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Religion matters, in life and death

Does religion affect suicide? This column presents new evidence from 19th century Prussia showing that suicide rates are much higher in Protestant than in Catholic areas, and that this reflects a causal effect of Protestantism. It also suggests that economic modelling can help understand why this is so.

As early as 1897, French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1897) in his classic Le suicide presented aggregate indicators suggesting that Protestantism was a leading correlate of suicide incidence. The proposition that Protestants have higher suicide rates than Catholics has been “accepted widely enough for nomination as sociology’s one law” (Pope and Danigelis 1981).

And even today, Protestant countries tend to have substantially higher suicide rates, suggesting that the relation of religion and suicide remains a vital topic – not least because about one million people commit suicide worldwide every year, making suicide a leading cause of death in particular among young adults (World Health Organisation 2008). Clearly, the large prevalence of suicide creates far-reaching emotional, social, and economic ramifications and invokes major policy efforts to prevent them.

Modelling suicide from an economics perspective

Previous work has looked at suicide from an economics perspective (see Hamermesh and Soss 1974, Becker and Posner 2004). Suicide can be modelled as a choice between life and death where the utility of staying alive or ending life are weighed against each other. If the utility of staying alive falls below the utility of ending life, suicide is an ‘optimal’ choice.

In our recent work (Becker and Woessmann 2011), we show that within such a framework, three mechanisms predict higher suicide rates of Protestants than Catholics from a theoretical viewpoint. First, as already suggested by Durkheim, Protestant and Catholic denominations differ in their group structure, with Protestantism being a more individualistic religion. When life hits hard, a Catholic can rely on a stronger community, which might keep up his or her life spirit.

We argue that, besides Durkheim’s sociological argument, there are also differences in theological doctrine between Protestants and Catholics that work in the same direction. Thus, second, Protestantism stresses the importance of salvation by God’s grace alone and not by any merit of man’s own work, whereas Catholicism allows for God’s judgement to be affected by man’s deeds and sins. As a consequence, committing suicide entails the disutility of forgoing paradise for Catholics but not for Protestants.

Third, Catholics (but not Protestants) consider the confession of sins a holy sacrament. Since suicide is the only sin that (by definition) can no longer be confessed, this additionally creates a substitution effect that diverts Catholics from committing suicide towards other forms of behaviour considered in times of utmost desperation.

In sum, within the framework of a ‘rational’ theory of suicide, we show that the effect on suicide of the integration of the religious community, of views about the impact of man on God’s grace, and of the impossibility of confessing the sin of suicide all give rise to a higher propensity to commit suicide among Protestants than among Catholics.

New evidence from 19th century Prussia

To test this prediction empirically, we turn to data from Prussia in the 19th century. We look at the 19th century because this reflects the time period of Durkheim’s work and because religion was more pervasive at the time – in the sense that virtually everyone adhered to a religious denomination and that religion pervaded virtually all aspects of human life. We look at Prussia because both Protestants and Catholics were non-minorities, living together in one state with a common setting of political governance, institutions, jurisdiction, language, and basic culture.

In the archives, we found – and digitised – data from the Prussian statistical office for the years 1869–71, meticulously administered by local police departments, that are available at the level of the 452 Prussian counties and contain information on suicides. Census data from 1871 contain information about religion and about relevant explanatory variables such as literacy and economic development.

A fundamental challenge for an empirical identification of the effect of Protestant denomination on suicide is that people with different characteristics may self-select into religious denominations. This may be less of an issue in our chosen setting, though, where individual changes of denomination hardly existed and where regional denominational variation derives from choices of local rulers made several centuries earlier. To further ensure that we are correctly linking cause and effect, we exploit the fact that, during Reformation times, Protestantism spread in a roughly concentric fashion around Luther’s city of Wittenberg. Distance to Wittenberg acts as an instrumental variable that helps to identify the direction of causality.

As a consequence of this geographic pattern of diffusion, the share of Protestants is higher near Wittenberg – as is the suicide rate (see Figure 1). As shown in Figure 2, the share of Protestants in a county is clearly positively associated with the suicide rate, and the average suicide rate is notably higher in all-Protestant counties than in all-Catholic counties. Numerically, the difference in suicides between religious denominations in Prussia is huge: Suicide rates among Protestants (at 18 per 100,000 people per year) are roughly three times higher than among Catholics.

Figure 1. Suicides in Prussia

Average annual suicides per 100,000 inhabitants in a county, 1869–71

Source: Becker and Woessmann (2011).

Figure 2. Protestantism and suicide in Prussia

Share of Protestants in a county in 1871 and suicide rate in the county in 1869–71

Source: Becker and Woessmann (2011).

These results are robust to accounting for differences in economic development, literacy, weather conditions, the share of people with mental health issues, and other determinants. They also do not seem to suffer from under-reporting bias, effects of religious concentration, and ‘ecological composition’ effects, and they are visible in additional unique data as early as 1816.

The diverse effect of Protestantism on overall wellbeing

The new results suggest that Protestantism may be good for some people and bad for others. As we have shown in Becker and Woessmann (2009), for the majority of the population it raises economic prosperity through higher human capital. But for the select group of highly unhappy people, it may tip the balance towards ending their lives. In fact, the two aspects may be related in a “dark-contrasts paradox” where suicide behaviour is subject to a relative comparison of utility (Daly et al 2011). In any case, religion clearly matters, in life and death.


Becker, Gary S, and Richard A Posner (2004), "Suicide: An economic approach", Mimeo, University of Chicago.

Becker, Sascha O, and Ludger Woessmann (2009), "Was Weber wrong? A human capital theory of Protestant economic history", Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124(2):531-596.

Becker, Sascha O, and Ludger Woessmann (2011), “Knocking on Heaven’s Door? Protestantism and Suicide”, CEPR Discussion Paper 8448, Centre for Economic Policy Research.

Daly, Mary C, Andrew J Oswald, Daniel J Wilson, and Stephen Wu (2011), "Dark contrasts: The paradox of high rates of suicide in happy places", Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 80(3):435-442.

Durkheim, Émile (1897), Le suicide: étude de sociologie, Félix Alcan (Suicide: A study in sociology), translated by John A Spaulding, George Simpson. Glencoe, The Free Press, 1951.

Hamermesh, Daniel S, and Neal M Soss (1974), "An economic theory of suicide", Journal of Political Economy, 82(1):83-98.

Pope, Whitney, and Nick Danigelis (1981), "Sociology's "one law", Social Forces, 60(2):495-516.

World Health Organization (2008), Preventing suicide: A resource for media pDaly, Mary C, Andrew J Oswald, Daniel J Wilson, and Stephen Wu (2011), "Dark contrasts: The paradox of high rates of suicide in happy places", Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 80(3):435-442.rofessionals, World Health Organization and International Association for Suicide Prevention.