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Suicide and Secular Reasoning

Suicide and Secular Reasoning

I have just been reading Jennifer Hecht’s book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.  It is a fine book: passionate, sincere, well-researched, well-written, and commendably honest. Rather than describe the book in detail (the review will appear in these pages soon), I wanted to highlight a major theme of the book and look at what it says about a theme close to the work we do at Theos: the question of secular reasoning.

Hecht’s stated intention in Stay is to articulate secular reasons against suicide. Secular philosophy, she admits with characteristic candour, “has been an undeniable force in the trend toward the neutral or even positive attitude towards suicide.” In my experience, she laments, “outside the idea that God forbids it, our society has no coherent argument against suicide.”

This is a revealing statement. It seems that, for Hecht, a religious argument is one that rests on a command from God whereas a secular one is one that does not. We see this in her treatment of Aquinas’ three arguments against suicide – that it injures the community, that it is contrary to law of self-love, and that it violates our duty to God – the first two of which she labels “powerful secular arguments”.

This is an odd conclusion to draw. Aquinas is hardly a secular thinker. All his thinking is religious – not because it relies directly on scriptural commands but because it relies on an understanding of reality that is fundamentally Christian. The line between religious reasoning and secular reasoning is not between reasoning that bases itself on scripture and that which doesn’t, or even necessarily between reasoning that bases itself on revelation and that which doesn’t, but between reasoning that is grounded in an understanding of reality that is ‘religious’ and reasoning that isn’t.

Quite where that boundary lies is far from obvious. These different understandings of reality can and do overlap and many ‘religious’ reasons may sound secular and vice versa. However, as a general rule of thumb the ‘religious’ worldview (at least as the religious worldview that has been prevalent in the West) tends to view certain human characteristics, such as mind, intention, and love as reflective of a deeper reality that is not a human invention. By contrast, the ‘secular’ one tends to see them as accidents in an otherwise mindless, material and indifferent universe. Even these views are not watertight (witness atheist Thomas Nagel’s recent book on Mind and Cosmos, reviewed here) but they are serviceable.

So, going back to Aquinas, his supposedly ‘secular’ reasons (community and self-love) are in fact theological not because they are explicitly scriptural, still less because they rest simply on divine commandments because they, like his supposedly religious reason (it violates our duty to God) are grounded in his Christian worldview. This is the worldview in which creation is marked ultimately by love not indifference; where morality is real and objective rather than relative and subjective; where humans are of incalculable worth, relational rather than individual, and charged with certain moral responsibilities; and where life is marked by suffering which on earth is ineradicable, and by sin which means people are not always best placed to make decisions autonomously.

Put another way, there is a line between religious and secular reasoning but it is not visible, like the kind of cladding that goes on a house, but submerged, existing at the level of the foundations. It is there and it is important, but it is not always evident and usually demands a bit of digging before you get an idea of where it lies.

In the light of this understanding of what constitutes a religious reason and what a secular one, it is interesting to analyse the secular case against suicide that Hecht makes and to note that she repeatedly, if quietly, drifts from secular grounds towards religious ones.

Hecht stresses the need to recognise our fundamental fellowship with one another. Humans must not think of themselves simply as individuals. Rather “we are indebted to one another and the debt is a kind of faith… We believe each other into being”. Our fellowship is not a fellowship of pleasure but of pain. Life is more like a vale of suffering than it is a place where, to quote the now notorious atheist bus slogan, we should simply stop worrying and enjoy ourselves. “Secular culture desperately needs some way of valuing suffering,” she honestly observes. We need to recognise ourselves as “a community of sufferers”. This may be put forward as secular reasoning but, as Hecht indicates, it is unusual secular reasoning. Talking of ‘believing each other into being’ and living ‘as a community of sufferers’ certainly feels more religious.

Hecht’s vision of humanity is marked not only by suffering but by sin, or at least by the recognition that our moral, emotional and intellectual fallibility renders us at times incapable of knowing what is best for ourselves and of making the right decisions. She quotes approvingly one anonymous Enlightenment writer, replying to Hume’s ‘On Suicide’ (which defends the right to take our lives), who argues that “it seems to be a maxim in human existence that no creature has a right to decide peremptorily on the importance, utility or necessity of his own being”. “Being sane does not necessarily mean knowing at that critical moment, what is best for one’s life,” as Hecht puts it. This is undoubtedly true, at least in the opinion of this writer, but it is again worth noting how at odds it is with the ideas at the heart of modern, secular thought, where autonomy and independence are prized above all else and the idea that others know better than you what is right for your life is anathema.

Hecht’s universe is also very different to the one with which we are familiar from post-Darwinian rhetoric. “Either the universe is a cold dead place with little growth of sentient but atomized beings each all by him- or herself trying to generate meaning” – in other words either we live in Richard Dawkins’ universe – “or we are in a universe that is alive with a growth of sentient beings whose members have made a pact with each other to persevere.” It is not entirely clear how these two options are opposites, but the general thrust of the point seems clear. Either the universe is “cold” and “dead” – i.e. indifferent to our plight – or it is “alive” – i.e. not wholly indifferent. Moreover, this universe is not only alive with persons who have intrinsic and irreducible worth (something that Hecht presupposes rather than argues), but it is also a place where those persons have duties that are real and objective, supremely the duty to one another to stay. “Every person is useful to humanity, by the very fact that he or she exists,” she explains.

At her more extreme moments, Hecht not only moves onto these supposedly secularised but essentially religious arguments, but even appropriates what she deems the obviously ‘religious’ religious arguments. “One of the main ends of my argument is to erect an adamant prohibition against suicide”, she writes two thirds of the way through the book. A prohibition? That would be like a commandment, presumably? “I’m issuing a rule,” she writes at the outset. “You are not allowed to kill yourself.” It is a deep irony that in her quest to steer people from suicide for ‘secular’ reasons, Hecht has to turn herself into someone who issues commands, like God.

“Christian, Jewish and Muslim authorities forbade suicide on theological grounds”. Technically Hecht is right here, but theological grounds are not so much “because God says so” but “because this is the order of creation that God made.” This will frustrate some, as it makes is harder to rule as inadmissible ‘religious’ arguments that somehow allegedly disrespect non-religious audiences. The boundary is not as clear as that and often lies deep under the rubble of everyday discourse. But it is a more honest approach, recognising what making a religious argument really means in contemporary life.

Nick Spencer
Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It is published by Yale University Press

Image from wikimediaavailable in the public domain.

Posted 18 February 2014


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