“Deaths of despair” are rising among middle-aged whites, and may be due to a reduction in religion.
According to Marketwatch, which reports a study by researchers at several universities, “deaths of despair” have been growing dramatically among middle-class white Americans.
Deaths of despair, according to Wikipedia, are deaths attributed to “suicide, drug or alcohol overdose, or liver failure.”
Note the researchers:
The authors noted that many measures of religious adherence began to decline in the late 1980s. They find that the large decline in religious practice was driven by the group experiencing the subsequent increases in mortality: white middle-aged Americans without a college degree.
The disturbing rise in these tragic types of deaths among middle-class whites is not a new phenomenon. It’s been going on for a while, and has mostly been attributed to the opioid epidemic and economic inequality. However, this is perhaps the first article I’ve seen that attributes the trend to a decline of religion. That’s been a theory of mine for awhile, so it’s nice to see a study back up what myself and probably a lot of others might have already known intuitively.
This article struck me for a number of reasons. I am white (partly, anyway). I am middle-aged. And I am a former fundamentalist Chick-tract-passing-out Christian teenager turned non-religious/agnostic adult.
I’m almost smack dab in the bullseye of the target demographic.
The only exception is I do have a college degree, at least as far as a liberal arts diploma counts as a “degree.” FYI, it doesn’t.
Income and net worth wise, I’m well past the U.S. median, though still considered middle-class.
Despite this, I don’t engage in any behaviors that would lead to a “death of despair.” I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs.
I do, however, struggle with general feelings of apathy and nihilism, which I would attribute partly to my agnostic worldview. Emerging from the vortex of fundamentalist Christianity was probably the most psychologically grueling process I’ve ever undergone. And I’d be lying if I said that I feel “freed” or “liberated” from the supposed shackles of religion.
Going from thinking you’ve got a mansion in the sky waiting for you after you die, to realizing you’re going to simply cease existing when your ticket’s finally punched, ain’t an easy thing to do.
Though nowadays I do lend credence to the concept of reincarnation. If it was possible for me to exist once, who’s to say it can’t happen again, in some future universe? Lightning strikes twice all the time, contrary to the old saying.
Sometimes, I wish I could go back. Sometimes, I wish, like Cypher in The Matrix, I could reinsert myself back into my religious worldview, and forget I’d ever left in the first place. It was comforting. Hopeful. It gave a sense of peace. I mean, how reassuring is it to think you’re communicating with the all-powerful creator of the universe when you close your eyes and pray? As opposed to just whispering into empty air?
But once you’re out of the religion game, there really is no going back. It would take monumental self-hypnosis, or a literal Road to Damascus moment, to psyche myself back into becoming a true believer.
I don’t align with the atheist movement, which is predominantly far left-wing, with a small libertarian aspect — two political ideologies I don’t espouse — and is also borderline toxic and hateful. I find the movement has a lot of misplaced anger towards religion, and is populated with ax grinders burned from bad childhood religious experiences. I am not anti-religious. I think religion has an important, even vital place in society, and for most people. Just not for me.
However, this article has prompted me to consider a question:
Is it worth believing in a “lie” if it makes your life better and gives you a sense of purpose?
I put “lie” in quotes because who’s to say that any one religion or another is truly just mythology or not, and whether a god or gods exist or not. I’m content with simply saying, “I don’t know,” hence my agnostic posture. I prefer to keep an open mind rather than make some arrogant declaration of certainty.
I don’t think the solution to all of these deaths of despair is simply getting back to religion. I don’t think a revival, even a Billy Graham-level one, would do the trick. Science has put too much of a wedge between glib faith and the cold, unrelenting force of reality. Information is too readily available that debunks so many religious claims, that in years past, would have gone unchecked and unchallenged. Naivete came easy thirty plus years ago. Now you’ve got to actively work at it. Facts are a mere Google search away.
For instance — and I’m ashamed to admit this, but I’m going to anyway — I believed into my young adult years the claim of a young earth. One of my “evidential” claims was the fact that Neil Armstrong only stepped into a small layer of dust on the moon, which would indicate, given the annual amounts of space dust that land on our lunar neighbor, that creation had only been around for 6,000 years. Then I found out how the dust compacts into the hard surface over time, leaving only a powdery top layer, and my long-held “theory” got blown apart.
Hey, at least that’s not as bad as claiming God is real just because the banana can fit in your hand, like Mr. Ray Comfort.
Living in a “post-religion phase,” coccooned in cold scientific truths, has its downsides. The loss of religion leaves a huge vacuum. The human mind is too active, reflective, and unwieldy in some ways to only subsist off of raw data. It craves meaning, purpose, and fulfillment, which are not things the world readily provides. Especially not our modern culture, which prioritizes consumerism, and trains its young to mainly aspire to corporate citizenship.
I graduated college almost five years ago. In my second to last semester, at the end of the term, one of my professors asked the class what our plans in life were post-college. The question did not indicate career specifically. It was general and open-ended. It was more about the vision we had for our lives. We were all well-acquainted with one another at this point. It was two weeks before Christmas.
Everybody answered something related to either career or continuing advanced degrees, with many stating they would be weaving political activism into their lives in one form or another. Not one person mentioned a desire or plans to get married or start a family. This was a class that was two-thirds female, incidentally, all ranging in ages from 22–25.
Everybody was apparently a good little worker bee eager to punch the time clock.
The lone exception was a young female international student from a Muslim country. She’d had an arranged marriage when she was a teenager, and already had one child. I don’t advocate for arranged marriages. But there was no doubt that this young woman felt fulfilled in her life. She often spoke glowingly about her daughter, and had published poems about her. This young woman was also a good student, though she was held back by the language barrier. She often reached out to me for help outside the classroom.
From a Western perspective, this young woman was “exploited,” because of her arranged marriage, and having a daughter at such a young age. Yet, I never got a sense from her that she felt exploited whatsoever. What’s more, she was freely pursuing an education. It’s not like she was being kept locked in the house in some patriarchal dungeon.
Even if you see religion as superstitious remnants of mankind’s ancient past, there’s no denying the role it plays as a social and psychological glue. Remove it, and people fill in the gaps with something else. And that something else may not always be comprehensive enough of a framework to navigate through the struggles of life. Things like career, poltical activism, social media, pop culture, even movie franchise fandom. Star Wars and Marvel may as well be de facto religions by now. Those are all nice things to care about, but I doubt any of them are enough for most people.
Religion also used to foster many romantic relationships. Now millions of singles turn to the slot machine world of Tinder, Match, Bumble, Hinge, and others. Reducing themselves to a mass of digitized pixels to be swiped away with the flick of a finger. A generation of secular wizards poofing away unacceptable mates on a magic screen. No wonder global population is plummeting.
Even basic relationships seem to have gone missing. Community is largely atomized and directed online. As though our souls were being slowly sucked into the cyber world, leaving skin-shaped husks behind to play pretend in the “real world.”
Ask most people today what their spiritual views are, and you’ll likely get the standard answer: “I’m not really religious.” A statement almost always delivered with a palpaple grimness, if not discreet regret. But whether one adheres to one denomination or another, or subscribes to one holy book, or the other, is not really the point. It’s more about what thread keeps your seams from splitting apart. For thousands of years, for most people, religion was that thread, however nonsensical, quaint, or silly it may seem to another’s perspective. But sadly, it seems many people have had that thread pulled, and whatever replacements they’ve found are sorely lacking.