Is “Heaven” to Blame for Murder?
A tragic story has been circulating around the Internet in the last few days about a Canadian man who allegedly murdered three of his relatives and then posted a confession about it on Facebook. According to NBCnews.com:
"A father in Canada appears to have admitted on his Facebook page to killing his daughter, then wife, then sister before taking his own life. 'Over the last 10 days I have done some of the worst things I could have ever imagined a person doing,' read a post on Randy Janzen's Facebook page on Thursday afternoon. In the apparent confession, the British Columbia man says that his 19-year-old daughter Emily had been plagued since elementary school by migraines, which had gotten so debilitating that she had missed two years of college.
'I just could not see my little girl hurt for one more second,' the post, which was not verified by NBC News, read. 'I took a gun and shot her in the head and now she is migraine free and floating in the clouds on a sunny afternoon, her long beautiful brown hair flowing in the breeze, a true angel.' The post goes on to say that he then shot his wife, Laurel, because a mother should never have to 'hear the news her baby has died.' A couple days after that, Janzen allegedly killed his sister, Shelly, 'because I did not want her to have to live with this shame.'"
This is of course very sad, but what I find surprising about this story are atheist bloggers who use this as evidence against religious beliefs (no doubt because of the man’s quote about heaven I’ve bolded above). Patheos atheist blogger J.T. Eberhard even said that, “The culpability for this is, at least in part, on the people who filled Janzen’s head with promises of heaven – even if, like Janzen, they did it out of love.”
Now, to say that people like me are culpable for a triple-murder is quite an accusation. Does this charge stand up to scrutiny? No, it doesn’t. Arguments like Eberhard’s essentially they boil down to this, “If Mr. Janzen hadn’t believed in heaven, then he would not have killed his relatives in order to send them there. Therefore, heaven is a bad thing to believe in.”1
But there’s a huge problem with this argument – it commits a logical fallacy called “the appeal to consequences.”
The Fallacy Explained
The fallacy of “the appeal to consequences” goes like this:
- Belief X causes negative consequence Y.
- Therefore belief X is false.
- Belief X causes positive consequence Y.
- Therefore belief X is true.
When it’s phrased this way it’s easy to see the fallacy. True beliefs can cause seemingly bad consequences and false beliefs can cause good consequences. Whether a belief is true or false cannot be determined solely by looking at the consequences of affirming (or rejecting) that belief.
For example, the truth of atheism, be it strong atheism (there are no gods or God) or weak atheism (there is no evidence for gods or God), can’t be determined by looking at the consequences of being an atheist. The actions of Stalin, Pol Pot, and totalitarian atheistic governments don’t disprove atheism while the actions of Thomas Edison, Stephen Hawking, and pleasant, marginally religious Scandinavian countries don’t prove it either.
This kind of argument against belief in heaven can also be turned on its head against atheism. For example, it’s not unheard of for people who lose a child to commit suicide because they think they will never see their child again. A Christian could argue that if some of these people had known they could see their child again in heaven they would not have killed themselves. Or, what about non-believers who kill because of they don’t believe in an afterlife? Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer once said in a TV interview that:
“If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we, when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing.”2
Does the fact that not believing in heaven might motivate some people to commit murder or suicide prove that heaven exists? Of course not.
Most atheists would say that just because some atheists make poor decisions in light of the apparent finality of death it does not follow that atheism is false or that Christianity is true. But if that’s the case, then it also follows that just because some religious people make poor decisions based on their knowledge of heaven it does not follow that there is no heaven or that we should not believe in heaven.3
LGBT Issues and the Appeal to Consequences
I’ve also seen this appeal to consequences crop us with other issues that divide Christians and atheists. For example, some atheists argue that it is wrong to say homosexual behavior is disordered because that can cause LGBT teens to commit suicide. But once again, that’s a fallacious appeal to consequences.
Such an argument is on par with claiming that we should not say a certain war was unjust because some veterans of that war might commit suicide. Of course, how the veterans react to the truth about such a war is irrelevant to the war’s moral status, just as how the practitioners of a certain sexual behavior react to the truth about that behavior is irrelevant to the behavior’s moral status.
So what does this mean for LGBT issues? If homosexual behavior is not disordered, then of course it’s wrong to spread such a destructive falsehood. Spreading the falsehood would be wrong in and of itself since it is an offense against truth, but it would become even worse because of the falsehoods fatal consequences.
However, if homosexual behavior is disordered, then we just have to learn how to compassionately present this truth to other people. We can’t ban or rebuke that belief, or any belief for that matter, just because we dislike it. There are many truths related to issues like climate change, factory farming, foreign labor, atheism, and religion we may not like, but that doesn’t justify ignoring or ridiculing those truths.
Instead, whether we are an atheist or a Christian, we should examine a contested belief primarily in light of the evidence for or against that belief. The consequences of that belief might motivate our investigation in the first place, and they might even give us a clue about whether the belief is true or false, but they should not be our primary litmus test for deciding whether or not we will incorporate this belief into our worldview.
- Another argument I hear related to this case is, “Religion causes people to uncritically accept false ideas like heaven and then people make bad decisions after accepting those false ideas.” Eberhard essentially makes this argument in his post when he says, “You want to know why I fight religion with all that I am? There it is. It teaches people to embrace bad ideas, to believe because you want to believe, to cast aside critical thinking in favor of faith.” But this is really just an argument against uncritical thinking. First, it assumes religious beliefs are false or bad without proving it (I know that’s not the subject of Eberhard’s post but it’s a frequent style of argument I see a lot). Second, uncritical thinking can corrupt lots of true beliefs, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon beliefs that can cause people to do bad things. For example, just as we shouldn’t abandon science because some people practice scientific racism, we should not abandon religion just because some people use religion to justify evil actions. ↩
- Interview with Stone Phillips, Dateline NBC, Nov. 29, 1994. ↩
- I would also argue that those who kill in order to send people to Heaven do so because they operate under another false belief, namely, that they have the authority to decide when someone’s mortal life should end. But the Catholic Church, along with most major monotheistic religions, teach that human beings lack this authority (since life is a gift from God then only he has the authority to reclaim that gift from us) and so that is why suicide and murder are grave sins. Of course, this is a much deeper issue that I will have to save for a future article. ↩
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