On this Sunday today’s read is from Susan C. Olmstead in the Epoch Times, January 4, 2023:
The recent dramatic increase in “deaths of despair” (suicides, fatal drug overdoses, and deaths due to alcoholism) is directly connected to the decline in organized religion in the United States—and to the repeal of “blue laws” that once prohibited some commerce on Sundays in observance of the Christian Sabbath.
This is according to a 2022 study by economists Tyler Giles, Daniel Hungerman, and Tamar Oostrom called “Opiates of the Masses: Deaths of Despair and the Decline of American Religion.”
Over the past two decades, note the researchers—who are from Wellesley College, the University of Notre Dame, and Ohio State University—the death rate from drug poisonings in the United States has tripled. At the same time, the suicide rate and the rate of alcoholic liver disease have increased by 30 percent.
Middle-aged white Americans have been hit especially hard, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences cited by the authors. Among this group, increases in deaths from these causes have been so dramatic that at the turn of the century, all-cause U.S. mortality rates began to rise, reversing decades of decline.
The Repeal of ‘Blue Laws’
The “Opiates of the Masses” authors attribute this in part to the repeal of so-called blue laws, an act they call a “policy-based shock to religiosity.” When centuries-old blue laws—enacted initially to preserve the Christian Sabbath as a day of rest—were repealed, businesses were permitted to remain open on Sundays. As a result, participation in religious services fell.
Using graphical analysis and difference-in-differences methods, the economists were able to map a direct connection between the repeal of these laws and the increase in deaths of despair.
Among middle-aged Americans, they found, the repeal of blue laws had a 5 percentage-point to a 10 percentage-point effect on weekly attendance at religious services and increased the rate of deaths of despair by two deaths per 100,000 people.
Blue laws are still on the books in only 28 states, and most of them prohibit only alcohol sales during limited hours. A very small number of counties also prohibit car sales and hunting on Sundays, but for most of the United States, Sunday blue laws are a thing of the past, and the concept of strictly observing a day of rest for religious reasons is now foreign to most Americans.
Although 77 percent of churchgoing Protestant Christians say they observe Sunday as a day of rest, only a small number of them refrain from shopping or attending entertainment events, according to a survey by Lifeway Research. One-third report avoiding paid work.
“Americans are a privileged society [in which] people often enjoy two days off a week. For many, this may make observing a Sabbath day something many churchgoers don’t give much thought to,” Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said in a statement.
“Today, however, we see blue laws being repealed and most businesses open seven days a week. U.S. Postal Service trucks are now out delivering packages on Sunday.
“Taking a Sabbath may be something people have to become even more intentional about.”
Religion Provides Structure, Comfort
In an extensive 2009 review of the body of literature published on religion and mental health featured in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Harold G. Koenig argues that religion provides both comfort and structure to people’s lives.
He calls religion “a powerful coping behaviour that enables people to make sense of suffering, provides control over the overwhelming forces of nature (both internal and external), and promotes social rules that facilitate communal living, cooperation, and mutual support.”
Religious beliefs and practices provide “guidelines for human behaviour that reduce self-destructive tendencies and pathological forms of coping,” he claims, leading to fewer deaths of despair among the religious.
Attending a religious service at least once a week is associated with greater life satisfaction, more frequent volunteering, a higher sense of mission, a greater tendency to forgive others, and lower probabilities of drug use and early sexual activity, according to a study including about 6,000 young adults.
In this study, conducted by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and published in 2018 in the American Journal of Epidemiology, young adults who had had a religious upbringing including attending religious services also reported better mental health than those who hadn’t.
The researchers also asked how often the subjects prayed or meditated, senior author Tyler VanderWeele told The Epoch Times. Frequency of prayer and meditation, along with more frequent religious attendance, had a protective effect against the “three dangers of adolescence:” depression, substance abuse, and risky sexual behaviors, he said.
Religion is “certainly not the only important protective factor,” but an “important health and well-being resource and one that to my mind is being neglected, especially in adolescents and young adults,” VanderWeele said.
“I do think some of the decline we’re seeing in young people’s mental health and well-being is [caused by] declining rates of religious participation.”
The Harvard study authors didn’t recommend becoming religious solely to reap health benefits, but wrote, “Encouraging service attendance and private practices in adolescents who already hold religious beliefs may be meaningful avenues of development and support, possibly leading to better health and well-being.”
Along with providing social support, hope, purpose, and values, religion helps adherents develop self-discipline and self-regulation as they seek to follow their faith’s guidance and systems, VanderWeele said.