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Why religion tends to encourage family-murder/suicides

21 July 2013, 18:30

45 year old Paul Nothnagel worked in the Media industry, was a keen cyclist, and devoted father.   On Thursday the 18th of July he dressed entirely in black, covered his face under a hat, and shot his two daughters in a hail of bullets.  He fired 17 shots in total, aiming 10 of them of them at the side of the car where his eldest teenage daughter Chane (18) was seated. 

He then shot two bullets that eventually killed his 14 year old daughter Mischke (some reports say she was 13). He wounded his ex-wife Linda, but she survived the ordeal.  A bystander saw Nothnagel kill himself with what one report claimed was “the last remaining bullet in the chamber”.

The background to this tragedy is that Paul, a circulation manager at Rapport, had serious financial problems, suspected his wife was seeing someone,  and a divorce applied for in December by Linda Nothnagel had been recently concluded (in the previous month).  

The emotional context of the shooting appears to be more specific to the fact that his ex-wife of 20 years, with whom he had marital problems “from the start” unexpectedly came to fetch his daughters the previous evening.  They were originally meant to spend the Wednesday night at his home. It is also alleged that Paul had previously threatened his ex-wife and she was about to obtain a court order against him.

Sapa reports that “it was unclear…what prompted the shooting.”  And Rapport adds that the family are trying to “make sense” of what made Paul Nothnagel snap.

However Paul’s brother Riaan notes that the murders were carefully planned.

A typewritten letter and CD with funeral arrangements were found later, and the number plates of Paul Nothnagel’s vehicle had been removed and placed inside his Fortuner. 

Since Paul didn’t own a gun, he came up with a ruse to get the keys to his father’s safe and in this way came into possession of his father’s 9mm revolver. He also parked the vehicle out of sight close to the complex where his ex-wife lived, and intercepted them during the ‘school run’ at an intersection at 06:30 (he was apparently hiding in wait behind a tree according to an eyewitness). Riaan adds that he thought the actual killings were his brother’s “plan B” and that in fact he intended to do things in a different way. 

That’s a summary of the news.

If you look on Paul Nothnagel’s twitter and facebook pages you see additional background. For example Paul Nothnagel  ‘liked’ a group called JiK (Jesus is Koning). 

He also liked The Simpsons, Carte Blanche, rugby, cycling-parts maker Campagnolo and Asterix and Obelix.  So what? He described himself as “loyal and dedicated”. 

On 31 May – very close to the time his wife’s divorce became official, he tweeted: “Dear God, sometimes it's hard for me to understand what you really want to happen but I trust you. I know you will give me what's best.” 

Same day: “Dear God, Today I woke up. I am healthy. I am alive. Thank you I apologize for all my complaining. I'm truly grateful for all you've done.” On 28 March he tweeted: “Today I will sow love, happiness, peace & prosperity. You reap what you sow!!”  On 17 March: “Survived a hit and run incident tonite. Thank u Lord for keeping us safe. Luv u girls!!”

It’s evident from the pattern of bullets (12 fired at his two daughters, 2 fired at his ex wife, both in her lower body) that Paul seemed particularly focused on ‘taking his daughters with him’.  A police official speculated that he may not have had suicide in mind if he was dressing in black and removing the number plates, but what’s more likely is that he simply didn’t want to be seen before he could start shooting. 

That he had gone to so much care to plan his own funeral, and get hold of a killing weapon, suggests that he wanted to kill himself.  His twitter feed ends on 4 July (the murder/suicide took place 2 weeks later), but Nothnagel seemed to be fairly consistent on social media.

Finally, we get to the psychology.  It is easy to throw up one’s hands and say: how could this happen? Why did this happen?  The answer is quite easy to see.

Here was a man who was clearly close to his children and his wife, and was deeply hurt that he was losing touch with them.  He probably saw himself as his family, and his description on twitter confirms that: “Dad of 3…”  Loyal and dedicated. 

He was also clearly trusting in God for a solution and depending on God to solve his dilemma: “… I trust you. I know you will give me what's best …”  Of course when you trust someone who doesn’t deliver you’re left with nothing, which seems to be what happened in this case. 

Instead of trusting God perhaps he should have accepted the divorce, or gone for counselling, or taken some constructive (ie non violent) action that amounted to responsibility for what was happening  to himself and his family.

Paul’s qualities, many of them, are of course good qualities.  First of all, why does anyone stay in a marriage for 20 years when it is off to a bad start from the get go? 

The answer is one is trapped by certain moral and social and religious expectations of oneself, as well as those of one’s family but particularly of one’s community.  Here religious codes taken on by family and the immediate community can have a debilitating effect.  These can be chronically oppressive, they can literally strangle the life out of you. But here’s where the psychology breaks down. 

Let’s say you’re a Christian and you’ve been depending on God for rescue, for answers, for deliverance and finally what you feared most…the divorce… becomes official.  You get letters from lawyers saying that you have to keep your distance. That hits you like a bullet to the chest. You feel lost. Betrayed. Alone.  It’s brutal.

Suddenly the crutch that religion is reveals itself to no longer be a protection or an insurance against one’s worst fears.  It can do nothing to dilute the sudden stabbing pain.

One finds oneself emotionally and perhaps otherwise bankrupt.  Broken.  Exposed. The crutch doesn’t seem to work and one has been depending on it for so long, one doesn’t quite know how to operate in the real world. 

That’s when reality hits you very hard.  One feels naked. All one’s problems become like a giant wave. One response to this breaking wave of reality is to panic.  To snap.  To say, I can’t live like this any more.  I can’t live with myself or without X, Y or Z.

So to state the simple solution to this problem (which itself seems infinite and unbearably painful) specifically: the victim decides to simply end the pain.  How? Kill yourself.  But what about those you love?  You’ll be going to heaven and it may be years before you see them in heaven.  So the logic of the believer in the afterlife is, if you’re going to kill yourself, kill those you love, and save them the pain of separation.

Kill them to save them from pain.  Kill them so that you can take them with you.  I wonder whether a young person would consent to a parent taking their life?  Jesus did, Isaac did – so perhaps sons and daughters if asked would say yes, kill me, I’m fine with it, wouldn’t they?

Of course this idea that death is a kind of ‘benign next door’ is exactly what makes the idea of a group murder seem like a good idea.  Put a bullet in your head and wake up on a tropical island? 

Put a bullet in someone else and they wake up next you.  Cult suicides are an extension of this, where one’s religion leads one to believe that by killing your physical body you release your spiritual body.  And immediately experience bliss.

Here’s a fairly recent example of what looks like a mass murder-suicide combination from Wikipedia: On March 17, 2000, 778 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God died in Uganda.[21] The theory that all of the members died in a mass suicide was changed to mass murder when decomposing bodies were discovered in pits with signs of strangulation while others had stab wounds.[22] The group had diverged from the Roman Catholic Church in order to emphasize apocalypticism and alleged Marian apparitions

If all of this seems a stretch, perhaps the Nothnagel case is just one of those ‘flukes’, ‘exceptions’, ‘he wasn’t a real Christian to begin with’ dodges, consider that Jesus himself committed suicide, and also, his Father let him. 

Consider that Jesus, who was God, had the power to prevent his own death, but allowed himself to die.  God, the Father, ditto. 

At a point just before his death, Jesus cried, My God my God why have you forsaken me.  And God did…what in response? In fact God has in the past tested his chosen people by asking them to engage in infanticide (well Abraham’s son Isaac wasn’t an infant, but you get the picture).

In the very first family, one brother, Cain kills the other (fratricide).  But we see the grandest example in God sacrificing his own son, as a demonstration of both his (and his son’s) love, I guess for one another and for all of mankind. Suicide as an exemplary sacrifice. 

We see the same idea in other types of fundamentalism – that to blow yourself up is a heroic deed, worthy of reward and the more people you kill the more heroic it is.  If you’re a Christian depending on God and God’s ultimate gift was suicide, then in our darkest times why should we not copy him when we too feel forsaken? 

And the answer is, that is exactly what does happen.  What else is war, and murder and every base act when we capitulate to our fears and aggressions?

But doesn’t the constitution of the bible protect the sanctity of life?  Interestingly the ten commandments talk of ‘thou shalt not murder’, and ‘ keep the Sabbath holy’ but not a peep on suicide.

That would create a bind on some believer’s mind – the mere mention and thought in the commandments –  because a case can be made that Jesus committed suicide.

It seems the fear of pain and suffering has the same effect as alcohol does on one’s inhibitions, except in this case when one is chronically overwrought one’s responsibilities appear to become diminished.

In the same way that a drunk floats around and isn’t quite connected to the real world ( ie is disassociated) so too is the potential suicide victim, who  drunk on depression, pain and self pity.  In both cases the real world seems both terrifyingly real and unreal.  Death seems strangely soothing by comparison.

And the consequences to any action (when drunk or suicidal) appear far removed…and disconnected.

Religion doesn’t help to root a person in the real world, it does the opposite.

Religion doesn’t help us solve real problems but simply anaesthetises them, postpones them, dulls them for another day. 

When we ask God to solve our problems what we’re really doing is not taking responsibility to deal with them ourselves.  It hints at the foggy possibility of release, and let’s face it, the idea of heaven is a sort of “high” that doesn’t have much in common with physical reality. 

When one is in a lot of pain. Even so, the 10th highest cause of death worldwide is suicide, with around 1 million killing themselves annually. 

Animals, inferior creatures to human beings, only provide occasional incidental evidence that may be linked to suicide, such as whale strandings, but could be explained by other means too. 

If human beings commit suicide more than another animal, what does that say about us, and our beliefs?  Are they healthy?  Do they make sense?  Do they help us or make us happy? Or is it all just a chemical imbalance, a imperfect formula some imperfect human beings had the bad luck to be born (created with). 

But while the temptation to escape life’s troubles by instantly teleporting to a heavenly afterlife/ realm may make suicide seem a valid choice to some, overall some statistics (see below) appear to demonstrate that in some cases extreme religious affiliation depresses suicides rates, possibly due to the stigma attached to it. 

It’s true that religion discourages certain immoral behaviours, such as alcoholism and drug abuse, which could raise one’s risk. At the same time it oppresses behaviours which causes that most insidious of conditions which leads to dysfunction: repression. 

Anyone who represses pain and frustration for long periods of time will eventually snap with catastrophic consequences.  Religion is good at kindling that process.

This article is written in part to challenge the allegation many Christian’s make – “leave me alone, my beliefs aren’t doing any harm.”  The point here is to show that they – since they are based on delusion – are capable of causing maximum harm. 

What is a worse crime than for a parent to kill his own child and them himself as an act of desperate and hopeless love? 

Any psychology that mitigates these ideas or propensities is clearly highly dangerous to our societies.  And since religion increases the likelihood of suicide, that most tragic denial of the sanctity of life, we should hold religion responsible for feeding these crimes against our common humanity.

To conclude, another study conducted in Utah (more information below) shows that the state suicide rates there (in America’s most religious state) are well above America’s national suicide average. 

This suggests – to me anyway – that being religious predisposes one to suicide, particularly in the sense outlined above:  that the afterlife psychology both falsely anaesthetises the fear of death, and also one’s construct of heaven encourages a ‘happy fictional solution’ to real world problems, which in the scheme of things, don’t really make sense.

For example, killing yourself may solve some of your financial problems, but may give your loved one’s a lifetime of emotional pain and brokenness. 

Read more here:

In 1996, suicide was the third leading cause of death for US males aged 15–24 years and the fourth leading cause of death for US males aged 25–44 (1). In Utah, for 1991–1995, suicide was the second leading cause of death for males aged 15–24 years and the leading cause of death for males aged 25–44 (2). For more than a decade, suicide rates in Utah for young males aged 15–34 years have been substantially higher than national suicide rates (3, 4). Although a number of risk factors for suicide have been suggested, a low level of religious commitment or religiosity is a potential risk factor that merits further study.

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