Despair in Secular America


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.

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25 thoughts on “Despair in Secular America”

  1. This author, in all his articles, “despairs” entirely too much. It has always been part of the Church’s business plan to claim “oh, we are so persecuted” and to bemoan “the culture”. Today’s situation is absolutely no different than it’s ever been.

    As a middle aged man myself (one who’s surviving just fine, thanks for asking), I would instead make the observation that the Church has abandoned its traditional role of being a hub of community life. Parishes no longer care about their members. The Catholic marriage is almost zero, and even though I live in a “growth region” of the US, I think the Church here will be in a desperate situation within another generation or two. But it’s a problem of the Church’s own making. “Society” has absolutely nothing to do with it.

    1. “This author, in all his articles, “despairs” entirely too much.”

      I have to call you on this one, Larry. You apparently haven’t read all of my essays or you wouldn’t be comfortable making a blanket statement like that.

      “Parishes no longer care about their members. ”

      You don’t really mean that no parishes at all care about their members, do you? It doesn’t seem reasonable to me that within the Church in the US, or anywhere else, no one cares about the members of the Church.

      Even if, in a particular parish, there are some indicators that might be taken as some lack of total effectiveness in pastoral care, who is “the Church”? It’s not just the old guys in Rome, it’s not just the USCCB, and it’s not just the pastor and associate pastor and/or parish council–it’s all of us–it’s each of us. We each have a role to play as members of the Body of Christ.

      “”Society” has absolutely nothing to do with it.”

      Larry, the point of this essay was a discussion of research findings showing increasing mortality rates here in the US, in what the researchers called “deaths of despair.” You don’t mean by your remark, do you, that the Church is responsible for American males’ increased mortality rates, or that the death rate has nothing to do with society or its state?

      May God give you and me, and all the members of the Church the grace we need to play out our parts according to His will for His Greater Glory. Thanks for your comments–God bless.

    2. An earlier comment said “You say that one needs not be a social scientist to figure what’s going on…..yet, you fail to recognize that correlation does not make for causation.”

      I should have simply expressed my agreement with that. Your essay makes several clumsy cause-and-effect theories that don’t really add up.

      It is probably a tangential issue that the Church in is collapsing in the US, IMO due largely to the failure of parishes to promote community life, which encourages members to stay and form families which stay.

    3. Thank you for your clarification.

      We each, in the way that we relate to our brothers and sisters, have a role to play in how effective the Church, or any organization, will be in carrying out its mission–how we communicate with each other, how we relate to one another as brothers and sisters in God, as being made in the image of God.

      May God bless you in this Holy Week, Larry.

    4. Well, I don’t understand what that response even means, or whether it’s relevant to the discussion. But I sense that the discussion is over anyway.

  2. Nice overview. I think that a good number of the challenges you mention in the article can be partly traced to our current emphasis on individuality and false autonomy, as well as entitlement. We see students challenging professors about actual facts, beliefs, feelings, and fantasies replacing information, and a strong sense of ambivalence about life-long commitment. The problem with these and many other examples is that they manifest the sense of separateness so many are feeling in these times. More attention to humans-as-social beings should be resurrected and encouraged. We have lost our connection with priorities, rights v. privileges, internal examination and understandings, and meaning. Social institutions have been degraded as part of a “system” that we feel we cannot trust. Unfortunately, the churches are in the cohort of those institutions. People feel let down and purposeless. It is no wonder to me that the data you cite are as they are.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Individuality and false autonomy indeed. When we take our gaze off Christ, what do we have left? We all have a higher level, transcendent need that we can’t satisfy with things of this life, with individual pursuits and achievements, etc. That need can only be satisfied by Our Lord.

      As members of a church or parish, we each have a responsibility, whether we’re ordained or not, to reach out and help other people create and strengthen their relationship with God, and with one another. It’s part of the great commission; it’s part of the great commandment. We each have a role to play, no matter what our background, training, etc. are. Knowledge of Jesus Christ needs to be shared–the experience of His love and peace needs to be made known to others. As St. Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Have a great weekend.

  3. Dom, I enjoyed your article. I especially liked the part about those who have faced grief becoming stronger to help others facing grief. I once interviewed Christian singer Michael Kelly Blanchard for radio and focused heavily on a collection of songs in an album he titled, “Good Grief.” It was a poignant and touching song journey through the process of grief and I found it gave me great hope as one of those middle-aged men who often struggles with the secularization of society. Your essay was well researched and thoughtful. I didn’t see the supposed racial overtones others saw. I understood the underlying ideas in the writing. Well done.

    1. Thanks, Mark! We each will have our crosses to bear all right, but “He gives power to the faint, abundant strength to the weak…They that hope in the LORD will renew their strength, they will soar on eagles’ wings; They will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint.” Is 40: 29, 31. I think the challenge we face as believers is to be that light in the darkness, to find a way to provide hope for others who don’t know or trust the Lord.

  4. Your article connects the despair in America with the rise of “secularism” in America. From a scriptural angle, what your article describes is explained by St. Paul. When looking to the future of the Church, St. Paul spoke of a future “apostasy” (i.e., loss of faith, apostasia in the original Greek) and the revelation of the “lawless one” (2 Thes 2: 2-8). St. Paul even gives the reason that this would take place: “they have not accepted the love of truth so that they may be saved” (2 Thes 2: 10). This diabolical dimension explains the fury and Pharisaical self-righteousness of the secularists in their desire to eliminate anything religious. They are under the spell of the Father of Lies who hides behind expressions like “mercy killing” to eclipse the truth about the evil involved. Nevertheless, St. Paul also predicts the victory of goodness through the “breath” (Holy Spirit) of Jesus which in some mysterious way will reverse the situation. At Fatima, Mary basically repeats what St. Paul said with the promise “My Immaculate Heart will triumph and a time of peace will be granted to the world.” She asked especially for the prayer of the rosary as our indispensable contribution to hastening the day of the triumph that requires human cooperation with heaven’s merciful designs.

    1. Thanks, Dhaniele, for the good points you raise. During this centenary year of the Fatima apparitions, we all should indeed be praying the Rosary even more fervently and complying with Our Lady’s requests. The battle we face is, as St. Paul told us, “…is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.” Eph 6:12

  5. Strange that you would use as a basis of argument the Economist article that “white middle aged ….” I find that a bit racist where only 59% of Catholics are white, 39% Hispanic and the remainder other ethnics. You say that one needs not be a social scientist to figure what’s going on…..yet, you fail to recognize that correlation does not make for causation. Lots of bloviating solopsism in one post? Look the data, and all it is is data…..

    1. Neither the article I cited nor my essay said anything about the people in despair being Catholics or not, nor did they refer to ratios of ethnic backgrounds of Catholics. If you read the essay for the overall big picture, the point is that a study shows middle aged men have higher mortality rates lately. At the same time, the culture is moving away from God. True–correlation doesn’t necessarily make for causation. The essay is my opinion, one which you don’t share. The link you provide really is irrelevant to the point of this essay although it does provide interesting data regarding demographics of Catholics.

    2. What do you have against white middle aged men? Do you hate them?

      How about you stick to the facts in the article?

    3. I don’t believe he hates white middle-aged men. I just think the data are somehow irrelevant for him, since the studies do show that the author is correct about “middle-aged” and “white.”

    4. Counties that have experienced a lesser falling away of Christians, like Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have higher suicide rates.

      Countries like the UK, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand which have seen larger and quicker lessening of Christian practice have smaller rates.

      So think that until you do further research your conjecture is fairly baseless. I will concede one point. If you are a Christian who has been taught and truly believes committing suicide is a sin that will condemn you to eternal suffering in Hell, it is almost certain you are less likely to do so.

    5. Thanks for your feedback. Not sure if you’re aware of the current Church position on suicide, but the Catechism addresses it:

      CCC 2282 “…Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

      CCC 2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

      My conjecture is based on what I see in the US, through the lens of a lifelong Catholic that’s been around for a long time. You apparently have other opinions, different from mine.

    6. But notice the caveats,,,,

      “….can diminish the responsibility ….”

      “…By ways known to him alone, God can….”

      In much the same way that they use caveats to back away from the teaching of limbo, they can only present a hope to try to rollback from a teaching they can see is cruel. Of course they cannot just say they were wrong and apologise for the anguish they have caused.

      I am a white middle-aged Irish Catholic atheist (btw I did not see a hint of racism) so I just see things from a different perspective. It’s quite natural to see things through a narrow lens at times but it really is worth the effort to step back and try to use a wide angle. In truth I think the narrow lens is more of an American habit than a Catholic thing.

      Edit: punctuation.

      ETA2: Thanks for replying. It is always interesting to engage with the author of the OP. Have a nice weekend!

    7. it is a pleasure to be able to discuss this with you. I want to follow up on something you mentioned just now. The Church exists to help us, each one of us, find joy in this life, including healing and the wherewithal to overcome the tribulations that life throws at us, not to cause anguish and hurt. It’s just the opposite of that.

      The true Catholic faith calls each of us to reach out in charity and help one another, to bring one another to a relationship with Jesus. He is infinite Love and Mercy–the true Healer. We just need to give Him a chance, to open our heart to Him and let Him do His work on and in us. His Mother, Our Lady, is there always, with us, watching over us, interceding for us with Him. We just need to ask her for her motherly help.

      All we’ve gotta do is ask. They’re waiting for us. I see that you label yourself as a “Catholic atheist.” Come back home–come to the peace of Christ. May God bless you abundantly, provide you with His healing graces and the joy that no one else, and nothing else, can ever give. And you have a great weekend as well!

    1. Not sure what your comment means. What you’re referring to, I believe, is a quote from the article in The Economist, based on the research their article summarized.

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