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Belief in Life after Death Affects Suicide Rates

Followers of older, more established religions are less likely to commit suicide than adepts of newer faiths. Factors influencing the risk of suicide include a feeling of isolation from the majority and a belief in life after death, according to a study by Eduard Ponarin, Director of the HSE's Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (LCSR) in St. Petersburg, and Vassily Usenko, M.D., Ph.D., from Dnipropetrovsk

Studies show substantial differences in the rates of suicide between countries and even between different areas within the same country. By studying suicide statistics across communities, researchers have identified specific factors influencing suicidal activity.

Eduard Ponarin examined some of these factors in his previous study on the relationship between suicide rates and participation in public gatherings, such as football matches, concerts, and religious events. He found, in particular, that members of newer religious movements are more prone to suicidal activity than Orthodox Christians and suggested that Orthodox priests may have learned from experience to use a more cautious and perhaps more practical approach to miracles to avoid causing disillusionment among followers.

Ponarin’s new study looks more broadly at differences in suicidal activity between followers of older religions, not limited to the Orthodox Church, and more recent religious denominations. For his study, he used data from the U.S. where, according to the researchers, more people are more religious compared to Europe and religious diversity is more common, as well as more relevant data being available for analysis.

The researchers used a variety of health and demographic data sources to obtain a comprehensive picture of suicide, covering more than 2,000 counties in 50 states over a period of five years between 2000 and 2006.

Ponarin and Usenko examined suicide rates per 100,000 people, broken down by gender, race, ethnicity, age, and method used, such as hanging, poisoning, use of a firearm, use of a sharp object, jumping from height, etc.

Ponarin presented his findings at the LCSR's Fourth International Conference 'Cultural and Economic Change in a Cross-National Perspective."

Being in a Minority Causes Frustration

Ponarin and Usenko examined data on members of 18 religious denominations, of which the smallest was represented in 297 of the 2,000 counties in the USA and the largest in 1,711 of these counties.

The authors’ original hypothesis of a relationship between suicide rates and the age of the subjects' religious denomination was confirmed. Ponarin and Usenko found that Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Roman Catholics were the least likely to commit suicide, followed by members of older Protestant churches. In contrast, Dutch Protestants, Adventists, and Baptists were found to be more prone to suicide, while the highest suicide rates were found among members of independent charismatic churches, Mormons, Anglicans, and Quakers.

"Older religions have learned over time to relate to their followers in ways which do not cause discomfort," Ponarin explains. On the other hand, some of the more recent denominations tend to involve followers in practices resulting in psychological discomfort and confrontation with others, i.e. when trying to convert them to one's faith (proselytism).

Another important factor influencing the likelihood of suicide is whether one's religion is shared by many other people in a given territory. According to Ponarin, being in a religious minority makes some people feel like social outcasts. Conversely, living in a community where most people belong to your faith-e.g. being a Mormon in Utah-demonstrably reduces suicide rates.

The study also examined suicide rates among non-believers and found them to be higher than in members of old religions. "Perhaps being religious makes one feel part of a community and thus lowers anxiety," the researchers explain, also referring to the positive effect of Orthodox religious events on women in Dnipropetrovsk reported in Ponarin et al.'s previous study.

Max Weber's Theory Challenged

According to Ponarin, suicide rates also correlate with whether one believes in life after death. "Older religions do not require followers to spread their teachings and thus allow people to keep certain dogmas, not always compatible with common sense, at the back of their minds without giving them much thought," he argues. Belief in life after death is a basic tenet of virtually all religions, but many members of older religions feel comfortable practicing their faith without really believing in life after death. "Thus, they do not suffer cognitive dissonance, as opposed to adepts of newer religious movements," the researchers explain.

This study brings some updates to the classic theory of sociology. "Our findings complement those of Emile Durkheim who only examined Protestants, Catholics, and Jews as whole groups without making distinctions between different Protestant denominations,” Ponarin says. He also suggests that in a way, his study challenges Max Weber's theory of modern society's progressive rationalisation, illustrated by his comparison between Catholics and Protestants—in Weber’s view, the latter were more rational. "In contrast, we argue that older religions which have stood the test of time are more rational than newer ones," Ponarin argues.
Author: Marina Selina, December 01, 2014