That'll learn me.
A New York man is linking the suicide of his 22-year-old son, a military veteran who had bright prospects in college, to the anti-Christian book "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins after a college professor challenged the son to read it.
"Three people told us he had taken a biology class and was doing well in it, but other students and the professor were really challenging my son, his faith. They didn't like him as a Republican, as a Christian, and as a conservative who believed in intelligent design," the grief-stricken father, Keith Kilgore, told WND about his son, Jesse.
"This professor either assigned him to read or challenged him to read a book, 'The God Delusion,' by Richard Dawkins," he said.
Jesse Kilgore committed suicide in October by walking into the woods near his New York home and shooting himself. Keith Kilgore said he was shocked because he believed his son was grounded in Christianity, had blogged against abortion and for family values, and boasted he'd been debating for years.
The article goes on at some length and a couple of points come clear. First, nobody appears to know whether or not the student was assigned The God Delusion or if he was simply encouraged to read it. As such, it's hard to say how much institutional authority was involved here. Additionally, as far as I can tell, all the accounts of the student's thoughts and feelings are coming to us via other religious students. There doesn't appear to be any official response from the school or specific faculty. I mention this for reasons that will become apparent later.
Now, whatever you might think, the father does seem to have at least some reason for suspecting the involvement of Dawkins' book in his son's suicide. Specifically, there have been reports to the effect that:
"The third one was the last person that my son talked to an hour before [he died,]" Keith Kilgore told WND, referring to a member of his extended family whose name is not being revealed here.
That relative, who had struggled with his own faith and had returned to Christianity, wrote in a later e-mail that Jesse "started to tell me about his loss of faith in everything."
"He was pretty much an atheist, with no belief in the existence of God (in any form) or an afterlife or even in the concept of right or wrong," the relative wrote. "I remember him telling me that he thought that murder wasn't wrong per se, but he would never do it because of the social consequences - that was all there was - just social consequences.
"He mentioned the book he had been reading 'The God Delusion' by Richard Dawkins and how it along with the science classes he had take[n] had eroded his faith. Jesse was always great about defending his beliefs, but somehow, the professors and the book had presented him information that he found to be irrefutable. He had not talked … about it because he was afraid of how you might react. ... and that he knew most of your defenses of Christianity because he himself used them often. Maybe he had used them against his professors and had the ideas shot down."
So, accounts seem to indicate that the student's loss of faith was happening concurrent with his decision to commit suicide. I, of course, am very reluctant to ascribe the suicide to the conversion event, not least because an awful lot of people convert to atheism without harming themselves in the slightest. So, for all intents and purposes, I expect that this young man killed himself for his own reasons and the role of the book was, in the final analysis, quite minor. Particularly, given that this young man was a military veteran, I wonder if perhaps his experiences in the service weren't a bigger influence on his decision to take his own life. And if a shift towards atheism had any role in this death, I rather expect it was a consequence of an incomplete shift. See, lack of belief in god really only bothers you if you think that you should believe in god. Given that this young man was, apparently, a devout Christian for a lot of years, I suspect that he was having strong doubts on an intellectual level but a lifetime of teaching that not being Christian was bad left him feeling emotionally upset at these doubts. The problem wasn't atheism or Christianity, but perhaps the internal tension between them.
I do not wish to discuss the reasons for the suicide any further, however, not least because I am in no position to speculate on them. I do want to comment on the father's additional remarks on these events:
"I'm all for academic freedom," Keith Kilgore said. "What I do have a problem with is if there's going to be academic freedom, there has to be academic balance.
"They were undermining every moral and spiritual value for my [son]," he said. "They ought to be held accountable."
He suggested the moral is for Christians simply to abandon public schools wholly.
The thing is, the father has a little bit of a point here. As educators we have a lot of power and it is our responsibility to wield it appropriately. I am a devout atheist- and I have written about my atheism at length. Brad Wright, in contrast, is a devout Christian and often blogs about his faith as well. Both of us are instructors at the college level* and, therefore, have a responsibility to our students. And in light of this responsibility I think we both make a real effort to separate our personal religious views from the content we teach our students in class. And I think this may be where a mistake was made in this young man's life. I know that biology teachers have many challenges when teaching evolution- particularly since Ken Ham began exhorting students to disrupt their biology classes by asking "were you there?" in response to claims about fossils, the age of the Earth, etc. The thing is, even amidst such disruptions, I think we have a duty to stick to the material. If the class is a critical examination of modern religion "The God Delusion" might be a wholly-appropriate text but, in the event that the class is about biology, it may be less appropriate.
And while I scoff at the notion that Dawkins' book made anyone do anything, I do think this is a good time to remind ourselves to be professional when we're in the classroom.
* Though, admittedly, he's faculty while I'm just a wee little grad student.