Religion may be one answer to the anxieties of life. People have never been more anxious. Yet, religion is in decline in developed countries. That is particularly true for younger people who stay away from church but flock to Facebook and other social media for answers to their anxiety.
In a couple of earlier posts, I argued that an improving quality of life is killing off religion. The gist of the argument is that religion helps people to cope with anxieties related to hunger, disease, disasters, and other threats to survival and is less in demand in societies where people expect to live long healthy lives. Ironically people in developed countries are more anxious than ever before but their unease is social rather than existential and religion has no remedy for wounded narcissism.
Religion as security blanket
The decline of religion with increasing affluence has various plausible explanations but the most persuasive one, for me, is the notion that religion serves as a sort of psychological security blanket that helps people to deal with the pain of uncertainty. That is why people who live in miserably poor countries where life is dangerous and short are highly religious (1). This explanation is called the existential security hypothesis.
Although the security-blanket concept of religion is supported by a great deal of evidence, there is one key fact that argues against it. That is the age of anxiety and epidemic of depression that we are currently living through. For there has been a steady rise in anxiety in the U.S. and other developed countries over the past half-century according to research by social psychologist Jean Twenge (2). If religion really functioned to reduce anxiety, how could anxiety be increasing at the very same time that religion is in decline?
Apologists for religion might argue that people are becoming more anxious and depressed because they no longer rely upon religion as a source of emotional security. Yet, this explanation is almost certainly wrong. Thus, some of the least religious countries, like Denmark, are also consistently scoring as among the happiest in the world.
So how can anxiety be rising in our era when religion is in decline? The answer is that the anxieties of modern life are very different from the existential threats experienced by people in underdeveloped countries. The main cause of rising anxiety in developed countries is concern over what other people think about us rather than threats such as hunger, disease or violence.
Religion has no remedy for wounded narcissism
Jean Twenge attributes increasing anxiety over time to fear of social evaluation and there is plenty of evidence pointing in this direction. In particular, people have become more narcissistic and more concerned with aggressive self-promotion. This tendency is particularly marked for younger generations and, by 2006, two-thirds of college students in the U.S. scored above the average narcissism score for 1982 (2). It is also more typical of countries with high income inequality, and more intense social competition, like the U.S., rather than the more self-deprecating style of more equal countries, such as Japan (3).
Modern anxieties have nothing to do with the sort of existential threats that prompt people in poorer countries to seek refuge in religion. On the contrary, modern anxieties are largely focused on how other people evaluate us. The younger generation are both more narcissistic and less religious. Religion has no remedy for the anxious narcissist.
So what do our troubled young narcissists do to cope with the anxieties they feel about whether others like, or respect them?
Apart from anti-anxiety drugs the only answers for frustrated vanity are good friends who support the ego, endless self-promotion, or old-fashioned career striving. That is why in the competition for young hearts and minds, Facebook is killing God.
1. Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2004). Sacred and secular: Religion and politics worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2. Twenge, J. (2007). The age of anxiety? Birth cohort changes in anxiety and neuroticism, 1952-1993. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 1007-1021.
3. Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press, p.44.