Self-Destruction of the Imago Dei: Religion as a Protective Against Suicide Attempts

Suicide is a global problem leading to 1.53 million deaths in 2020 (WHO, 2020). Western Christendom, from the sixth through the late 20th century, typically did not bury anyone who committed suicide. (The Roman Catholic Church dropped their ban on funerals from their law code in the 1980s—largely due to a massive cultural shift on perspectives regarding mental illnesses.) Émile Durkheim (often identified as the father of sociology), in his classic Le suicide (1897, published in English in 1952), considered variables including marital status, nationality, education level, and religion to explain variations in suicide rates. Using the logic of multivariate statistical analysis, Durkheim discovered that Protestants (who were generally more highly educated) had a higher rate of suicide than Catholics. Additionally, he discovered that Jews fell outside of this pattern: they had a very low rate of suicide—although they were highly educated. (The explanation provided by Durkheim was that the end state of education differed: the education of Protestants led them to individual consciousness whereas the education of Jewish people was intended to make them more communal and integrated into their Jewish community.) Throughout Le suicide, Durkheim determines various typologies of suicide ranging between high and low integration and high and low regulation: altruistic, egoistic, anomic, and fatalistic suicide. More than a century of research later, scholars have reached various and differing conclusions regarding the extent to which religion acts as a protective factor against suicide (e.g., Stack, 1981; Chon, 2015, 2017; 2008; Koenig, King, & Carson, 2012; Lester, 2000; Stack & Kposowa, 2016; Zhang, Wiec-zorek, Conwell, & Tu, 2011). In 2016, a study was even done on the correlation between church attendance and suicidality—concluding that, “In this cohort of US women, frequent religious service attendance was associated with a significantly lower rate of suicide” (VanderWeele, et al., JAMA Psychiatry Association, 2016). On the other hand, research in China reached different conclusions. China, a highly secularized society where only roughly 10% of the population has a religious affiliation, religion was shown not to protect against suicide and sometimes even shown to be associated with greater risk (Zhang et al., 2011). Although they recognized the importance of religious faith for mental health difficulties, a recent survey of Canadian psychiatrists showed that they did not assign importance to prayer above medication and psychotherapy in the case of suicidality. This paper will strive to explore research demonstrating: 1) Christianity acts as a protective against suicidality, and 2) Christianity not only prevents actualized suicides but it also reduces suicide attempts. Amid these pursuits, this paper will also consider Durkheim and search for any theological basis in the differences in suicide rates between Protestant populations and their Catholic counterparts.

3 thoughts on “Self-Destruction of the Imago Dei: Religion as a Protective Against Suicide Attempts”

  1. Durkheim is interesting — theological claim?
    I rated this a 3 because of the extensive and substantive background. I withheld a higher score because the theological claims undergirding the paper are not clear.

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