RELIGION & SUICIDE

Years ago, a priest-colleague of mine, old and depressed, and suffering from the results of a botched cancer operation, loudly complained to me "If suicide were not a sin, I'd kill myself." But instead he chose to die slowly in a hospital bed. Since then over the years I've encountered not a few people who admitted that it was their faith alone that at the worst time in their lives motivated them to remain among the living. On the other hand, today the world is faced with a rash of suicide-bombings, hailed as "martyrdoms" by fanatical fundamentalists who hype up their young followers into sacrificing themselves for the cause of Islam, not unlike the thousands of young Japanese kamikaze pilots during the closing days of World War II who were ready to die in the defense of their homeland and the honor of their emperor-god. So let's face it. While clinical depression no-doubt remains the single biggest cause of suicide in our society, religion can still play a tremendous role. It can inspire one to lay down ones life for the sake of others, or, on the other hand, it can empower someone, like the biblical Job, to endue whatever life brings (whether as a gift or even a punishment from God) down to the very last. Nowhere has this become more evident than among our senior population. Modern medicine has extended the average human-life span far beyond what it once was. People who, not long ago, would have died in what we now think of as late middle age, are now living well into old age. People who would have most likely died suddenly of heart-attacks and strokes, are now routinely saved to die later, and often much more slowly of cancer, diabetes, Altzheimers, or if they are lucky, to be delivered more quickly from these slow fates by pneumonia or the likes. It is a situation made to order for a Dr. Kervorkian. While no doubt suffering, and how suffering is perceived, is a major factor, in all this, still, as I see it, it is ultimately an issue of control -- a question of who or what controls or directs our life. This is even true when it comes to, or especially when it comes to, the issue of depression. Of course one can always point to research that says the chemical balance of the brain is affected -- but is this a cause of depression or its result? If depression, as has long been evident to psychologists, is most often anger that has been bottled up within, then it is easy to see why it could physically affect the brain in the direction of self-destruction. But if this is true, then, under certain conditions is it not possible that things work just the other way around? Who can be surprised if the extremely depressing and seemingly hopeless situation where young Palestinians find themselves trapped in the crowded refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza spawns the kind of anger that is all to willing to destroy ones self if, at the same time, it means the destruction of one's enemies? So it appears that religion, rather than restraining violence, or even despite condemning suicide, can be sometimes manipulated into an excuse for murder and even self-destruction, especially when the latter is glorified under the name of "martyrdom". In any case, it appears that religion, or more exactly the depths of one's religious faith, perhaps more than anything else, can be the most crucial factor as to whether we live or die. It all depends, it would seem, on whether or not we believe there is something greater to live for than our life as we presently experience it.

R W Kropf 7/1/03 SUICIDE2.doc 03-07-01.html