To life, not martyrdom

Recently, I read two articles about dying for a cause. The first, on these pages, by Sally Quinn, addressed the … Continued

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.

Herb Silverman
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  • abumusaahmad

    Islam, like all other religions promotes GIVING UP life in preference to the life of one’s community (world). No religion justifies TAKING of life. So, it’s a teaching of ‘die and let others live’; as OPPOSED to the survival of the fittest, which is below human morals.

    However, as implemented all across the world, the hand of the oppressor has to be stopped (in this way we help the oppressor AND the oppressed). It would be utterly cruel not to EDUCATE the creators of disorder.

    Islam declares that disorder CANNOT beget peace. Those who claim so are SURELY the mischievous.

  • bucknackt1

    L’CHAIM, to life Herb Silverman! But I have a problem with your article. You reference people committing acts of violence in the “name” of their religion as religious. The are not religious, they are not people of faith, because the teachings of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism (the religions mentioned in your article) do not allow for such actions. People who pervert and twist their claimed religion to justify their violent actions are hypocrites, guilty of apostasy, and the media does all religions a disservice by referring to these people as religious and / or as adherents of any faith.

  • Khartet

    It is always comical when atheists write about faith matters.

  • Ozymandias790

    It’s always comical whenever religious people write about faith matters.

    “My imaginary friend loves me.
    My imaginary friend will send you to be tortured forever.
    My imaginary friend brought dead people back to life.
    My imaginary friend says masturbating is wrong.
    This wine will turn into the blood of my imaginary friend when I drink it.” etc etc

    Absolutely frigging hilarious.

  • Rik Delaet

    Man, read your Bible, Koraan… whatever.

  • edbyronadams

    Human beings are a tribal species and making war on other tribes is a natural habit. It made us who we are. That said, our technical prowess has now made that occupation hazardous for everyone. The open question is whether we can overcome the bad side of our heritage and accentuate the positive. I don’t believe humanity is capable of such a transformation without spiritual help.

  • JNWesner

    edbyronadams, could you expand on this comment: “I don’t believe humanity is capable of such a transformation without spiritual help.” Does this mean some supernatural force will have to effect a change in our nature? That we must all implore a magical being to end to our desire for power? As a humanist, I find the term “spiritual help” exceedingly vague and almost meaningless. I’d prefer to think that if we want change enough, we can achieve it.

  • edbyronadams

    Intent is important but introspection for the knowledge and courage to change is also necessary. I don’t see how anyone not partaking of a regular spiritual practice can overcome the ingrained tribal identity and its dark side, the definition of “the other” that is at the root of group conflict. Thinking is important and desire is important but making it a matter of intent and determination requires effort.

  • edbyronadams

    BTW any philosophy or religion that divides us, a la the saved vs. the damned is part of the problem, not the solution.

  • h5r2

    Looking at evidence about what has worked and what has not worked in cultures has nothing to do with spirituality, whatever that means. One need not be spiritual to be good without gods.

  • David Schoonbaert

    I would read my bible, thora an koran again if i were you Bucknackt1. Remember the passage when Moses came back down from the mountain and saw some people worshipping a golden bull? What did he do to them?

  • jarandeh


    Your argument is a perfect illustration of the ‘No True Scotsman” fallacy.

  • vijayk

    h5 What/who defines “Good”? If left to humans it will always be finite, partial and subject to interpretation. To say that there is none good, no not one as Christ did is not condemnation on humanity it is meant as inspiration to submit to the Supreme Authority “God Almighty” and His rule. As an alcoholic for 25 years I made many choices that I thought were “Good” only to find out later that they were not so “Good”. Many, Many evil acts have been and are carried out every day by “Humans” that in their own mind perceived to be “Good” acts.

  • h5r2

    According to the Bible: slavery was good, stoning homosexuals was good, burning witches was good, and killing infidels was good. Humans are fallible, but better to use human judgments based on centuries of experience than on human judgments about what was good 2000 years ago.

  • Tobit

    Good point Herb. Except Masada is revered by Jews as the time they stood up to the Romans at the cost of their own lives. It’s a story of heroism and courage.

    The Christian religion (I’m a Jewish atheist too) allows for redemption through the act of repentance. So yes, theoretically, a murderer could become a saint. For example, Saul of Tarsus. I don’t think much of the clergy picking saints but it’s not my religion so who cares anyway?

  • h5r2

    Standing up and fighting for a cause is one thing. At Masada, people killed themselves (and their children) because they didn’t want them or their children to live under Roman law. How do you justify killing children?

  • Verimius J

    We should also discuss the morality of dying for one’s country. Would the world be a better or worse place if absolutely nobody were willing to die for a cause?

    I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.
    –Bertrand Russell

  • ThomasBaum

    Some things that may not happen if one were not willing to die for a cause:

    Attempting to rescue someone from a burning car or building.

    Attempting to save someone from drowning.

    There are many other things and it seems to me that the world would be a much colder place and I am not speaking weather wise.

  • counterww1

    And your bigotry is evident and sad too.

  • pjs-1965

    I might put my life at risk to save another person’s life, but I would never die for an idea, whether it be for religion or country. To me that’s totally insane.

  • practica1

    First of all, since it’s all just magic – as with any religion – it’s just another culturally specific quirk.

    If this group of people who have chosen a particular mythic metaphor to explain things have chosen to honor a group of 15th century fellows who chose to die rather than give up their religio-ethnic identity, who’s to throw the first stone?

    People choose to die for a lot of reasons: because they can’t be silent when others are oppressed; because they refuse to bow to colonial rule; because they are defending the vulnerable; because they refuse to give up a tribal or political or ethnic identity. Lots of reasons I wouldn’t choose – but when they do such things as defending the Warsaw ghetto or speaking out against fascism or the British Raj or South African apartheid, people who admire them often view them as “saints” or honor them in some other way — some might say it is inexplicable – miraculous – that such people inspire others.

    But even someone who doesn’t like the Catholic church – and I don’t much – can honestly describe the “culture of life” they promote not as “anti-abortion sentiment” but as the “seamless garment” they choose as their metaphor to explain their doctrine: No action is to be taken to end another’s life at any point, whether in utero, when born damaged, when old or sick and inconvenient, or when convicted of crime. The American Catholics have been almost alone among Christians in consisting capital punishment.

    But it’s all just magic, just as the Progressive Movement that brought my family of Wobblies out of small towns and into big trouble relied on the magic of influence and danger. Just as my belief that America should be a better nation than those that came before it. It’s just magic.

    You don’t like ’em, that’s clear from the way you’ve gemischt a bunch of gripes. You’ll have to do better than this preaching to the choir – it makes atheists sound like angry grumps instead of honest and thoughtful secularists.

  • tidelandermdva

    Saving an individual’s life is not dying for a cause, it is trying to live while trying to save another, and it is not a cause that is at stake but a human. Saving a person is to save a person not saving a cause that says the person is valuable.

  • tidelandermdva

    “But even someone who doesn’t like the Catholic church – and I don’t much – can honestly describe the “culture of life” they promote not as “anti-abortion sentiment” but as the “seamless garment””

    Yes, the Church deserves credit for opposing capital punishment. But when the church condemns thousands to death by opposing condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS between spouses, it rends the garment and turns it into a culture of death. When the Church opposes the Affordble Care Act which will provide life saving medical care to the poorest of the poor, it is not a culture of life but a culture of death.

    But speaking of martyrs, why did Pope Pius XII live? Why did he not use the very tools the church has used against American politicians and voters of excommunication to destroy the Nazis? Does anyone believe that Hitler could have come to power if the Popes had forced the German Catholic Party to oppose, rather than enable him> Does anyone believe that the Nazis could had remained in power if the Pope had excommunitated all Nazi office holders, all German troops serving the Nazis, and put Germany under interdict as long as the Nazis were in power?

  • EndersShadow

    “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.”
    No – the Christian tradition is to wait for the oppressor to kill you, because the aim is to convert – or at least challenge – them when they come to kill you. The issue of early Christians being too willing to seek martyrdom is a valid one – it’s said that Origen was only prevented from going with his father when the Romans came for him by his mother hiding his clothes – but Christianity puts a high premium on being a ‘witness’ – which is what ‘martyr’ means. Allied with a high view of truth and a belief that the afterlife is LOTS better than this one, it’s not really a surprise if we are willing to be martyred in the face of the option to deny our God.

  • Catken1

    There are causes I would die for, but I would die for them because I think they would make the world a better place for my child and others of his generation, or for people in general. So in a sense, that too is dying to save a person.

  • Catken1

    The Romans would probably have put them on humiliating display and then killed the lot of them anyway. Romans were not necessarily merciful people.

  • edbyronadams

    Does Herb Silverman have a good laugh on November 11?

  • PhillyJimi1

    You’re still going to die someday no matter what. There have been a few wars worth dying over.

    Kings and rulers figured out thousands of years ago it is much easier to get people to fight and die if you associate the fight for a god (or gods) along with the promise of an afterlife. It is just a con game.

  • PhillyJimi1

    While America has it problems now and in the past (ie slavery). It still is the best model so far developed for civilized people to live. I get to call myself an American because people died fighting to give me the rights I now have. They died to end the “divine rights” of Kings to rule over people just because they declared a god gave them that right. The world is a better place because of it.

    Could or would of an “America” happened without war and death? Difficult to say? I would like to think so but it isn’t clear.

  • PhillyJimi1

    I agree, there is something very comical about believing the supreme being in the entire universe actually knocked up a virgin with a version of him self because a rib woman got tricked by a talking snake into snacking on a never eat or you’ll die apple. Thus the supreme being best way to create a get of of hell for free pass for his perfect creation, humans, was to fake his own death for 2 days. If you don’t believe this crazy story on blind faith you still go to hell.

    The story is so insane it is comical.

  • h5r2

    This article is a celebration of life, not death. Edby must be confusing atheists like Herb Silverman with Christians like those at Westboro Baptist Church. They are the ones who have a good laugh on November 11.

  • An-Toan

    These doctrines of the so-called “just war” are ludicrous. They completely contradict the message of the Jesus.

  • edwills

    Which message of Jesus? Many so-called “just” wars were holy wars over which interpretation of Jesus was the right one.

  • ReasonOverIgnorance

    War was necessary, I think. Otherwise, no real change would have occurred and therefore no American experiment…