Secular Society and Suicide

Secularism, as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the “indifference to, or rejection or exclusion of, religion and religious considerations.”

A secular society is a society that runs on a non-religious basis. The powers of the church and the state are separate. Religious groups don’t interfere in affairs of state, and the state doesn’t interfere in religious affairs.

Western nations appear to be going through a process of becoming less religious. Data relating to falling attendances at places of worship is often presented to substantiate this fact.

‘Australia is a secular society,’ says Renae Barker, Lecturer in Law at the University of Western Australia. ‘But it is not one where the majority of the population has turned their backs on religion, even if the numbers doing so are increasing with each census. Nor is Australia a country where the state has no interaction with religion.

Secularism in Australia means no state church. It means giving people a choice between belief and un-belief. It means religious leaders may lobby for their point of view but so too may leaders of atheist, humanist and rationalist organisations.’

During times of public discourse the media is keen to emphasise that Australia is a secular society. While they say they want to give credence to opposing voices, they struggle to accommodate the opinions of church leaders.

I readily admit the church hasn’t helped its cause. The much publicised child sexual abuse scandal has shattered public trust and has discredited the hierarchy of the church. Further, a lack of clarity on key issues like abortion, assisted dying, treatment of refugees, climate change, gender identity – has created an environment in which any proclamations by the church are considered marginal, if not irrelevant.

President Barack Obama says,

“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated must translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific values. Their proposals must be subject to argument and reason, and should not be accorded any undue automatic respect.”

Barack Obama

Obama argues that people of religious persuasion can no longer hide behind religious platitudes. Statements laced with religious jargon are no longer relevant and fail to gain traction with their hearers. He suggests that if people of religious persuasion want to debate social issues they will need to speak in an informed and intelligible manner.

I have no issue with these sentiments. However, it is disappointing that secular culture tends to promote conflict, the polorisation of opposing views, rather than encouraging a respectful exchange of ideas.

Secular society faces some significant challenges that I don’t believe it can resolve without a willingness to listen to and engage with people of religious pursuasion.

One such issue is suicide. Despite a profusion of suicide prevention initiatives rates of suicide in Australia continue to rise. A new report, ‘Turning Points’, released on Suicide Prevention Day, predicts an extra 1300 suicide deaths a year will occur by 2030 if the worsening rates of the last decade continue.

A collaborative approach to suicide prevention is vital as suicide knows no boundaries. People within the church share the same pain and sadness in losing a friend or loved one to suicide. They too are left to ponder the difficult questions, the unanswerable questions.

Commenting on the findings of the report Suicide Prevention Australia chief executive Nieves Murray said it is time to look beyond traditional health care responses.

She says,

“The challenge for this decade is preventing the next wave of stressors – whether they be financial, personal or environmental – transforming into a threat to suicide rates in the first place.”

Nieves Murray

Secular society creates the social pressures that promote suicide. Ms Murray wants suicide prevention strategists to find ways to reduce the threat these stressors provide.

There are two stressors that impose a significant threat.

(1) Social Anxiety

There is growing acceptance among mental health consultants that social media provokes anxiety. They refer to the compare-and-despair factor. This constant personal evaluation can lead to a fear of not being good enough or feeling a failure.

How do we frame social anxiety? It is the fear and anxiety of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.

Neurologist, Oliver Sacks, author of the book ‘Everything In Its Place’ laments the dehumanising effect of social media.

He says,

‘I am confronted every day by the complete disappearance of the old civilities. Social life, street life, and attention to people and things around one have largely disappeared, at least in big cities, where the majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to their phones or other devices – jabbering, texting, playing computer games, turning more and more to virtual reality of every sort.’

Sacks’ primary concern is the subtle, pervasive draining out of meaning, of intimate contact, from our society and culture.

In her book ‘Happy Never After’ Jill Stark talks about how the anonymity of the online age has dehumanised our interactions.

She says,

‘The digital age has turned everyone into a keyboard warrior. Twitter can become a cauldron of venomous outrage, factional back-slapping, and outright bullying. The toxic echo chamber of righteous anger can make life even more fraught with anxiety…’

Author and mental health advocate Matt Haig acknowledges that the internet can exacerbate our feelings of anxiety.

He says,

‘The internet has enabled us to join together and make change happen. For better or for worse…the trouble is that if we are plugged in to a vast nervous system, our happiness – and misery – is more collective than ever. The group’s emotions become our own.’

(2) Environmental Stress

Environmental stress refers to how people respond to physical, chemical and biological features of their environment. These stressors may include exposure to natural disasters, electromagnetic radiation, pollution, climate change, or noise.

For the purposes of this article we will limit our discussion to climate change. Climate change is as much a psychological and social problem, as it is an environmental or ecological catastrophe.

A report issued by the U.S. Global Change Research Program found that people’s anxiety and distress about the implications of climate change are undermining mental health and well-being.

In April 2019, some of Australia’s leading health bodies published an open letter calling on political parties to recognise ‘the significant and profound health impacts of climate change to Australian people.’

We know that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is on the increase.

Across Australia, rural areas are being hit the hardest by unseasonal, drought, fires and floods. The loss of homes, land and livelihoods takes a significant psychological toll on Australian farmers. Not surprisingly there has been an increase in the rates of suicide among rural communities.

This brings us to an important consideration. What, if anything, can church communities bring to suicide prevention initiatives?

Firstly, the church is a community. A community is a group of people who share or have certain attitudes and interests in common. Church communities are made up of people whose experience of God’s love has changed their lives. They are motivated to share this transforming love with others. Church communities are welcoming, nuturing, caring, affirming and empowering. They are supportive environments where vulnerable people can feel safe.

Historically, the church has struggled to grasp the complexities of mental illness. Church communities were often dismissive or judgmental of people who were battling mental illness. The church now accepts that mental illness is a health condition and not a spiritual condition. Some churches are investing in mental health support groups. Some churches are building relationships with local mental health professionals. Some churches are offering to house a licensed therapist in their church facilities.

People who have suicidal thoughts often feel afraid of not being taken seriously or being rejected. They feel alone in their struggle. They would benefit from the care and support provided by loving communities. The church is ideally placed to respond to this social need.

Secondly, the church is a people of faith. Faith is not wishful thinking. It is the belief that God keeps His promises, that He is true to His word. The faith of the church is founded on what God has said.

The church is on the side of life. It takes seriously the words of Jesus who says, ‘I have come that you may have life – a rich and satisfying life.’ It follows then that the church is opposed to death, however it is masked. That is why the church speaks out about abortion and ‘assisted dying.’

Although the Bible neither condones nor condemns suicide it does teach that life is to be valued. It is not something to be treated lightly or to be carelessly discarded.

Secular society needs to hear this message and it falls to the church to make it known.

Life is worthy of our respect.

RUOK is a suicide prevention charity in Australia, reminding people that having meaningful conversations with mates and loved ones could save lives. One of their more recent slogans is that ‘It’s OK not to be OK.’ This suggests that there will be times in our life when we will feel down. You may be sad or angry or simply depressed. This is OK. But it is never OK to intentionally end your life. Suicide is never OK.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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