Atheists at greater risk for suicide

I don’t know whether there is evidence of atheists being at greater risk for suicide in the population at large, but this article suggests that there is such evidence in the military. One possible reason for increased risk, if it exists, is obvious: if life is painful and death is nothingness, death may seem preferable. Religious people might be dissuaded from suicide not just out of fear of hell, but out of a general belief that the universe is basically good and things will be better in this life and in an afterlife, and that belief can sometimes sustain a person through terrible trials.

Thinking about this issue strengthens my conviction that there need to be religions or things like religions that atheists can use to get (if I am right about this) that same sense that the universe is basically good. This doesn’t need to be based on some unsupportable belief that the universe cares about human happiness in one way or another. For me, I am able to maintain my sense that life is good and getting better by doing things that I have learned will support that sense. I don’t mean to suggest that other atheists should do what I do, but we all need ways to maintain our hope and happiness in the face of the suffering that life will inevitably throw in our path.

Writing posted in Blog.

5 thoughts on “Atheists at greater risk for suicide

  1. Delany

    I don’t disagree about the potential psychological/emotional benefits to participation in social groupings that specifically welcome and cater to the interests of atheists, but the whole idea that an absence of religious beliefs is a risk factor for suicide is bogus. Studies that come up with a correlation between suicidal thinking/behavior and lack of religious belief are actually picking up on a couple of factors that, for some people, are correlated with (a) depression/suicide, and (b) lack of religious beliefs, and they are as follows. First, anhedonia, or loss of interest in activities previously found pleasurable, and, second, lack of social support — both of which are correlated with depression but have no intrinsic connection with beliefs about religion.

    1. Post author

      As I said, I don’t know what evidence is out there. I haven’t read it and I haven’t read criticism of it. If you can point me to any specific studies or informed critical papers on the relationship between atheism and suicide, I’d be interested to see them. I certainly agree with you that atheism does not in itself cause suicide; but if there is a strong association, I suspect the atheism is, to some degree implicated. You offer lack of social support as an unrelated cause, but it’s not unrelated. Atheists are obviously at greater risk for lacking the social support offered by religions. So, if lack of social support is a cause, atheism is also a cause. But the cure for that cause would not necessarily be removing the atheism, but, as I’ve suggested, providing the kinds of social support religions offer in a way that is compatible with atheism.

      1. Delany

        Let me reply first to one part of your answer (“You offer lack of social support as an unrelated cause, but it’s not unrelated. Atheists are obviously at greater risk for lacking the social support offered by religions. So, if lack of social support is a cause, atheism is also a cause.”): Don’t forget that correlation does not equal causation. Atheism may be correlated with a relative lack of social support in some parts of the USA, but that does not mean that lack of religious belief *causes* lower social support; many atheists have lives that are filled with excellent sources of substantial social support. It’s easy to get social support by going to church, but there are plenty of other ways, especially in communities in which religious beliefs are not widespread (just look at western Europe and Great Britain or, for that matter, New York City).

        As to risk factors for suicide, the literature is extensive and it’s easy to find full-text research articles online. Religious beliefs do not play a role. Here’s a quick summary from the CDC:

  2. Post author

    Thanks for the reference. I’m not saying that atheists don’t have social support, just that they don’t tend to get the social support offered by religions, and since that may be a major source of social support for religious people, the lack of it may be significant.

    And, the CDC and other public health experts may not consider atheism a risk factor, but the military seems to. The military is extremely concerned with suicide — it may be their biggest problem. So, while I’m not going to necessarily trust them on this or any other issue, especially concerning religion, I’m not willing to completely discount them in this case either.

  3. Ron Crossland

    I am reflecting on your suicide post just after reading your review of Waking Up by Harris.

    Two thoughts. If enlightenment is the losing the illusion of self, how can I trust someone else? Several times in your Harris review you (and supposedly Harris) suggest finding a trustworthy guru. How can two selfless individuals trust each other? If self is lost, what is the basis for the trusting relationship? Indeed, in a moment of enlightenment, when filled with boundless love, it seems boundless trust also ensues, which means there’s no discrimination between the trustworthy and the untrustworthy.

    I connect this thought with suicide. Could a selfless person (one who has achieved some temporary state of enlightenment) reasonably let go or desire to let go of the physical existence? In a different sense, at what point could any reasonable, cogent person find that passing from this life has greater service than continuing this life? I believe there are many answers to this, even if relief from temporary or chronic depression (obsessive contemplation of the pain of self) is not the best example.

    The neurological experience of enlightenment might actually occur for many “near death” individuals who literally run some mental scenario of maintaining this state (moving towards the light) or returning. Of course, this is just hypothesis, but accounts of boundless love in near death read very similarly to the narratives of achieving this mental state through drugs or meditation.


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