Recently, I read two articles about dying for a cause. The first, on these pages, by Sally Quinn, addressed the Dalai Lama’s lack of compassion for not criticizing the self-immolation of more than 100 Tibetans since 2009 to protest China’s occupation of Tibet. The second article concerned 813 Italians who were just declared “saints” by the Catholic Church because they chose death in 1480 rather than convert to Islam.
Different religions have formulated arguments about what constitutes a “just war” and causes worth dying for. Some of history’s most brutal wars have been holy wars, perpetrated by people who expected heavenly rewards for killing countless “heretics.” They justified their massacres because designated infidels either did not believe in “the one true god” or did not worship the one true god in the one true way. Most of the civilized world now condemns those who take innocent lives, regardless of the cause. More nuanced is whether we can justify taking our own life for a cause, the theme in both articles mentioned above.
I can respect, if not agree with, those who believe their suicide will save additional lives and increase the happiness of others. That was the goal of the self-immolators trying to free Tibet and bring back the Dalai Lama. On the other hand, I always look for ways to resolve problems without loss of life. This is why war must always be a last resort.
I reserve my harshest criticisms of religion for its practices that intrude on the lives of those outside the religion. This doesn’t mean I can easily ignore religious practices I find ridiculous, which brings me to Catholic sainthood. How many miracles does it take to change a dead human into a saint? The Catholic Church says two, but no such miracle has ever been as documented as, say, would be a televised prayer that results in a light bulb changing itself.
While the Tibet article included comments from those for and against self-immolation as a tactic, the saint article unfortunately included no skeptics.
It’s bad enough that an organization puts its time and money into so-called documenting that some of its adherents were cured of an incurable disease solely by praying to a dead person. But I’m more bothered by the church’s fast track to sainthood called “martyrdom.” A person who dies for belief in Catholicism can become a saint without performing two post-death miracles. This was the case for the “Martyrs of Otranto” who defied demands by Turkish invaders that they convert to Islam.
I have two problems with this.
First, this dual track to sainthood puts belief above behavior. No matter how good a life you led, even by Catholic standards, you would still have to perform two miracles after death if you didn’t die as a martyr. If you threw yourself in front a train to stop it from killing a hundred children, two miracles would still be needed. In other words, you would not be as worthy as one who led a morally corrupt life but died while refusing to convert.
Second, the Catholic Church claims to stand for the “culture of life,” which might be just a code for anti-abortion. I admire people who value life enough to make necessary adjustments to stay alive. Saying you have converted doesn’t have to mean it’s true. If someone puts a gun to my head and says he will shoot me unless I pray to Zeus, I’ll pray to Zeus. Such a prayer would hurt nobody, and it would save a life.
As a Jewish atheist, I don’t want to be accused of just Catholic bashing. So I’ll criticize a similar Jewish event. After Rome destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., surviving Zealots fled Jerusalem to the fortress of Masada, near the Dead Sea. According to the historian Josephus, after a three-year siege the Zealots took their own lives rather than forfeit their freedom to the Romans.
Had they been Catholics instead of Jews, these martyrs undoubtedly would have been declared saints. I again would have had more admiration for those who chose to live and work to change their culture peacefully. Today, the term “Masada complex” is applied to Israelis who prefer to fight at all costs rather than compromise land for peace.
So to those who are religious and to those who are not, I’ll end with a Jewish toast: L’Chaim, To Life.
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.