Economics helps explain why suicide is more common among Protestants

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.

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The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.