Study of the Day: Protestants May Be More Suicidal Than Catholics

Protestants were three times more likely to commit suicide than Catholics in 19th-century Prussia, and this trend appears to still hold.

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PROBLEM: How does religion factor into a person's decision to take his or her own life?

METHODOLOGY: University of Warwick professor Sascha Becker and his co-author, Ludger Woessmann from the University of Munich, analyzed and compared suicide data on 19th-century Prussia and 21st century figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. They chose Prussia since both Protestants and Catholics co-existed as non-minorities in that state and religion pervaded virtually all aspects of their lives at that time.

RESULTS: Suicide rates among Protestants in Prussia two centuries ago were roughly three times as high as among Catholics. This trend appears to hold true today, as countries that are majority Protestant tend to have substantially higher suicide rates than those that are majority Catholic.

CONCLUSION: Suicide rates are much higher in Protestant areas than in Catholic areas.

IMPLICATION: Religious doctrines influence the likelihood that a believer commits suicide. Becker said Catholics may be deterred from this act by of the impossibility of confessing the sin and the consequence of not being able to enter heaven. Plus, Protestantism is more individualistic than Catholicism. "When life hits hard," he explained, "a Catholic can rely on a stronger community which might help him to cope."

SOURCE: The full study, "Knocking on Heaven's Door? Protestantism and Suicide" (PDF), is part of The Warwick Economics Research Paper Series.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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