Field of Science

What does the latest research say on religion decreasing the risk of suicide?

And so to this thorny topic again! This time with a batch of new studies - but what light do they shed on this complicated topic?

First up is a straightforward analysis of data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) in the USA (Evan Kleiman and Richard Liu at George Mason University, USA - all the refs are at the foot of this post). This survey asked people about their religious service attendance, and then followed them for up to 20 years, to see what became of them.

As you can see in the graphic, frequent attenders were significantly less likely to commit suicide. (You have to be a bit careful with that graph. It looks like most people committed suicide, until you look at the scale on the left hand side and realise that it's only 0.08% even of the non-religious!)

Why might this be? Well, research by Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener across multiple nations found that places where people have a greater sense of meaning in life also have lower suicide rates. And they also found that religious people have a greater sense of meaning in life.

But wait. What does it mean to say that you feel that your life has "an important purpose or meaning"? I don't know many atheists who would feel that such a statement even makes sense. So perhaps that's really just a surrogate for a certain kind of religious belief - which doesn't take us very far.

One thing that characterises Western religion is the deep-seated prejudice against suicide. Is this the protective factor?

In Malaysia, a survey of 141 students by Foo et al found that, although religious commitment was not associated with suicidal behaviours, it was linked to rejection of suicide as an action. So more support for this idea (see Suicide, Age and Poison for another perspective).

One last study, this time from the Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk. Vasiliy Usenko and colleagues found that after Orthodox Christian mass events (we're talking here about one-off events, not your regular Christmas, East etc), suicidal behaviour and suicidal attempts dropped among women (men carried on at the same rate as before).

But something very different happened after 'New Religious Movement' events (the charismatic new Christian movements that are springing up in poor countries everywhere). After these, the risk of suicides, attempts, and behaviour actually increased for both men and women.

Now, this is not to dispute that alleviation of sadness and depression, that is sometimes linked to religious involvement, could contribute to reducing the risk of suicide. But clearly it also depends on what your religion says, and whether or not you are part of the mainstream.

Which may well explain why the link between suicide and religion is rather patchy worldwide.
Kleiman, E., & Liu, R. (2013). Prospective prediction of suicide in a nationally representative sample: religious service attendance as a protective factor The British Journal of Psychiatry, 204 (4), 262-266 DOI: 10.1192/bjp.bp.113.128900

Oishi, S., & Diener, E. (2013). Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations Psychological Science, 25 (2), 422-430 DOI: 10.1177/0956797613507286 

Foo, X., Mohd. Alwi, M., Ismail, S., Ibrahim, N., & Jamil Osman, Z. (2012). Religious Commitment, Attitudes Toward Suicide, and Suicidal Behaviors Among College Students of Different Ethnic and Religious Groups in Malaysia Journal of Religion and Health, 53 (3), 731-746 DOI: 10.1007/s10943-012-9667-9

Usenko, V., Svirin, S., Shchekaturov, Y., & Ponarin, E. (2014). Impact of some types of mass gatherings on current suicide risk in an urban population: statistical and negative binominal regression analysis of time series BMC Public Health, 14 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2458-14-308

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Atheism not linked to cognitive decline (but it is linked to intelligence)

In Scotland, they've been following a group of people ever since they were born in 1921 (the Lothian Birth Cohort). Cohorts like this are great to see what factors early in life affect how people turn out as adults - so long as you ask the right questions early on!

One of the test they ran on the Lothian Cohort, when they were just 11, was an intelligence test. They didn't test intelligence again until 2000, when the cohort was 79 (they tested them a few times since, as well). For the purposes of this study, they excluded those who developed dementia - so we are looking at just regular brain ageing here.

They only measured how religious they were at age 79, however. But that still provides an excellent opportunity to measure how childhood intelligence is linked to later life religiosity.

Well, the answer is that there was no correlation between intelligence at age 11 and later religious involvement, well-being (e.g. "I have a meaningful relationship with God"). And there was no correlation between changes in intelligence and any religious factor.

Now that's something of a surprise, given that research in the US has suggested that religiosity is associated with lower cognitive ability but that religious attendance protects against cognitive decline (for example, research covered on this blog back in 2009).

What they did find, similar to other studies, was that there was a negative link between current  intelligence and religious belief. But the effect was even smaller than usually seen in these sorts of studies. And higher education was linked to more religious attendance - again, as seen in other studies.

Perhaps that's because the people in this study were quite old, and so were perhaps more homogenous in their religion. Or it may be that, for people born in the early part of the 20th century, the link between religion and intelligence is weaker.

Or maybe it's the generally lower levels of religion in the UK that explains the differences to previous research.

The truth is that religion in the UK is a complicated fish. As other research has shown, there doesn't seem to be a linear relationship between education (or intelligence) and religion.

Rather, what happens is that intelligent and well educated people tend to have a strong stance - either decidedly religious, or (more often) decidedly atheist.

People with less education are not exactly agnostic. They just don't seem to care!
Ritchie, S., Gow, A., & Deary, I. (2014). Religiosity is negatively associated with later-life intelligence, but not with age-related cognitive decline Intelligence, 46, 9-17 DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2014.04.005

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

When it comes to religions, governmental regulation and social norms affect happiness

If you read the last post you'll know that the relationship between religion and happiness is complicated. When you look around the world, religious people tend to be happier than non-religious people.

However, it's not straightforward. The effect is bigger in some countries than in others. But why? Possibly part of the reason is that religion makes people happier in countries that are more religious, but there seems to be more to it than this.

David Hayward (University of Michigan) and Marta Elliot (University of Nevada) are interested in how governmental regulation of religion affects attitudes towards it. Previously they've shown that the more government regulates religion, the less people are satisfied with it. Perhaps this effect is important here.

So they took data from the World Values Survey and created a model  to predict how happy people are in countries with either few or lots of religious people, and either little or lots of governmental regulation of religion. They found there was quite a strong interaction.

Take, for example, the top graphic. This shows that, as religious service attendance goes up (left to right), so does happiness - except in countries with high levels of religious attendance and strong governmental regulation of religion. In these countries, people who attend a lot of services are actually less happy!

The next graphic down shows basically the same thing, but this time looking at the importance of God in people's lives. For people living in countries where most people are not interested in God, stronger belief doesn't lead to more happiness, and actually leads to less happiness in countries where governments control religion.

Here's what Hayward and Elliot conclude:

It is true that in most instances, religion and well-being are positively associated. However, the strength of the association tends to increase as religion becomes more normative, and overall levels of health and happiness are lower when government regulation is high. The magnitude of these effects varies depending on the facet of religion in question and the type of well-being outcome, but in general it appears that high regulation tends to intensify the contrast between the effects of fitting in with or deviating from the religious norms of the nation.

To summarise, religious people do tend to be happier (and healthier), but this is only really true in countries where there is freedom of religion, and many people are religious.

I'm sure you can think of many countries that are highly religious and where government sticks its nose in religious affairs. But you may be wondering which countries are non religious and also regulated? Well, these are the ex-communist countries, where the new governments tend to use religion as a political tool.

Incidentally, as well as looking at how the lines slope, it's also interesting to look at who is happiest in each of these different circumstances. For example, in countries where most people think god is unimportant, the least religious people are, for the most part at least as happy as the most religious.

So, what do these results mean in context?

Well, previous research using the World Values Survey has shown that religious people are happiest in countries where there are lots of religious people (Eichhorn and Diener).  Also that being religious leads to more social recognition, in turn leading to more happiness - an effect is much stronger in the more religious countries (Stavrova).

It also seems that religious diversity is linked to unhappiness (Okulicz-Kozaryn).

When put together with this study, I would say that the overall pattern emerging is that the link between religion and happiness really seems to be about fitting in. The happiest countries are ones where everyone is highly religious, and it's the same religion, and where the government doesn't feel the need to interfere (presumably because the state and religion are aligned).

In other words, religion does lead to happiness, but the greatest effect is seen in conditions where everybody is of the same religion. A bit like things must've been in our tribal past.

But very rare conditions in the modern world!
Hayward, R.,& Elliott, M. (2013). Cross-National Analysis of the Influence of Cultural Norms and Government Restrictions on the Relationship Between Religion and Well-Being. Review of Religious Research, 56 (1), 23-43 DOI: 10.1007/s13644-013-0135-0

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.