America is dying of despair. That’s the conclusion of a recent study conducted by the Princeton economist Angus Deaton, who has followed the alarming, decades-long nationwide increase in deaths from drugs, alcohol, and suicide. Aaron Kheriaty comments:
There are doubtless complex factors in play, including economic problems. Predictably, liberals are calling for a stronger safety net and a single-payer health-care system, while conservatives are calling for a deregulated free market that will spur economic growth and raise all boats. Neither solution addresses the deeper cultural dynamics. . . .
Sociologists have documented the close connection, for example, between the retreat from marriage and declining religious participation, especially among the working class. As a consequence of these changes, many Americans have “lost the narratives of their lives,” as Deaton puts it. This leads to a loss of meaning and hope. . . .
We now have a sizable body of medical research which suggests that prayer, religious faith, participation in a religious community, and practices like cultivating gratitude, forgiveness, and other virtues can reduce the risk of depression, lower the risk of suicide, diminish drug abuse, and aid in recovery. To cite just one finding, . . . Tyler VanderWeele of Harvard’s school of public health recently published a study of suicide and religious participation among women in the U.S. Against the grim backdrop of increasing suicide rates, this study of 89,000 participants found that . . . between 1996 and 2010, those who attended any religious service once a week or more were five times less likely to commit suicide. . . .
There are straightforward reasons why religious practice protects against suicide. Church attendance is a social activity that protects people against loneliness and isolation. . . . Judaism, Christianity, and (in most cases) Islam also have strong moral prohibitions against suicide. In Hinduism and Buddhism, suicide is considered bad karma. When these moral prohibitions are internalized, they reduce the risk of deliberate self-destruction. Furthermore, religious faith can instill a sense of meaning and purpose that transcends present exigencies; this helps people not only to survive periods of intense anguish, but even to find meaning in suffering.