Saturday, February 5, 2011 Login

Religion & Suicide Re-Revisited

http://www.adherents.com/misc/religion_suicide.html

“It might be bullshit. Just thought I’d post.

“Another. This one, I have less suspicion about.

http://bhascience.blogspot.com/2009/01/how-does-religion-prevent-suicide.html

“One more, but I only looked at the abstract.

http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract;jsessionid=286C8CF028C80B6115280A7BB6FB5313.tomcat1?fromPage=online&aid=25493

“I’m not gonna lie, based on this simple and brief examination, it seems that your apparent claim that religion inspires suicide more than it prevents it is, quite simply, based on statistical evidence (as opposed to random, specific stories which mean nothing in terms of broad cultural trends), wrong.” - Not Applicable

Dear Not Applicable:

Many thanks for sharing those links. I really appreciate it when noters bring more evidence to the table. :-)

Thanks for your comments, too.

The relationship between religion and suicide is a complex one. After reading through the web pages you gave links for (as well as many others), I find it very difficult to draw many definite, sweeping conclusions.

That’s pretty much what I said in my first entry on the subject six years ago: “[I]t’s not obvious to me what the difference is between those places with high suicide rates and those with low rates. European countries can be found at both extremes; so can Catholic countries; so can rich and poor countries. If anything predisposes the people of a country to kill themselves, it’s not obvious to me what it is.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think I’ve ever said that religion inspires more suicides than it prevents. What I think I’ve tried to indicate instead (in that first entry as well as others) is that it obviously inspires some suicides and that I suspect religion inspires more suicides than atheism does.

Yesterday’s entry provides us with more evidence that religion does indeed inspire some suicides.

It also reminds us that the suicides that religion inspires often involve large groups of people. Wikipedia’s entry on cult suicide provides us with details about several, including those involving the Peoples Temple at Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians, and Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.

This isn’t exactly a modern phenomenon, either. As a paper I quoted in the entry I posted on Nov 21, 2007 reminds us: “Over a period of several decades in late seventeenth and early eighteenth century Russia, tens of thousands of ‘Old Believers’ committed suicide, generally by self-immolation. Most of the suicides were not individual acts but transpired in the context of catastrophic collective events at hermitages or monasteries. In several instances the number of persons who perished at a burned-out settlement far exceeded the number of deaths at Jonestown”.

Another site mentions a different kind of religion-inspired suicide that I hadn’t heard about until today: “In the Heian and Kamakura periods, it became popular among certain groups of Japanese Pure Land Buddhists to commit suicide in order to gain rebirth in the Pure Land. It was of utmost importance that the suicide have the right state of mind at the moment of death, especially to concentrate on the Amida Buddha. The ritual suicide was usually undertaken by walking into the water and drowning. Thus, the would-be suicide would walk into the water to drown himself, but if he found himself unable to keep a peaceful mind or focus properly on Amida, his assistants were to pull him out of the water to prevent him from dying in an unfavorable state of mind, using a rope that had been tied around the would-be suicide’s waist for this purpose.”

If atheism and/or secular humanism have ever inspired groups to kill themselves the way the religions I’ve just mentioned have, I’m not aware of it.

That said, let’s turn to the information in the web pages you linked to….

http://www.adherents.com/misc/religion_suicide.html – “Religious Affiliation, Atheism and Suicide”

I actually read and bookmarked that page myself quite awhile ago. I haven’t mentioned it because it seemed to me to be weak and somewhat confusing even in those parts that generally support my own point of view.

Consider this line: “Social scientists believe that non-belief in God or lack of religiosity are not causitive [sic] factors leading to suicide.” As much as I’d love to quote that, I have to ask “WHAT social scientists? WHY do they believe this?” The article doesn’t say – the unidentified author just plops that on us. We need to do better than this.

The article *does* open with references to two studies. Unfortunately, the more I probe those studies, the more problems I find.

You can find the full text of the first (“Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt”- Dec 2004) here. The more I read it, the more bothered I became with Adherents.com for using it as the basis for starting off by saying “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.”

Here are a few quotes from the study itself: “Few studies have investigated the association between religion and suicide…. The relationship between religion and suicide attempts has received even less attention…. To our knowledge, this is the first study investigating the relationship between religious affiliation status and suicide attempts in a clinical sample….”

Why has this area been so poorly studied? How much weight should we give this one study? It may have impressed the webmaster at Adherents.com but it doesn’t do much to impress me. Instead, it seems to raise more questions than it answers.

Reading on, I found that the details provided by that study further diminished its significance.

The study involved 371 depressed inpatients at one place – the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Only 66 of those patients were non-religious.

Of the religious patients who were studied, nearly 90% were Judeo-Christian – hardly a good reflection of today’s world. About a third of those studied were Catholic even though the US as a whole is less than 25% Catholic.

The study says several interesting things not mentioned by Adherents.com, including this: “Lower general psychopathology scores (BPRS) were found in the patients with no religious affiliation.” So non-religious people might actually be mentally *healthier* than religious people even though they attempt and/or succeed at killing themselves more often??

There was also this: “This study has some limitations. For example, it did not assess religious upbringing, religious practice, or the level of personal devotion. Therefore, it is possible that depressed patients who stated that they were atheists or had no religion had abandoned religion as a consequence of depression or hopelessness.” Those seem to be some pretty serious limitations….

Apparently, every depressed inpatient who participated in this study had to sign an informed consent form first. Apparently the study itself relied extremely heavily on the survey questions these inpatients were willing to answer. Apparently we’re simply to take it on blind faith that these suicidally depressed inpatients all took these questions seriously and answered honestly. Apparently we’re expected to forget that atheists might have reasons not to answer the questions put to them by a predominantly religious culture. Apparently we’re expected to forget that religious people might have reasons not to be honest with potentially secular doctors about their innermost thoughts or their previous suicide attempts….

In the end the only conclusion I feel comfortable embracing after examining this study in some detail is this one: “This subject needs and deserves a whole lot more study than it’s received thus far!”

Adherents.com moves next to Phil Zuckerman’s country-by-country survey.

According to Zuckerman: “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.”

Looking at data from the 2008 WHO report on this subject is an illuminating experience.

Lithuania is #1 in suicides – and the CIA World Factbook tells me that it’s 79% Catholic, 6% other Christian, and about 10% atheist. Its rate of suicide is almost double that of Japan – which the CIA tells me is just 2% Christian.

Belarus is #2 in suicides – and the CIA World Factbook tells me that it’s 80% Russian Orthodox and 20% Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim. It’s not clear to me why Zuckerman considers it to be strongly irreligious.

If we assume Zuckerman knows better than the CIA World Factbook, we still are faced with the fact that 8 of the worst 10 countries when it comes to suicide appear to have been part of the Soviet/Communist block. The most obvious reason for their elevated suicide rate doesn’t seem to me to be their alleged atheism or lack of religion but the Communist economic-political collapse. There was a huge overlap between Communists and atheists in that part of the world, of course, but the two things are hardly synonymous. If atheism/lack of religion were really the cause of higher suicide rates rather than Communism’s collapse, you’d expect to see that reflected in atheists in other parts of the world. Instead, what we find is that relatively secular places like Norway and Canada have suicide rates comparable to those in more religious places such as Portugal and the US.

It’s perhaps when we look at the other end of the chart that things get really interesting, however.

Zuckerman’s claim that “Of the bottom ten nations with the lowest male suicide rates, all are highly religious nations with statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism” strikes me as extremely naive and misguided as I actually look at the list of those countries.

Apparently NO ONE has ever committed suicide in Jordan!

And almost no one commits suicide in Egypt and Syria and Iran!

You might remember Iran – it’s the place that also doesn’t have any homosexuals.

Seriously, though – it seems painfully clear that many of the very religious nations that claim to have a very low suicide rate are simply not keeping track of those who kill themselves or aren’t sharing that information accurately with the rest of the world. (In some cases, that information – good or bad – is 30 years old!) If non-religious, secular societies seem worse off in this area, it might well only be because they’re being more honest.

The first study that Adherents.com cited admitted as much when it says in the first line of its introduction “Suicide rates are lower in religious countries than in secular ones. Some of this difference may be due to underreporting in religious countries because of concerns over stigma.”

Which naturally raises a few other questions, including these: Are religious people who kill themselves more likely to do it secretly? Are they more likely to make it look like an accident? To simply disappear? And are religious families, churches, and communities (as well as countries) more likely to hide the facts in an attempt to reduce embarrassment and shame? Given the extreme lengths that many religious communities have gone to deny and cover-up the child abuse that occurs, can we really trust them to be any more honest about suicide?

The claims that Zuckerman and others make about religious vs. non-religious countries when it comes to suicide seem even more hollow when we look at the data plotted on a world map. While places like China and Cuba and all the former Soviet bloc countries that we might expect to be more atheistic than average are included, almost all of heavily religious Africa is marked “No Data” and excluded. So are Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and some other very religious countries. Several of these countries have been ravaged by sectarian warfare for many years. An objective observer might reasonably expect these violent and famously oppressive countries to have suicide rates that are through the roof – but apparently we don’t have access to the information we need in order to see if those expectations are justified or not. Apparently every atheist-leaning country is thrown into the mix but many if not most of the worst religious countries on earth get to opt out (despite stories like this) – and we’re not even clearly informed of this fact. How special!

So much for Adherents.com….

The next link you gave – http://bhascience.blogspot.com/2009/01/how-does-religion-prevent-suicide.html – took me to Epiphenom’s “How Does Religion Prevent Suicide?”

I confess, I didn’t follow the reasoning that was presented there. Maybe I’m at fault, but… the bottom line is that I found it terribly confusing.

The 2008 Canadian study that the article was based on can be found here.

I understood what it said somewhat better: “Identifying oneself as spiritual was associated with decreased odds of suicide attempt… but was not significant after adjusting for social supports. Religious attendance was associated with decreased odds of suicidal ideation… but not after adjusting for social supports. Religious attendance was associated with decreased odds of suicide attempt and remained significant after adjusting for social supports…. No significant interaction effects were observed between any of the tested mental disorders and religion, spirituality and suicidal behavior…. Results suggest that religious attendance is associated with decreased suicide attempts in the general population and in those with a mental illness independent of the effects of social supports.”

Let’s hold that thought for a moment….

The third link you provided summarizes the results of a 1997 study of 19 Western countries: “Ecological associations between religious variables and suicide rates are stronger for women than men, stronger for measures of belief than observance and mediated by tolerance of suicide. In individuals, stronger religious beliefs are associated with lower tolerance of suicide. Personal religious beliefs and, for men, exposure to a religious environment, may protect against suicide by reducing its acceptability.”

I guess that means that if you believe suicide isn’t acceptable, you’re less likely to commit suicide.

A bit less tritely, it also seems to mean that religions in 19 Western countries aren’t very tolerant of suicide, so if you embrace those religions and hang out with others who also embrace those religions, you’re less likely to commit suicide.

That sounds fine as far as it goes. But it doesn’t say much about those religions that are more tolerant of suicide (or actually promote it). It basically just boils down to saying that religious beliefs have an impact on behavior. I tend to agree.

Should I really agree in *this* case, however?

Should I also agree with the results of the study before this one?

I’m not sure.

Here’s why:

If Christianity actually deterred suicide in the US, we might reasonably expect to find the most Christian areas of the US (such as the Bible Belt) to have the lowest suicide rates.

Here’s what we find instead:

Nevada is pretty secular/atheistic and *does* have a high suicide rate, but… that’s about the only part of this map that seems to me to in any way confirm the results of the studies we’ve been talking about.

Many parts of the Bible Belt seem to have a higher suicide rate than many less religious parts of the country.

True, that’s a rather old map – but it seems to more or less in line with the 2004 figures presented here. To sum those figures up: The national suicide rate in the US is 11.1 per 100,000; the suicide rate is above average in the religious South (11.8); it’s below average in the less religious northeast (8.1).

As a well-researched article I quoted on Aug 26, 2007 put it: “Of the 15 states with the highest adjusted rates of suicide (2003), 14 are red.” (“Red” of course is the label applied to those more religious, more conservative states that went for Bush in 2004.)

If Christianity has any power to prevent suicide, it’s hard to find much proof of it in these figures.

Two quick final points:

1) Not all suicides are the same. It’s one thing to overdose on medications with the help and/or approval of your family and/or doctor when you’re a terminally ill 90-year-old cancer patient who’s in agony; it’s quite another thing to strap on a belt of explosives and detonate it in a crowded mosque or marketplace. Few if any studies seem to take these very important differences into account. Once those differences *are* taken into account, however, religions that needlessly prolong an agonizing dying process can easily be seen as bad things for everyone involved rather than the good things so many people (perhaps including the authors of the studies we’re been discussing) assume they are. (Exactly how bad they can be is explained in some detail here).

2) To what extent might religion be responsible for the suicides of atheists and other non-religious people that *do* occur? There seems to be good reason to believe that the religious demonization of homosexuality and gay people is at least partly responsible for the higher rate of suicide among gay teens. To what extent might a predominately Judeo-Christian or Islamic culture’s demonization of atheists and other non-religious secularists be blamed for any increase in the suicide rate we might find among atheists and secularists? Just as earlier societies forced minority Jews and blacks to live in dirty, crowded ghettoes and then blamed Jews and blacks for living in dirty, crowded ghettoes, to what extent might religious societies today be driving atheists and other minorities to despair and suicide and then blaming atheists and other minorities for becoming desperate and suicidal? Is *anyone* doing research that might answer these questions or is our predominantly religious culture much more interested in funding research that proves the goodness of religion?

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