You only live once

You only live once

On Sunday, October 4, 2009, two young girls leaped to their deaths from the Erskine Bridge over the River Clyde. They were Neve Lafferty (15), right, and Georgia Rowe (14), both in care at the Catholic  Good Shepherd Centre in Bishopton.

A local priest, Father Peter Lennon, revealed that some four years ago Neve and three friends had quizzed him about God:

…who made God, and why doesn’t God stop tragedies in the world from happening[?].

At the time of the tragedy, Neve had been very distressed by the death of her boyfriend (Jonny McKernan) in February. Perhaps she was told at that time that he was safe with God and that she would see him when she died.

It is possible that, in her anxiety to be with Jonny as soon as possible, she decided not to wait for a natural death and took a friend with her. One has to ask therefore what part religion played in her death; the whole Christian Church believes that all who die go to an imaginary Never Land somewhere in the sky (where exactly?).

We don’t know how many suicides are by people anxious to meet God or go to a better place, but we can identify some of them. In 1978, most of the members of an American evangelical sect (Peoples’ Temple) committed mass suicide in Guyana, possibly due to internal conflict but surely in the hope of an afterlife.

In 1993, most members of the The Branch Davidian Seventh Day Adventists seemed to have chosen to die in the siege of their compound in Waco, Texas, no doubt convinced that they would live again.

In 1994, members of the Order of the Solar Temple, a cult rooted in the Roman Catholic faith, were either killed or committed suicide in Switzerland, believing that, after death, they would travel through fire to the planet Sirius (it is actually a star).

In 1997, thirty-nine members of an American pseudo-Christian cult committed suicide in the belief that they would go to a “higher plane” on a spacecraft hiding behind comet Hale-Bopp, then visible in the night sky.

Muslims also believe in an afterlife (the ultimate oxymoron!), a Paradise where the faithful (men?) will be attended by 72 houri (or raisins!) and there is an implication of abundant sexual opportunities. Surely it is this false hope that motivates Islamic suicide bombers.

In short, the world is infected by a meme that spreads the mistaken belief that, instead of death being the end, it is the beginning of a infinite ethereal life of happiness with friends and relatives. It is the cause of much misery and false hope and needs to be countered by reality. We only live as complex psycho-physical beings, the result of millions of years of evolution. When our bodies die, what we call our consciousness (mind) dies with it. That mind cannot live in any other way, certainly not without the body in which it emerged.

This meme was a central theme in Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospels and alluded to by Islam. But Jesus inherited this meme from his Pharisaic ancestors, who brought it from Persia; the older Jewish faith knew of no afterlife. That Jesus was mistaken about the afterlife and that he was not resurrected is one main theme in my book The Rise and Fall of Jesus, just reissued in a revised edition by WritersPrintShop.

• This op-ed by  Steuart Campbell was first published on the Freethinker site on October 21, 2009.

28 responses to “You only live once”

  1. Neuseline says:

    I have a friend in Ohio who claims to have been dead 56 times. Beat that. I have tried on several occasions to convince him that it was his subconscious brain projecting images and the famous white light when he was on the point of coming round. Many years ago, when chloroform was still being used to knock one out, I had the feeling of coming down a long black tunnel at great speed towards a white light when the anaesthesia was wearing off. My friend gets very shirty that I don’t believe him. I tell him that I believe he thinks he has been dead, but I don’t believe that he has been “on the other side”.

  2. William Harwood says:

    See my review of Mr Campbell’s book at http://www.midwestbookreview.com for January 2003. Considering that Mr Campbell is a well-meaning amateur, with as much expertise in Christian origins as I have in Etruscan, he has (surprisingly) written a book that is more accurate than inaccurate.

  3. Stonyground says:

    Belief in some kind of afterlife seems to be remarkably resilient in this supposedly scientific age. Come on you idiots, how the hell do you think that you are still going to carry on being alive after you are dead? No matter how much you really really want it to be true, can’t you see that it simply isn’t?

  4. Tom Rees says:

    Interestingly, suicide rates are higher among the nonreligious, and the countries with the most suicides are the ones with the most atheists. Suicide bucks the trend in that way – most other markers of ‘societal health’ go down with increasing atheism.

  5. ZombieHunter says:

    I know all too well about the case of the two girls who leaped off the Erskine bridge as I’m from Glasgow too and it’s been all over the news up here for the past couple of weeks now:(

    Apparently the good Sheppard centre has been investiaged before over claims that staff have been violent towards children in their care but nothing ever came of the investigation, but since this happened a couple of former residents there have come out making claims about the staff being uncaring.

    it’s all fucked up:(

  6. William Harwood says:

    Tom Rees is probably misinformed (the alternative is less flattering). The healthiest societies are those with the highest proportion of nontheists. See, for example, Living Without God, by Phil Zuckerman.

  7. @William Harwood, did you look at Tom Rees’s website? I would say he is probably rather well informed.

  8. William Harwood says:

    I checked the website, and it reinforces my conclusion that Mr Rees gullibly accepts fraudulent statistics propagated by pretended pollsters who ask questiona designed to solicit predetermined answers. He probably also believes that the number of nontheists is far less the the true figure of 36 percent. He is clearly unaware that the highest suicide rates are for Catholic priests (which the church passes of as not-suicides), and psychiatrists, the two occupations in which everyone who has the potential to face reality sees no other way out when he realizes that he has been perpetrating a fraud for his whole life and is too old to switch to anything else. Even rugbutters who blow themselves up in the delusion that they are buying an eternity of virgin-tupping do not come close, statistically

  9. Stuart W says:

    Speaking of recent tragic deaths in the press, let’s here it for Birdshit’s latest masterpiece after a quiet period. Two Stephen G’s, one from Boyzone, one from a Bilezone, and this actually makes Jan Moir’s sound halfway reasonable.


  10. Tim Danaher says:

    Stuart —

    Birdshit really is certifiable, isn’t he?

    So, I suppose the heterosexual ‘swingers’ scene is all just one big media invention? I mean, straight people could never behave like that, could they?

    It would make Jesus cry.

  11. @William Harwood – Indeed. The inability to accept that one has been mistaken, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, is a very common human phenomenon, not confined to priests and psychiatrists.

  12. David Lawson says:

    I would have to aggree with Tom Rees.

    On the following site. Gallop used data gathered on a nations religiosity and compared it to a nations suicide rate as provided by the World Health Organization. It clearly shows that the higher the countrys religiousity, the lower the suicide rate.


  13. Stuart W says:

    Precisely, Tim. The sweeping generalisations he makes about both gay and straight couples off the back of Gately’s death are as moronic and fantasy world as denouncing homosexuality as something you ‘get involved in’ unless warned off.
    I of course meant ‘hear’ in my last post – and as the last thing I had been reading were Green’s gibberings, I do hope stupidity cannot be transmitted via screen glare.

  14. OpenMind says:

    @ David Lawson – please explain Italy’s suicide rate on that poll.

    Silvio Berlusconi is not an acceptable answer.

  15. barriejohn says:

    I don’t think that the poll proves anything. For one thing: what is “religiosity”? You are not necessarily comparing like with like: different religions have totally different views of the morality of suicide. For another thing, other factors in society might have a far greater influence on an individual’s likelihood of committing suicide than how religious they are. As Dr Harwood has stated, you have to be careful that pollsters are not eliciting the replies that they want, even though “common sense” might suggest, in this case, that the more religious people are the less likely they are to take their own lives.

  16. rog says:

    I always thought that instilling a belief in the afterlife was a way of controlling a population – be a “good” citizen, fight in wars & put up with inequality and you will get your reward in heaven – if people realise that they only have one life, they are more inclined to refuse the status quo & this poses problems for people in power.

  17. Neuseline says:

    I have just read the article on Gately’s death on the “christianvoice” site.

    “‘Here we have two men in a civil partnership, Gately and Cowles, supposedly publicly committed to each other, cruising for sex with other men in a gay bar. Cowles picks up Dochev and they take him back to their flat. There Gately decides that he will leave the bed to his ‘partner’ and the stranger he has taken fancy to, and occupies the sofa. Maybe there was a row, maybe there wasn’t, but such activities are routine in the homosexual world.”

    It seems to me Mr. Green may be speaking from personal experience. How else can he be so certain that “such activities are routine in the homosexual world.”

  18. William Harwood says:

    Tom Rees wrote that “markers of societal health go down with increasing atheism.” Pardon me for reading that as a declaration that atheistic societies are less emotionally healthy than those that are godphuqt. That he meant the precise opposite now strikes me as probable, given that he contrasted it to suicide rates. Muslims have higher suicide rates than Catholics for the logical reason that the former think suicides will be rewarded in Cloud Cuckoo Land’s copulatorium, while the latter think they will be eternally tortured with flamethrowers. And Catholics have lower suicide rates than nontheists, since the latter are aware that death is the end of existence and an afterlife more miserable than the life they are escaping is an absurdity. The enormous suicide rate for priests is a function of their coming to realize that their sadists’ wet dream called Hell is as nonexistent as their cult’s sadistic Sky Fuhrer. Suicide rates are identical for nontheists and those theists who reject the “hell” concept.
    I reiterate that even many nontheists gullibly accept statistics compiled by rigged polls that asked questions designed to elicit a predetermined answer.

  19. polomint38 says:

    It seems to me Mr. Green may be speaking from personal experience. How else can he be so certain that “such activities are routine in the homosexual world.”

    He has a video collection that depicts it, probably.

  20. Stonyground says:

    I think that suicide in order to avoid a drawn out and painful death is actually a good thing. I believe that this kind of suicide is more common among non theists than among those who believe that their life belongs to God. Could this be a factor that screws the figures in favour of more religious societies?

  21. Tom Rees says:

    Sorry for any confusion – and for not coming back here to clarify. Suicide is higher among the non-religious. It’s well recognised. e.g. for example: http://bhascience.blogspot.com/2009/01/how-does-religion-prevent-suicide.html and also various cross-national studies into suicide rates. They’re higher in societies where the importance of religion declines.

    Suicide goes in the opposite direction to other markers of societal health – mostly because people turn to religion when times are tough, but also because religion reduces governmental welfare and replaces it with inefficient support for the people at the bottom of the pile. e.g. my own research published in J Religion & Society which I summarized here: http://bhascience.blogspot.com/2009/07/why-some-countries-are-more-religious.html

  22. Angelo says:

    But we really don’t know, do we?
    What if our consciousnees as an emergent phenomenon goes beyond physical reality and leaves a quantum imprint on the Cosmos’ structure? What if we do reincarnate in other dimensions?

  23. rog says:


    Prove it!

  24. barriejohn says:

    So what if we do, Angelo? You can fantasize about all sorts of things that “might possibly happen”, but in the total absence of evidence such speculation is pointless.

  25. rog says:

    I quite like the terry pratchett disc world version of the after life, DEATH COMES AND ASKS YOU, THEN YOU GET THE AFTERLIFE YOU KNOW YOU DESERVE…

    sorry for the caps!

    ok, for the purposes of debate: is is cruel to disabuse a person facing death* of the existence of an afterlife?

    * I realise that to some degree, that is all of us.

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  27. CharlyO says:

    Does it really matter one way or the other?
    Are we atheists competing with theists for the least suicides?

  28. Rob Andrews says:

    Do people who want an afterlife really contimplate what they will do forever? I mean even pleasure all the time will get boring in a few million or billion years.

    Without some form or suffering you would not value a break from it. I know since I quit working that I no longer value the weekends as I used to.

    Then you’d be in a bind, you would want to terminate your consciousness, but would be afreaid of non-existance.

    And I wonder how many gay teens are driven to suicide in Muslim countries?