Upcoming Research: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Altruistic Suicide

It’s summer again, and I have a few short months to do independent research of my liking before getting into the deep again. In late August I’ll be starting a rather intensive Modeling and Simulations program at The Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center. This—effectively—means I’ll have essentially zero time to pursue research into strictly qualitative areas. Therefore, I’m going to spend the summer doing a qualitative research project I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time.

Previously I conducted a year-long study on the origins of self-immolation as a form of political protest. I use the word “origins” not to mean “the first recorded occurrence,” but rather the conditions likely to cause self-immolation to occur. While conducting my research I noticed an interesting trend in the US during Vietnam and in the Arab World during the Arab Spring. First, in the US every case for which I had sufficient data (name of victim, date of suicide, location of suicide, and either suicide letter, witness statement, victim biography, etc, or a combination of several), I noticed these were deeply religious people: A Catholic Worker, a Quaker who prayed to God for guidance before setting himself on fire, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who felt the Vietnam War was a prelude to the end of the world and that she was a modern-day David fighting her own Goliath (the Johnson Administration). Second, many—if not all—of the victims of self-immolation in the Arab World were also deeply religious (although, to be honest, there are several cases where insufficient data exist). Note that these are all victims of suicide who ascribe to religions that prohibit suicide.

I’ve previously addressed the question before on this blog: Under what conditions might we expect people to commit self-immolation despite their religious beliefs? The previous question was what role does religion play…? which I now believe is a faulty question. While religion might make certain people—particularly Quakers and Catholic Workers—more attuned to social tragedies, I don’t think I’ll ever find a compelling causal relationship between the Church (or dogma) and suicide protest. The current question is more in-tune with reality.

In the following passage I quote my thesis (pp. 66-67), which also quotes Michael Biggs:

This religious theme uncovers interesting questions. First, is belief in god correlated with the decision to self-immolate? Michael Biggs notes that the vast majority of self-immolations from 1963 to 2002 were “most frequent in countries with Buddhist or Hindu religious traditions…” Additionally, he points to belief in a supernatural being as a motivational factor in the decision to self-immolate. He writes, “Self immolation is an exchange: in return for the sacrifice, a supernatural agency will intervene on behalf of the cause.” While this might indeed be a motivation for believers in the Eastern gods, it cannot definitively be stated that it serves as a motivation for believers in the god of Abraham; the Abrahamic god promises no eternal reward for suicide, but rather eternal suffering.

The last sentence is what prompted this question. Why do Jews, Christians, and Muslims commit suicide by self-immolation when, by doing so, they fully expect to spend eternity in hell? Let me unpack this a little bit.

The act of self-immolation is an altruistic act. That is, it is done because the actor believes by sacrificing themselves they can change a hopeless situation and better their society. This is, in its every sense, a selfless and secular act. But as far as I can tell, in the US and the Arab World all victims are deeply religious. But this makes it all the more interesting; these people are willing to risk eternity in Hell in exchange for alleviating some of the temporary pain their society experiences in a temporal reality!! I’ll ask it again: Why? 

Well, I hope to have some kind of answer to that question very soon. Methodologically, I’m already finished. I merely need to duplicate my previous methods, tweaking them here and there to account for a smaller sample (I obviously have to control for Eastern Asian protestors). My literature review is already complete. All I have to do is go back to the data. It shouldn’t take me too long to finish this research project, but peer-review could take considerably longer. In any case, you’ll have something at least resembling an answer to this question relatively soon.

In the meantime I’ll try to keep this page as up-to-date as possible. Unfortunately, I completely forgot to make any posts during the last week—including my Science Sunday post—because I was too busy formulating this study. So more things could fall through the cracks, but I’ll do my best.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political and social activist.
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