Religious Affiliation, Atheism and Suicide
According to a recent study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry religious affiliation is associated with significantly lower levels of suicide compared to religiously unaffiliated people, atheists and agnostics. Source: Kanita Dervic, Maria A. Oquendo, Michael F. Grunebaum, Steve Ellis, Ainsley K. Burke, and J. John Mann. "Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt" (161:2303-2308, December 2004).
Full article online: http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/abstract/161/12/2303
OBJECTIVE: Few studies have investigated the association between religion and suicide either in terms of Durkheim's social integration hypothesis or the hypothesis of the regulative benefits of religion. The relationship between religion and suicide attempts has received even less attention.Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman compiled country-by-country survey, polling and census numbers relating to atheism, agnosticism, disbelief in God and people who state they are non-religious or have no religious preference. These data were published in the chapter titled "Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns" in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. by Michael Martin, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK (2005). In examining various indicators of societal health, Zuckerman concludes about suicide:
Concerning suicide rates, this is the one indicator of societal health in which religious nations fare much better than secular nations. According to the 2003 World Health Organization's report on international male suicides rates (which compared 100 countries), of the top ten nations with the highest male suicide rates, all but one (Sri Lanka) are strongly irreligious nations with high levels of atheism. It is interesting to note, however, that of the top remaining nine nations leading the world in male suicide rates, all are former Soviet/Communist nations, such as Belarus, Ukraine, and Latvia. Of the bottom ten nations with the lowest male suicide rates, all are highly religious nations with statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism.It is important to keep in mind that atheism and agnosticism have no inherent proscription against suicide, so higher rates of suicide among agnostics and atheists should in no way be considered a failure of these belief systems. Indeed, compassionate tolerance for suicide and euthenasia are widely regarded as hallmarks of many secular societies.
The list of countries with the highest levels of atheism, agnosticism and non-belief in God (see: Largest Atheist Populations, reporting lists by Zuckerman, 2005, and Greeley/Jagodzinski, 1991) strongly correlates with countries that have the most liberal (or "progressive") laws, policies and practices regarding right-to-die, assisted suicide, and euthenasia for infants, the terminally ill, chronic pain sufferers, the handicapped, and depressed individuals. Zuckerman (2005) listed the top countries with the highest levels of atheism and non-religiousness as: Sweden, Vietnam, Denmark, Norway, Japan, Czech Republic, Finland, France, South Korea, Estonia, Germany, Russia, Hungary, Netherlands, Britain and Belgium (highest by level of non-belief, with Sweden being the highest).
A report last updated 1 March 2005 about assisted suicide (Assisted Suicide Laws Around the World, compiled by Derek Humphry, former editor of World Right-to-Die Newsletter) summarizes the situation in these proportionately more atheist/agnostic countries:
...Sweden [ranked #1 on the list of countries with the highest proportion of atheists/agnostics] has no law specifically proscribing assisted suicide...[See the article for many more details.]
Active religious cultures exhibit lower levels of suicideIn 2002 the American Journal of Epidemiology published a study by Dr. Sterling C. Hilton showing that active Latter-day Saints are 7 times less likely to commit suicide than their surrounding peer population. (See: "High Religious Commitment Linked to Less Suicide", describing the study from American Journal of Epidemiology).
In various broad-based sociological studies, Latter-day Saints consistently exhibit high levels of religiosity and committment to behavior in accordance with religious teachings, relative to the general population, levels higher than seen in nearly all other sizable religious groups. The Hilton study showed not only that membership in a highly religious culture is linked to lower levels of suicide, but also that higher levels of participation within a specific religious group are linked to lower levels of suicide.
It is important to keep in mind that suicide is not actively encouraged by any major group or belief system, whether atheist, agnostic or highly religious. Even in nonreligious nations and belief systems in which suicide is considered a moral and viable option, it is an abberation.
Although there is a strong statistically significant correlation linking religious belief and practice to lower levels of suicide, it is not reasonable to use this correlation to broadly generalize about the merits of any particular belief system. Simply put, most people eat food, have families, work or go to school. But only a tiny fraction of any population ever commits suicide. Suicide is a statistical anomaly and is not a generally applicable demographic measure.
Social scientists believe that non-belief in God or lack of religiosity are not causitive factors leading to suicide. Rather, it is likely that religious belief that suicide is wrong is a strong deterrent factor that prevents otherwise suicide-prone individuals from committing suicide.
According to medical research, the factors most predictive of suicide are hopelessness and depression. Clinical depression can be found in all segments of society. The following passage is from: "Cognitive therapy for the suicidal patient: A case study" in Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, Oct-Dec 1998, by Christine E. Reilly:
Suicide is responsible for more than 31,000 deaths a year, making it the ninth leading cause of death in America (Anderson, Kochanek, & Murphy, 1997). The single most predictive risk factor for a completed suicide is a psychiatric diagnosis. As in the case of depression and panic disorder, cognitive therapy research has made a significant contribution toward understanding the variables in suicide. A task force of the National Institute of Mental Health Center for Studies of Suicide Prevention developed a tripartite classification system in 1973 to describe suicidal behavior-suicide ideation, suicide attempt, and completed suicide (Beck et al., 1973)...Certainly Latter-day Saint missionaries never knock on doors with a message, "Hello. If you join our Church you'll be less likely to kill yourself." Likewise, it is unlikely that any atheists and agnostics will modify their beliefs and religious practices simply because of one demographic factor relating to a statstical group they happen to belong to. If your "discussion" of the relative merits of your belief system devolves into pointing out the suicide rate within a specific population, then you have already lost the argument, because you have abandoned substantitive dialogue in favor of an appeal to tangential sensationalism.
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Web page created 26 April 2005. Last modified 19 April 2007.