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Religion And Health By James J. Walsh Characters: 29677

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

No book on religion and health would be complete without a discussion of the effect of religious influence on these two very important factors in modern mortality statistics, especially in our own country,-suicide and homicide. One of the most disturbing features of public health work is the occurrence of such a large number of deaths every year in our great city life from murder and self-murder. It is discouraging to have the death rate from nearly every form of disease coming down while these are going up. Any factor which promises, however modestly, to remove even to a slight degree this stigma from our modern civilization is worthy of consideration. The moral factors in life are most important in this regard and over these religion has the most direct and potent influence.

One of the most disturbing features of our modern life is the fact that in spite of the notable progressive increase of comfort in life far beyond what people enjoyed in the past, there has been a steadily mounting growth in the number of suicides every year in civilized countries. Comforts and conveniences have become widely diffused, so that the luxuries of the rich in the older time have become the everyday commonplaces of the poor or the simple necessities of the middle class, and life would {278} seem to be ever so much more easy than it used to be. Yet more and more people find it so hard that they are willing to go out of life by their own hands to meet untimely the dark mystery of the future. It has become quite manifest that comfort of body and peace of mind are by no means in such direct ratio to one another as is usually thought, but rather the contrary. Our suicides take place more frequently among the better-to-do classes than among the poor who might possibly be expected to find life so hard that they could not stand it any longer. Even chronic suffering does not cause so many suicides as the various disappointments of life, most of which are only transitory in their effect.

Perhaps the most disturbing feature of the suicide situation lies in the fact that the average age of those who commit suicide every year is constantly becoming younger. Suicide used to be the resort particularly of the discouraged beyond middle life, but now it is becoming ever more and more the mode of escape from an immediate future of unhappiness which ever younger and younger folk foresee for themselves. Disappointments in love have always been occasions for suicide, but other causes have multiplied in recent years to an alarming degree, and now high-school children with the suggestion of sensational newspaper accounts of suicide in their minds turn to self-murder over failures in examination or setbacks in school work or over a scolding at home. Even below the age of fifteen suicides are reported rather frequently, because children have been punished or have been refused something that they had set their hearts on. The generation is engaged in producing many oversensitive young folk who cannot stand being disturbed in their hopes and aspirations.


Suicides have increased just in proportion to the decrease of attention to religion and the absence of religious teaching and above all of religious training, that is, of such practice of self-denial and of mortification for religious motives as leads to formation of character. When children and young folks are always given their own way and are not taught that denying themselves is of itself a virtue because it leads to strength of will power and enables one to stand the inevitable hardships of later life, no wonder that their first serious disappointments come to them as such disturbing misfortunes that they can scarcely picture to themselves a time when they shall be happy again. Above all a great many of them have no real belief in immortality and therefore face the future life with no feeling as to its mystery and no proper sense of their obligation toward a Creator who gave them life to use to the best advantage possible and who wants them to play the game of life fair, taking the ill with the good and "carrying on." The lack of religious feeling has left them with nothing to cling to in the midst of their trials, and though they may have friends, all human beings are eminently alone, and we must go through what is hard in life by ourselves. We never feel our loneliness more than when some severe trial comes. We almost resent the pity of others, and Emerson's phrase that we are "infinitely repellent particles" becomes a very grave reality.

It is the easy custom of our time to blame nearly all the social ills on what is called our present-day strenuous existence. There are a great many people who seem to think that men never worked so hard as they do now, though as a matter of fact in what concerns the accomplishment of things worth while our generation is {280} sadly backward. He unfortunately grows preoccupied with trivial narrow concerns and keeps on working at them so continuously that we have become very fussy folk because we have no variety of occupation to relieve the strain of daily life. It must not be forgotten in this regard that some of the men who have lived the longest have been extremely hard workers, accomplishing so much in a number of lines of thought and endeavor that it has seemed almost impossible to understand how they did it, yet they have been healthy and hearty in mind and body until fourscore years, and sometimes, like Ranke, the great German historian, and Pope Leo XIII and Chevreul, the distinguished French chemist, even beyond ninety years of age and more. The strenuous existence is a good excuse, however, and a great many people are sure that it is the overtiredness and the disturbance of health and the depression which comes in connection with this that causes suicide or at least contributes greatly to the increase of it in our time.

Only a little analysis of suicide statistics, however, is necessary to make it very clear that it is not physical factors which contribute most to the increase of suicide, but that it is the state of mind of the individual. If the physical counted for much then it would be confidently expected that suicides would be commonest in the winter and least frequent in the summer, particularly in the pleasanter months of the summer time. The statistics show, however, that the month which has the most suicides is June. June is probably the pleasantest month of the year in most ways in our climate. July is likely to be very hot. May often has cold and rainy days at the beginning, but June has often a succession of almost perfect days. James Russell {281} Lowell sang, and it has been reechoed many times, "What is so rare as a day in June", yet this is the month which more people take to put themselves out of existence than any other. Brides have chosen it as the favorite month for marriage because all nature looks so lovely and in sympathy with their own joy and because there are fewer rainy days in it than any other. Happy hearts are beginning a new existence with the brightest possible prospects just when so many others are voluntarily getting out of what seems a hopeless life.

December, which has so many gloomy days and which naturally is likely to be so much more depressing than the succeeding months of the winter, for the clear, cold days of January and February are bracing, might on physical grounds be expected to be the month with most suicides in it. Christmas with its celebrations and the announcement of peace and joy to men of good will might be expected to lower the number of suicides for the latter third of the month, but even the joy of that occasion could scarcely be hoped to neutralize completely the depressing effect of the weather. Just exactly the contradiction of these anticipations is what happens. Suicides are least frequent in December of any month in the year, and the last ten days of the month have the most of them because it is not so much the individual's own sense of hopelessness in life, complicated by physical suffering and material trials of various kinds, that tempts to suicide, as the contrast of the joy of those around him with his own feelings which emphasize his depressed state of mind until he feels that he can stand it no longer. June's gayety with its happy brides adds to the number of suicides and the Christmas festivities have a like unfortunate tendency. Gloomy weather has exactly the {282} opposite effect from what would surely have been expected on the general principle that the physical plays the most important r?le in the production of suicides.

This is brought out still more clearly by the careful review of the effect of the weather on suicide which was made some years ago by Professor Edmund T. Dexter [Footnote 13] of the University of Illinois.

[Footnote 13: Popular Science Monthly, April, 1901.]

He followed out the records of nearly two thousand cases of suicides reported to the police in the City of New York and placed beside them the records of the weather bureau of the same city for the days on which these suicides occurred. According to this, which represents not any preconceived notions but the realities of the relationship of the weather to self-murder, the tendency to suicide is highest in spring and summer, and the deed is accomplished in the great majority of cases on the sunniest days of these seasons. It is not at all a case of heat disturbance of mind or tendency to heat stroke, for as has been seen June is the month of most suicides and while it often has some hot days it does not compare in this regard with July and August or even September as a rule.

His conclusions are carefully drawn, and there is no doubt that they must be accepted as representing the actual facts. All the world feels depressed on rainy days and in dark, cloudy weather, but suicides react well, as a rule, against this physical depression, yet allow their mental depression to get the better of them on the finest days of the year. Professor Dexter said:

"The clear, dry days show the greatest number of suicides, and the wet, partly cloudy days the least; and {283} with differences too great to be attributed to accident or chance. In fact there are nearly one in three (31%) more suicides on dry than on wet days and more than one in five (21%) more on clear days than on days that are partly cloudy."

In reviewing the subject of suicide in my book on "Psychotherapy" [Footnote 14] I suggested that this subject of depressed weather conditions as the contributing cause of suicide might be carried still further and the lack of the dispiriting influence of dark, damp weather, as a suicide factor, could be seen very strikingly from the suicide statistics of various climates.

[Footnote 14: D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1912.]

The suicide rate is not highest in the torrid or in the frigid zones, but in the temperate zones. In the north temperate zone it is much more marked than in the south temperate zone. Civilization and culture, diffused to a much greater extent in the north temperate zone than in the south, seem to be the main reason for this difference. We make people capable of feeling pain more poignantly, but do not add to their power to stand trials or train character by self-control to make the best of life under reasonably severe conditions.

Severe physical suffering of any kind, provided it is shared by a whole people, reduces the suicide rate. Famine, for instance, though it might be expected that people facing starvation would surely take the easier way, rather reduces the tendency to suicide. Earthquakes followed by loss of life and intense suffering have the same effect. It might possibly be thought that this would be true only among less well educated people, the orientals or perhaps certain of the South Americans where lack of education made them less poignantly sensitive to physical {284} suffering than among the more refined people in our western civilization, but the earthquake at San Francisco demonstrated very clearly the effect upon average Californians who, I suppose, must be considered to have been rather a little above than below the general run of Americans in what we are accustomed to call civilization and education. Before the catastrophe, suicides were occurring in that city on an average of twelve a week. After the earthquake, when, if physical sufferings had anything to do with suicide, it might be expected that the self-murder rate would go up, there was so great a reduction that only three suicides were reported in two months. Some of this reduction was due to inadequate records, but there can be no doubt that literally a hundred lives were saved from suicide by the awful catastrophe that leveled the city. Men and women were homeless, destitute and exposed to every kind of hardship, yet because all those around them were suffering in the same way, every one seemed to be reasonably satisfied. Evidently a comparison with the conditions in which others are has much to do with deciding the would-be suicide not to make away with himself, for by dwelling too much on his own state he is prone to think that he is ever so much worse off than others.

If life were always vividly interesting, as it was in San Francisco after the earthquake, and if all men worked and suffered as the San Franciscans did for a few weeks, suicide would not end more than ten thousand American lives every year, as it does now. The one hope for the man who is contemplating suicide is to get him interested in others, to arouse him to the realization of the fact that there are others suffering even more than himself, but above all to get him to feel that he can relieve the {285} suffering of others. Selfishness is the root of suicide, usually pathological in its utter preoccupation with self as the most important thing in the universe, but often only the result of a fostering of self-interest and a failure to train the mind to think of other people, which is of the very essence of religion.

It is not when things are made easy for mankind, but on the contrary when they are passing through times of difficulty and severe stress that the suicide rate goes down. War always brings a striking reduction in the number of suicides. Our Spanish-American War reduced the death rate from suicide in this country over forty per cent throughout the country and over fifty per cent in Washington itself, where there was most excitement with regard to the war. This was true also during the Civil War. Our minimum annual death rate from suicide from 1805 (when statistics on this subject began to be kept) to the present time was one suicide to about twenty-four thousand people, which occurred in 1864, when our Civil War was in its severest phas

e. There had been constant increase in our suicide rate every year until the Civil War began, then there was a drop at once and this continued until the end of the war. In New York City the average rate of suicide for the five years of the Civil War was nearly forty-five per cent lower than the average for the five following years. In Massachusetts, where the statistics were gathered very carefully, the number of suicides for the five-year period before 1860 was nearly twenty per cent greater than for the five-year period immediately following, which represents the preliminary excitement over the war and the actual year of the war. This experience in America is only in accordance with what happens everywhere. Mr. George Kennan in his article on {286} "The Problems of Suicide" [Footnote 15] has a paragraph which brings this out very well. He says:

[Footnote 15: McClure's Magazine, June, 1908.]

"In Europe the restraining influence of war upon the suicidal impulse is equally marked. The war between Austria and Italy in 1866 decreased the suicide rate for each country about fourteen per cent. The Franco-German War of 1870-1871 lowered the suicide rate of Saxony eight per cent, that of Prussia 11.4 per cent, and that of France 18.7 per cent. The reduction was greatest in France, because the German invasion of that country made the war excitement there much more general and intense than it was in Saxony or Prussia."

Above all the sense of patriotic duty, the recognition of the fact that there are things in life worth more than life itself, lifts men out of the depression into which they have permitted themselves to be plunged as a consequence of their utter absorption in themselves and their own narrow interests.

Old-fashioned religion has a distinct effect in the reduction of the suicide rate, and all over the world the orthodox Jews who cling to their old-time belief and above all to their orthodox practices and mode of life have undoubtedly the lowest suicide rate of any people in the world. This is true, though almost needless to say a great many Jews, not only in the foreign countries but here in our own great cities, have to live under circumstances that are the most trying that it is possible to imagine. A great many of them live in slums, doing intensely hard work in sweat shops-though, thank God, these are fewer now than they used to be-and yet the Jews cling to life in the midst of trials that would seem almost impossible for human nature to bear. The Jewish {287} suicide rate is the lowest everywhere in spite of racial differences, for after all there are German Jews and Portuguese Jews and Russian Jews who have lived among the respective peoples after whom they are called for centuries and who might therefore be expected to take on the characteristics which their environments have brought. There is a very great difference in the suicide rate between the orthodox and unorthodox Jews, that is, those who have given up the beliefs and religious practices of their forefathers. It is in favor of the orthodox Jews, though of course the record is complicated by the prosperity of those who have given up their religion. Wealth and speculation greatly favor the occurrence of suicide.

It is well known that Roman Catholics the world over have much less tendency to suicide than their Protestant neighbors living in the same communities. It is true that where the national suicide rate is high, many Catholics also commit suicide, but there is a distinct disproportion between them and their neighbors. The suicide rate of Protestants in the northern part of Ireland, as pointed out by Mr. George Kennan, is twice that of Roman Catholics in the southern part. He discusses certain factors that would seem to modify the breadth of the conclusion that might be drawn from this, but in the end he confesses that their faith probably has most to do with it and that, above all, the practice of sacramental confession must be considered as tending to lessen the suicide rate materially. It is the readiness to give their confidence to some one on the part of these patients, for that is what they really are, that seems to the physician the best hope of helping them to combat their impulse, and Mr. Kennan's opinion is worth recalling for therapeutic purposes:

"In view of the fact that the suicide rate of the {288} Protestant canton in Switzerland is nearly four times that of Catholic cantons, it seems probable that Catholicism, as a form of religious belief, does restrain the suicidal impulse. The efficient cause may be the Catholic practice of confessing to priests, which probably gives much encouragement and consolation to unhappy but devout believers and thus induces many of them to struggle on in spite of misfortune and depression."

It is not surprising that in countries where attendance at church and adhesion to religious organizations has dropped very seriously, the suicide rate should be higher than in countries where the great mass of the people are still faithful churchgoers, take their religious duties very seriously and therefore are subjected to the deepest influence of religion over the heart and mind at regularly recurring intervals. They find consolation in their suffering, advice in their trials, strength for their difficulties and a fount of hope almost for their despair. Above all they are deterred by the thought of another world than this and the possibility of punishment in it, if they have not had the courage and the manly strength of soul to face their difficulties in this.

It has come to be the custom rather to minimize the effect of deterrent motives on human beings and to say that men cannot be scared into doing good or avoiding evil, and it is quite true that a policy of frightfulness pursued out of mere malice to effect a human purpose will have exactly the opposite effect over the great majority of mankind, but when men realize that they are bringing punishment on themselves by their own acts, and that those acts are unjustifiable on any rational grounds, they have a very different feeling as a rule with regard to punishments that may be impending over them for their conduct. It {289} is quite one thing to be unjustly punished and resent it and quite another to feel that the punishment we are incurring has justice in it, though we may not be quite able to understand all the significance of it or plumb its mystery entirely.

Shakespeare has Hamlet discuss that whole question in his soliloquy so well that it deserves to be quoted here:

"... And by a sleep, to say we end

The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to,-'t is a consummation

Devoutly to be wished. To die,-to sleep:-

To sleep, perchance to dream:-ay, there's the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause. There's the respect,

That makes calamity of so long life:

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,-

The undiscovered country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns,-puzzles the will

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all."

We have come to resent somewhat the suggestion of deterrent motives as helpful for the doing of good, and the dread of punishment as unworthy of men, but the religious beliefs of a hereafter of suffering for the coward who dares not face the trials of life are still and have always been {290} valuable in keeping people up to their duty. The war restored some of the sadly needed old-fashioned attitude toward punishment as a help to discipline, and we are now more in sympathy with old-fashioned religious ideas in the matter.

There has been an even greater increase of homicide than of suicide and for very similar reasons. Our homicide rate here in America is a disgrace to a civilized country. Ambassador Andrew D. White, whose long experience in European countries made his opinion of great value, declared that for homicide we were the worst country in the world, with more killings of human beings to our credit than even vendetta-ridden Corsica. This is not due to any persistence of "wild west" conditions but obtains in the east as well as in the west. Indeed our large cities are by far the worst in this regard. New York and Chicago have many times as many murders annually as London has, though there is no very great difference in the composition of the population of these cities, for all of them house large numbers of foreigners of all kinds and they have about the same sort of slums and very nearly the same social conditions. Poverty is worse in London and if anything that ought to add to the homicide rate. Reverence for human life has very largely broken down, and the taking of it is not considered to be anything like the serious crime that it was even a few years ago.

This increase in homicide in civilized countries, like the increase in suicide, has come after the serious breakdown of religion. That the rise in the homicide rate is not a question of the familiar fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc, "after this therefore because of this", is the opinion of a number of men who have a right to have opinions {291} on this subject, and who insist that it is the obliteration of religious feeling with its emphatic insistence on the awfulness of the crime of murder that has largely served to make homicide the very common event that it is.

One powerful factor in this matter is undoubtedly the failure to punish murder properly, and as far as may be adequately, that has developed in recent years in this country. Very few murderers are executed. Less than five per cent altogether of those who have committed deliberate murder are ever executed, and in some States it is actually only two per cent. When but two out of every hundred men who take life deliberately lose theirs, it is easy to understand that men, in times of intense anger, will not have the restraint which would otherwise be exerted over them by the fear of prompt loss of life under disgraceful circumstances for themselves. Many a man will take his chances of having a long prison term for murder shortened by executive clemency or a pardon board who would hesitate very much over the thought of having to die himself by prompt legal measure. I have heard a distinguished jurist say that they execute nine out of ten of their murderers in England, while we execute a little more than two out of every hundred on the average of ours, so that there is little reason for wonder why we have ten times as many murders.

The real reason for this decrease in the number of executions and the growth of the opposition on principle to capital punishment in this country is the increasing obscuration of the belief in immortality. People have become afraid to do the irretrievable act of sending a man out of life because, thinking only in terms of this life, they feel he should have a chance for reform here and above all because they hesitate to think that men ever {292} have the right to deprive another of existence, for if there is no other world than this, the end of physical life means annihilation. If life is but the portal to eternity, however, at longest a brief period of trial before entering upon another and much more important stage of existence, then the execution of a criminal done with all the dignity of the law, exacting a compensation as adequate as possible for a wrong that has been done, instead of being a dreadful thing has a very definite nobility about it. Of course, if there is no other world, the question of execution becomes a very different consideration,-the obliteration of a fellow human being. This feeling is often not consciously reflected upon, yet it is effective in suggesting conclusions and ruling the mental attitude.

The old religious orders had a tradition that certain men, because of the circumstances in which they died and above all the fact that they had sufficient warning as to the end of life and the chance to prepare themselves for eternity, were predestined to heaven, though they might have to go through a great deal of suffering, quite as Dante foresaw, before getting there. Among these the most prominent classes were men and women afflicted with an incurable disease which it was recognized would surely bring on a fatal conclusion with but a few months' or years' delay, and then those who were condemned to death had their weeks and months of preparation in prison for that event. This intense belief in a hereafter made the outlook on both murder and execution a very different thing from what it is without it.

Sentimentality reigns now where the sentiment of justice formerly ruled. A man who has committed an ugly sex crime capped with murder or who has often, after making her life miserable for months or years, {293} murdered a poor wife in cold-blooded deliberateness, will be the subject of sentimental compassion during his trial from a crowd of silly women who will send flowers to his cell to lighten his solitude and who, if they can obtain permission, will visit him in the death house. They forget all that his victim suffered and the necessity for producing a definite effect upon the minds of others who might have the temptation to follow in his path, and whose minds are of a caliber that they can only be deterred by holding up adequate punishment before them.

The gradual diminution of the place of religion in life has given rise to an unfortunate phase of popular psychology with regard to the effect of punishment in general on human beings. The wisest writings that we have, the Holy Scriptures, which even those who might deny their direct divine inspiration would confess readily to contain the most marvelous knowledge of man and his ways to be found in literature, have insisted particularly on the deterrent effect of punishment held up before men and the reforming value of it when properly inflicted.

Probably nowhere in modern social life is a revival of religion more needed to save men from unfortunate tendencies in their natures than in what concerns the estimation of the value of human life and the prevention of a further increase in our awful statistics of suicide and homicide. Religion is almost more needed for this than for the so-called social diseases.


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