WASHINGTON — A Michigan State University sociologist reports in The Journal of Health and Social Behavior that religious participation affects suicide rates differently around the world, and in Latin America particularly, high religious involvement is associated with low suicide rates.
In contrast, in East Asia, where residents are reportedly more secular, higher levels of religious involvement are connected to higher suicide rates. A one percent increase in religious participation is associated with a one percent increase in suicide rates in East Asia.
Statistics for the United States generally follow with the statistics for Latin America, although the link between religious participation and low suicide rates is not as pronounced in the United States. The researcher, Ning Hsieh, acknowledged there could be other factors affecting suicide rates. However, she offered a hypothesis about the results, focusing on the different relationships in each region between religion and community.
“In [East Asia], religious participation may aggravate suicide risk because religious practice does not entail social support and moral guidance from a community of co-religionists,” she said in the study. “At the same time, the protective effects of religious participation in English-speaking and Latin American countries are attributable to these countries’ relatively higher levels of religious integration and regulation.”
Respondents were asked about religious attendance, religiosity, the importance of god and religion in their life, confidence in religious institutions and attitude toward suicide.
Hsieh’s study, funded by the National Institute of Health, is based on data from 42 countries in seven regions. The data was compiled by the World Health Organization Mortality Database and the World Values Survey. Around 1,200 people were surveyed in each country. The study is one of the first to investigate the relationship between religion and suicide rates outside of industrialized Western nations.
The study generated some debate among scholars. Harold Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University, offered a different explanation for the surprising association between religious participation and higher suicide rates in East Asia.
“What we find in East Asia is that people have to be much, much more distressed before they turn to religion to help them to cope,” he said, explaining that the data shows an “artificial association” between religious participation and suicide in that region.
On the other hand, Latin Americans have a much lower threshold for religious participation, Koenig added. “Turning to religion is much easier in Latin American countries, so you don’t have to be as distressed,” he said.
Hsieh found that although religion is linked to lower suicide rates in Latin America, eastern Europe, northern Europe, and English-speaking countries, it is associated with higher suicide rates in East Asia, western Europe and southern Europe.
According to the study, evidence that religion protects against suicide is strongest in Latin America, where a one percent increase in religious participation is associated with 3 percent decrease in suicide rates. Latin Americans report the highest confidence in religious institutions and the highest participation in religion, with 56.6 percent reportedly attending services at least once a month.
Hsieh said in an interview that religions in East Asia are not as focused on community as religions in other parts of the world. Unlike Christians, who “go to services together and meet people afterward,” practitioners of Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism in East Asia are more “individualized,” she said.
Candi Cann, assistant professor of religion at Baylor University, agreed with Hsieh’s claim that higher religious participation is linked to higher suicide rates in East Asia because people turn to religion for “individually motivated” reasons. “In your Shinto shrine, you’re praying for better test scores or protection from evil spirits,” she said.
Although the study is limited by the small sample size and the fact that it does not account for variables such as family, government and economics, scholars said it has merit.
Despite its shortcomings, the study shows the importance of “civil society, civic engagement, of community,” Cann said.
Volney Gay, professor of psychiatry and religion at Vanderbilt University, said the study offers a rare “global perspective” on suicide. While the study has merit, he said, “East Asia comprises two billion people. It’s very difficult, if not impossible to [say]definitive things about a group that size.”
Scholars and health-care professionals have long contested the effect of religious practice on mental health. In the 19th century, sociologist Emile Durkheim was the first to postulate that religion protects man from suicide because it offers practitioners a strong community.
Hsieh noted in an email that there were some outliers to her findings. While higher religious participation is tied to lower suicide rates in Anglophone countries, people in the United Kingdom are both less religious and less likely to commit suicide. And although religion is associated with lower suicide risk in most Latin American and eastern European countries, that is not the case in Uruguay and Hungary.
Hsieh also found variations between countries even within one region. Religious participation is strongly tied to higher suicide risk in China, she said, but not in Taiwan.
She noted that non-industrialized nations may devote fewer resources to death investigations, potentially leading to suicide underreporting in those regions.