Religion can influence suicide rates, a new study shows. While data have long shown that Protestants are more likely to commit suicide than Catholics, the relationship remains little understood. The study by Professors Sascha Becker (University of Warwick, U.K.) and Ludger Woessmann (University of Munich, Germany) demonstrates a causal link between Protestantism and suicide.
Becker and Woessmann sought to find whether the higher suicide rate among Protestants was due to self-selection. There could be some factors that influence whether a person chooses Protestantism versus Catholicism which also influence the likelihood that they will commit suicide.
Protestants have higher suicide rates than Catholics, "but, whether that is because they act from a religious perspective is a different story," Becker explained in a Monday interview with The Christian Post. "People might say that they become Protestants, not to commit suicide, of course, but they might elect to become Protestants for all kinds of reasons that happen to correlate with suicide behavior."
In other words, Becker and Woessman wanted to understand whether the relationship between Protestantism and high rates of suicide was causal or coincidental, and found it was causal.
To understand whether religion has an independent influence, Becker and Woessmann looked at data from Prussia in the 1800s in order to avoid any self-selection effects.
Prussia was divided into Catholic and Protestant regions at the time, and local governmental authorities kept good records on the causes of death, Becker explained. Since the vast majority of Prussians adhered to the predominant religion in their region, comparing the suicide rates in the different regions avoided the self-selection effects.
Someone in the United States today, for instance, has a smorgasbord of religions and denominations. Americans freely choose and change their religion whenever they wish. So, researchers cannot know whether a modern American that chooses Protestantism has characteristics that also correlate with high rates of suicide, or whether Protestantism itself is influential in high rates of suicide. In the 1800s, though, the dominant religion was maintained by the vast majority of Prussians their entire life.
Becker and Woessman found suicide rates in the Protestant regions to be three times higher than in the Catholic regions. Their study concludes that Protestantism itself increases suicide rates compared to Catholicism.
Their study cannot answer why this is the case, but they offer three hypotheses.
The high rates of suicide among Protestants compared to Catholics was first noticed by Émile Durkheim, one of the fathers of sociology, in his classic text, Suicide (1897). Durkheim believed that the differences had to do with the fact that Protestants are more individualistic, or place greater emphasis upon individual autonomy, whereas Catholics are more communitarian, or place greater emphasis upon church communities.
"The way we came to work on this issue in the first place," Becker explained, "is we read about Durkheim's thesis where he made the point that Protestants more often have an individualistic religion than Catholics and Catholics more often rely upon the congregation as a group so that in times of trouble, Protestants are more on their own than Catholics."
In addition to this hypothesis, Becker and Woessman also suggest that the different suicide rates may be due to different emphases in Catholic and Protestant understandings of grace. Catholics will more often emphasize the rewards that come with good works or the punishment that comes with sin. Protestants, on the other hand, will more often note that God's grace cannot be earned through good deeds. As a result, it may be that Catholic teachings on suicide are stricter and those teachings become internalized among Catholics.
A third hypothesis has to do with Catholic confession, or the act of regularly confessing sins to a Catholic priest. Protestants do not recognize this sacrament. Since suicide is the only sin that could never be confessed to a priest, a Catholic who finds confession important to avoiding Hell may be less inclined to commit suicide.
Testing those three hypotheses will be a topic for future research, but Becker noted that it is "extremely difficult" to find ways to measure each of those variables independently and in ways that they can be measured using statistics.
Becker and Woessman's research, "Knocking on Heaven's Door? Protestantism and Suicide," is currently a working paper and has been submitted for publication in an academic journal.