Sunday, December 27, 2009

Does religiosity protect against suicide?

The high rate of suicide this time of year got me wondering if religious involvement lowers one's risk, so I looked for a study (Taliaferro, L., Rienzo, B., Pigg, R., Miller, M., & Dodd, V. (2009). Spiritual Well-Being and Suicidal Ideation Among College Students. Journal of American College Health, 58(1), 83-90.).

The above table lists the correlations from a study of 522 college students. I don't know why their measure of religiosity is not included here, but you can see that all three types of well-being--spiritual, religious, and existential--are negatively associated with feeling depressed, hopeless, and suicidal. ("Spiritual well-being" is simply the summed scores of religious and existential well-being.) Religious well-being measures satisfaction with one's relationship with God, while existential well-being concerns satisfaction with life and finding meaning and purpose in it.

This table shows that people who attend church frequently have lower levels of hopelessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide, as well as greater social support.

This table displays the multivariate results. It turns that that when you control for other relevant factors, religious involvement (religiosity) does not lower your risk of having suicidal thoughts. Not surprisingly, feelings of hopelessness and depression are associated with more thoughts of suicide, but even after taking their influence into account, finding meaning and purpose in life (existential well-being) appears to reduce thinking about suicide. Religious well-being, by contrast, exerts no independent influence.

So what seems to be crucial for a person is to find a way to avoid feeling that his life is pointless. Religious people often succeed at this--the correlation between religious well-being and existential well-being is a fairly strong .46--but irreligious people can find it as well.  Nietzsche got this one right: "We may handle any how, if we only have a why."

(Let me add that all these questions about various dimensions of satisfaction are probably tapping, in part, personality traits. It goes without saying that Standard Social Science Models (SSSM) like this one are misspecified).


  1. Anonymous12:30 PM

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  2. Anonymous1:35 PM

    A few denominations teach that suicide is "the ultimate sin" in which you will go to hell for upon your death. Church of God and Pentecostals both espouse this if I remember correctly.

  3. The Undiscovered Jew10:14 AM


    Here is some data you might enjoy going through, Ron:

    Smart People Do Have Babies, But Later in Life

    As you go through the above data and look at the state level and age specific birth rates for non-Hispanic white women in the 2002 CDC pdf, you will note that individual states with positive social indicators do indeed positively correlate with state level fertility after the age of 29.

    For example, high white IQ Colorado has a higher birth rate per 1000 than lower IQ Alabama after the age of 29. And high household income Massachusetts has a higher birth rate per 1000 than lower household income Arkansas after the age of 29. And high housing valuation California has a higher birth rate per 1000 than lower housing valuation Mississippi after the age of 29.


    1) It is true that overall fertility increases as positive social factors decrease. Put simply: Overall, stupid people are actually having more babies.

    2) But if one breaks down the data by age group, this is not true. In fact, after age 29 amongst white women, positive social factors increase as fertility increases. Put simply: After age 29, smart people have more babies. Thus, one concludes modern society merely delays the fertility of smart people, it doesn't nullify it completely.

    3) I have proved this by showing state income, housing valuations, and IQ have a strong positive correlation with state fertility for cohorts older than age 29.

  4. Sister Y would probably object to the "protect against" language.

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