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Friday, November 21, 2008

That'll learn me.

Yesterday I blogged about a new website that helps parents raise their children with an understanding of evolution. In passing I compared it to an earlier post where I mentioned pajamas clearly intended to heighten a child's religiosity. I find certain unfortunate parallels between my themes during these previous two posts and news I've learned of today through the ever-unreliable World Net Daily, the news site for people who think that Obama is the Anti-Christ. Specifically, I recently learned of a college student who committed suicide. The suicide of a young person is almost always a tragedy but, in this case, the death is "news" because the father is apparently blaming Richard Dawkins' book "The God Delusion" for his actions:

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.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found this interesting quote online, apparently from the father, prior to his son's suicide.

I thought it was interesting because it says his "8 year old son" so this endorsement was apparently written a good ~12 years prior to the suicide and prior to his son having been in public education for any substantial duration.

The guy obviously had a problem with public education for a very long time and is looking for a scapegoat when it sounds like the real problem is a dogmatic, doctrinaire militarist father who wouldn't respect his children
as individuals that can make up their own minds about issues.

If you do any further articles on this rather interesting topic, please
copy and include this reference (before they delete it).


Keith E Kilgore

Fort Drum, 13603

Chaplain Keith Kilgore is a United States Army Chaplain. Is endorsed
as a Chaplain by the Southern Baptist Convention. Chaplain Kilgore
served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in Kuwait and Iraq

Why I Signed: I remember the day my High School principal confiscated
my Bible for just carrying it in the hallway. That was the first time
(but not the last) I was persecuted for my Christian faith. The
discrimination did not come from some foreign enemy, but from my own
puplic high school. I should not have to separate my faith from my
education. Moral and spiritual values should be the foundation of my
children's education. Why would I send my eight year old Christian
son, to a 40 year old socialist, relativist, and athiest to undermine
every moral value I want my child to hold? And then be expected to pay
that teacher my taxes to corrupt my own child

Friday, November 21, 2008 3:52:00 PM  
Blogger TheEO said...

I have known of three people who have committed suicide. All have been christians and all have believed that it would not be the end of their existence. Atheists do not believe in an afterlife and so are far less likely to kill themselves - exceptions being those who suffer from clinical depression.

I have read TGD by Richard Dawkins and can see nothing in it that would make suicide more likely - quite the opposite.

Saturday, November 22, 2008 6:28:00 AM  
Blogger Plain(s)feminist said...

It's very sad that this student's crisis of faith led him to commit suicide. As someone who has survived a crisis of faith, I will say that I think you are right on when you say that the issue is not so much the book but rather the tension between losing faith and feeling that one should have faith. I really don't buy arguments that a book, a song, etc. *cause* someone to kill themselves. And I kind of wonder where his community was - did anyone contact counseling at the college? Did anyone follow up with him? I'm not looking to place blame, which I think his grief-stricken father is looking to do, but rather thinking that this kind of crisis probably happens a lot in college, where students are exposed to ideas that seriously challenge their belief system, whatever that belief system is. And part of the college community's responsibility (I mean other students, friends, faculty, admins, and also parents and other relatives) is to look out for students who need help to process these challenges.

Saturday, November 22, 2008 6:21:00 PM  

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