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No, Being Religious Will Not Save You from Suicide

Among the more obnoxious things I’ve read in the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s death is that if only he had been a man of faith, he wouldn’t have taken his own life. Consider the almost sneering commentary offered by Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, in a syndicated piece written less than a day after the rogue chef’s body was found hanging by the belt of his bathrobe in a Strasbourg hotel room. “If Anthony Bourdain had been a religious man, would he have killed himself? Probably not,” writes Donohue. “Bourdain was raised by his Catholic father and Jewish mother, though neither of them saw fit to raise him any religion … [Bourdain] said his views of religion were similar to those expressed by Christopher Hitchens, the British atheist. This is why the atheist organization, Freedom from Religion, was so proud of him.”

Not only is the tenor of Donohue’s sentiment completely tone-deaf and insensitive, his claim that Bourdain—or, for that matter, any other atheist suicide victim—could have been saved by religion is presumptuous and misleading. In his unabashed efforts to show why Catholicism is superior to other religions (he touts his book The Catholic Advantage while writing about Bourdain’s suicide), Donohue points out that regular churchgoers are less likely to kill themselves. He’s right. But it turns out it’s a little more complicated than Donohue would have us believe. The church buffering effect against suicide that he’s alluding to, in fact, has almost nothing to do with faith. Rather, the correlation comes from churchgoers being part of an active community, one with formal rituals encouraging social engagement and regulated moral support. It’s what’s known as the “network theory” of religion and suicide, first articulated by Émile Durkheim in the late 19th century. In his famous treatise Suicide (1897), Durkheim reported that, despite their matched religiosity, Protestants were more likely to take their own lives than Catholics, a puzzling observation given that suicide is proscribed in both forms of Christianity. But Protestants are permitted free inquiry, have fewer formal rituals, and are characterized by more permeable groups.

This general trend—that it is church attendance, not simply religion, that protects people against suicide—has been found in study after study ever since. So, when Donohue writes that “those who are regular churchgoers have a much lower rate of suicide than atheists like Bourdain,” he’s conflating (and I suspect deliberately so) religious behavior and theism.

When it comes to suicide, the existence or nonexistence of God, or belief therein, is far less consequential than the tumult of our social lives.

There’s another, more inconvenient, statistic that Donohue fails to mention, which is that devout people who experience religious strain—for instance, because they’re convinced that they’ve committed a sin too major to be forgiven—are actually more likely than their nonreligious peers to take their own lives. Feeling alienated from God, such religious individuals are at a heightened risk of behaviorally accelerating His wrathful sentence. Over the centuries, propagators of every Christian denomination, and most other world religions as well, have admonished their followers that anyone so foolish as to die by their own hand will suffer in Hell eternally. But if you see yourself as having done something so unforgivable that you’re going to Hell anyway, that’s not much of a preventative.

And anyway, such fearmongering about the afterlife is to little avail when it comes to the genuinely suicidal. When one is in this altered psychological state, they are cognitively compromised. Their sense of time is affected so that the present feels intolerably long. “Life just slowly drips out,” said one suicidal person. Abstract and philosophical thinking are also impaired when in this state. The person has trouble imagining the future. And even if they could, Hell would be a welcome reprieve from the stifling, insufferable conditions in which they’re living. In fact, in China, where reincarnationist beliefs are common, being religious is also tied to increased suicide risk. “To some Chinese individuals,” explain the researchers Jie Zhang and Huilan Xu, “death is a solution to all the problems and the beginning of a new life…those who got into extremity are likely to think about starting a new life by ending this miserable one quickly.”

Empirical data aside, what is especially irritating about Donohue’s approach to the problem is his seeming obliviousness to how difficult it is—impossible, even—for a rational, nonbelieving, intelligent suicidal person like Bourdain to suddenly quarantine their skepticism and become religious. Similar to Bourdain, my mother was Jewish and my father Lutheran, both of the shoulder-shrugging persuasion. And also like Bourdain, suicidal feelings certainly aren’t alien to me. Virtually no research on the childhood origins of atheism has been done, but I do know that being an atheist isn’t a decision that I’ve made; it’s a way of seeing that has been calibrated my whole life long by factors beyond my control. I couldn’t find succor in religion if I tried. The skeptical mind, once formed, just doesn’t work that way.

Perhaps, as Donohue implies, Bourdain would still be alive if his Catholic father bothered to indoctrinate him into a blind faith that demanded his unquestioning adherence to an illogical doctrine, but he also wouldn’t have been the Anthony Bourdain the world knew and loved. Unfettered to the pews of his native New Jersey, he went soul searching in an epic existential quest, and he arguably found it (in the metaphorical sense, of course), breaking bread with the poor in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, dining on everything from boiled tarantulas in Cambodia to Swahili donuts in Zanzibar, and forcing uncomfortable American viewers to watch the plight of street orphans in Nicaragua digging for their food in trash dumps.

Bourdain was, as the journalist Jaime Poniewozik so evocatively wrote, “an evangelist of the senses.” Through our taste buds—those most visceral and wondrously transformative receptors—he set out to showcase our species’ shared humanity. He called himself “the misanthrope, the curmudgeon, the malcontent, the cynic…even the asshole,” but Bourdain was a great humanist, constantly striving to overcome the kinds of petty differences between people that small-minded men like Donohue are so keen to emphasize and exploit. END

About the Author

Jesse Bering is Director of the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is an experimental psychologist by training and author of the forthcoming book Suicidal (University of Chicago Press). His previous books include The Belief Instinct and Why is the Penis Shaped Like That? He has written for Scientific American, The New York Times, Discover, The Chicago Tribune, The New Republic, Vice, Slate, the Guardian, and others. He has been featured on such media as Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, Conan, Chelsea Lately, NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the BBC.

About the Portrait

The image at the top of this page is of Anthony Bourdain during the Peabody interview for Parts Unknown (May 19, 2014), by Peabody Awards [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped).

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