Science on Religion

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Religion discourages suicide

Depressed manReligions prohibit many actions, but this hardly means their followers abide by such prohibitions – hence the term “casual Catholic” for Catholics who use contraception. Most religions forbid suicide, but it remains an empirical question as to whether anyone actually takes this seriously. Research by criminologist Steven Stack (Wayne State University) and sociologist Augustine Kposowa (University of California—Riverside) indicates that, indeed, affiliation with religion correlates with a decreased acceptance of suicide.

The researchers seek to disentangle a plethora of explanations as to why religion would correspond with low suicide acceptability. In particular, they consider four common theories. First, the moral community thesis states that religiosity at the group level influences the opinions and behaviors of those inside the group, as well as unaffiliated individuals surrounded by the group. In other words, group belief tends towards conformity not only of its members but also of loners who engage the culture of the group on a regular basis. Thus, even non-religious people could display a low view of suicide if living in a heavily religious area.

Second, religious integration theory suggests that the sheer fact of belonging to a religious tradition decreases the chances of approving of suicide. Third, and on a related note, the stronger one’s belief to one’s core religious doctrines, the stronger one will disapprove of suicide. Fourth and finally, religions reduce suicide rates by providing its adherents with social connections, and thus the more exposure one has to religious people, the less likely one will approve of suicide. Clearly these four theories don't exclude each other, and they may even reinforce one another.

The researchers relied on data from the World Values Survey (Wave 4, 1999-2001), which covers over 50,000 people in 56 countries. The World Values Survey explicitly asked its participants about their level of approval of suicide, and since it also asked questions of religious service attendance, religious affiliation, adherence to some key religious beliefs, and whether the participant finds “comfort and strength” in his or her religion, the researchers could easily translate these answers into answers for their questions.

The researchers found support for all four theories. More specifically, the moral community thesis held its own ground, even aftering factoring in religious integration, religious commitment, religious social networks, and demographic variables. Independent of other considerations, religious cultures tend to have people with a low view of suicide.

The other theories received support, but much of that support disappeared as other variables entered into the equation. For instance, religious affiliation correlates with disapproval of suicide, but once the strength of beliefs and religious social connections factor in, the effect of religious affiliation becomes insignificant. Religious affiliation does correlate with a low view of suicide as expected, but this correlation seems to reduce to other variables.

As for the third theory (strength of adherence to religious doctrine), it found strong support, especially for those who strongly believe in an afterlife. Finally, the theory about interaction with religious people correlating with low suicide acceptability also found support. Previous literature has indicated that religions provide people with coping mechanisms, and all four theories here studied predicted religious coping.

It should be added that further research indicates that religion not only discourages suicide, but that in actual practice people in religious nations and people who attend religious services commit suicide less frequently. In other words, religoin not only discourages suicide, but also acts as a preventative against suicide. Of course, this was outside the scope of the research interests of Stack and Kposowa, but their research fits into a larger picture of religion countering suicide in a strong sense.

In the end, all four theories help to explain why religion discourages suicide, in belief if not in practice. Unfortunately, this research did not ask the next question about euthanasia — if religion tends to discourage suicide, does it also discourage euthanasia? At the very least, in terms of disapproving of suicide, most religious people practice what they preach.

For more, see “Religion and Suicide Acceptability: A Cross-National Analysis” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.


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