Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Is bullying and over-reliance on social media really behind the increased numbers of youth suicide and drug addiction, or is the lack of religion and the higher meaning it lends to life the real culprit?
Writing for National Review, Paul Vitz, a senior scholar at Divine Mercy University and a professor emeritus of psychology at New York University, and Bruce Buff, a management consultant, believe the typical reasons for why our youth are turning into “snowflakes” who can’t tolerate even the whisper of an opposing viewpoint without going into meltdown mode, may not be due to technology overuse and bullying.
In addition, as Vitz and Buff report, pre-adult suicides are up three to five times (depending on the source) since the 1950s and still increasing. One study reported that 10 percent of the young are taking anti-depressants.
They cite a recent article by Susanna Schrobsdorff of Time magazine entitled, “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright.”
In it, Schrobsdorff notes that “adolescents today have a reputation for being fragile, less resilient, and more overwhelmed than their parents growing up.” This is due to an increase in mental-health issues in college-age students which has led to the average well-being of this demographic to have been in steady decline since measuring began in the 1970s.
If American society is better off today economically than it was 50 years ago, and we have a better understanding of mental-health problems, what’s behind this worrying trend?
Schrobsdorff suggests that a culture riddled with social media, smart phones, and school pressure is to blame. The only problem with this theory is that these factors did not emerge until well after the observed decline of adolescent and mental health.
Instead, “A far stronger case can be made for our society’s decline in religious faith as the cause of these mental pathologies in the young,” Vitz and Buff believe. “The decline in religion that began in the ’60s has accelerated in the past 15 years and is especially great among young people.”
For example, a recent Pew report found that over a third of young respondents described themselves as “believers in nothing in particular.”
“Schrobsdorff’s omission of religious decline is one indication of how great the decline in religion has been — and how much our secular culture is in denial on the issue,” Vitz and Buff continue. “The media just doesn’t ‘get’ religion.”
The authors go on to explain how, in America, the transcendent dimension of life has historically been expressed primarily through the Judeo-Christian tradition, and its decline in recent years has created an enormous vacuum in meaning.
“This vacuum has been ‘filled’ by postmodern nihilism combined with the ‘deconstruction’ — aggressively taught in the academy — of belief in objective truth, goodness, and beauty. Moral relativism now eclipses transcendent meaning. The fragility of many young people — often termed ‘snowflakes’ — shows their emotional vulnerability. They interpret ideas that challenge them as unbearable acts of aggression, and they use harsh and even violent measures to silence disagreeable opponents.
“In short, the prevalence of political correctness is a clear sign that belief in higher meaning and rational discussion has ceased to function in much of our higher-education system. Furthermore, political correctness is itself a symptom of the unstable mental condition of those who insist on it.”
As a result, countless young people are now living in a world without any real meaning and who feel there is nothing for them to believe in.
“Emotional numbness is one of the consequences. They no longer value themselves for their inherent worth and dignity as created by God; they no longer find self-worth in their efforts to lead lives based on truth and love,” the authors continue. “Instead, many of our young people look outside themselves for validation — to material goods and social feedback. But many find these superficial, transitory, and empty. In addition, the decline of religion has resulted in sexual relations becoming trivialized and deprived of any greater meaning. The ‘hook-up’ culture leaves many wounded young people in its wake.”
This trend is in spite of the fact that numerous studies over the past decades have shown that people with strong religious beliefs are happier, healthier and live longer than those who have little or no faith.
“Having faith in God and attributing a religious meaning to life anchors people, directs their efforts to things beyond the material world, protects them against setbacks, and provides supportive community,” Vitz and Buff write.
So what can be down to turn around this worrying trend?
First, the government need do nothing more than get out of the way and be less hostile toward religion. Thankfully, recent Supreme Court decisions dealing with religious issues suggests that the last eight years of hostility toward people of faith may be coming to an end.
Individuals can also respond in many ways. For example, parents can encourage their children by practicing the faith in the family. They can encourage them to join serious religious peer groups such as teen youth groups, Christian clubs and studies such as the Young Women of Grace study, which is aimed at introducing girls to the dignity and value of their feminine genius. These groups build strong bonds among teens and give them a kind of encouragement in the faith that can only come from like-minded peers.
In addition, grandparents, aunts, and uncles should not be afraid to give teens good Christ-centered advice. And for those youth who are drawn to atheism, loved ones can gently introduce them to a different perspective by reading new books on the subject such as Alister McGrath’s Twilight of Atheism, Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt and Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos.
“Religious and private schools can make a tremendous difference in their student communities by regularly emphasizing the importance of God and promoting faith,” Vitz and Buff suggest.
They also recommend that business leaders and other professionals speak out about their faith in public settings.
“There have been times in America’s past when religion was in decline and seemed on the way out — especially according to its intellectual detractors. But at these moments, Biblical religion recovered with new movements and energies. We propose that we are now at the threshold of another such renewal.
“Let us pray so, since our secular culture offers no credible reasons to believe in higher meaning. It offers only empty materialist distractions on a slow march to societal suicide. The plight of our young sounds a wake-up call we can no longer ignore.”
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