Economics helps explain why suicide is more common among Protestants

Economics helps explain why suicide is more common among Protestants
Image credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Protestantism is good for some people and bad for others. At least that is the conclusion if we are to judge by the stark matters of life, or death, and prosperity. For the majority of the population, Protestantism tends to raise economic prosperity through better education.


But for people who are in a suicidal state of mind, the individualistic qualities of Protestantism can tip the balance towards ending their lives. In fact, the two aspects might be related in a 'dark-contrasts paradox': unhappy people can be particularly prone to suicidal behaviour when they live in well-off places and compare their fate to the better-off around them. In life and death, religion clearly matters.

To test the prediction that Protestants have a higher propensity to commit suicide than Catholics, we studied data from 19th-century Prussia. We looked to the 19th century for two reasons. First, it is when the French sociologist Émile Durkheim engaged with the question of suicide in one of the classics of social science and, second, because religion was more pervasive at the time. This does not mean that belief was uniform and always aligned with Church doctrines, just that virtually everyone adhered to a religious denomination, and that religion pervaded virtually all aspects of human life. Prussia also has the advantage that neither Protestants nor Catholics were small minorities of the population. They lived together in one state with a common setting of government, institutions, jurisdiction, language and basic culture. In several library archives we found – and digitised – data from the Prussian statistical office. For the years 1869-71, local police departments meticulously administered data on suicide from 452 Prussian counties.

In principle, perhaps the biggest challenge for an empirical identification of the effect of Protestantism on suicide is that people with different characteristics might self-select into religious denominations. For example, are people who are depressed more likely to become Protestants? But the self-selecting factor is less of an issue in 19th-century Prussia. There (as in many other places) individual change of denomination was almost unheard of, and religious affiliation derives from choices of local rulers made several centuries earlier. For the social scientist, Prussia presents another advantage. During the Reformation, Protestantism spread in a roughly concentric fashion around Luther's city of Wittenberg. This pattern can help to link cause and effect between Protestantism and suicide.

As a consequence of this geographic pattern of diffusion, the share of Protestants is higher near Wittenberg. So is the suicide rate. The share of Protestants in a county is clearly positively associated with the suicide rate. The average suicide rate is notably higher in all-Protestant counties than in all-Catholic counties. Numerically, the difference in suicides between religious denominations in Prussia is huge: suicide rates among Protestants (at 18 per 100,000 people per year) are roughly three times higher than among Catholics.

In his classic Le suicide (1897), Durkheim presented aggregate indicators suggesting that Protestantism was a leading correlate of suicide incidence. The proposition that Protestants have higher suicide rates than Catholics has been 'accepted widely enough for nomination as sociology's one law'.

Protestant countries today still tend to have substantially higher suicide rates. This fact suggests that the relation of religion and suicide remains a vital topic. Every year, more than 800,000 people commit suicide worldwide, making it a leading cause of death, in particular among young adults. The prevalence of suicide creates far-reaching emotional, social and economic ramifications, and invokes major policy efforts to prevent them.

Previous social science research on suicide has looked at the matter from an economics perspective. The economists have modelled suicide as a choice between life and death where the utility of staying alive or ending life are weighed against each other. If the utility of staying alive falls below the utility of ending life, suicide is an 'optimal' choice.

Within such a framework, two classes of mechanisms predict higher suicide rates of Protestants than Catholics from a theoretical viewpoint. First, as Durkheim suggested, Protestant and Catholic denominations differ in their group structure. Protestantism is a more individualistic religion. According to this 'sociological channel', when life hits hard, Catholics can rely on a stronger community, which might keep up their life spirit.

We think there is also a 'theological channel'. Protestant doctrine stresses the importance of salvation by God's grace alone, and not by any merit of one's own work. By contrast, Catholic doctrine allows for God's judgment to be affected by one's deeds and sins. As a consequence, committing suicide entails the disutility of forgoing paradise for Catholics but not for Protestants.

Catholics (but not Protestants) also consider the confession of sins a holy sacrament. Since suicide is the only sin that (by definition) can no longer be confessed, this creates a substitution effect that diverts Catholics from committing suicide. It steers them towards other responses to times of utmost desperation.

So which of the two classes of theoretical mechanisms – the sociological or the theological channel – is more likely to account for the higher suicide rate among Protestants? Ultimately, additional analyses that draw on historical church-attendance data and present-day suicide data confirm the sociological rather than the theological mechanism. One key is that the suicidal tendency of Protestants is more pronounced in areas with low church attendance. The strongest effect is thus more likely to be found in areas with little social integration rather than in areas with high devotion to the Protestant doctrine.

Finally, more contemporary data shows that, while Protestants still have a higher suicide rate than Catholics, it is highest among people without a religious affiliation who are not subject to theological doctrine. Both pieces of evidence suggest that the sociological channel to explain Protestants' higher suicide rate is more relevant than the theological channel.Aeon counter – do not remove

Sascha O. Becker & Ludger Woessmann

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

Credit: Benjavisa Ruangvaree / AdobeStock
Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
  • That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
  • We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
Keep reading Show less

Urban foxes self-evolve, exhibiting Darwin’s domestication syndrome

A new study finds surprising evidence of the self-evolution of urban foxes.

A fox at the door of 10 Downing Street on Janurary 13, 2015.

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A study from the University of Glasgow finds urban foxes evolved differently compared to rural foxes.
  • The skulls of the urban foxes are adapted to scavenging for food rather than hunting it.
  • The evolutionary changes correspond to Charles Darwin's "domestication syndrome."

How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.

Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.

Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.

The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.

The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.

"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."

The researchers are not suggesting you should go out and get a fox as a house-pet just yet. But they are seeing the evolutionary process taking place that's moving the urban foxes along the path towards becoming more like dogs and cats, explained the study's co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London on May 14, 2020.

Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP

"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."

The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.

You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

fox sleeping beneath stadium seats

A fox at the LV County Championship, Division two match between Surrey and Derbyshire at The Brit Oval on April 9, 2010 in London, England.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

​'The time is now' for cryptocurrencies, PayPal CEO says

Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?

Technology & Innovation
  • In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
  • Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
  • While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Keep reading Show less

"Clean meat" approved for sale in Singapore

Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.

Credit: Adobe Stock / Big Think
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Singapore has become the first country to approve the sale of a lab-grown meat product.
  • Eat Just, the company behind the product, will have a small-scale commercial launch of its chicken bites.
  • So-called "clean meats" may reduce our reliance on livestock farming, which kills billions of animals worldwide every year.
  • Keep reading Show less
    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast