A couple of weeks ago, Microkhan delved into the apparent link between literacy and suicide—the more literate a nation’s population, it appears, the likelier it is to have a high suicide rate. This theory might explain in part why so many post-Soviet nations have serious suicide problems—their citizens are well-educated, but also struggling economically (at least compared to the West).
A commenter on the post, however, had a different take, which merits addressing:
How about the legacy of the eradication of the church from these areas? This would seem a far more likely connection.
Fair point. The Soviet Union was notoriously hostile to organized religion—opium of the masses and all that. Also, it’s been pretty well-documented that frequent worshippers are less likely to off themselves than their non-churchgoing pals. (The classic study on this topic looked at Mormons of varying commitment levels in Utah.) Does that axiom apply to entire nations, rather than just individuals?
This 2008 Gallup poll, albeit flawed, suggests that it does. A lot of post-Soviet nations show up at the bottom of the table, with low religiosity and high suicide rates. And devout nations such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Mauritania rank near the top, despite their relative poverty (commonly thought to be a prime cause of self-slaughter).
Yet there are also two notable outliers: The U.K. and The Netherlands. Both are decidedly secular, and both have suicide rates far below the global average. One also can’t help but notice that warm-weather countries crowd the top of the table, while chilly locales cluster near the bottom. So perhaps Seasonal Affective Disorder (and its sinister cousin, alcoholism) play a bigger role in suicidal ideation than most folks realize. (Fodder for another Microkhan post, for sure.)
As is so often the case in debates over the merits of religion, your conclusion will vary according to your faith (or lack thereof). Microkhan’s quick (and geeky) take is that there’s likely an evolutionary reason for organized religion’s development, and that its ability to sustain some folks through the otherwise unbearable is nothing to sneeze at. At the same time, suicide rates seem linked to cultural norms that are independent of religion—look at a country like Japan, where suicide has a long and ignoble history. And my hunch is that the U.K.’s low rate is somehow correlated to the whole “stiff upper lip” ethos, which also sustained the Empire’s hearty foot soldiers through malaria, scurvy, and spotted dick.
The surefire way to settle this debate would be to look at, say, Latvian suicide rates before and after the nation’s acquisition by the Soviet Union. But the odds of such statistics existing are somewhere between slim and none; in bygone days, who had time to compile accurate morbidity stats when there was grain to harvest?
The bottom line is that, yes, if many folks in a country fear the hot fires of Hades should they take razor to wrist, that country’s suicide rate will probably be a tick lower than the norm. But if Belarus et. al. want to cut down their suicide rates, encouraging religious devotion probably isn’t the most efficient way to go; they’re better off doing what they can to prevent the average hard-working citizen from living in squalor.