Religious belief, atheism, and suicide
I recently authored a term paper concerning religious belief, atheism, and suicide for my Human Development graduate-level class and now present it here, adapted for a Skeptic Ink Network piece – another venture in sharing my schoolwork with my audience. I have been interested in what data suggests pertaining to religious belief or lack thereof and suicide, so I elected to explore the topic for a research paper.
I could have expanded the discussion and future study/conclusion sections, but instead kept the paper short and failed to go overboard with my analysis and skepticism. It’s long enough – especially for a piece on my website! Feel free, as always, to comment below and share your thoughts — and research you might be aware of — pertaining to religious belief, atheism, and suicide. If you happen to be a researcher interested in exploring this topic — or someone who is already exploring the topic — I would especially be interested in hearing from you. What do you, as a religious person or an atheist/agnostic, believe about suicide?
Research investigating beliefs of atheists and agnostics with respect to approval of suicide and instances of attempted or completed suicide is largely lacking within psychology literature. While researchers suggest higher levels of religiosity are associated with lower acceptability and attempts of suicide, atheists and agnostics are left out of the discussion and – in some cases – assumed, because of their low levels of religiosity, to have higher rates of suicide. Research investigating the link between belief in the afterlife and suicide, beliefs pertaining to acceptability of euthanasia, suicide rates within particular geographical areas, and religiosity in comparison with approval of suicide may provide some insight to beliefs of atheists and agnostics with respect to suicide.
Holden (1993) investigated the beliefs of members belonging to groups opposing and advocating for euthanasia in Southern California. A random sample of 1000 members belonging to both pro-euthanasia and anti-euthanasia groups received anonymous questionnaires including cover letters and postpaid return envelopes via postal mail. Questionnaires asked respondents to identify – among other items – religious affiliation, beliefs pertaining to the afterlife, and views concerning euthanasia. Respondents were also permitted to elaborate on their responses by identifying major factors influencing their beliefs.
Members of the pro-euthanasia group were less likely than members of the anti-euthanasia group to believe an afterlife exists. Of 161 members belonging to the anti-euthanasia group, only 4 lacked belief in an afterlife. Christian religious training and belief were highly associated with anti-euthanasia attitudes; those opposing euthanasia indicated they had religious training within their questionnaires and included comments such as ‘only God can give and take life’ and ‘thou shall not kill.’ Religious training was highly associated with belief in the afterlife while survey respondents who lacked belief in an afterlife indicated that a lack of evidence was responsible.
The largest religious demographic represented by survey respondents who oppose euthanasia was Catholicism while the largest demographic of euthanasia supporters identified as either atheistic or agnostic. Catholics professed belief in an afterlife while atheists and agnostics did not. Considerable support for the hypothesis that afterlife belief is the foundation upon which people structure their beliefs pertaining to fundamental issues of life and death such as euthanasia, Holden explains, was found through his analysis.
Lizardi & Gearing (2010) investigated the influence of religious belief pertaining to suicide and suicidality by conducting an analysis of journal articles addressing – in addition to other domains – the relationship between atheism, agnosticism, Buddhism and suicide. The researchers also analyzed degree of religiosity in relation to suicidal behavior and beliefs concerning suicide noting that greater levels of religiosity is associated with a decreased risk of suicidal behavior.
Researchers note that data regarding the incidence of suicide and suicidal behavior among Buddhists is lacking although they note that Buddhism is a significant religion in Asian and Pacific Islander regions. Amongst Asians and Pacific Islanders, the suicide rate is 5.4 per 100,000 according to a 2007 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The authors note that within Mahayanan and Theravedan traditions of Buddhism, life and death is believed to be a cycle which only ceases when an individual escapes pain and suffering by reaching Nirvana – a state characterized by cessation of desire and suffering in addition to epitomizing of bliss and peace. Buddhist teachings also instruct that ending one’s life through suicide rather than by meditation and gaining control over the mind, want, and desire leads to more suffering rather than relief from suffering. The principle of nonviolence – not killing or harming living beings – is also an important Buddhist teaching which includes nonviolence toward oneself.
Similar to data concerning suicide and suicidal behavior among Buddhists, data pertaining to suicide and suicidal behavior among atheists and agnostics is lacking. Atheists and agnostics, though, according to available literature, overwhelmingly support physician-supported suicide and euthanasia.
Stack & Kposowa (2011) examined data from the World Values and European Values surveys — the largest set of national representative samples pertaining to the attitudes, beliefs, and values of adults — for the year 2000 in relation to religiosity, religious affiliation, and engagement with a religious network in relation to suicide acceptability – gauged by the question “Please tell me whether or not you think that suicide can always be justified, never be justified, or somewhere in between.” Respondents ranked their degree of suicide acceptability from a range of 1 (low approval of suicide) to 10 (high approval of suicide).
Researchers explore whether individuals who live in nations with high levels of religiosity are less approving of suicide than individuals in nations with low levels of religiosity, whether persons affiliated with religious traditions are less accepting of suicide than persons unaffiliated with religious traditions, whether greater adherence to religious beliefs is associated with low levels of suicide acceptability, and whether religious individuals who report high levels of interaction with co-religionists have lower levels of suicide acceptability.
In order to gauge religiosity of respondents to the World Values and European Values surveys, Stack & Kposowa took data from the questions “Apart from weddings, funerals, and christenings, how often do you attend religious services these days,” “How often do you spend time with people from your church, mosque, or synagogue,” and “Do you find comfort and strength from religion or not.” Individuals who frequently attend religious services, spend time with co-religionists, and find comfort and strength from their religion were more inclined to disapprove of suicide.
Persons who live in countries with high levels of religiosity were shown to have a lower level of suicide acceptability than those who live in countries with low levels of religiosity. Mere religious belief, absent engagement with co-religionists and attending religious services, was not shown to be statistically significant in respect to suicide acceptability; individuals who hold religious beliefs yet do not engage with co-religionists and attend religious services are not as likely to disapprove of suicide when compared to those who regularly attend services and interact with co-religionists; the data is mixed. Other data from the World Values and European Values surveys suggests that adherence to key religious beliefs, including belief in an afterlife, is an important predictor of suicide acceptability.
Common themes in the literature include a link between religiosity and disapproval of suicide and lower rates of suicidal behavior. Providing operational definitions of religiosity, though, is important because — as some of the literature shows — religious belief absent from engagements with co-religionists and attendance of religious services is not shown to be a measure by which lower levels of suicidal behavior and suicide acceptability can be inferred.
Exploring a link between views of atheists and agnostics with respect to suicide is extremely difficult because of gaps in the literature, unclear distinctions, and methodological barriers. Few articles directly deeply investigate the beliefs of not only individuals who consider themselves non-denominational or non-religious, but those who lack a belief in any gods. In the United States, since individuals identifying as atheists or agnostics compose a low percentage of the general population researchers face difficulty in gathering a representative atheistic and agnostic sample size from a random selection of the general population.
It would be most helpful for surveys not only to ask respondents to identify with labels, but also to ask questions about the beliefs of respondents pertaining to the afterlife, religion, the nature of the world (whether a supernatural realm exists), etc. Clearly identifying atheists and agnostics would be a helpful start for researchers so that data is not misinterpreted.
Individuals identifying as religious do not necessarily attend religious services, believe in an afterlife, or subscribe to mainstream denominational views. Some may identify as religious merely because they were initiated, in childhood, within a religious tradition although they, as adults, do not subscribe to specific (or even any) religious teachings. Stack & Kposowa, in their research, were able to draw distinctions between individuals identifying as religious and, because of this, noted that mere religious belief is not necessarily an indicator of suicide disapproval.
Literature investigating the beliefs of atheists and agnostics pertaining to euthanasia may provide for a helpful start when investigating beliefs on suicide, but euthanasia is not the only form of suicide and – to some who either oppose or support euthanasia – may not be considered suicide on some accounts. Conclusions about belief pertaining to all forms of suicide may not accurately be inferred from beliefs about euthanasia. Researchers should provide different examples of suicide because individuals may vary in their level of suicide acceptability depending on particular circumstances surrounding suicide.
Investigation of Buddhism may be problematic when attempting to derive beliefs about religious individuals or non-religious individuals because Buddhism – although Mahayanan and Theravedan traditions are popular – contains various different traditions in which afterlife belief is absent. Buddhists, lacking belief in any god or gods, may also be considered atheists. Lizardi & Gearing – drawing conclusions about Buddhists from surveys of suicide rates in countries where Buddhism is greatly represented – may not present an accurate picture of Buddhist beliefs because their data is not directly taken from beliefs of individuals identifying as Buddhists.
Conslusions and future study
Future research ought to present specific items — gauging beliefs pertaining to diverse perspectives concerning religious beliefs and practices — to survey respondents so that there is less confusion concerning the link between religiosity, religious beliefs, and suicide. Rather than asking people to identify with labels which may be confusing and fail to indicate levels of commitment to religious beliefs or practices, questions gauging individual beliefs may help researchers obtain a clearer idea of what individuals believe.
Literature shows that levels of social interaction, through attending religious services and interacting with co-religionists, are linked with low levels of suicide acceptability. Might atheists and agnostics who attend events with fellow atheists and agnostics, like religious individuals, be less likely to approve of suicide? Research does not investigate this question which would be a helpful item by which religious and atheistic or agnostic individuals can be compared. If it is the case that high levels of social interaction are linked with individuals, whether they hold religious beliefs or not, religious belief would seem to — in some cases — be incidental to beliefs about suicide.
Researchers can also investigate not only suicide acceptability amongst religious and atheistic individuals, but also suicide attempts and completions. If atheists and agnostics are as likely or less likely than believers in an afterlife to commit or attempt suicide, it may be the case that atheists and agnostics, like religious believers, have philosophical beliefs which deter suicide. Although religiosity may be linked to lower levels of suicide attempts and completions, lack of religious belief replaced with incidence of naturalistic philosophical beliefs, may similarly be associated with low levels of suicide attempts and completions. Atheists and agnostics, for instance, lacking belief in an afterlife, may be less likely to approve of or commit suicide because they cherish the only life they believe exists.
Clearly, there is much research which can be performed to better understand perspectives of atheists and agnostics pertaining to suicide. While higher levels of religiosity may be positively correlated with lower approval of suicide and suicidal behaviors, it is not necessarily the case that atheists and agnostics are more likely to attempt suicide or approve of all forms of suicide because atheists and agnostics – similar to religious individuals – may engage with those who share similar beliefs about the nature of the universe and religion.
National organizations such as the Secular Coalition for America, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Secular Student Alliance, American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the Center for Inquiry, and many other groups which appeal to atheists and agnostics can be investigated by researchers who wish to explore the beliefs of atheists and agnostics pertaining to suicide. While it may be difficult to find large samples of atheists and agnostics in the general population, the previously mentioned national organizations can provide researchers with a large number of atheists and agnostics who may respond to surveys concerning beliefs about suicide.
Holden, J. J. (1993). Demographics, Attitudes, and Afterlife Beliefs of Right-To-Life and Right-To-Die Organization Members. Journal Of Social Psychology, 133(4), 521-527.
Lizardi, D. D., & Gearing, R. R. (2010). Religion and Suicide: Buddhism, Native American and African Religions, Atheism, and Agnosticism. Journal Of Religion & Health, 49(3), 377-384. doi:10.1007/s10943-009-9248-8
Stack, S., & Kposowa, A. J. (2011). Religion and Suicide Acceptability: A Cross-National Analysis. Journal For The Scientific Study Of Religion, 50(2), 289-306. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01568.x