Suicide, Religion and Atheism

Suicide, Religion and Atheism July 31, 2018

Suicide is never an easy thing to talk about. To give some background, The Suicide Act 1961 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It decriminalised the act of suicide in England and Wales so that those who failed in the attempt to kill themselves would no longer be prosecuted (it was never a crime under Scots Law).

In the US:

Under Common Law, suicide, or the intentional taking of one’s own life, was a felony that was punished by Forfeiture of all the goods and chattels of the offender. Under modern U.S. law, suicide is no longer a crime. Some states, however, classify attempted suicide as a criminal act, but prosecutions are rare, especially when the offender is terminally ill. Instead, some jurisdictions require a person who attempts suicide to undergo temporary hospitalization and psychological observation. A person who causes the death of an innocent bystander or would- be rescuer while in the process of attempting suicide may be guilty of murder or Manslaughter.

Religiously, suicide is commonly seen as a sin. As Wikipedia states of early Christianity:

In the fifth century, St. Augustine wrote the book The City of God, in it making Christianity’s first overall condemnation of suicide. His biblical justification for this was the interpretation of the commandment, “thou shalt not kill“, as he sees the omission of “thy neighbor”, which is included in “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor“, to mean that the killing of oneself is not allowed either.[1] The rest of his reasons were from Plato’s Phaedo.

In the sixth century AD, suicide became a secular crime and began to be viewed as sinful. In 1533, those who committed suicide while accused of a crime were denied a Christian burial. In 1562, all suicides were punished in this way. In 1693, even attempted suicide became an ecclesiastical crime, which could be punished by excommunication, with civil consequences following. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas denounced suicide as an act against God and as a sin for which one could not repent. Civil and criminal laws were enacted to discourage suicide, and as well as degrading the body rather than permitting a normal burial, property and possessions of the suicides and their families were confiscated.[2][3]

Psalm 139:8 (“If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.”) is often used to decry suicide. In Catholicism:

According to the theology of the Catholic Churchdeath by suicide is considered a grave matter, one of the elements required for mortal sin. The reason is that one’s life is the property of God and a gift to the world, and to destroy that life is to wrongly assert dominion over what is God’s and was held as despair over salvation.

In points 2281 and 2325 of the Catechism it is stated:

2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

2325 Suicide is seriously contrary to justice, hope, and charity. It is forbidden by the fifth commandment.

The official Catechism of the Catholic Church indicated that the person who committed suicide may not always be fully right in their mind; and thus not one-hundred-percent morally culpable: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” The Catholic Church prays for those who have committed suicide, knowing that Christ shall judge the deceased fairly and justly. The Church also prays for the close relations of the deceased, that the loving and healing touch of God will comfort those torn apart by the impact of the suicide.

Formerly, those who committed suicide were denied a Christian funeral. Pope Pius X said: “In the Fifth Commandment God forbids suicide, because man is not the master of his own life no more than of the life of another. Hence the Church punishes suicide by deprivation of Christian burial.” [8]

Sociologically speaking, what do we know about how religion or nonreligion affects rates of suicide? One fantastic source for all things sociological and demographic in the context of religion and nonreligion is the book by Phil Zuckerman, Luke Galen and Frank Pasquale: The Nonreligious.

However, they can only surmise to a certain level with what seems to be a lack of good data:

It has long been noted that countries with a lower level of religiosity tend to have higher rates of suicide. On an individual level, more frequent participation in religious activities is associated with a lower risk of suicide. Conversely, those who never participate religious activities have higher odds of dying by suicide than those who participate. [p. 141]

So we secular types tend towards a higher risk of suicide. We will certainly look at death in different ways and this arguably underwrites such a difference. One might be inclined to argue, as with the variables that underlie some claims to greater happiness within the religious communities, it is the social networks and social contact with other like-minded people in support that could lead to lower suicide rates. However, this doesn’t go all the way to explaining the difference.

Because greater religious attendance is associated with decreased odds of a suicide attempt, even controlling for greater social supports, it may not be the social contact inherent in some forms of religious participation that decreases suicide risk but something more specifically intrinsic to religiousness. Religious individuals may have more hopefulness for the future, or secular individuals may lack fear of divine retribution for having taken their own lives. [p. 141]

I guess this is an area where there needs to be more research. The problem being that it is hard to interview people who have committed suicide in order to unpick causality. I suppose failed attempts could garner some decent data, but it is a very touchy area, obviously. Hopefully, something here for you to discuss!


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