• 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.

    Category: Atheismdepressionfeaturedsecularism


    Article by: Staks Rosch

    Staks Rosch is a writer for the Skeptic Ink Network & Huffington Post, and is also a freelance writer for Publishers Weekly. Currently he serves as the head of the Philadelphia Coalition of Reason and is a stay-at-home dad.


    1. 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.

    2. 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

      1. 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”.

        1. John Adams and Sam Adams were both athiests if I’m not mistaken as were many other founding Fathers… From what I can see atheism is pretty much the norm now… And christians are ostracized.

          1. “as were many other founding Fathers”

            If you knew your history you would realise there is some debate about that… And if you think atheism is the norm and Christians are ostracised how about providing some evidence as I did. After all, extraordinary claims……….. which yours certainly is.

    3. 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.

      1. 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.

    4. 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.

      1. Actually that’s not true.. Check out this verse
        102 Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto thee.
        2 Hide not thy face from me in the day when I am in trouble; incline thine ear unto me: in the day when I call answer me speedily.
        3 For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth.
        4 My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread…
        8 Mine enemies reproach me all the day; and they that are mad against me are sworn against me.

        Sounds a lot like clinical depression. And if u go back in psalms there is this:

        40 I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry.
        2 He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.
        3 And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord.

        Although it often is seen as a result of moral failings… It is not necessarily what the scripture means. The things these people say as they are suffering is similar to what modern depression sufferers might say. They may suffer delusions that the universe is against them.. That their friends dont like them they forget to eat there bones hurt And heart aches.. They can be tired and fatigued.. And through faith the lord put a knew song in their mouths and set their feet right and secure… The bible does acknowledge almost everything in life u just have to really read the WHOLE thing to see it… I hope this helps you guys.

    5. 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.

    6. 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.

    7. I really don’t think most atheists have a problem with the idea of an infinite consciousness uniting all things- they tend to have a problem with “old man in the sky” syndrome, the idea that some anthropomorphic character sits in “heaven” somewhere offering judgment. Like life isn’t challenging enough without some extra-planar super power passing judgment on us?

      I could never believe in such a thing, nor will I ever believe that NATURE somehow spontaneously created itself. Abiogenesis is a sillier theory than the worst B-grade science fiction.

      Quantum theory is where it’s at. There are universal principles out there that when followed will PUSH darkness out of your life by force, and produce effects such as chronic happiness, health, longevity and success. We all know attitude matters- what humanity will slowly come to realize is that truth comes from the center of ultimate reality. Depression is the mistaken idea that material circumstance is all there is to life, or that other people can define who we are. Atheism is a religion, albeit a religion with absolutely nothing to offer. If more people learned how to really listen to their intuition, expect goodness, and see fear for what it is, we’d be in a merrier world. Fortunately it’s never too late.

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