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Posted by on Aug 14, 2014 in Atheism, depression, featured, secularism | 12 comments

Robin Williams, Depression, and Atheism

While Robin Williams has played many great roles throughout his acting career, I will always remember him most as John Keating, the wise, rebellious educator in The Dead Poets Society. Coincidently enough, that film was all about depression and suicide; two themes now closely associated with Robin Williams.

These themes hit pretty hard for me because there are a lot of people in my life who suffer from depression and over the last few years, I have lost two of them to suicide. Both of my two friends who committed suicide were atheists and it has been my experience that a lot of atheists struggle with depression.

I think perhaps in some ways depression can force some people to self-analyzes and think critically about the world – maybe sometimes too critically. But one positive result from this could be that people with depression might be more likely to realize that religion is bullshit because of those traits. That’s just my opinion, based purely on anecdotal accounts. The fact is that depression doesn’t discriminate. Theists and atheists alike suffer from this terrible disease, which clouds our experiences in a haze of negativity.

The thing is that when religious believers suffer from severe depression, they have religious leaders to go to for comfort seemingly free of charge. But for atheists, we have to go through a medical system full of red tape, insurance companies, and co-pays. Sure, in the long run, real medicine is ultimately better than self-medicating with the Jesus drug, but in the short term, religion does offer something that the greater community of reason has not yet been able to provide – a person to talk to and provide advice and comfort.

I think we can do better. I think our community should be able to provide people with an ear and some sage advice too. There are certainly secular outlets for this, like the suicide prevention hotline, but we as a community should be there for each other too.

Over the years, I have received several e-mails from suicidal atheists seeking advice and I always take those e-mails very seriously. The way I see it, this life is the only one we have, so we really need to make the most of it. We all go through tough times and those who suffer from depression have a much harder time navigating through those tough times. But life is worth living even when it is hard. Sometimes the best things in life come after getting past those hard times.

Contrary to the claims of some fundamentalist religious believers, there are lots of things for atheists to live for. The universe is wondrous and we are all part of that. Just imagine how exciting it would be to be out there among the stars exploring the vast unknown. Imagine exploring the unknown possibilities of existence. Right now, we can only dream of that and help move that ball forward so that other people might have those opportunities someday.

We are a part of a great tapestry. We are part of the world — part of the human species. We should be very much aware that this life is the only life and we should live it fully. I think we also all want to do our best to make this world a better place for those who come after us. We all want humanity to achieve great things and personally, I want to play my part in that tapestry of achievement. This, in my opinion, is worth living for.

Life is like a movie. We know that at some point it will be over, but for the time being we are content to enjoy the show. Robin Williams was a great actor – not just in the movies, but in the show of life. While I am sad that he left the theater before the movie was over, I know that he cared about this world and gave to it everything he had. A vocal environmentalist and philanthropist, Williams used his success to help others and to help society. More than that, he gave us laughter, hope, and sage advice:

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer: that you are here; that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

-John Keating, The Dead Poets Society – brilliantly portrayed by Robin Williams.

To all those who suffer from depression and who might be thinking that suicide is the answer – it is, but know that your depression is distorting your view and that you have asked the wrong question. As Keating put it, “Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” Stay, we need you, we love you, and we want you to stay. If you are suffering from depression, please get help. There is no shame in that. We are all part of the tapestry of the human species and we all help each other out from time to time. Know that many great people throughout history suffered as you suffer. You don’t have to suffer alone. Visit the Suicide Prevention Hotline.

  • guerillasurgeon

    You think this might be an American problem, rather than an atheist problem? Are there any figures for comparison between atheist Americans and atheist Europeans say? I only say this because America seems to treat atheists much worse than any other country in the developed world just about.

  • ladflappy

    please advise how America treats atheists worse than other countries? Sociologically, politically, workplace? My experience has been no better or worse than any other belief I embrace

    • guerillasurgeon

      Let me see, Americans won’t elect an atheist president. Several states have laws on the books that forbid atheists were standing from office. Atheists are often ostracised by their families, or if they’re young forced to go to church so that they won’t stand out. People in America trust atheist about as much as they trust rapists according to research. Some people don’t admit to their atheism for fear of losing their job or promotion. Obviously your experience is a statistical sample of one. And I was asking a question rather than making a statement. I also used the qualifier “seems”.

  • ladflappy

    It seems you don’t understand my question,…How is your life affected by being atheist?
    Are you implying that we are somehow victims? Peer and family pressures come into play in many areas of life, we have a choice to change our beliefs and behavior if approval is so important. If you can’t be all you can be at your job…move on or play the game. It seems some of us feel not only more intelligent and sophisticated than our religious neighbors, this leads to an intolerance (on both groups) which emphasizes our differences. Don’t see the point.

    • guerillasurgeon

      Why should someone’s religious beliefs or lack of them, affect their job prospects? I’m sorry but move on is just a facile argument for avoiding the discrimination problem. Why should someone’s religious beliefs or lack of them, affect the courts’ decisions on whether they get custody of their children in a divorce? Sort of difficult to move on from your kids don’t you think? Why should I have to change my beliefs to take a full part in society? You truly don’t see the point.

  • Shatterface

    The thing is that when religious believers suffer from severe depression, they have religious leaders to go to for comfort seemingly free of charge

    But that ‘comfort’ often involves turning your back on effective treatment.

    Religions tend to view depression as a moral failing, not an illness.

  • Jennifer

    My husband works in “the industry” and it was well known that RW may not have been diagnosed as bipolar, but he showed all the signs of it — huge manic highs, no sleep, drugs, alcohol, lots of sex, whatever. then deep, deep lows where he disappeared. Then there were times when he was sort of “normal.” I don’t think his suicide had anything to do with atheism.

    • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

      Of course not. RW wasn’t even an atheist. Did you even read the blog post?

      • Jennifer

        Believe me, RW was an atheist.

        • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

          I wish that were true, but I would like a source for that.

  • Donald Arthur Kronos

    It looks to me like many people commenting didn’t understand the article. Either that, or I didn’t understand the article. I took it as a plea to the atheist community to work toward being collectively more supportive of each other, with the tragic death of Robin Williams, and the author’s experiences with other people, acting as catalysts for the decision to write the article. I don’t think it had anything to do with whether Robin Williams was an atheist or a Christian or something else, nor whether he’s in heaven now, or in hell, or right here with us, or no place at all. Those are separate issues, and while they may be perfectly valid points for discussion inspired by this article, I thought it should be mentioned that they are not, or at least to me seemed not to be, the topic of the article itself… and the actual topic of the article should NOT be overlooked in all the banter about other topics that are already on so many people’s minds anyway. A plea has been made to work toward something good. Something specific, which could be addressed, and perhaps result in a step forward socially and spiritually. Is this really something that should be fought over? Theists and atheists should be able to at least agree on this much. If they can’t, then perhaps its time they ignore their differences and work toward a better world in spite of them.

    • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

      You are correct, I did not claim nor did I attempt to imply that Williams was an atheist. To the best of my knowledge he was a Christian.