Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/December 1881/Catholicism, Protestantism, and Suicide



THE influences of religion are, together with the influence of race, the strongest motive powers which act on the will of man. The discussion as to whether the growth of suicide is to be accounted for by the decrease of religious sentiment scarcely finds place in a work like this. It is a thesis generally put forward by moralists whose opinion approaches our own on this subject. On the other hand, the theme of the special influence of the various faiths, which statisticians have sought to dispute, presents itself to us, two kinds of proof being deduced therefrom. The first is furnished by the indication of the form of worship to which suicides belong; but, unfortunately, this is represented in very few statistics of Central Europe, and is not always adapted to each case in particular. The second is the approximate relation between the number of violent deaths and the predominant form of worship in given countries; and here the most fertile in results are the statistics of the states having inhabitants of various forms of worship, as Prussia, Germany, Austria, Holland, and Switzerland. The countries of the south, Italy, Spain, and France, have so small a number of non-Catholics that little or no comparative result could be obtained from it. We notice again that, in the comparisons based on the religion of suicides, Judaism figures, in which the influence of religious bonds is complicated with that of race. This is perhaps the only religion bound up in the fate of a single people, whether on account of the exclusiveness of the Mosaic laws, or cause no other race is so jealous of its own purity, its own customs, and especially of the faith of its fathers, as the Jewish. In every country where the chosen people has been spread, it has always preserved the moral Semitic character, while it has sometimes modified its physical characteristics, as when becoming fair where formerly dark-skinned; the religion of the God of Abraham is the only bond which now unites its scattered members. This strong influence of race obliges one to proceed cautiously in attributing to the Mosaic religion the little tendency of Jews toward suicide. In the most ancient history of Palestine not more than ten suicides are mentioned, and their greatest number belongs to a less pure Jewish period, when, through the Babylonish captivity and through the false prophets, they lost all trace of the ancient law. Already, among the last Jews who had to struggle against the invading Roman power, suicide had become more frequent Josephus); but, while dispersing themselves among other nations over the face of the earth, the descendants of Abraham have always shown and still show among their moral characteristics an habitual resistance to suicide, although the same can not be said with regard to madness.

The influence of other religions may be studied without being perplexed with the question of race. It is true that the people called Latins have remained faithful to Catholicism, while the reform of religious thought was the exclusive work of the Anglo-Germans; but it is likewise true that, in countries of mixed religions, statistics have always shown the hurtful or beneficial effect of each. At first sight it is indeed perceived that the purely Catholic nations, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, stand on the last step of the scale of suicide, while those exclusively or mostly Protestant take the first grade; it suffices to cite Saxony, Denmark, Scandinavia, and Prussia. In countries of mixed religions, then, the inclination toward suicide diminishes in direct ratio to the predominance of Catholicism. Looking at the aggregate of statistics collected by us for the most recent years, it is inferred that the frequency of suicide is, in states of Catholic religion, on an average of 58 per million; in Protestant states, 190; in the United or non-united Greek, 40; where there is a mixture of Catholic, Protestant, and other sects, 96 per million. Countries of the Greek religion, then, give the smallest proportion; but here comes in the great influence of Slavism, which would be sufficient to neutralize all others, as we already found was the case with regard to climate and anthropological characteristics. With our results, those of Wagner, Oettingen, and Legoyt agree; this latter author having calculated, on the statistical documents of Bavaria, Prussia, Würtemberg, and Austria, that the tendency to suicide is, among Protestants, 102·7 per million individuals; among Catholics, 62·3; among other Christians (Greeks, United and the Orthodox) 36·2; and lastly, among the Jews, 48·4 per million.

But much more correct than this comprehensive comparison is that between the proselytes of different religions in the same country, because then the political and social conditions do not vary, and the due homogeneity of comparative data remains the same. Statistics, however, are liable to another error; in most cases the religion of the suicide is not registered, and the column of the unknown always predominates over the others. It is sufficient to cite the Prussian statistics of the two years 1871-'72, in which, out of 5,673 registered suicides, quite 3,703 (65 per cent.) can give no answer to the question of the religion professed by the suicides. Nevertheless, we have been able to ascertain the frequency of suicide among individuals of different religions in thirty-seven countries, as our tables show.

In these thirty-seven comparisons of different countries and periods, hardly four show the Catholics superior in numbers of suicides to Protestants, Jews, and Greeks (Galicia, Buckowina, Military Frontiers, and Transylvania), and one only, also with doubts as to its being an error, gives the higher number to the Jews (? Lower Austria); but in the remainder the larger proportions are always offered by the Protestant religion, whether Lutheran or Reformed. The most frequent order in which the various religions follow each other is this: Protestants, Catholics, and Jews; and next in order of frequency come Protestants, Jews, and Catholics. Looking next at the position held by the Oriental Christians, it will be found that once only, and then it was among the Greek Catholics or Uniates, they gave the largest proportion to suicide (Military Frontiers); as a rule, their proportion is always lower than that of the Protestants, often also than that of the Catholics of the West. The inferiority in numbers of the Greeks is most apparent in Transylvania, where the Catholics occupy the first place, followed by the Uniates, then by the Lutherans and Calvinists, and lastly, at a long interval, by the United or non-united Greeks. The peculiar position occupied by Jews in relation to Catholics deserves attentive investigation. Jews are in general more subject to mental alienation than either Catholics or Protestants. In Bavaria, for instance, we find one insane in every 908 Catholic inhabitants, in every 967 Protestants, and every 514 Jews. In Hanover the reports give respectively one in 527 Catholics, in 641 Protestants, and in every 337 Jews. In Würtemberg one in every 2,006 Catholics, in 2,022 Protestants, and in 1,544 Jews; and in Denmark in like manner, while there is one insane person in every 1,750 among the Jewish population, there is one in every 2,000 of other religions. In Italy also, since the asylums have been opened to Jews, their contingent has been very considerable (Lambroso, Livi). Is the explanation to be sought in their race, their religion, or their customs? Dr. Martini (of Leubus) would refer it to their frequent consanguineous marriages; but in truth the supposed evils arising from the consanguinity of parents have yet to be proved. To us it seems more correct to regard it as the consequence of the mode of life and habits of the Hebrew people, who are always to be found living in crowded cities (excepting, perhaps, the numerous Jewish population of Galicia, Poland, and Buckowina); and the professions they follow are more liable than others to commercial crises and the constant vicissitudes of trade.

With regard to suicide, on the other hand, the Jews of various countries differ more among themselves than Catholics from Protestants, who maintain a certain relative proportion with little variation. Great anthropological and social diversities are indeed to be observed between the Jews of Poland, Galicia, and Russia of the Dnieper, where they are very numerous and exercise an important influence on public affairs, and those of Central Europe, and in general of Catholic or mixed Catholic countries, where they have had to struggle through so many centuries against religious intolerance.

The very high average of suicides among Protestants is another fact too general to escape being ascribed to the influence of religion. Protestantism, denying all materialism in external worship and encouraging free inquiry into dogmas and creeds, is an eminently mystic religion, tending to develop the reflective powers of the mind and to exaggerate the inward struggles of the conscience. This exercise of the thinking organs, which, when they are weak by nature, is always damaging, renders them yet more sensible and susceptible of morbid impressions. Protestantism in the German states further exercises this exciting influence on the cerebral functions in yet another manner: it originated those philosophical systems which are based on the naturalistic conception of human existence, and put forward the view that the life of the individual is but a simple function of a great whole. These philosophical ideas are harmless enough to strong minds and those stored with a fit provision of scientific culture, but in the democratic atmosphere of our times the heart is not educated pari passu. The religious apathy with which the present generation is afflicted does not arise from a reasoned inquiry into the laws of nature or a scientific appreciation of its phenomena; it is not, in short, a deep conviction of the mind, but springs from a physical inertia, and from the little hold obtained by any ideas but such as are directed to material improvement and the gratification of ambition. To our mind, therefore, the great number of suicides is to be attributed to the state of compromise which the human mind occupies at the present time between the metaphysical and the positivist phase of civilization, and as this transition is more active in countries of marked mystic and metaphysical tendencies, such as is the case with Protestantism, it is natural that in them suicide should have the greatest number of victims.

It is obvious that a great difference generally exists between Catholic and Protestant countries only, not between the Catholic and Protestant inhabitants of the same country. Where the tendency to suicide is great among the latter, it will be found to be also high among the former, as may be observed from the statistics already quoted of Baden, Würtemberg, Franconia, Galicia, Bavaria, etc. This follows from the moral and social condition of the various religionists being rendered locally identical. Wagner, Oettingen, and Legoyt reckon that they have established, from their study of the influence of religion on this matter, that "the inclination toward suicide in the inhabitants belonging to any particular worship, in any given country, will diminish in direct ratio with their numerical inferiority" According to Legoyt, suicide more rarely occurs in those persuasions which are numerically weak, because the struggle with the hostility and intolerance of the population in the midst of whom they live exercises on them a sort of moral coercion, making them desirous to avoid the harsh judgment held over them. As a matter of theory we can not deny the truth of this conclusion of Legoyt, as we well know how the spirit of association and the earnestness of religious convictions increase in proportion to the isolation into which any given congregation is cast when in the minority in a country. This influence of the surrounding atmosphere on religion is proved by the persistence and tenacity of the transmission of the Mosaic law through so many ages and migrations, and may explain the small tendency toward suicide among Jews. But at the same time an attentive examination of facts does not altogether bear out Legoyt's conclusion; for we find that it is scarcely ever that minorities furnish the smallest contingent to the register of suicide. For example, in Lower Bavaria, where Protestants are barely 8100 of the population, we find one hundred and forty-eight suicides in a million among them, whereas among Catholics, who compose nine tenths of the population, the number of suicides amounts to hardly twenty-eight in a million. In Brandenburg, where the Catholics are scarcely 3100 of the population, they show a threefold greater inclination for suicide than in Saxony, where they form half the population. And in Austria the Catholics, although in a minority in Galicia, Buckowina, the Military Frontiers, and Transylvania, yet show a greater tendency to suicide than either Greeks, Uniates, or Jews. The exceptions to the rule, therefore, are more numerous than the examples which should establish it. So far from it, if we consider the aggregate of the various countries of Europe, and that at the latest statistical period, it is easy to perceive that, where religious toleration has made more way, minorities begin to approximate the general average of their religion, the moral coercion of which Legoyt speaks is fast disappearing, and the unmixed influence of religion begins to tell with full force. The same thing happens with the Protestants of Baden, Würtemberg, and Austria, and in fact everywhere; notwithstanding that they form the minority, and in some cases a very considerable minority, the average of suicide is everywhere higher than that of the Catholics. If a numerical inferiority were to operate at the present time in reproducing the tendency to suicide, we should not find it, as we do, much more frequent among the Jews of Bavaria, and especially in Lower Franconia and the Archduchy of Austria, than among the Catholics, although they form hut a small fraction of the population.

With t regard to the influence of religion in this matter, the only one fact which as yet has been well proved is the higher rate of suicides among Protestants than among Catholics, as appears from our tables, in which, along with the average of various states and provinces, we have given the proportions of the inhabitants belonging to the two faiths. A very considerable difference will be found, particularly in countries of mixed creeds, where those in which Protestants predominate are always visited with the greatest number of violent deaths. It needs but to compare the mixed Cantons of Switzerland, the Circles of Prussia, Hanover, and Baden, and the provinces of Holland. And it is observable that, while there certainly are Catholic countries which supply a high average (such as the departments of the Ile de France and the Orleannais), no Protestant country has figures that will bear comparison with the lowest of those of certain Catholic countries of the south of Europe. The influence of Paris is such as altogether to neutralize that of religion; but, for so considerable a rise in the average of the northeast of France, we must take into account the introduction of the Germanic ethnical element, for there the religious apathy which springs from the habits of our times has not yet taken sufficient effect to tell upon statistics.

  1. From advance sheets of Dr. Morselli's new book on suicide. As the tables can not be here well given, the references to them are omitted.