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Why religions of the world condemn suicide

A mourner reads a sympathy card left for Anthony Bourdain
A mourner reads a sympathy card left for Anthony Bourdain at a make shift memorial outside the building that once housed Le Halles restaurant on Park Avenue, Friday, June 8, 2018, in New York. Bourdain, the celebrity chef and citizen of the world who inspired millions to share his delight in food and the bonds it created, was found dead Friday in his hotel room in France while working on his CNN series on culinary traditions. He was 61. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

(The Conversation) — The recent suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef and writer Anthony Bourdain have reminded all of us that, even for the wealthy, life can become too painful to bear.

The sad truth is that suicide rates have been increasing in the United States. In the last decade, the suicide rate increased by nearly 30 percent, with women and teens particularly affected.

And it’s not just the United States. Suicide is increasingly taking a toll on individuals and families throughout the world.

The ethics of self-inflicted death have historically been an important area of reflection for the world’s religions.

Whose life is it?

Many of the world’s religions have traditionally condemned suicide because, as they believe, human life fundamentally belongs to God.

Many of world’s religions have beliefs that condemn suicide. Jossifresco, revisions by AnonMoos

In the Jewish tradition, the prohibition against suicide originated in Genesis 9:5, which says, “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning.” This means that humans are accountable to God for the choices they make. From this perspective, life belongs to God and is not yours to take. Jewish civil and religious law, the Talmud, withheld from a suicide the rituals and treatment that were given to the body in the case of other deaths, such as burial in a Jewish cemetery, though this is not the case today.

A similar perspective shaped Catholic teachings about suicide. St. Augustine of Hippo, an early Christian bishop and philosopher, wrote that “he who kills himself is a homicide.” In fact, according the Catechism of St. Pius X, an early 20th-century compendium of Catholic beliefs, someone who died by suicide should be denied Christian burial – a prohibition that is no longer observed.

The Italian poet Dante Aligheri, in “The Inferno,” extrapolated from traditional Catholic beliefs and placed those who had committed the sin of suicide on the seventh level of hell, where they exist in the form of trees that painfully bleed when cut or pruned.

According to traditional Islamic understandings, the fate of those who die by suicide is similarly dreadful. Hadiths, or sayings, attributed to the Prophet Muhammad warn Muslims against committing suicide. The hadiths say that those who kill themselves suffer hellfire. And in hell, they will continue to inflict pain on themselves, according to the method of their suicide.

In Hinduism, suicide is referred to by the Sanskrit word “atmahatya,” literally meaning “soul-murder.” “Soul-murder” is said to produce a string of karmic reactions that prevent the soul from obtaining liberation. In fact, Indian folklore has numerous stories about those who commit suicide. According to the Hindu philosophy of birth and rebirth, in not being reincarnated, souls linger on the earth, and at times, trouble the living.

Buddhism also prohibits suicide, or aiding and abetting the act, because such self-harm causes more suffering rather than alleviating it. And most basically, suicide violates a fundamental Buddhist moral precept: to abstain from taking life.

Altruistic suicide

While many religions have traditionally prohibited suicide when motivated by despair, certain forms of suicide, for the community or for a greater good, are permitted, and at times, even celebrated.

In his classic work “On Suicide,” French sociologist Emile Durkheim used the term “altruistic suicide” to describe the act of killing oneself in the service of a higher principle or the greater community. And consciously sacrificing one’s life for God, or for other religious ends, has historically been the most prominent form of “altruistic suicide.”

Recently, Pope Francis has added another category for sainthood, that of giving up one’s life for another, called “oblatio vitae.” Of course, both Christianity and Islam have strong conceptions of martyrdom, which also extend to intentionally giving one’s life in battle. For example, the Crusader Hugh the Insane self-destructively leapt out of the tower of a besieged castle in order to crush and kill Turkish soldiers below.

A candlelit vigil to remember two Tibetans who self-immolated in Tibet, in Dharmsala, India, in 2012. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia)

Buddhist monks have burned themselves to death, most famously in Vietnam, but also in Tibet, to draw attention to violence and oppression. And within Hinduism, there is a tradition of ascetics fasting to death after they gained enlightenment. Then there are the ancient Hindu traditions of “sati”, where the wife dies on her husband’s funeral pyre, and “jauhar”, the ritual self-immolation of an entire community of women when they were certain of defeat in war and consequent enslavement.

What unifies all these examples is the idea that there are principles or goals that are more important than life itself. And so, self-sacrifice is not suicide: letting go life of because of faith is different from letting go of life because of lack of hope.

Rethinking suicide

While striving to emphasizing the sacredness of life, it’s most certainly the case that traditional religious prohibitions against suicide provide little comfort to those who contemplate taking their own life, not to mention to the loved ones who will be left behind.

The good news is that today, there are more and more resources for talking about and preventing suicide. In particular, world religions have become more sympathetic and nuanced in their understanding. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus have all established extensive outreach programs to those who suffer from suicidal thoughts.

The ConversationSuch efforts recognize that God especially loves those who suffer in the darkness of depression. Suicide then is not an act that calls for divine punishment, but an all-too-common threat that calls us to reaffirm hope in life as a precious gift given by God.

(Mathew Schmalz is associate professor of religion at College of the Holy Cross. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.)

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Mathew Schmalz

33 Comments

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  • I once heard it said that suicide is a long-term solution to what is very often a short-term problem. While I will not judge those who, for whatever reason, decide to take their own life, I will more than likely not do that myself, no matter how bad things get. The reason for that is that I’m basically a scaredy-cat, fearful of what God may do if I decide to throw away the precious gift that is the gift of life. I sincerely hope I am never tested on this, because I have no idea how I’d react to a debilitating, painful, terminal illness where the future is certain death and a whole lot of pain. That’s why I won’t judge anyone else who takes their life. Like the old Native American saying goes, “never judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins.”

  • Religious objections to suicide are logically absurd, since the notion “my life belongs to God” can only apply to your own, personal existence… not anyone else’s. Anybody who doesn’t share that belief is obviously under no obligation to conform to it, and you have no right to exert such control over others.

  • Any discussion of religiously inspired suicide can’t ignore the (rare) Jain practice called sallekhana, in which one who is already close to death stops eating.

  • Let us not forget suttee, definitely a Hindu practice until it was outlawed.

    One could also argue that the Christian love for martyrdom, preferably bloody and painful, is just another way to fulfill a deathwish.

  • No, religious objections to suicide are only logically absurd to people who think only their personal existence is important.

    People like that favor abortion and other “rights”.

    Oddly they often oppose capital punishment since it is least conceivable that at some point they themselves might face it as a punishment.

  • I know you’re frustrated that you can’t control everyone’s lives like the church used to, Bob, but the world really is a better place for it. Get used to minding your own life and leaving others alone to mind theirs.

  • I know you’re frustrated that you live in a country where the majority can make and enforce laws that you happen not to like.

    But society is really better off for it, and you should get yourself used to it.

  • Looks like you don’t understand a constitutional republic. A minority of one can defy the mob as long as the law is on his side, and there’s nothing the mob can do about it.

  • It is never a good idea for us to appear as though we are asking anyone to commit suicide for the convenience of the rest of us. No one “owes” society his or her voluntary death for the sake of getting rid of someone who is hard or expensive to care for. This is the worst of the slippery slopes we encounter when we condone the suicides of the old or infirm. That said, I do not believe in telling people for religious reasons that the CANNOT do it. We need to pursue this from the standpoint of “what ethic here promotes the greatest human rights or respect for an individual human? (Not respect for “life” as though that is somehow something above or apart from the human.)

  • Apparently you live outside the United States.

    The majority can modify the law and the Constitution, and there is nothing the minority can do about it.

  • Still wrong, there’s plenty the minority can do about it. Courts exist, and courts can strike down any majority-favored policy.

    Really, Bob, you need to get over this obsession with trying to control everyone. Those days are gone, and they’re not coming back. You and your church need to move on. Maybe you could make it a daily mantra: remind yourself from time to time, “I’m not in charge… I’m not in charge.”

  • Courts can only apply law to facts.

    Courts cannot write laws or the Constitution.

    Really, Brian, this obsession with “nobody but nobody can tell me what to do” is silly, those days were never here, and they never going to be here.

    Maybe you should look in the mirror every morning and say “Resistance is futile … Resistance is futile”.

  • This is why there is a name for it, Euthanasia, to separate this act from suicide. I am certainly not in a position to tell a terminally ill and suffering patient they can’t decide when it is their time to die. There do need to be safeguards so the grandkids don’t bump off grandma in order to get to their inheritance a bit early.

  • Bumping off Grandma is called murder. Having both the grandkids and (maybe) Grandma herself half believing that “she ought to just do it herself” is emotional abuse of everyone involved. This is the problem that never goes away.

  • If “letting go life of because of faith is different from letting go of life because of lack of hope”, what about suicide due to zero faith? In the interest of stirring public conversations, why didn’t The Conversation (so-called) cover that angle? Why are they only asking, “Why religions of the world condemn suicide”, but not, “Why NON-religions of the world DON’T, necessarily”. Y’know, like atheism, phaitheism, secularism, None(sensicalism), pop culturalism, existentialism and nihilism. Unless, of course, there’s just no evidence – not even fake news – that atheists, phaitheists, secularists, Nones, the pop-cultured, existentialists and nihilists are, for the 2nd time this year alone, in droves – Oh No! – “letting go of life because of lack of [faith in God & Jesus]”.

    I’m serious.

  • So, you’re beginning to develop concerns about the grandkids?

    Putting another name on it doesn’t change it.

  • a country where the majority can make and enforce laws

    That is only partly true. Which is why the US Supreme Court and state supreme courts take efforts to establish protected minorities for which the majority doesn’t get to decide their rights, privileges and protections.

  • God especially loves those who suffer in the darkness of depression.

    That’s a heinous and bizarre theological concept that I believe is a lie of the devil (not ha Satan).

    Sorry, I don’t buy that, nor believe in a Christian context that it is supported by Hebrew or Greek scripture, in even the most tortured interpretation.

  • Wannabe religious tyrants are in a tough position these days. They can’t give orders any more; they have to persuade, and they’re singularly ill-equipped for that. Most are reduced to shouting impotently from the sidelines, angry and frustrated that nobody’s listening. It would be sad if it weren’t so funny. Maybe some of them will wise up enough to seek counseling.

  • Wannabe “New World” tyrants are in a tough position these days.

    Outside of North America and Western Europe the populace has been giving them the one-finger salute.

    In Europe the Eastern European countries have been gumming up the EU’s march to abortion and same sex for everyone.

    In North America the majority have shaken off the Democrats and made it clear they never approved this New World agenda.

    But, like yourself, they keep shouting, angry and frustrated that nobody is listening.

  • That’s why I say there need to be safe guards. One of which is to appoint a legal guardian that is NOT a member of the family. It is also important that adults have wills, and powers of attorney, legal guardians, and that they have their wishes about end of life choices made in writing, covering resuscitation etc.

    People need to plan ahead and be prepared. They need to have these discussions with their family doctor and family.

  • The use of “The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh away” is common in funeral services and, apparently, based upon Job 1:21.
    It may offer an insight into why suicide is castigated – but in reality a misunderstanding of the English language is required.

    If I give you a £20 note for your birthday it is yours to do with as you wish – isn’t it? And that includes giving it to someone else or setting fire to it.

    An arrangement by which I provide you with a £20 note only to snatch it back, perhaps without any warning, at some unspecified time is not to give – it is to loan, and a rather nasty kind of loan at that.

    God as an unscrupulous loan-shark? If that’s what you believe I suggest you put brain into gear.

  • The founding fathers specifically warned against the dangers of tyranny by the majority, FYI.

  • I certainly don’t disagree, but have you seen the recent episode of John Oliver’s show dealing with Guardianship? Legal guardians outside the family are not necessarily a guarantee of objectivity, but those cases are likely much more the exception than the rule.

  • As an adult, I view suicide as a reaction to seemingly insurmountable depression, anxiety or despair rather than as a “solution”. What makes those things seemingly insurmountable may be reversible in some cases, but not all. When you’re honest with yourself, I doubt that the fear of god is a factor–it’s much more likely you do not experience those feelings for whatever reason.

    The best example of this for me is a friend of my youth who was a well-loved pastor, who volunteered for not one, but two tours in Iraq as a chaplain (in other words, doing good work through god), and who took his own life as a result of what I imagine was an insurmountable depression. The memorial service was absolutely jam-packed, which demonstrated to me that no one really feared what god would do, and I’m inclined to believe that fear of god’s punishment was not even “on the radar” in my friend’s mind.

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