On Robin Williams, Tragedy, and Thumper’s Mommy’s Rule

Since the actor and comedian Robin Williams died two days ago, there have been a multitude of tributes aired on television networks and posted online. Mostly they extol his quick wit, his devastatingly satirical humor, and his dramatic presence onscreen. As of this writing, his death has been attributed to suicide resulting from depression, so others have used this opportunity to focus on that mental disease. Also, given that his death occurred during a time of violent conflict in the Middle East and heightened tensions with Russia, not to mention anticipation of an ideologically charged election a few months hence, other less complimentary media has blown off Mr. Williams’ suicide as insignificant compared to larger events, or characterized it as cowardly, selfish, and particularly reprehensible considering his immense wealth and prestige. This latter vein of commentary is disturbing.

I understand the motivation to pay tribute to a popular figure. Through his movies and other public appearance, Mr. Williams has influenced a lot of people–chiefly by making them laugh. Many of his jokes and one-liners have entered into our common lexicon. People admired him, I guess, because his comedy uplifted their spirits. We sympathized with his confusedly righteous entertainer in Good Morning, Vietnam, we laughed at his comically entertaining everyman in Mrs. Doubtfire, and we drew wisdom from his portrayal as a counselor in Good Will Hunting. It’s no surprise that we should be shocked by his death, at his own hands, and apparently because of the omnipresent sadness, hurt, and anger of depression. The very nature of the event–popular and widely-reported–gives us the opportunity to reflect on the role laughter, sadness, and death play in our own perception of our lives. I confess that his comedy seemed a little wacky to me, so I am (unfortunately) not as affected by his death as others. But why spit on those who do, in fact, grieve?

Demeaning his death, or the attention lavished on it, sends a clear message that any grief felt for it is worthless. That is manifestly not true. Grief is the product of tragedy; any event which shocks us and provokes us to contemplate our own mortality, even vicariously, is tragedy. Mr. Williams’ death is one of many which happen every day, and perhaps one of the least gruesome. Certainly he did not die due to indiscriminate rocket fire, or beheading for being something other than a Muslim. The fate of nation-states does not hang in the balance because of his suicide. But his death is no less tragic for seeming lack of context. Christian doctrine, to which I subscribe, teaches that every person has inherent dignity because they are intimately created, loved, and valued by God, and therefore Mr. Williams’ death, even at his own hands, and even if he is rich and famous, is objectively a diminution of all of us–equally so as the death of a non-Christian in Iraq, or a Palestinian in Gaza, or a Ukrainian Soldier. The loss of a life is certainly much worse than a disliked piece of legislation or an unfavorable election result. As to his depression, I’ll be the first to agree that there are more immediately threatening issues than depression before us–but the relative importance, for whatever reason, of other issues does not diminish the cause of eradicating or mitigating depression (or any other mental illness). I personally grieve for Mr. Williams, more so because I have known his contributions to our culture and laughed with him. That makes the tragedy of his death more present to me than the death of others, and so it has a greater impact on me. There’s no question that Mr. Williams’ death is a tragedy, and he–along with those who loved him, which include his family and his fans–deserves our pity and compassion by virtue of the humanity he shares with us.

The negative reactions to this event raises the question of why we sometimes disbelieve people when they tell us about themselves. I don’t mean when people boast, or curry sympathy, or otherwise seek attention–I mean when they tell us their experiences. Many people who suffer from depression have written about it, and psychologists and psychiatrists alike have documented a pattern of symptoms and results leading of this clearly defined mental disease. Apparently Mr. Williams suffered from it. It is ludicrous to contradict that diagnosis on the barest speculation, as some have done by pointing out that he was a comic, or that he was wealthy, or that he was influential. Those things, nice as they are to be, do not have relevance on mental illness any more than they do on cancer or the common cold. I won’t conjecture whether there’s a connection between comedians and depression, but I do question why some angrily reject that such mental illness can occur in certain people. Can’t they imagine anyone being depressed if they’re rich?

Whatever the reality, second-guessing the experience of others is odious. To use a well-documented issue as an example, some question whether homosexuals really experience same-sex attraction as part of their nature. Why wouldn’t we believe someone who says that about him- or herself? Unless we have a similar frame of reference–i.e. we’ve experienced same-sex attraction ourselves–then we literally cannot understand what that’s like, and cannot judge the truth or falsehood of it. Any glib, ideologically-aligned causes we propose for homosexuality are mere speculation. In rejecting that aspect about another person, we are essentially demeaning them and all who share that experience by denying them personal agency and self-knowledge. Similarly, if one does not suffer depression, then rejecting Mr. William’s mental illness or that it could cause suicide is demeaning to him and all who suffer the same disease. That’s especially true for the self-styled academics who comfortably theorize that suicide is a selfish act and (if they’re religious) a sin. While the experiences of those afflicted with depression attest to both a physical aspect (i.e. a physical defect in the brain, or the operation of the brain) and a mental/spiritual element, scientists and theologians both admit they are very far from understanding the human mind. Therefore commentary on whether Mr. Williams’ suicide was a poor choice or an inevitable result of the disease is only more speculation. On top of that, who among us could say he or she knew Mr. Williams’ conscience, which seems more the point? God alone knows that. And finally, anecdotal evidence about someone falsely claiming depression–or any other sort of identity–in order to get attention is absolutely not sufficient reason to lack compassion. Any number of people who play the martyr by claiming depression, or who whine about the pressures of a life of fame, do not diminish the real thing. The only creditable source about Mr. Williams’ depression is Mr. Williams himself, and those who were close to him. It seems logical we would trust them.

No doubt those profess themselves offended by this suicide, or by all the attention spent on it, will respond to this post (if they read it) by asserting their right to believe and whatever they want. I don’t contradict that right. For my part, I’m certainly aware that I’m a poor source for information: I have no first-hand knowledge of Mr. Williams, nor could I improve upon the tributes written about him by better writers than I. I only remind the participants in this discussion that Mr. Williams had humanity and therefore dignity, as do all those saddened by his death. For that alone he and they are worthy of consideration and compassion. So please remember the rule of Thumper’s Mommy in Disney’s Bambi: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all–and leave those who grieve Mr. Williams’ death and reflect on their own mortality in respectful peace.

Some thoughts on the words “Faith” and “Religion”

I recently saw an article that claimed Islam wasn’t a religion. There have been high-profile debates between religious leaders and scientists about which perspective contains more truth. There have even been debates within faith communities, as between Christian sects who acknowledge gay marriage, and those who don’t. It seems that somewhere in the diatribes we’ve collectively lost an understanding of what it means to have “faith” or how to define a “religion.”

Religion indeed seems a difficult thing to define. Christians, by and large, regard it as a free exercise of will to believe. No matter where you come from, if you believe what’s written in the Gospels regarding Jesus Christ, you are a Christian. Certain more conservative groupings, however, treat Christianity as a sort of ‘social contract,’ binding those within the group to act and value certain things. My extremely limited experience with Judaism indicates that certain conservative Jews have exclusionary believes about their religion–namely, that it accrues only to the children of Jewish mothers. Less conservative Jewish sects appear to regard Judaism as more of an ethnic identity than a belief system, happily accepting agnosticism or downright atheism among their peers as long as the overarching identity remains.

If my understanding of Judaism is “extremely limited,” then my understanding of Islam is not even worth mentioning. The so-called “fundamentalists” (a charged word, in that it implies that the fundamental tenets of a religion are bad, instead of perhaps a tangential tenet of the religion) treat Islam as a socio-political system, in which laws protecting the status quo are given legitimacy by (it is believed) divine approbation. The status quo in many Islamic countries in the Middle East is, at least regarding the dignity and attendant rights of women and children, oppressive and even barbaric in light of our liberal ideals. Opposition to that system strikes me as more akin to opposing Communism or Fascism insofar as it’s a political system. Islam in that sense is very different than Christianity and Judaism, and rightly condemned.

In the sense of religion, on the other hand, the issue is murky precisely because we use the word “religion” to describe different things. There are Muslims who practice Islam as a free exercise of the will to believe in Allah and the teachings of the Koran. I’ve never read the Koran, so I don’t know if it is filled to the brim with hateful writings, loving writings, or (as is the case with the Jewish and Christian scriptures) a mixture of both. There are other Muslims who probably practice Islam as a social contract, a way of distinguishing their group from others. But using religion to describe the entire practice of Islam, Judaism, or Christianity confuses things, and probably lets unlawful behavior proceed under the First Amendment while simultaneously restricting legitimate religious practice.

By and large, the test for “freedom of religion” ought be simple. If a behavior is lawful in a non-religious context, then it should be permitted as a religious practice. If I may display statues on my lawn, then I may display a Nativity scene at Christmas. If I may wear as much clothing as I’d like, as long as I’m not indecent, then I may wear a hijab or burkha. As a side note, Middle Eastern Christian (some of which who subordinate themselves to either the Pope or the Patriarch) and Jewish sects direct that female adherents wear hijabs. If assaulting someone is illegal, then I should not be able to stone or otherwise injure a person for engaging in lawful sexual behavior. It’s more difficult when trying to decide whether a person should be forced into religious participation, even tangentially. But that sort of question is why we have legislatures and courts.

The word “faith” seems misused as well. The dictionary defines faith as, “1) confidence or trust in a person or thing; 2) belief that is not based on truth; 3) belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion; 4) belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards, or merit.” I think the first definition hits closest to the mark on the intent of the word. A religious person, you might say, has confidence and trust in the tenets of his/her religion. The thing is, that attitude seems to apply to a lot of non-religious people too.

There are many voices trying to put faith and/or religion in the same category as ignorance and barbarism. That saddens me because I happen to be religious, of course, but it also strikes me as disingenuous and dishonest. As a Catholic I believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and that He emptied Himself to become like us and share in our struggles on this earth, and that as He was killed He offered Himself as reparation for all our sins (past, present, and future), and that His offer was worthy because of His own perfection, and so I believe that if I follow Him I will be free of this earth and with Him in paradise. In analyzing that long narrative sentence it is immediately obvious that I could offer no empirical evidence of this. Even if I had a time machine and could record video of Jesus becoming incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary, then record all of His miracles, then record His crucifixion and leave the camera in the tomb recording the moment of His resurrection, there is still no way to see and record the thoughts of God, nor attach the camera to Jesus during His ascension into heaven and remotely view the video. My senses are unable to even gather that ‘behind the scenes’ evidence, even if I could prove by two chemical tests on controlled samples of water (for example) that it turned into wine. Therefore I must either have confidence that the narrative is true, or not.

This is not all that different, say, than belief in the Theory of Evolution. Nobody has a time machine that would enable them to bring back irrefutable evidence of evolution, perhaps by filming the birth and maturation of the first Cro-Magnon person with two Neanderthal parents (complete with genetic testing to compare to the remains of both species already cataloged). All we do have is snapshots of evidence, which we believe to be of a certain age, based on the belief that we can tell the age by extrapolating chemical deterioration, which only a few of us have ever observed with our eyes in a microscope (and I’m not sure it’s even possible to observe radiation decay). There is a narrative suggested by these snapshots of evidence–the oldest remains being more ape-like, the newer ones more human-like–but it is the invention of scientists and authors. Therefore I must either have confidence that the narrative is true, or not.

We’ve so far ignored the question of the chicken or the egg. Certain scientists, for example, claim that emotion is merely the work of certain hormones in a human brain. Feelings of arousal are due to release of sex hormones, which (it is theorized) are triggered when presented with a set of conditions, like say a procreatively attractive human of the gender which the subject of arousal finds attractive. Feelings of affection are due to the hormone Oxytocin, which is triggered in certain situations as a hardwired social response, which our genes have developed to increase our rate of survival by causing us to work together. But that is a hypothesis. It is plausible, too. But it is also unprovable. It’s equally plausible (and possible) that such hormone activity is the result of emotions–the mechanism or vehicle by which feelings manifest themselves physically (as arousal or tears). None of us can go inside our brains to determine the exact causal order of whether the emotion is received first, or whether the hormones are released first. Therefore I must have confidence that either one narrative is true, or the other.

The scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously noted, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether you believe in it or not.” With respect, I beg to differ. There were a great many scientists who believed in Eugenics between 1880 and 1945 (including Margaret Sanger) along with luminaries like H.G. Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Bernard Shaw. Eugenic research was funded by the Carnegie Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.* By “believe in Eugenics,” I mean its proponents believed that there was a genetic cause which disposed certain people toward poverty, retardation, sexual deviance (i.e. homosexuality), and antisocial behavior. Science was not true in that case, and we shouldn’t be so quick to conveniently compartmentalize that into the “the funny old days when we had silly theories” and “the evil things Nazis did, from which we saved the world.” Science is only as true as the ethics and character of the people who do it, much like religion. One commonality between the two ‘sides’ is that authority figures in both realms–scientists and priests–are only human, and subject to the same propensity to self-deceive and enjoy attention as the worst Hollywood celebrities or politicians.

Ultimately, faith comes down to what inspires confidence. My experience has taught me confidence both in the religious salvation narrative and in the scientific narrative of the world. As another author pointed out, there is not much difference between the big bang theory and the Christian explanation that God said, “Let there be light.” In both cases, our fantastically complicated universe exploded into something without warning or apparent material cause. What does it matter whether one believes it happened randomly or at the will of an entity too big to imagine?

Understanding and meaningful engagement with others demands a certain rigor of thought. Proponents of rational explanations fall into hypocrisy when they succumb to the “blind faith” that others who disagree with their perspective are somehow less important because they are “religious,” and proponents of religious-faith-based explanations fall into hypocrisy when they fail to acknowledge the faith that rationalists have in science-based narratives. It might advance both sides of this odd little culture struggle if we all recognized our own “religious” and “faith” tendencies, including those with no affinity towards and/or opposition to an established religion.

Faith, Reason, and Debating the Existential “Big Questions”

I’m past college, and with those years has passed the incidence of earnest debate about things like religion and the meaning of life. That I attended a Catholic university and majored in a “Great Books” meant that I fielded my share of challenges from those who believed something different than I did, and one of the most pressing questions that came up at that time was why.

Why do you believe?

There is something fantastic and mythological, certainly, about the story of a God coming to earth in order to offer Himself up as a perfect, spotless sacrifice in order to atone for every human sin, past and future, and reconcile the human race to Himself as God. The particulars of the story are indeed quaint and uncomfortably sentimental: a sweet young woman chosen to miraculously conceive God’s child; archetypal authority figures hatching dastardly plots and darkly scheming to stop this bright young hero; a set of bumbling accomplices; an impossibly evil death; and the most mythical and unbelievable thing of all: that he was killed and then came back to life.

To my friends, well-educated and mostly liberal humanists, the tale of Christ bears too many similarities to the quaint myths of many other cultures, and is only the biggest myth in a child-like narrative of the world with a stylized creation story and a lot of horrible barbarities. Compared to sophisticated promise of modern disciplines like sociology, psychology, and specialized sciences, a primitive culture’s myth seems plainly archaic. How could anyone believe this, much less someone college-educated?

The challenge about answering this question is that it is ideological rather than academic. Those who ask it have a certain perspective which I don’t understand, but which seems to preclude the idea of a supernatural. Some profess to be humanists, who believe that continued enlightenment in sciences will eventually conquer our social and personal afflictions. Others profess to be rationalists, believing only in those things that science has proved or theorized.

Such alternative belief systems are not, in and of themselves, ideological. They fall more truly into the existential category, defining who we are and why we exist. But they seem to come with a lot of ideological baggage these days. After all, elements of our society today are unabashed and even aggressive apologists for faith (professing the Christian doctrine of sola scriptura) and many of them speak in terms of condemnation, specifically condemnation of those who disagree with them, to hell. They often stand for uncomfortably traditional values as well, like maintaining traditional gender and socio-economic roles. Now all of a sudden we aren’t talking about a different moral and existential perspective, we’re talking about an ideological opponent. And, to be fair, there are fundamentalist Christians who are offensive and judgmental in proselytizing their beliefs.

But to turn the tables, many so-called rationalists and/or humanists can be just as aggressive, and I am skeptical that their explanations of the world are actually more ‘rational’ than a faith-based one. It’s easy to talk about gravity or astronomical relations and say that we can “prove” real science empirically, but I doubt that many of us have empirically viewed the behavior of a virus, or the release of certain brain hormones causing affection or depression. We accept that viruses and brain hormones work a certain way because we have studied the effect of those things and measured them in actual humans, so we know they exist and they affect, somehow, our health or mental state. We also believe people called “scientists” when those people tell us about viruses and brain hormones (and the behavior of chemical elements, and many other things), because we have faith that their education and certification makes them intrinsically trustworthy on certain issues.

Whether or not you trust a scientist or a theologian (or a priest) is really the question, unless on. An Op-Ed in the Washington Post recently pointed out very thoroughly that the two sides are not mutually exclusive. I have little to add to the writer’s argument because I agree with him — I believe in the story of the Christ and yet also pursue understanding of scientific matters, because I want to know more about us and this world we inhabit. He ends with a marvelous paragraph worth quoting in full:

The problem comes when materialism, claiming the authority of science, denies the possibility of all other types of knowledge — reducing human beings to a bag of chemicals and all their hopes and loves to the firing of neurons. Or when religion exceeds its bounds and declares the Earth to be 6,000 years old. In both cases, the besetting sin is the same: the arrogant exclusive claim to know reality.

The answer to the question of why I believe the entirety of the Christian story, with it’s quaint mythological narratives about paradisiacal gardens and apples of knowledge of good and evil and floods and prophets and whales and the Son of God is that I find it more plausible than any of the alternatives. It really makes more sense to me. Not necessarily in they physical particulars (“do you really believe that some prophet actually parted water to create a passage?”), but in the tale it tells of how humanity became prone to doing bad things and how God then came Himself to redeem humanity from its sinful nature.

The Christian tale is plausible to me mostly because of my own experiences in sin and redemption. The vast majority of these experiences are with my own sins and redemptions in my life so far, and a few of them are observations of other peoples’ sins and redemptions. On a precious few occasions I recall witnessing a miracle, or experiencing a beatific presence I attribute to the Christian God. These things are open to interpretation in an academic sense, of course. Rationalists might argue that my experiences of good and bad in myself and others are filtered through a strong inculcated Catholic belief system. They might doubt that I, in fact, saw or experienced so-called “supernatural” things, and point to the demonstrated phenomenon of humans to manufacture memories that suit their subconscious perspectives. And as far as that goes, they may be right. I can’t transmit my experiences to others, so therefore I can’t expect anyone else to believe my conclusions. And yet I can no more forget them than an astronaut could forget his view of a round earth from space, or an astronomer could forget the sightings and calculations that the earth and nearer bodies revolved around the sun in elliptical trajectories.

My point here is not to convince anyone in my beliefs. I don’t think that’s possible — neither a rationalist nor a faith-based belief system can be truly transmitted via dialectic. Any belief system has to be experienced to be believed, personally and deeply experienced. And for a human, that means engaging both the intellect and whatever part of the brain controls belief.

Someone who believes that human emotions like love and depression are a combination of neuron activity and chemical activity in the brain has probably actively engaged the subject: he or she likely wondered why people experience love and other emotions, and pursued the answer until they found an explanation. That’s the activity of his or her intellect. He or she also had to exclude other explanations for emotions (presuming they found others), such as activity of a metaphysical soul, or instinctual behavior bred in by evolution, which is primarily a decision of faith. Does he or she trust neurologists who measure neuron activity and brain chemicals? Priests, philosophers, and/or wise men and women, who have reached a supernatural explanation due to their long experience in considering and/or observing human behavior? What about sociologists and/or biologists who study behavioral patterns and instinct activity?

Personally, I don’t believe that a scientist is intrinsically a better person than a priest or a philosopher. All three are human, which means they are subject to the same ideological myopia and vices, as well as the same inspiration and virtue, as the rest of us. No single person knows everything, and experience teaches that even if a person did, he or she would forget part of it, or hide part of it, or even use it to his/her advantage. Positing that it’s possible to know everything, and use that knowledge correctly, is coming dangerously close to positing God. Whether we follow to that conclusion, or stop short — and who/what we decide to trust and therefore believe — well, that’s just our obligation as rational beings. We each must individually decide what to believe.

It’s natural that each of us would seek like-minded friends in the world, and so it’s easy to see how we would gravitate towards those who believe the same things. So begins ideology, or the pursuit of actualizing an ideal, which carried to the extreme ends up forgetting that ideas are not more important than people — or so I argue as a Christian: that individuals have the highest intrinsic value; ideas may be valuable but they’re not worth more than life itself.

I plead that we don’t let this social instinct push us into prejudice. I and many people I know believe in the teachings of Christianity and yet also follow the progress of scientific knowledge. Many of these people are scientists or doctors themselves. And likewise, I know that people who religious faith (Christian or other) is irrational do not reduce the human experience to the peculiar behavior of a peculiar animal, enslaved to instinct and evolutionary imperative.

So let’s not discuss these existential issues of faith, science, reason, and belief with a desire to win, especially to win by painting other belief systems in pejorative colors. Rather let’s do it to better understand ourselves and each other.