Exploiting Personal Tragedy to Advance Ideology

You may have heard of the tragedy of Jesse Kilgore, the college
sophomore who commited suicide after, as
WingNut Daily reported,
reading The God Delusion and having a crisis of faith.

Now, just when you thought the Disco Tute couldn’t sink any lower,
they’ve produced a
melodramatic episode
of their Intelligent Design the Future podcast about this
(the “melo” part is literal: the whole ten-minute episode is
underscored with soft minor-key acoustic guitar and piano music, so
that it sounds like a cross between a eulogy and a soap opera). It
presents the same story that the WND article does: that Kilgore was a
good Christian kid who went off to a secular college, where a
professor either assigned, or challenged him to read The God
Delusion
. After Kilgore went out to the woods and committed
suicide, his father found the book under his son’s bed, with a
bookmark on the last page.

The narrative is that Jesse Kilgore killed himself because he read
Dawkins’s book and lost both his faith and his will to live. Yes, it’s
as bad as I make it sound. If you thought the WND article was sleazy,
this is worse.

Now, I don’t know why Jesse Kilgore decided to end his life. No one
life can be summarized in an article and a ten-minute show. I’m sure
there was a lot more to him than we’ve seen. For all I know, he got a
girl pregnant and couldn’t live with that. He didn’t leave a suicide
note, so we’ll probably never know for sure. All we have is
speculation, mostly by grieving friends and relatives.

With that out of the way, the ID the Future show is a treasure trove
of wingnut tropes: we’ve got Good Kid vs. Bad College; Brainwashing
Professor; Reading Opposing Ideas Will Poison You; and many more. For
a group that keeps insisting that they’re not creationists, they seem
to have borrowed an awful lot of ideas from
Big Daddy.

There’s the assertion that Jesse felt alone because he was one of the
only Christians on campus. The school that he was attending,
SUNY Jefferson Community College,
is in northern New York state (unless, of course, both WND and IDtF
got it wrong, which is not something that can be excluded). I can’t
imagine any college campus in North America where most of the
population isn’t Christian.

Then there’s the notion that the nameless biology professor was using
his authority to tell students what to believe. From what little I’ve
seen of religious homeschooling techniques, I suspect that this is
projection: these people teach their kids that “these are the facts,
and they’re true because I said so”, and can’t imagine teachers
leading students to conclusions by showing them the evidence. And in
my experience, the latter is far more common on college campuses than
the former.

PZ Myers put it best (paraphrased from memory): “We don’t teach
students that the sky is blue. We teach them how to go outside and
look up. And yeah, if they come from an environment where they were
told that the sky is green, that’s likely to cause problems.”

And, of course, there’s the elephant in the room: Jesse killed himself
after reading The God Delusion, therefore he did so
because of it. Classic
post hoc ergo propter hoc.

The subtext, of course, is that learning is dangerous. So don’t go
getting any ideas about going to college and exposing yourself to
foreign ideas.

In fact, this theme is repeated several times: Jesse is said to have
been a fervent debater and defender of The Faith; he went to a secular
school because he wanted to challenge himself; everyone was sure he
could withstand anything secular academia could throw at him.
Throughout the piece, foreign ideas are talked about in the same terms
one would describe a disease.

Well, I’m sorry, but if your ideas can’t survive contact with reality,
they’re not worth holding on to. I’d say the lying taint-pustules at
the DI should be ashamed of themselves for promulgating such crap, if
I thought they could feel shame.

Me? Pissed? Oh, just a tad.

(See also
Ed Brayton’s post
at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.)

(Update, Dec. 19, 18:49: Oh, lookee! I beat that hack, O’Leary, to this story.)

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5 Responses to Exploiting Personal Tragedy to Advance Ideology

  1. Michael says:

    Evolution theory is a great theory for the origins of our mankind.Problem is that it throws the baby out with the bathwater, the baby being the worlds religions.The theory did a great job of breaking the stranglehold of those religious ideas, but it does not account for them.They seem to be dismissed as myths.Another problem with evolution is, that there does not seem to be a prediction for the future.Given that our population has grown some 4.5 billion in the last 65 years to 6.74 billion today we need a new model after all the theory of evolution is some 160 years old. Rather like a shopping trolley where the wheels have come off.

    Recently I noticed a suggestion by an evolutionary biologist that if evolution theory were to be replaced it would have to be by a better scientific model. There is a book called Intelligent design Message from the Designers, which contains a better working model to account for the origins origins of our humanity. If this is science fiction, then it is in the words of a famous person,is breathtaking. and anks alongside the best of its kind.If it is true, then it is earthshaking. In my opinion even if it were science fiction, it still provides a useful working model to be examined more closely.In the words of Montaigne ‘ ….let nothing pass the sieve of understanding, through mere confidence and authority.

    Like

  2. Fez says:

    I think I may have to go register “ignorancecult.{com,net,org}” and have them all just redirect to the DI’s front page.

    Like

  3. Eamon Knight says:

    I can’t imagine any college campus in North America where most of the population isn’t Christian.

    Oh come on, you know they mean “fundamentalist/evangelical Christians” — and I am prepared to believe that they may be a smallish minority at JCC (though I don’t know the demographics of northern NY). But “only”? There were at least a couple dozen of us in my high school in secular Toronto, for crying out loud! And no nearby fundamentalist churches to be a spiritual home to a poor wandering sheep? That I don’t believe — Watertown NY can’t be that much less religious than Toronto or Kingston, ON.

    My guess: an overly-sheltered upbringing, and a latent mood disorder activated by a rude encounter with the real world, and finding out you’re not nearly as smart as you thought (the latter being something that happens to most college kids, in one way or another).

    Like

  4. RBH says:

    From the WorldNut story:

    Keith Kilgore told WND he feels, by allowing his son to move into the atmosphere of a secular school, like “I put a toddler in the front of my car.”

    That “toddler” was 22 years old and a military veteran. Father had better find a mirror and contemplate what he sees there very very carefully.

    Like

  5. arensb says:

    RBH:
    I didn’t take the “toddler” part too literally. I understood that simply as a metaphor for “I let my son get into a dangerous situation”.

    But I’ve finally put my finger on what bothers me about the way this story is being reported: it’s the Tome of Eldritch Lore trope: that there are ideas that work like computer viruses, and will cause you to go crazy. That there are wrong and dangerous ideas that are nonetheless so compelling that people must be protected from them.

    That works fine in horror stories, but not in real life. I’ve read The God Delusion, and trust me, it’s no Necronomicon.

    Like

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