The suicide in Notre Dame de Paris, May 21, 2013, will soon be forgotten, unlike a certain murder in the Cathedral of Canterbrury on December 2, 1170. Archbishop Thomas Beckett died in his empty cathedral at the hand of four knights of King Henry 2. Dominique Venner died by his own hand by shooting a bullet into his brain in front of the Paris cathedral’s congregation during Mass. Beckett was a Christian martyr whose loyalty to the Pope provoked his murder. Venner was an atheist whose opposition to the Catholic Church and Christian faith provoked his senseless suicide.
The French right-wing, erudite, reclusive intellectual’s gesture will, some fear, be repeated by the inevitable copy-cats who now have another “modus demonstrandi” to match gasoline-soaked self-immolation. Suicide can be justified for all sorts of reasons and executed in all sorts of ways. Venner’s was not only inappropriate but pointless, though apparently he wanted to make his own the last words of the Roman general Cato in 46 B.C., who after falling on his sword proclaimed : “Now I belong to myself.”
It is hard to see how Venner’s act advanced his attack on the Christianity which he denounced for destroying the culture of the peoples of Europe. I cannot imagine any sane atheist suffering from the illusion that there were benefits to be drawn from such a suicide. But taking one’s own life is an eminently personal decision, the motives for which are often beyond our grasp. I continue to believe however that the cause of atheism is better served by the patient, if frustrating, efforts of the living, rather than the pathetic gesture of Dominique Venner.