In January 2023, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a study titled “Opiates of the Masses? Deaths of Despair and the Decline of American Religion.” The study looked at the association between decline in religious practice and deaths from drug poisoning, suicide, alcoholic liver failure, and other such deaths.
Importantly, the researchers did not look only at self-reported religious belief, but indications of religious practice. In order to do this, the study took data from the early 1970s to the end of the 20th century. This time period is known for its decline of religious belief and practice. The researchers attributed this decline in part to the repeal of so-called blue laws.
Blue laws are laws concerned with legislating particular religious observances, most commonly Sabbath day observance. After these laws began to disappear, there was a downturn in church attendance, particularly among white males, the demographic that the study looked at the most.
Although much of the data used was from middle-aged, white males, the researchers found that for middle-aged Americans, in general, the repeal of blue laws impacted weekly attendance of religious services by up to 10% and increased deaths of despair by 2 deaths per every 100,000 people.
The researchers stated their findings, “The repeal of these [blue] laws lowered religious participation…we find that repeal led to an increase in deaths of despair.” They claimed that “this result holds across a variety of specifications and is robust to issues raised in recent work.”
The rates for deaths of despair at the turn of the century, where this study’s data left off, has a steep and continually increasing trend. According to a 2019 report by the United States Congress Joint Economic Committee, the deaths of despair rate doubled between 2000 and 2017.
“This finding is especially noteworthy given that research frequently finds that nonreligious organizations often fail to successfully duplicate the sense of community, social services, and cohesion provided by participation in a religious tradition,” the study concluded.
Not only can it be said that the increasingly secular nature of our society is less uplifting, but it is causing poor outcomes. Religiosity, and the actions that go along with it, prevent these deaths and improve quality of life. Likewise, the people in a society with less religion are plagued with such despondency that more of their lives are lost due to deaths of despair.
Written by: Jacob Fisher
Contributor at The Cougar Chronicle
The Cougar Chronicle is an independent student-run newspaper and is not affiliated with Brigham Young University or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.