The place of religion in American life has never been more confused, contested and contradictory.
Hamline University's leaders have been widely pilloried in recent weeks for their decision to sever ties with an art history teacher who displayed an image of the Prophet Muhammad, outraging some Muslim students who believed their faith profaned. Hamline's critics denounced the school for allowing religious teachings to impinge on academic freedom, and last week the administration confessed its response had been "flawed."
Meanwhile, today's conservative U.S. Supreme Court stands condemned among progressives for variously "dismantling" or "taking a hatchet to" the separation of church and state through two rather different alleged sins.
First, by overturning Roe v. Wade last year, the court is allowing states to elevate faith-inspired community judgments on abortion over individual choices. At the same time, the court in a series of rulings has allowed individuals claiming religious objections to defy community judgments when anti-discrimination laws or other government edicts clash with their beliefs about same-sex marriage, birth control, public prayer and more.
The court can't quite make up its mind whether community values or individual convictions are paramount. But, then, neither can its critics.
Whatever individual knots one ties oneself into trying to apply consistent principles to such debates, they dramatize religion's surprisingly durable power to puzzle, inspire and divide — a power mere reason and logic often cannot match.
"Many a man will live and die upon a dogma," said Cardinal John Henry Newman. "No man will be a martyr for a conclusion."
But are Americans dying for lack of a dogma — as a side effect of the undeniable reduction of religion's clout in the nation's life over the last 30 or 40 years?
That's the provocative, and no doubt divisive, conclusion (consider this your trigger warning) explored in "Opiates of the Masses? Deaths of Despair and the Decline of American Religion," a new working paper from economists at Notre Dame, Wellesley and Ohio State published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Tyler Giles, Daniel M. Hungerman and Tamar Oostrom base their inquiry on the suggestive timing of two striking, much discussed social trends of recent decades — first, an abrupt decline in "religiosity," especially among middle-aged white Americans; and second, soaring death rates from suicide, drug poisonings and alcoholic liver disease (so called "deaths of despair"), to the point of reducing overall life expectancy in America for the first time in decades. Once again, the researchers emphasize, it's a trend driven by rapidly increasing mortality among "less-educated white Americans."
This deplorable trend among a group once labeled "deplorables" has inspired a good deal of attention — justifiably, the researchers say — focused on the rise in such death rates following a sharp increase in the prescribing of opioid painkillers in the mid to late 1990s. But deaths actually began to soar years earlier, they add, a "change in the early 1990s" that is just "as striking but [which] has received little attention."
Giving that earlier surge of sorrowful deaths the focus they think it deserves, these economists note that the increase came hard on the heels of an equally remarkable shift in social behavior when church attendance suffered a sudden decline after the mid-1980s.
If overuse of narcotic painkillers "provided a new source of fuel" for the explosion in despairing deaths, the researchers suggest, "decline in religiosity provided a lit match."
Beyond the suspicious timing, Giles, Hungerman and Oostom find other persuasive circumstantial evidence of a link between waning religiosity and rising deaths. "We know of no other cultural phenomenon involving such large, widespread changes in participation prior to the initial rise in U.S. mortality," they write. "Nor do we know of any other phenomenon that matches the seemingly idiosyncratic patterns observed for mortality."
As noted, both the loss of faith and the rise in despairing deaths were concentrated among less educated middle-class white Americans. Both trends also were seen among women and men alike, and in both rural and urban communities — but neither occurred in other countries (Europe's secularization came much earlier).
"The decline in religiosity matches mortality trends in all these characteristics," the economists say.
Variation among states supported the hypothesis as well. "States with high levels of religiosity have suffered less from mortality due to alcohol, suicides or drug poisonings," the study reports, And "states that experienced larger decreases in religiosity have had the largest gains in the rate of deaths of despair."
Even so, Giles, Hungerman and Oostrom concede that these patterns could be mere correlation, not causation. "They leave open the possibility that another unobserved phenomenon is driving both religiosity and deaths of despair," they write. In search of stronger evidence of cause-and-effect, they landed on the repeal of so-called "blue laws."
Blue laws, going back centuries, enforced the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship, prohibiting many activities on Sundays, including the sale of many types of products. Most were gradually repealed beginning in the 1960s. Minnesota, as it happens, retained some blue laws later than many states, permitting Sunday liquor sales only in 2017 (Minnesota car dealerships are still closed by law on Sundays).
The new paper zeros in on the year 1985, when three states, Minnesota, Texas and South Carolina, became among the last to broadly repeal many blue law restrictions. The researchers wanted to see whether setting free more alternative Sunday activities had reduced churchgoing, and whether any change in mortality rates followed.
The calculations are complicated; the verdict is not. "We show that the repeal of these laws lowered religious participation," the economists write. And "we find that repeal led to an increase in deaths of despair" compared with states that did not see a sharp change at that time in religious observance.
Interestingly, "Opiates of the Masses?" reports little evidence of dramatic change in reported levels of "spirituality" — frequency of prayer or of some form of belief in God. Apparently, churchgoing itself — "attendance and participation in organized religion, rather than personal spiritual habits" — is "the mechanism at work in our results."
With that in mind Giles, Hungerman and Oostrom acknowledge that their hypothesis fits within decades of research and worry about the dissolving bonds of social connection in modern America, at least as far back as Robert Putnam's iconic "Bowling Alone" in 2000 and including voluminous studies of weakening family ties.
"Whether other types of voluntary or community activities could have similar large-scale effects on health outcomes is unknown," the economists write. But "the literature suggests that the primary benefits of religious participation for life satisfaction are difficult to replicate with other forms of social engagement."