Intelligent Design

Of snakebites and suicide

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Every year, around five people in the United States die from snakebite. More than 38,000 Americans die from suicide every year – and the true figure is far higher, according to Julie Phillips, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University, whose research on rising suicide rates has led her to conclude that suicide in the United States is “vastly underreported“.

Over the pascouple of days, there has been a veritable deluge of news reports (see here, here, here, here and here ) about a “snake-handling preacher,” Jamie Coots, who was bitten by a rattlesnake last Saturday in Middlesboro, Kentucky, and who died an hour later, after refusing medical treatment. It’s estimated that no more than 125 churches in the United States today use poisonous snakes in their services (other estimates put the number as low as 40), and their numbers are dwindling, thanks in large part to enlightened laws, making it illegal to possess poisonous snakes. Given that most of the churches that use poisonous snakes in their services are small, with perhaps 20 members each (see these videos), it’s a safe bet that the number of Christians in America who practice this bizarre form of spirituality is no more than 3,000. Snake handlers are often linked with the Pentecostal Church, in the popular press. However, when one considers that there are over 13,000,000 Pentecostals in the United States, it is readily apparent how misleading this association is: 3,000 represents 0.023% of 13,000,000.

Over at his Website Why Evolution Is True, Professor Jerry Coyne has written a highly tendentious post titled, Religion poisons everything: Another snake-handler bites the dust. Here’s a short excerpt:

It’s tempting to joke about “Darwin Awards,” which go to those who improve the human gene pool by dying from their stupidity, but I can’t find much to laugh about here. Coots had friends and family who loved him. He’d be alive if it weren’t for religion.

Coyne has, by his own admission, published a fair few posts on snake handling. In another article he writes of snake-handling:

This is about the most literal example I have of how religion poisons everything.

I think this is a classic case of straining at gnats and swallowing camels. During the last sixty years, the number of fatalities in America resulting from handling snakes in religious services is less than ten. That’s one death every six years.

The link between atheism and suicide

I’d now invite readers to have a look at an article written by atheist Staks Rosch over at his blog, Dangerous Talk, titled, Atheism Has A Suicide Problem. Here’s a short extract from Rosch’s forthright article:

This is something we don’t like to admit, but it is true. There is a problem within the atheist community of depression and suicide. I know we would all like to believe that atheists are happier people than religious believers and in many ways we are. But we also have to accept the reality that in some very important ways we are not.

Indeed. Those looking for hard medical evidence for the claim that atheists have a higher suicide rate might be interested in an article titled, Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt by Kanita Dervic M.D. et al., (in American Journal of Psychiatry 2004; 161:2303-2308, doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.161.12.230). I shall quote from the Abstract:

OBJECTIVE: Few studies have investigated the association between religion and suicide either in terms of Durkheim’s social integration hypothesis or the hypothesis of the regulative benefits of religion. The relationship between religion and suicide attempts has received even less attention. METHOD: Depressed inpatients (N=371) who reported belonging to one specific religion or described themselves as having no religious affiliation were compared in terms of their demographic and clinical characteristics. RESULTS: Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation. Unaffiliated subjects were younger, less often married, less often had children, and had less contact with family members. Furthermore, subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living, particularly fewer moral objections to suicide. In terms of clinical characteristics, religiously unaffiliated subjects had more lifetime impulsivity, aggression, and past substance use disorder. No differences in the level of subjective and objective depression, hopelessness, or stressful life events were found. CONCLUSIONS: Religious affiliation is associated with less suicidal behavior in depressed inpatients. After other factors were controlled, it was found that greater moral objections to suicide and lower aggression level in religiously affiliated subjects may function as protective factors against suicide attempts. Further study about the influence of religious affiliation on aggressive behavior and how moral objections can reduce the probability of acting on suicidal thoughts may offer new therapeutic strategies in suicide prevention.

I’d like to go back to the figure I cited at the beginning of this article: over 38,000 Americans end their lives through suicide every year. Let’s suppose, very conservatively, that atheism and religious skepticism contribute 1% to that figure, since we have seen that people with no religious affiliation have fewer moral objections to suicide. It then follows that 380 Americans who kill themselves every year would still be alive today, if it weren’t for atheism. And if the actual contribution of atheism to that total is 10%, then the number of Americans killed by atheism every year is 3,800. Whichever way you slice it and dice it, atheism kills hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of people in the United States every year. And yet atheists like Professor Jerry Coyne and the late Christopher Hitchens have the gall to say that religion poisons everything.

The historical role of religion in preventing suicide

People often ask what difference religion makes. How has it made the world a better place? Aside from its historic role in eliminating the barbaric practice of infanticide (especially female infanticide, which I wrote about here), it is an indisputable fact that religion – especially of the monotheistic variety – has saved millions of human lives over the last two thousand years, through its strict prohibition of suicide. Even historians who have little sympathy with the Abrahamic religions have acknowledged their important role in putting a stop to the once-widespread practice of suicide. The rationalist historian W.E.H. Lecky was certainly no friend of organized religion, but in his History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, vol. 2, (New York: D. Appleton, 1921, Third edition, revised), he makes the following observation:

Under the empire of Catholicism and Mohammedanism, suicide, during many centuries, almost absolutely ceased in all the civilised, active, and progressive part of mankind. When we recollect how warmly it was applauded, or how faintly it was condemned, in the civilisation of Greece and Rome; when we remember, too, that there was scarcely a barbarous tribe, from Denmark to Spain, who did not habitually practise it, we may realise the complete revolution which was effected in this sphere by the influence of Christianity.

Lecky goes on to add: “The Reformation does not seem to have had any immediate effect in multiplying suicide, for Protestants and Catholics held with equal intensity the religious sentiments which are most fitted to prevent it, and in none of the persecutions was impatience of life largely displayed.”

How religion prevents suicide in Islamic countries today

In modern times, Enlightenment values have considerably weakened the force of the public stigma attached to suicide in Christian countries. However, in most Muslim countries, where family bonds are very strong and where suicide is still widely regarded as an unthinkable crime, suicide rates remain very low, by international standards.

In their article, A Global Perspective in the Epidemiology of Suicide (Suicidologi 2002, arg. 7, nr. 2), Jose Manoel Bertolote and Alexandra Fleischmann, who are both qualified researchers affiliated with the World Health Organization’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Dependence, point out that in Muslim countries where suicide is most strictly forbidden, the suicide rate is close to zero, while in atheistic countries such as China, the suicide rate is abnormally high:

A comparison of suicide rates according to the prevalent religious denomination in countries brings to light a most remarkable difference between the countries of Islam and countries of any other prevailing religion (Figure 4). In Muslim countries (e.g. Kuwait) where suicide is most strictly forbidden, the total suicide rate is close to zero (0.1 per 100,000). In Hindu (e.g. India) and Christian countries (e.g. Italy), the suicide rate is around 10 per 100,000 (Hindu: 9.6; Christian: 11.2). In Buddhist countries (e.g. Japan), the total suicide rate is distinctly higher at 17.9 per 100,000 population. At 25.6, the suicide rate is markedly highest in Atheist countries (e.g. China), which included in this analysis countries where religious observances had been prohibited for a long period of time (e.g. Albania).

A look at the suicide map by country published by, which is based on figures provided by the WHO for 2011, paints a somewhat more complicated picture: in Saudi Arabia, for instance, the annual suicide rate is 5.9 per 100,000 per year, while in Indonesia, it’s 9.7 per 100,000. Even this is still well below the global rate of 16 per 100,000 per year, and in most Muslim countries, suicide rates are far lower: for example, Syria (0.5 per 100,000), Malaysia (0.6 per 100,000), Jordan (0.7 per 100,000), Egypt (1.4 per 100,000), Morocco (1.7 per 100,000), Turkey (2.2 per 100,000), Niger (3.1 per 100,000), Oman (3.6 per 100,000), Iran (3.7 per 100,000), Algeria (4.1 per 100,000), Libya (4.2 per 100,000), Mali (4.6 per 100,000), Yemen (5.4 per 100,000) and Iraq (6.1 per 100,000).

Cynics may be tempted to dismiss these low figures as the product of under-reporting, owing to the stigma attached to suicide, but the World Health Organization disagrees. An article titled Socio-economic, Cultural and Religious Factors Affecting Suicide Prevention in Asia by Lakshmi Vijayakumar, Jane Pirkis, Tran Thanh Huong, Paul Yip, Rohini De A. Seneviratne, Herbert Hendin, in chapter two of a 2008 WHO report on Suicide and Suicide Prevention in Asia, explains the influence of religion on suicide rates, with special reference to Islam:

Religion may be protective against suicide, both at the individual and societal level, and this effect may be mediated by the degree to which a given religion sanctions suicide (Vijayakumar, 2002). This suggestion is consistent with ecological studies that have observed suicide rates to be high in countries where religious beliefs are not actively promoted by the state, and to be low in countries where they are (Neeleman and Lewis, 1999). It also coincides with individual-level studies which have found variables such as lack of religious conviction to be a risk factor for suicide (Gururaj et al., 2004).

Islam provides clear rulings against suicide. The Koran strictly prohibits suicide, maintaining that it is an unforgivable sin. Islam also forbids the use of alcohol, which is a known risk factor for suicide. In Pakistan, where the vast majority of the population (over 95%) are Moslem, hospital and police statistics suggest that the suicide rate is very low (although national suicide statistics are not kept). In Malaysia, which also has a predominantly Moslem population (around 60%), the overall suicide rate is low and is higher among Buddhists, Christians and Hindus than among the majority Moslems. Religious (and legal) imperatives in countries like Malaysia may lead to some under-reporting, but Moslems living in non-Moslem countries such as Thailand also have lower suicide rates than the Buddhist population (which itself has a low rate), suggesting that the effect is not just an artifact of the degree to which countries acknowledge suicides in their formal statistics. (pp. 24-25)

Finally, a 2010 report titled, The relationship between suicide and Islam: a cross-national study by Ajit Shah and Mahmood Chandia (Journal of Injury and Violence Research, June 2010; vol. 2(2): 93–97, doi: 10.5249/jivr.v2i2.60), using only the highest quality data on suicides, nevertheless found “significant negative correlations between general population suicide rate and the percentage of people adherent to Islam in males and females whilst controlling for socioeconomic status and income inequality,” adding that “The Prophetic traditions not only prohibit suicide but also explicitly deter from wishing for death.”

Suicide in China

Strangely, the suicide rate listed for China on World Life Expectancy’s suicide map by country is only 12.1 per 100,000, even though an AFP report from Beijing (September 8, 2011) states that China’s suicide rate is actually 22.23 people out of every 100,000, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. Apparently, the reason for this anomaly is that the Chinese government likes to tamper with the figures, with the result that the “official” suicide figures are far lower than the true numbers. An article titled “Epidemiology of Suicide in Asia,” by Herbert Hendin, Lakshmi Vijayuakumar, José M. Bertolote, Hong Wang, Michael R. Phillips and Jane Pirkis, in chapter one of the 2008 WHO report, Suicide and Suicide Prevention in Asia, summarizes the true situation as follows:

Researchers recalculating the rates to correct for the population distribution have found rates for China ranging from 22 to 30 per 100,000 (Murray et al., 1996 a, 1996b; Phillips et al., 2002; Yip et al., 2005). With 21 percent of the world’s population, China has been estimated to account for 30% to 44% of global suicides (Murray et al., 1996 a, b; Beautrais, 2006). (p. 10)

In fact, as Bertolote and Fleischmann note in their 2002 article cited above, China is one of the few countries in the world where more women than men commit suicide every year. This is confirmed by an article titled Suicide in China: Unique demographic patterns and relationship to depressive disorder by Samuel Law and Pozi Liu (Current Psychiatry Reports, February 2008, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 80-86). The abstract reads as follows:

Recent research on suicide in China reveals several unique findings: 1) female suicides outnumber male suicides by a 3:1 ratio; 2) rural suicides outnumber urban suicides by a 3:1 ratio; 3) a large upsurge of young adult and older adult suicides has occurred; 4) a comparatively high national suicide rate two to three times the global average is evident; and, most startlingly, 5) a low rate of psychiatric illness, particularly depression, exists in suicide victims. The strongest empirical data suggest that these trends result from a high number of rural, young females who experience acute interpersonal or financial crises and then impulsively attempt suicide using lethal pesticides or poisons. Other suicide risk factors in China are similar to those that are well known internationally. Interactive sociological, cultural, and economic hypotheses unique to China provide further insight. Among those, the cultural-socioeconomic disadvantages of the Chinese rural female and cultural attitudes toward suicide are particularly noteworthy.

Suicide is now the leading cause of death for young people in China aged 15-34, and the fifth-ranked cause of death in China, according to the Beijing Evening News.

There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. If they were living under the atheistic regime of China and killing themselves at the rate of 22 per 100,000 for year (which as we have seen is a conservative estimate), 352,000 of them would be killing themselves every year, or about 35,200,000 per century. If the figure of about 6 per 100,000 for Saudi Arabia is typical of the Islamic world as a whole, then the actual number of Muslim deaths per year due to suicide is about 96,000, or 9,600,000 per century. I put it to my readers that any institution that saves over 25,000,000 lives over 100 years has got to be socially beneficial.

Scientist Victor Stenger is fond of saying that science flies you to the moon, while religion flies you into buildings. I would suggest that religion can offer people a very good reason why they shouldn’t fly into buildings – or anything else for that matter. Atheism destroys many more innocent human lives than religion ever will.

5 Replies to “Of snakebites and suicide

  1. 1
    niwrad says:


    Great and useful post, as always from you.

    Suicide is forbidden by all orthodox traditions, indeed because is a big error. Death is a powerful psychical amplifier. A man suicides because of psychical suffering. After death that same suffering will be enormously amplified! Do you see the mistake of suicide? To end a pain X one gets an endless pain X amplified N times. The worse error of all really.

  2. 2
    Joe says:

    This is about the most literal example I have of how religion poisons everything.

    I don’t understand that leap. The problem is we cannot go back in time and have people use darwinian/ materialistic concepts and see where we would end up, ie what type of societies, if any, would arise. And sort of social behaviours would the societies exhibit?

    I heard Dawkins wouldn’t like that world. The point is atheists are getting a free ride on the coattails of the religious. Meaning most societies have been influenced by religion and religion’s views of right v wrong.

    And with that said I do shake my head/ face palm when I read of these serpent preachers, regardless of being bitten or not.

  3. 3
  4. 4
    vjtorley says:

    Thanks for the link, Jeffery. All I will say for now is that Dr. Richard Carrier’s grasp of statistics is not particularly impressive, and that he has willfully minimized the results of the study by Dervic et al. which I quoted. The one substantial point he makes is that the study does not implicate atheism as such, but rather, lack of religious affiliation, as a factor in suicide. From the fact that the study showed that religious affiliation reduces the risk of suicide indirectly (through its effect on an individual’s moral beliefs), Carrier mistakenly infers that religious affiliation has no effect at all, and that only moral objections to suicide have an effect – which is tantamount to saying that if A causes B, which causes C, then A has no effect on C. Finally, Carrier argues that since the difference in suicide rates is “only” 10% and possibly as low as 7%, it’s insignificant. But an effect can be statistically significant, even if it’s small, and in this case, the link between moral beliefs (which are in turn influenced by an individual’s religious affiliation) and suicide is indeed significant, at a p-value of <0.001. That's a very strong correlation, as Carrier should know. And I should point out that 7% of 38,000 suicides per year is 2,660 suicides, which is quite a large number.

    Carrier also needs to do some more reading on the link between religion and happiness:

  5. 5
    scordova says:

    Thanks for your article. I had an atheist friend, he said he had no reason for living, nothing in all his atheism could give him an answer for why his life was meaningful.

    When Dawkins visited UVA, he asked Dawkins for why he should live, and there was no meaningful answer.

    I told my friend, “you might find meaning one day, and if you don’t stick around long enough to find it, then you lose out. Victor Frankl said, many of his patients close to suicide years later said they’re glad they stuck around because they eventually made sense of their existence.”

    Frankl was one of the few theists respected in modern psychiatric circles. I suppose if he could find meaning in life while surviving through Auschwitz, he deserved respect!

    Atheism harbors lots of advocates of euthanasia (another form of suicide).

    I have deep sympathy to those terminally ill and wanting to be euthanized. I suppose if one doesn’t believe in Jesus admonition to “bear your cross each day” but rather just try to checkout into oblivion with the least pain, that would seem logical to self-terminate.

    slightly related

    Atheims harbors advocates of termination of the human race.

    Voluntary Extinction Movement

    I hope the human population shrinks. We’re like bacteria in a petri dish that exhausts its food resources too quickly. But reduction of population that’s not the same thing as devaluing human life.

    Also Eric Pianka and John Reid for example. See:

    Eric Pianka meet John Reid

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