Sunday, January 15, 2012

Religion matters, in life and death

by Sascha O. Becker and Ludger Woessmann


January 15, 2012

Does religion affect suicide? This column presents new evidence from 19th century Prussia showing that suicide rates are much higher in Protestant than in Catholic areas, and that this reflects a causal effect of Protestantism. It also suggests that economic modelling can help understand why this is so.

As early as 1897, French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1897) in his classic Le suicide 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” (Pope and Danigelis 1981).

And even today, Protestant countries tend to have substantially higher suicide rates, suggesting that the relation of religion and suicide remains a vital topic – not least because about one million people commit suicide worldwide every year, making suicide a leading cause of death in particular among young adults (World Health Organisation 2008). Clearly, the large prevalence of suicide creates far-reaching emotional, social, and economic ramifications and invokes major policy efforts to prevent them.


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