Suicide: Biology, Sociology and Religion

I have formally studied both psychology and biblical studies, which has entailed somewhat the study of religion in general. Over the last several days I’ve seen a considerable amount of discussion of suicide related to both psychology and religion, some of which has been heplful and some not with some of the unhelpful discussion being much worse than others. There’s been so much written that rather than address particular posts that I’ve seen, I’ll just give my perspective concerning psychology and the sociology of religion.

My main point here is: There are currently no explanations of suicide, only to some degree an understanding of the factors that would lead a person to commit suicide.

First, biology. Thomas Szasz to the contrary, I think most behavioral scientists recognize that there is a biological component to mental illness, and thus to depression, and thus to suicide. For one, suicide is a cultural universal. In other words, there are no places in the world (at least to my knowledge) where people do not commit suicide. Cultural universality is often taken as a sign that a particular behavior may have a biological basis. Further, some pharmacological treatments do seem to help with depression. I don’t think this is completely well-understood at the present time, but still another sign that there is probably a biological component to depression.

That said, there are things that biology cannot explain. Biology cannot explain cultural variation; for example, why suicide rates are lower in Canada or India than in the United States. Biology also cannot explain everything in the case of individuals because most people who are diagnosed with depression do not commit suicide. Many limitations of biological explanations of human behavior can be found in works on sociology. On the flip side, sociology has the more difficult time explaining culutural universality, etc.

The take away from the last two paragraphs is: there are both biological and social factors related to depression and suicide, so neither can offer a complete explanation.

Second, religion. Contrary to much of the ignorance circulating on the internet right now, there has been actual research done related to religious affiliation and suicide. What does some of this data show? Those who hold no religious affiliation are most likely to commit suicide, followed by buddhists, followed by Christians, followed by Hindus and with Muslims coming in with the lowest suicide rate. First and foremost, I should note that these are statistical correlations not causations and cannot take into account matters such as individual religiosity. So, I will only address Christians because that is the group to which I belong and from which I have seen the greatest amount of ignorance. If suicide is related to a deficiency in a person’s faith, would you also argue that Christian should convert to Islam because they have the lowest suicide rate?

Further, if it is strictly a faith issue, it is difficult to explain why more secular societies than the United States may have lower suicide rates. It is also difficult to explain why pharmacological treatments sometimes work.

The take away here is this: there may be some relationship between religious affiliation and suicide, but it may just be a correlation and religious factors couldn’t possibly offer a complete explanation anyway based on what we know about biology and sociology.

In light of the complexity of the issues of depression and suicide, we should all speak with large dose of humility and not pretend as though we have the explanation. ¬†Rather, we can only talk about and do what we can about factors. ¬†When we talk about suicide we’re talking not only about a celebrity, but also about the loved ones that many of those around us have lost. Rather, now is a time in the words St. Paul to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).

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