I’ve been working on my blog design lately. Occasionally, a situation will arise in which I do something that totally messes things up, and I wish for the option to roll back to a “last known good” configuration. I used to love this option on Windows. If you (or a process or driver) did something that put the operating system in a bad state, you could always roll back to the last known good state and get things up and running. It was like being able to go back in a time machine to before a failure (a power most of us would like to have IRL). It was a chance to correct something and make it right, and then avoid the negative consequences.
When I look around at American society in the last few years, I sometimes think about what it would be like to have the ability to go back to a time when things were a little more settled and certain. Some of our experiments haven’t exactly turned out as planned, and it would be nice to roll back to a last known good state. A colleague recently shared this article by Steve Goldstein in MarketWatch about findings of a strong correlation between declining religiosity and deaths of despair among a certain demographic. The article notes that, “So-called deaths of despair such as from suicide or alcohol abuse have been skyrocketing for middle-aged white Americans.” A new paper postulates that the reason for this trend is fewer and fewer people (particularly those without college degrees) are attending church services.
The troubling trend of rising “deaths of despair” started to occur in the late 80s, even before the opioids often blamed for the problem had been released to the market. Church attendance declined in a manner parallel to the mental health decline seen most especially in lower-income or rural communities.
The paper makes the distinction between having a personal spiritual practice and attending something like a communal worship service.
What’s also interesting is that the impact seems to be driven by actual formal religious participation, rather than belief or personal activities like prayer. “These results underscore the importance of cultural institutions such as religious establishments in promoting well-being,” they said.
Despite the paper’s findings, I think we need to be careful about ascribing what seems to be a multivariate issue to a single cause. However, the loosening of community bonds has long been known to be a factor in increasing loneliness and negative mental health outcomes. We are bearing witness to this phenomenon in some very distressing ways.
Belief In Belief
I don’t share these findings because I think there is an easy solution. For one thing, we can’t simply instrumentalize faith. Freddie deBoer writes about “belief in belief” in this piece.
It is one thing to argue that religion is true or is not true. It is another to say “it isn’t, incidentally, but go on pretending, it’s good for you.” In the inherent condescension of that attitude I see something worse than Christopher Hitchens ever unleashed against the faithful. Whatever Christianity is, it is not worship of the God-shaped hole. Whatever Judaism is, it is not the worship of the God-shaped hole. Whatever Islam is, it is not the worship of the God-shaped hole. And in fact if you take the precepts of those religions at all seriously, you can see praying to the God-shaped hole for what it is: idolatry.
Not only does it seem wrong to look at other people and think that the protective effects of faith are simply a positive delusion, but there’s a fallacy in thinking that you can simply conjure true belief. It’s not possible. I know someone who would love to believe and participates in rituals that are centered around belief, but does not in his heart truly believe. It’s a certain kind of torment for him. Throughout my life, I’ve heard various stories about the futility of trying to resolve yourself to a faith that you can’t totally reconcile in your mind and spirit. So, there’s no easy prescription to solve this problem. Which brings me back to last known good.
It’s a temptation to stare at the past through rose-colored glasses. As a lover of history, though, I feel like we should learn from our mistakes and successes when examined through clear eyes. Despite all of our progress, there are things that the ancients, the primitives, and even people in the 80s did better than us. Sometimes perhaps we should to look back at the last time we can remember something working, examine the conditions, and learn from the exercise.