There are two key issues facing Americans that are relatively new, and seemingly getting worse each day. The first is extreme polarization resulting from the continuous tearing of the social fabric that binds Americans together. As people feel less connected to their country, they revert into factions with an “Us vs. Them” mentality. The second issue is the increase of mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, and suicide.
An estimated 8.3 million American adults suffer from serious psychological distress, and the numbers are even more concerning for young people. According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 10 to 24. The CDC also notes that suicide rates among Americans between the ages of 10 and 17 increased by 70 percent from 2006 to 2016.
Some people point to the economic struggle of the Great Recession as being the likely cause of the increase in mental health issues, but as the economy has recovered and the markets have consistently hit record highs, the mental health crisis has only increased.
So, what is the cause for this crisis of polarization and mental health?
There is strong evidence that the loss of meaning and connection to others has directly resulted from the degradation of religion. “The Great Decline” of religion has resulted in young Americans today being far less religiously active than previous generations. According to Pew Research Center, two-thirds of adults born in the Silent Generation (1928-1945) pray daily, compared to just 39 percent of Younger Millennials (born 1990-1996). The numbers are identical for those who say that “religion is very important” in their lives.
Americans increasingly lack a sense of purpose, a common cause for depression and suicide. It’s not a result of poverty or income inequality, as poorer countries tend to have much lower suicide rates than wealthy countries. Wealthier nations tend to be less religious than poorer ones, though the primary religion in virtually all wealthy nations is Christianity. However, among wealthy nations with similar GDP, the more religious ones report higher levels of life meaning. Americans also have an intuitive sense of the problem of religious degradation. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 77 percent believe that religion is losing influence in the United States, and 75 percent believe that the nation would be better off if more Americans were religious.
Religion doesn’t just provide meaning to people who may otherwise feel hopeless, it also unites people in a cultural and moral sense. The American motto E Pluribus Unum means “out of many, one.” This simple phrase encompasses American ideals of equality and individual sovereignty, both of which are derived from Christianity. It’s a delicate yet beautiful balance between individualism and unity.
Humans appear to have an inherent desire for meaning in life, individually and collectively. Individual meaning gives us some goal to pursue, in which we improve ourselves in an attempt to reach that goal. Collective meaning brings us together in life, providing the expectation of reciprocity that allows communities to thrive together. It’s why even the most devout atheists live as if there’s a purpose to life, even if they don’t actively pursue a religious ethos.
Jonah Goldberg writes in Suicide of the West, “Religion provides a framework for how people approach the world, for how they prioritize wants and desires, for how they structure their days and their lives.” Amherst College psychology professor Catherine Sanderson says that religion “gives people a sense of meaning, well being, and comfort.” Religious people are also more likely to get married and have children, which has a profound effect on happiness and life purpose. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that highly religious American adults are happier, more engaged with family, and more likely to volunteer.
One of the universal truths of life is that it involves suffering. It’s a theme in the Bible and also a Noble Truth in Buddhism. Religion has long been the antidote to such suffering through the fulfillment of meaning and sense of community. While mental health issues are affecting more and more Americans, tribal polarization also threatens to tear apart our social fabric. You can argue that religion is just another embodiment of tribal conflict as is often the case, but Christianity acts as a profound exception.
Goldberg also writes that, “From its earliest days, Christianity recognized that every person was due a certain measure of justice, and every person was obliged to respect others as children of God.” This appeal to common humanity rather than to common enemy, as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, is what makes Christianity so valuable on an individual and societal level.
Despite the attempts to “progress” our nation beyond religion, Christianity remains the best force for promoting individualism, unity, and purpose. A force that must be fostered and cultivated, not degraded.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.