Thirty years ago teenager John Daniel McCollum shot and killed himself in his parents’ house while listening to the Ozzy Osbourne record Blizzard of Oz. When his grieving parents discovered that the album included the song “Suicide Solution” they proceeded with a lawsuit against Osbourne, arguing that the song was a proximate cause of their son’s suicide. (For more on the case see here.)
Thankfully, the case was thrown out of court. (Can you imagine the consequences of Osbourne being found culpable? That would mean that Randy Newman could be sued if somebody murdered a short person after listening to his massive satirical hit.) As most people recognized, even if “Suicide Solution” provided a burst of momentary inspiration for the teen, the radical nature of the act itself suggested very deep, pre-existing problems. Alas, when a tragedy like this occurs we want simple answers and we want a scape-goat, and “Suicide Solution” provided both.
I thought of that case yesterday while on a panel discussion to provide a response to a Discovery Institute sponsored simulcast titled “Science and Faith: Are They Really in Conflict?” featuring John Lennox and Stephen Meyer. While I thought most of the content of the simulcast was decent, it began with a vignette, recounting the story of a teenager from a good Christian home who read The God Delusion and committed suicide soon afterward. The message seemed to be not simply that The God Delusion was a proximate cause of the young man’s desperate act, but in addition that his act was a reaction to the bleak atheistic worldview of the book’s author.
It is truly unfortunate that the Discovery Institute decided to begin their simulcast with such a crude case of scapegoating. I know nothing about this young man, but I fully expect that there were multiple contributors to his deteriorating mental health and suicide. Let me give you one plausible factor. The vignette recounts that his parents discovered he’d been reading The God Delusion only after his death when they found it hidden under his bed and then began asking his friends questions. This suggests to me that this young man did not have the freedom to question and explore the boundaries of his faith openly. It is crucial that Christian parents raise their children with the freedom to ask questions and explore doubts without the fear of stigmatization. And it looks like this young man simply did not have that freedom.
Of course, it would be unthinkable to proceed from here to blaming the parents. Imagine if somebody used this tragedy as an illustration to kick off a simulcast on good parenting. We would rightly call that out as a cruel and grossly simplistic attempt to scapegoat the parents with a cheap illustration to grab the audience’s attention. With that in mind, I view the present case similarly, albeit here the scapegoat is Dawkins and the atheistic worldview he defends.