The Politics of Suicide in Post-Christian America
July-August 2018By Amir Azarvan
Amir Azarvan is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and a former member of the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party. His op-eds and research articles have appeared at InsideHigherEd.com, Truthout.org, CrisisMagazine.com, and in the Catholic Social Science Review, among other venues. He is the editor of Re-Introducing Christianity: An Eastern Apologia for a Western Audience (Wipf & Stock).
I recently discovered a depressing statistic. While analyzing data from the World Bank, I learned that the U.S. was among the 10 countries that experienced the largest increase in the number of reported suicides throughout the 2005-2015 period, from 11.7 to 14.3 per 100,000 people. There is no shortage of possible causes to which one could attribute this 22 percent increase. As a political scientist who studies the intersections between faith and politics, I was naturally curious about (a) whether religious decline in the U.S. could be among the plausible explanations, and, if so, (b) what political factors might account for this decline.
According to a report by the Pew Research Center, between 2007 and 2014 the percentage of religiously unaffiliated adults increased by nearly seven points, from 16.1 to 22.8 percent of the population. At this rate, nones will become a majority by 2043, just one generation from now. In an effort to determine whether trends like this carry negative mental-health implications, I compared changes in countries suicide mortality rates between 2005 and 2015 with changes in theistic belief i.e., belief in Gods existence using figures from the third and fourth waves of the World Values Survey (covering the periods of 1999-2004 and 2010-2014, respectively), a cross-national time series investigation of beliefs and values.
As shown in the figure below, there is a direct link between changes in theistic belief and suicide rates. Countries where declining numbers of people believe in a supreme being are significantly more likely to suffer increases in suicide. Disbelief can be deadly is one way to put it.
Click here to view graph
True, this test did not adjust for other variables, and there were no more than 19 countries under observation. In spite of these obvious limitations, however, my findings comport with previous research, particularly an article in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease titled Characteristics of Spirituality and Religion Among Suicide Attempters (Mandhouj et al., Nov. 2016).
And it appears that, based on research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (VanderWeele et al., Aug. 2016), Catholics and, I suppose, all Christians who reject the once saved, always saved heresy are especially less likely to take their lives.
In short, as atheist Staks Rosch admits, atheism has a suicide problem (Huffington Post, Dec. 8, 2017).
The likely political consequences of this trend are known to many. For one thing, it appears safe to say that the pro-life movement is in for an intense battle. But what are its political causes? George Hawley, writing in The American Conservative (June 5, 2017), suggests that the Christian Right merits blame for Americas rapid religious decline. The more that Christianity is associated with this movement, he argues, the more that our increasingly liberal population turns away from religion altogether. Assuming this to be true, however, we must be careful about what sorts of conclusions we draw. Christianity must not be judged by its popularity or relevance. Indeed, as the process of secularization continues to unfold, the emptying pews might, to some degree, be indicative of Christians success in that they have managed to stay true to their faith despite mounting social pressures to adapt.
Nevertheless, if you believe, as I do, that the Christian Right is not always right in its political application of Christian principles, then there is an imperative to support alternative Christian political movements for the sake of slowing or reversing this trend. Under our current two-party system, many voters feel compelled to make difficult trade-offs between Christian values like protecting the unborn, preserving the traditional family, and comforting the poor, the sick, and the elderly. In the most perverse cases, some of these values are even imagined to be antithetical to the faith and are therefore rejected outright because of their close association with other, conspicuously non-Christian, values in a particular partys platform.
It is easy to grasp why so many are uneasy about social welfare when those who have been the most vocal in promoting it appear to be doing everything conceivable to undermine our spiritual welfare. Just as understandably, some may cite cross-national research, like Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaardes paper published in Rationality & Society (Nov. 2004), that links increased social-welfare spending with a drop in religious practice. Others might attribute the decline, instead, to increases in GDP. For example, a paper published in the European Sociological Review (Grotenhuis et al., Oct. 2015) shows that, within certain countries, social-security spending has been positively associated with religiosity.
There is good reason why I have chosen to focus on the example of social welfare when examining our worsening suicide problem. Recent scholarly research suggests that, through enhancing peoples sense of economic security, welfare could be reasonably described as pro-life. For instance, according to a paper in the International Journal of Social Welfare, Higher social expenditure and greater confidence in welfare provision appear to have suicide-preventive effects (Yuryev et al., Jan. 2012).
It seems, therefore, fortunate that groups that are more favorably disposed to social welfare than most Republicans, but who are otherwise more socially conservative than most Democrats, have emerged. These include the American Solidarity Party (ASP) and the new, more overtly faith-based and socially conservative Imago Dei Politics (IDP). Although I am not entirely happy with the current ASP leadership, I would take the partys more communitarian platform, which is inspired in part by Catholic social teaching, over the Democratic or Republican platform any day. If you share this preference, but otherwise believe that a vote for a third-party candidate is a wasted vote, you still have the option of supporting the advocacy work of the IDP, a group that embodies the idea that if you cannot replace the two parties, maybe you can transform them.
Perhaps you will say that any attempt to challenge the political status quo is doomed to fail, and perhaps you are correct. Of course, one could always cite the surprising electoral win of our current President to support the claim that in politics anything is possible. But it seems to me that we will be judged by whether we struggled, not by whether we won the struggle. Stirring his reluctant comrades to battle, Malcolm Wallace expressed a similar thought in the movie Braveheart: We dont have to beat them, just fight them.
If faith is rejected, it should be rejected for what it truly is, not for what it is mischaracterized as being. In promoting alternative, more holistically Christian, political movements, we play a part, however small it may be, in presenting to the world a more pristine form of Christianity, whereby more of us will have the spiritual, and perhaps even material, means by which we can endure lifes various challenges.
DOSSIER: Pro Life Issues & Culture of Death