The Problem with Blind Faith, by Ken Burrows:Freethought Views October 2023

The Problem with Blind Faith

By Ken Burrows

When people operate on blind faith, sometimes that can end up being . . . too blind. Especially when it does not consider countervailing evidence. Case in point is an assertion made by a noted Christian author at a recent Colorado Springs suicide prevention event. While both professional and lay people suggest varied solutions to rising suicide rates in the state, this author held that people thinking of ending their life need to turn to the church “because it’s the only place the answers are going to come from.”

But in fact the church is not the “only” place with answers. For many it is not an effective answer at all. Because the relationship between suicide, religious belief, and church attendance is highly nuanced, as shown by an exhaustive review of 10 years of literature on the subject by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Although religion is reported to be protective against suicide, the empirical evidence is inconsistent,” the NIH discovered. “We found that religious affiliation does not necessarily protect against suicidal ideation, but does protect against suicide attempts.” However, the agency also noted that even this latter protection is variable among diverse faiths. It may depend on cultural aspects of religious affiliation — such as how well accepted a particular religion is in society and how much the social aspects of churchgoing, rather than religious belief per se, provide that protection. “After adjusting for social support measures,” NIH said, “religious service attendance is not especially protective against suicidal ideation.”

The NIH said the reviewed studies also suggest a potential negative effect of religion on suicide, such as when people in certain crises find religion making them feel guilty, distant from God, or abandoned. “Before assuming religious affiliation is protective, one must consider the culture-specific implications of affiliating with a particular religion,” the NIH observed. “In some places the affiliation might connect the person with community resources, while elsewhere the affiliation could isolate the person.”

There is also the fact that suicide rates among LGBTQ persons are disturbingly high, which is believed to be related to these populations being regularly demeaned and ostracized. That form of isolation and denigration often comes at the hands of conservative churches. If such maligned persons happen to be religious themselves, they can feel all the more abandoned and potentially suicidal.

The NIH went on to also note that causality cannot be inferred between churchgoing and suicide potential. Rather than assuming church attendance is what is helping a particular person to cope, it could be that a person who is already coping and functioning well is better able to maintain a social routine like church attendance. Here the cause-effect dynamic is essentially reversed.

Why does all this matter? Because if one makes a blind faith assumption that “only” the church has the answer to rising suicide numbers, then a person in crisis may seek help only there while other effective answers get overlooked. Answers like professional mental health interventions such a person might actually need. Or even practical answers like promoting community cohesion, encouraging simple acts of kindness, showing compassion and generosity, and especially taking care to look out for others. None of these require church affiliation. Instead of being limited by blind faith, they broaden the range of potential answers to stemming the suicide tide.

Published in the October 4, 2023 edition of the Freethinkers of Colorado Springs Freethought Views column in the Colorado Springs Independent with the quotation below.

"A faith that cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets."

----- Arthur C. Clarke