The cause for lower rates of suicide [among Catholics, Jews compared to Protestant] is to be found within the nature of the religious confession itself. But such an explanation, Durkheim insisted, cannot refer to the religious percepts of the confession. for there Catholics and Protestants prohibit suicide with equal emphasis; rather, the explanation must proceed from one of the more general characteristics differentiating them, and that characteristic — indeed, “the only essential difference between Catholicism and Protestantism” — is that the latter permits free inquiry to a greater degree than the former.
But if the proclivity of Protestantism for suicide must thus be related to its spirit of free inquiry, this “free inquiry” itself requires explanation, for it brings as much sorrow as happiness, and thus is not “intrinsically desirable.” Why, then, do men seek and even demand such freedom? Durkheim’s answer: “Reflection develops only if its development becomes imperative, that is, if certain ideas and instinctive sentiments which have hitherto adequately guided conduct are found to have lost their efficacy. Then reflection intervenes to fill the gap that has appeared, but which it has not created.” In other words, Protestantism concedes greater freedom of thought to the individual because it has fewer commonly accepted beliefs and practices. Indeed, it was this possession of a common, collective credo that, for Durkheim, was the essence of religious society itself, and that distinguished it from those merely temporal bonds which unite men through the exchange and reciprocity of services, yet permit and even presuppose differences; and, precisely to the extent that Protestantism lacked such a credo, it was a less strongly integrated church than its Roman Catholic counterpart.
Durkheim then suggested that this explanation is consistent with at least three other observations. First, it would account for the still lower suicide rates of Jews who, in response to the hostilitydirected against them, established strong community ties of thought and action, virtually eliminated individual divergences, and thus achieved a high degree of unity, solidarity, and integration. Second, of all the great Protestant countries England has the lowest suicide rate; and it also has the most “integrated” of Protestant churches. And third since knowledge is the natural consequence of free inquiry, we should expect that suicide increases with its acquisition, and Durkheim had little trouble demonstrating that this was the case.