Social Science: Religion Leads to Lower Suicide Rates

There has been talk, in light of the recent tragic suicide of the chef and cultural commentator Anthony Bourdain, to the effect that Christianity or religion generally has little impact on the happiness or personal fulfillment of persons in this life (or not much more than is the case for non-believers). According to the Bible, this is massively untrue, as I documented in my previous post.  But we can also back up the Bible’s claims regarding an increase of hope, comfort, peace, and joy, by social science.

Before I begin, let me make it abundantly clear what I am not arguing (since many people these days are quick to jump to conclusions):

1) That any particular suicide can be fully explained by a one-dimensional religious / theological analysis.

2) That Christians don’t suffer in this life, just like everyone else (I made it abundantly clear that this is nonsense, in my previous paper).

3) That the person who commits suicide is automatically damned. This is not true at all. We don’t know the fate of any individual soul in the first place, but in the case of suicide, usually serious depression is involved, which impairs a person’s judgment and will to such an extent that they cannot be said to have made the decision with sufficient reflection and full consent of the will (two of the three conditions for objective mortal sin to have occurred). This is Catholic Church teaching: not just my own opinion. We’re not to judge souls: especially not their eternal destiny.

4) As for atheists in particular, I have made it clear in my writings, that they are not “evil” merely by being atheists, and that they may be saved (see, e.g., Romans 2), and that the Bible distinguishes between “God-rejecters” and “open-minded agnostics”. And I have freely granted that atheists have legitimate gripes against a great deal of Christian stupidity and judgmentalism sent their way.

That said, I do contend (as a general proposition) that a serious Christian commitment will lead to a more fulfilled, purposeful, meaningful life than it would have been otherwise; also, that — again, as a general proposition –, atheism leads to less of those things, up to and including a nihilistic despair that the entire universe is ultimately meaningless. How that works out in specific cases is exceedingly complex, and there will be a million exceptions for a thousand reasons. That’s why I’m only speaking very broadly (i.e., sociologically). I’m not addressing individual cases (including Anthony Bourdain). I commented earlier today in one of my comboxes:

Some comments from Catholics seem to me to suggest that the Christian life is scarcely different in these respects than the non-believing life. I vehemently disagree with that. If it is not vastly different, I would neither be a Christian, nor defend it as my occupation (because the Bible would be shown to be untrue in its claims). We would have no basis for going around proclaiming the Good News and hope and the prospects for peace and joy, despite any suffering we go through. And I would have to deny my own life experience and that of many others whose lives have dramatically changed for the better. But the good news is that the Good News is true, and that Jesus doesn’t just save us from hell, but also gives us all these blessings in this life, too.

These increased blessings, I contend, lead in fact (among many other things) to lower suicide rates. The only reasonable, objective, facts-based way to determine that is through the studies of social science (I majored in sociology and minored in psychology). I shall now proceed to survey the results of many studies along those lines.

1) “Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt” (Kanita Dervic, M.D., Maria A. Oquendo, M.D., Michael F. Grunebaum, M.D., Steve Ellis, Ph.D., Ainsley K. Burke, Ph.D., and J. John Mann, M.D.) [The American Journal of Psychiatry, December 2004]


RESULTS: Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation. Unaffiliated subjects were younger, less often married, less often had children, and had less contact with family members. Furthermore, subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living, particularly fewer moral objections to suicide. In terms of clinical characteristics, religiously unaffiliated subjects had more lifetime impulsivity, aggression, and past substance use disorder.

CONCLUSIONS: Religious affiliation is associated with less suicidal behavior in depressed inpatients.

Suicide rates are lower in religious countries than in secular ones (12). . . . An inverse relationship between religious commitment and suicidal ideation has also been reported (58–10).

Religious commitment promotes social ties and reduces alienation (33). We found weaker family ties in religiously unaffiliated subjects, and family members are reported to be more likely to provide reliable emotional support, nurturance, and reassurance of worth (37). Our finding is consistent with reports about less dense social networks among atheists (38), although whether distancing from one’s family facilitates disaffiliation from the family’s religion or vice versa is not known.

The greatest protective effect of religion on suicide is reported to be present in subjects who have relatives and friends of the same religion (38). Although in our study social network was not independently related to suicidal behavior, stronger feelings of responsibility to family were found in religiously affiliated subjects, who were also more often parents and married. Responsibility to family was inversely related to acting on suicidal thoughts. Most religions stress the importance and value of family. Thus, consistent with previous reports (5630), a commitment to a set of personal religious beliefs appears to be a more important factor against suicidal behavior than social cohesiveness per se.

2) “The Effect of Religious Commitment on Suicide: A Cross-National Analysis” (Steven Stack) [Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Dec. 1983]

Research on the relationship of religion and suicide has relied almost exclusively on the concept of religious integration as a causal variable. The present paper proposes an alternative linkage, based on the concept of religious commitment. A theory is developed that argues that a high level of commitment to a few life-preserving religious beliefs, values, and practices will lower suicide levels.3

3) “The effect of religion on suicide ideation” (S. Stack & D. Lester) [Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, Aug. 1991]

The present study tests both models with national data on 1,687 respondents. No support is found for the Durkheimian model at the individual level, but some is found for the religious commitment model: the greater the church attendance the lower the approval of suicide. The effect of religiosity on suicide ideation is independent of education, gender, marital status, and age.

4) “Suicide Acceptability in African- and White Americans: The Role of Religion” (Jan Neeleman, Simon Wessely, Glyn Lewis) [The Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease, January 1998]

Rates of suicidal behavior are lower among African- than white Americans. We analyzed the association of suicide acceptability with religious, sociodemographic, and emotional variables in representative samples of African- and white Americans (1990). Adjusted for ethnic response bias, the former were less accepting of suicide than the latter (odds ratio.60; 95% confidence interval.41,.88). Orthodox religious beliefs and personal devotion predicted rejection of suicide best; this effect was equally strong in both groups. The comparatively low level of suicide acceptability among African-Americans was mostly attributable to their relatively high levels of orthodox religious beliefs and devotion, as opposed to practice and affiliation, although sociodemographic and emotional differences contributed as well. These results are interpreted using the cognitive dissonance model. Given rapid secularization among the young in the United States, these findings may help explain the rising suicide rates among white and, especially, African-American young people.

5) “Tolerance of suicide, religion and suicide rates: an ecological and individual study in 19 Western countries” (Jan Neeleman, D. Halpern, D. Leon, Glyn Lewis) [Psychological Medicine, Sep. 1997]

Results. Higher female suicide rates were associated with lower aggregate levels of religious belief and, less strongly, religious attendance. These associations were mostly attributable to the association between higher tolerance of suicide and higher suicide rates. In the 28085 subjects suicide tolerance and the strength of religious belief were negatively associated even after adjustment for other religious and sociodemographic variables and general tolerance levels (odds ratios: men 0·74 (95% CI 0·58–0·94), women 0·72 (95% CI 0·60–0·86)). This negative individual- level association was more pronounced in more highly religious countries but this modifying effect of the religious context was apparent for men only.

Conclusions. 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.

6) “Dimensions of Religion Associated with Suicide Attempt and Suicide Ideation in Depressed, Religiously Affiliated Patients” (Matthias Jongkind MSc, Bart van den Brink MD, Hanneke Schaap‐Jonker PhD, Nathan van der Velde MSc, Arjan W. Braam MD, PhD) [Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, April 2018]

Abstract: There is substantial evidence to support the claim that religion can protect against suicide ideation, suicide attempts, and completed suicide. There is also evidence that religion does not always protect against suicidality. More insight is needed into the relationship between suicidal parameters and dimensions of religion. A total of 155 in‐ and outpatients with major depression from a Christian Mental Health Care institution were included. The following religious factors were assessed: religious service attendance, frequency of prayer, religious salience, type of God representation, and moral objections to suicide (MOS). Multiple regression analyses were computed. MOS have a unique and prominent (negative) association with suicide ideation and the lifetime history of suicide attempts, even after controlling for demographic features and severity of depression. The type of God representation is an independent statistical predictor of the severity of suicide ideation. A positive‐supportive God representation is negatively correlated with suicide ideation. A passive‐distressing God representation has a positive correlation with suicide ideation. High MOS and a positive‐supportive God representation in Christian patients with depression are negatively correlated with suicide ideation.

7) “Religiousness as a Predictor of Suicide: An Analysis of 162 European Regions” (S. Stack & F. Laubepin) [Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, Jan. 2018]

Abstract: Research on religion as a protective factor has been marked by four recurrent limitations: (1) an overemphasis on the United States, a nation where religiosity is relatively high; (2) a neglect of highly secularized zones of the world, where religiousness may be too weak to affect suicide; (3) restriction of religiousness to religious affiliation, a construct which may miss capturing other dimensions of religiousness such as the importance of religion in one’s life; and (4) an overwhelming use of the nation as a unit of analysis, which masks variation in religiousness within nations. The present article addresses these limitations by performing a cross-national test of the following hypothesis: The greater the strength of subjective religiousness, the lower the suicide rate, using small units of analysis for a secularized area of the world. All data refer to 162 regions within 22 European nations. Data were extracted from two large databases, EUROSTAT and the European Social Surveys (ESS Round 4), and merged using NUTS-2 (Nomenclature of Statistical Territorial Units) regions as the unit of analysis. Controls are incorporated for level of economic development, education, and measures of economic strain. The results of a multiple regression analysis demonstrated that controlling for the other constructs in the model, religiousness is associated with lower suicide rates, confirming the hypothesis. Even in secularized European nations, where there is a relatively weak moral community to reinforce religion, religiousness acts as a protective factor against suicide.

8) “Moral Objections and Fear of Hell: An Important Barrier to Suicidality” (Bart van den Brink, Hanneke Schaap, Arjan W. Braam) [Journal of Religion and Health, Feb. 2018]

This review explores the literature to test the hypothesis that ‘moral objections to suicide (MOS), especially the conviction of going to hell after committing suicide, exert a restraining effect on suicide and suicidality.’ Medline and PsycInfo were searched using all relevant search terms; all relevant articles were selected, rated and reviewed. Fifteen cross-sectional studies were available on this topic, and raise sufficient evidence to confirm a restraining effect of MOS, and sparse data on fear of hell. MOS seem to counteract especially the development of suicidal intent and attempts, and possibly the lethality of suicidal attempts.

9)  “The association of personal importance of religion and religious service attendance with suicidal ideation by age group in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health” (Daisuke Nishi, Daisuke Nishi, Ryoko Susukida, Naoaki Kuroda, Holly C. Wilcox) [Psychiatry Research, Sep. 2017]


  • Religious beliefs are associated with less suicidal ideation in all age groups.
  • This inverse association is stronger in older adults and young adults.
  • Religious attendance is associated with less suicidal ideation in older adults.
  • This inverse association is seen when attendance is more than 25 times per year.
  • Understanding these associations potentially informs assessments for suicide risk.


Religiosity has been shown to be inversely associated with suicidal ideation, but few studies have examined associations by age group. This study aimed to examine the association between religiosity with suicidal ideation by age group. This study used a large nationally representative sample of 260,816 study participants from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Religiosity was defined as self-reported importance of religious beliefs and frequency of religious service attendance. The association between religiosity and suicidal ideation was assessed by multivariable logistic regression analysis stratified by age group (18–25, 26–34, 35–49, 50–64, 65 or older). The importance of religious beliefs was inversely associated with suicidal ideation in all age groups. The association was the strongest in people aged 65 or older, followed by people aged 18–25. Religious service attendance was also inversely associated with suicidal ideation in people aged 65 or more when attendance was more than 25 times per year. These findings may be helpful to understand age in relation to the relationship between religiosity and suicidal ideation. Particular attention to religiosity among older adults as a protective factor for suicidal ideation may be helpful in clinical settings.

10) “Can Religion Protect Against Suicide?” (Michael A. Norko; David Freeman; James Phillips; William Hunter; Richard Lewis; Ramaswamy Viswanathan) [The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Jan. 2017]

The vast majority of the world’s population is affiliated with a religious belief structure, and each of the major faith traditions (in its true form) is strongly opposed to suicide. Ample literature supports the protective effect of religious affiliation on suicide rates. Proposed mechanisms for this protective effect include enhanced social network and social integration, the degree of religious commitment, and the degree to which a particular religion disapproves of suicide. We review the sociological data for these effects and the general objections to suicide held by the faith traditions.


Photo credit: Alyssa L. Miller (Sep. 2009) [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]


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