he misrepresented and flat out made stuff up about my previous article, which he was attempting to use as source material. These responses, of course, entirely missed the point. Let me lay it out. Yes, atheists like many other marginalized minorities can be prone to depression and even suicide in large part due to the horrible behavior of many in the religious majority.
I acknowledge that while ignorance really is bliss and people may be happier when they believe in magical paradises after death, it is only when people accept reality that they are in a better position to make themselves and others truly happy. It is the difference between being high on drugs and being high on life. Or in this case high on Jesus vs. high on the vast wonders of the universe. Obviously, I think being high on life is the better kind of happiness. But that is just my opinion.
As a community, atheists should be reminding each other about the wonders around us. It is far too easy to get lost in our day-to-day struggles and problems. To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, life moves pretty fast sometimes and if you don’t stop and look around every once in a while, you just might miss it. We only have one life. There are no do-overs and no magically perfect kingdoms awaiting us when we die. This is it. Life’s too short to waste. If your life sucks, work to make it better… if not for you, for those who come after you. Again, there is a vast cosmos out there and we are links in the chain of human achievement.
One thing I have noticed is that after someone commits suicide, there is suddenly an outpouring of support for them. If only that outpouring could have come a little sooner… Well, it kind of can (not for them obviously, but for the next them). That’s right; we can be there for our friends and family right now. We don’t have to wait until someone commits suicide to say nice things to and about them. We don’t have to wait to check in with people we know are struggling. We can be there for people right now. This is one area in which religion has an actual advantage. They have a support system and a community. But atheists can have that too. There is no need to believe in ridiculous superstitions on insufficient evidence to have a community willing to help each other. We got this.
Atheists are notorious for being contrarians and people who are not always joiners. You get three atheists in a room together and it won’t be long before there is some minor issue that divides them. South Park famously satirized this and in the past few years, we have seen this at our local and national meetings and events. But the fact is that if religion has done anything right, it has been to form actual communities for people to gather and share their struggles. We don’t have to all agree on every issue. There are going to be both minor and major issues that atheists are going to have with each other. However, we are all on this tiny blue dot together and we need to be there for each other because there is no magic deity to help us and no one is perfect.
But it cuts both ways. Not only do we have a responsibility to help each other, but we also have a responsibility to communicate our struggles with each other and ask for support. There is no magic deity peering into our souls. Hell, there aren’t even souls to be peered into. Did I just say “hell?” That’s not even a real place. But I digress. Anyway, my point is that we have to offer help to others and we have to ask for help when we need it. That’s on us and there is no shame in admitting that we need help.
Here are some resources that might be helpful for anyone struggling with anything:
Recovering From Religion has a peer to peer help line: 1-844-368-2848. The Secular Therapy Project can hook you up with a secular therapist. Grief Beyond Belief is a great resource for people living with the loss of a loved one. And of course there is the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.