Replying to “nuh-uh”
Yesterday I posted a card from Post Secret and addressed my anger at how religious bullshit about suicides had caused unnecessary grief and questioning of the motives of people who jumped from the WTC instead of stay in the building to burn to death. I pointed out that the claim that making up gods is a good thing because the lies "comfort" people is objectively false, since religion is just as likely—often more likely—to use the tremendous power to make shit up and have people just believe it in order to control people through theological hand-wringing about sin that eclipses basic compassion and common sense. This is an objective fact, of course. Religion is a well-known instiller of sexual phobias, unquestioned prejudices, and of course, traumatizing people with claims like "suicides go to hell".
I suppose it was inevitable that people whose defensiveness about their attachment to fairy tales would take over the comments, even though making a criticism about genuine religion-induced trauma about your own ego might be something to pause before engaging in. The two predictable responses were "Not my Nigel!" and "you can't prove that anyone actually said the 9/11 jumpers were going to hell!", which neatly elided the fact that many powerful religions do in fact teach that suicide sends you to hell, which I'd say is one of the most callous, vicious things I've ever heard, except that religions pour out so many cruel lies to believers that it's actually hard to say which one is the worst. (I know Christianity the best, but I'm sure atheists who've abandoned other traditions can come up with their own.) As for the first criticism, it's both a strawman and a red herring. I never said that all religions were equally immoral; some objectively do temper their teachings with common sense morality, though they do so while often reserving the right to usurp common sense morality and basic human decency with theological wankery. The point was never "all religions are the same", but that when you're just making shit up, you can say stuff that's traumatic as well as comforting, and so this notion that religion is okay even if it's not true because it comforts doesn't comport with the realities. Objectively speaking, religious lies are used just as often—probably far more often—to control and shame than they are to uplift and comfort. The argument that religion is okay because it comforts is based on the false belief that because you're lying you must be comforting, and that's simply not true. Religious myths are just as often—probably more often—used to control and shame as they are to comfort.
Then there was the "nuh-uh!" argument, which is, "Nuh-uh! No one actually even worried for a moment that WTC jumpers were going to hell." This, of course, doesn't even really make sense because many churches already show callous disregard for their followers and teach the families of suicides that their beloveds are rotting in hell. I don't doubt many religious leaders decided to make up an exception for 9/11 victims because not doing so is bad P.R., but let's not pretend it's because big, important religions are totally unwilling to traumatize their followers with images of hell as punishments for very normal human behaviors and sympathetic failings.
Anyway, this is a long, roundabout way of saying that even the narrow "nuh-uh!" argument is false. The guy who wrote the Post Secret card emailed me last night and sent a link to his Daily Kos post explaining his motives. In it, he mentions an Esquire article about the falling man, who was identified most tentatively as Norberto Hernandez, a pastry chef at Windows on the World. Here are some of the reactions from Hernandez's traumatized family when they believed he could be the jumper:
He brought his print of Drew's photograph with him and showed it to Jacqueline Hernandez, the oldest of Norberto's three daughters. She looked briefly at the picture, then at Cheney, and ordered him to leave.
What Cheney remembers her saying, in her anger, in her offended grief: "That piece of shit is not my father."
Why would she say something so horrible about the man who leaped to his death? The family's reaction when the Esquire reporter looked at the pictures more closely and determined it wasn't Norberto was illuminating:
She asks for copies of the pictures so that she can show them to the people who believed that Norberto jumped out a window, while Catherine sits on the step with her palm spread over her heart. "They said my father was going to hell because he jumped," she says. "On the Internet. They said my father was taken to hell with the devil. I don't know what I would have done if it was him. I would have had a nervous breakdown, I guess. They would have found me in a mental ward somewhere…."
There were a couple of reasons the Hernandez family couldn't stand the idea that Norberto had jumped, one of which is that they convinced themselves he was trying to escape a building from which there was no escaping. But let's not play around and pretend that religious stigmatizing of suicide never came into play, and that religion is off the hook for this one. Theological wankery is all fun and games when it's abstract bullshitting, but when it comes to people's real life experiences, it can create unnecessary trauma.