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Despair in Secular America

March 30, AD2017 25 Comments

A new research report shows an increase in the mortality rate (deaths per 100,000 of people) among middle-aged American men. Citing the study, this  article, written from a secular perspective in The Economist tells us:

“White middle-age mortality continued to rise in 2014 and 2015, contributing to a fall in life expectancy among the population as a whole. The trend transcends geography. It is found in almost every state, and in both cities and rural areas. The problem seems to be getting worse over time. Deaths from drugs, suicide and alcohol have risen in every five-year cohort of whites born since the 1940s. And in each group, ageing seems to have worse effects.”

The article goes on to give some possible explanations for what the researchers call “deaths of despair.”

The Secular View

The Economist, like most other major media publications and outlets, provides a secular explanation for life’s happenings. In this case, they cite a variety of possible root causes for the seemingly increasing rate of despair among Americans. The list includes the increase in “unstable cohabiting relationships rather than marriages,” and an abandonment of “traditional communal religion in favor of churches that emphasize personal identity.” Also, in the opinion of the author, inadequate government support, together with easy access to opioid drugs are contributing factors. I believe there’s something far more significant involved in this trend.

The Secularization of America

It doesn’t take a social scientist to see what’s going on in our current culture. Special interest groups continue to push Christianity out of the public square. Consider the fact that prayer in public schools has been banned for over 50 years. This has been taken to such an extreme that invocations at high school graduations aren’t allowed and coaches are prohibited from praying with their teams at games. Outside of the school system, Christmas and other expressions of religious beliefs face continual challenges.  For example, an effort is under way to remove a cross from a veterans’ memorial in Minnesota. The list goes on, but you get the picture. Hostile forces have been actively attempting to remove God from the culture. It is no mere coincidence that five-year cohorts of men born after 1940 are experiencing higher mortality rates due to behaviors driven by an attitude of despair.

The Dictatorship of Secular Relativism

With the increase in efforts to push God out of public awareness, we’ve seen the increase of secular relativism. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger, told us, “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.” The mistaken and illogical belief that there is no one truth has led to a variety of moral problems. If everything is okay to do, then nothing is really not okay, so eat, drink and be merry—pursue your own happiness and to hell with being concerned about anyone else. Don’t be concerned with God and anything that gets in the way of egoism and self-actualization at all costs. Each to his or her own delight.

Moral Values and Behavior in a Secular Society

While attacks on religious expression increase, civility continues to decrease in our society.  According to a 2016 survey on civility:

“Americans tend to absolve themselves from contributing to the coarsening of society, saying uncivil behavior is more prevalent the farther they get from home. Ninety-four percent say they always or usually act politely and respectfully; 72% say the same for people they know; 56% for people in their community. But only 20% of the respondents think the American people always or usually behave civilly.”

As is so often the case, the survey shows that, individually, we believe we ourselves are okay.  It’s just that the rest of those characters need to change the way they behave. Yet it does show broad recognition of uncivil behavior in general. When we lose our focus on God, and on loving God and our neighbor, it’s easier to ditch civility. It’s easier to ignore inconvenient moral principles.

Gallup polls over the last 15 years have shown that Americans believe the state of moral values is getting worse. As a society, we are more accepting of euthanasia and unmarried sex. Public approval of having a baby outside of marriage has increased. Approval ratings are still lower than disapproval for pornography and teenage sex, but their approval ratings actually have increased as well! The top three concerns mentioned by respondents in the Gallup survey on morality were: consideration of/care for others; lack of family structure; and lack of religion/faith. Throw out God, throw out consideration of (love of) neighbor. Push God and faith out of the picture, and watch the traditional family disintegrate. Diminished emphasis on religion and faith goes hand in hand with these.

Religion in an Increasingly Secular Society

And what about religion and faith? The efforts to push religion and the expressions of religious beliefs into the background are just part of the story. Gallup also has been conducting polls on religious beliefs. Not surprisingly, the importance of religious beliefs in most Americans’ lives has trended downward over the last twenty years. Similarly, the belief that religion is losing its influence on American life has increased. Declared membership in a church or synagogue has decreased from 70% to 55% of  respondents. Today a smaller percentage of people believe in God, the devil, heaven or hell than 15 years ago. For those who don’t believe, it’s easier to justify relativistic moral decision-making that puts the individual, not God, at the center of everything.

Remove God—Backfill with Despair

Why would so many middle age men in America be doing themselves in with suicide, drug overdoses and drinking? Looking at all of the trends we see in surveys such as those noted above, is it any surprise? Obviously, this has not all come about overnight. It’s taken decades to get to this point. We’ve been witnessing the gradual secularization of America. Step by step, over time, society has removed references to God. Existential depression and despair have moved in. Increasing suicide rates have followed.

We all experience many challenges throughout life.  Even with a strong faith in God, these challenges can be difficult to face. Without God at the center of our lives, they can be overwhelming. Granger Westberg, a chaplain and professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Medical School confirms this. In his classic work, Good Grief, he tells us:

“As I have watched hundreds of people go through earthshaking experiences of grief, I have seen that those whose religious faith is mature and healthy come through the experience in a way that makes them better able to help others who face similar tragedies. I have seen people develop a deeper faith in God as a result of their grief experiences…Persons who are spiritually more mature seem to be able to wrestle more effectively because they are aided by the conviction that God is with them. They do not feel that they have to face the present and the future alone.”

What Can We Do?

Westberg’s suggestion to build a mature faith seems to be really good advice. The more we know and trust in God, the better equipped we are for the difficult times. We will encounter difficult times; it’s not a matter of if, but when. The deeper our personal relationship with Jesus, the more able we are to pick up our cross and follow Him. Consider what Saint Paul tells us:

But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed…2 Cor 4:7-9

This comes from a man who was arrested and beaten multiple times, stoned, and shipwrecked. Yet his faith carried him through it all. May our faith do the same for us.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Dom is a Benedictine-educated cradle Catholic, a revert to the faith, and is an Oblate of St. Benedict. In addition to consulting to management in the CPA profession and elsewhere, he and his wife of 40+ years attempt to live according to the three pillars of Church authority--Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. They are both active at their parish where he is an Instituted Acolyte and a 4th Degree Knight of Columbus.

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