Does Religion Kill?

Does Religion Kill?

By Maggie Gallagher - October 27, 2010

Are Mormon parents causing their gay children to commit suicide?

The Associated Press seems to think so.

Rutgers student Tyler Clementi's suicide last month after his sexual encounter with another man was broadcast by his roommate over the Internet led the AP to investigate whether Mormonism might be responsible.

"The student was not Mormon, but Utah's gay rights activists, some with roots in Mormonism, were quick to draw a connection to their own situation," wrote the AP's Jennifer Dobner. "They say the painful isolation that some LGBT individuals experience can lead to suicide. Anecdotes about the suicides ... seem to support the contention."

The reporter goes on to say, "Although there's no hard data directly linking faith and suicide, a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute conducted with the Religion News Service found that 65 percent of 1,010 respondents believe messages from the pulpits of American churches contribute."

To break with central tenets of one's family culture or with one's religion is no doubt deeply troubling for parent and child alike. Parents who reject or abuse their gay children do appear to increase the risk of suicide.

But Americans, with the help of the media, seem to be painting the charge against religion with a pretty broad brush.

Given what I know about religion and suicide risk, it seemed to me at least an open question. Religion could be the source of distressing family conflict. But in general, religion appears to be remarkably good for mental health, and in particular for protecting against the risk of suicide.

Researchers have posited many explanations for why religion protects against suicide: better social cohesion, moral rules that discourage risky behavior (like drug abuse and early unwed sex), the sense of infinite moral worth that comes from knowing one is beloved by God Himself in spite of all our sin. But researchers who study such things think it may even be simpler than that: Religious people are less likely to commit suicide because Western religions uniformly teach that suicide is wrong.

The AP reporter notes that there is no hard data linking religion and gay teen suicide. But as an amateur sociologist, I'm aware that this data is out there, if anyone cares to look for the truth. I asked a scholar friend of mine to take a first look at the Add-Health database, a large, nationally representative sample of students in grades 7 to 12, which has a measure of sexual orientation and measures of religion for both teens and their parents.

Looking only at teens in Wave 1 (the early '90s) who reported they had experienced same-sex attraction, there were no statistically significant increases in teen-suicide risk for gay teens who have religious parents.

For example, in terms of thoughts of suicide, 12 percent of gay teens whose parents reported weekly church attendance said they'd thought seriously about committing suicide in the past year, compared to 15 percent of respondents whose parents attended services rarely if at all.

As for actual suicide attempts in the prior 12 months? Six percent of gay teens with the least religious parents said they'd attempted suicide, compared with 4 percent of gay teens with the most religious parents. None of these differences were statistically significant.

By Wave 3 -- in the early 2000s -- suicide and depression are down among these now young adults. And parents' religious practices re-emerge as actually protective. Young adult children of the least religious parents report the most suicidal thoughts and attempts; those whose parents attended religious services most often were significantly less likely to report a suicide attempt than those whose parents rarely or never attended.

This kind of first cut of the data does not settle the question, of course. But I thought it worth pointing out that we do have the data to answer the question: Are religious communities driving gay teens to commit suicide? I am hoping someone more qualified than me will take up the question in a serious way.

Oh, and about the LDS church?

Mormon gay teens reported significantly less depression and fewer suicidal thoughts than nonreligious youth.

Copyright 2010, Creators Syndicate Inc.

Maggie Gallagher

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