From time to time I’ve asked rhetorically whether there might be a link between the loss of faith and the rise of despair. For example, in a memoir I wrote:
We sometimes say people “lose hope” and become despondent, perhaps to the point of despair or even suicide, but what does that phrase really mean? Lose hope in what? Important to consider, because this phenomenon – of “losing hope” — is so widespread, now. It’s measurable in the epidemic of opioid addiction and suicide rates, for two examples, but it exists in less plainly measurable forms, too, as a kind of twilight that has entered the world. This feeling of the loss of “enchantment” of the world is not something I’ve made up, it’s something I’ve observed, during the course of my lifetime. It is a malaise resulting from the loss of a sense of purpose and meaning. People “lose hope” that there is any point in continuing to breathe.
I think what’s happening is that people who don’t believe in God in any form become ever more aware that the only philosophical alternative that seems viable in the modern secular world is naturalism: the belief that physical things and forces constitute all of reality. It’s a bleak outlook, because it necessarily means there’s really no point to anything we do, other than survival and pleasure. Surely that’s not enough.
Sometimes despair is manifested in something well short of suicide, such as loneliness resulting from leaving off actively seeking or cultivating friendships. This is often remarked on by commentators these days, because it is an increasingly observable phenomenon: people stoically going about their daily lives with a generalized connection to “society” but not individuals within it.
As you may recall I get a blog almost daily from Michael Mattix (subscribe here). On June 20, 2019 he remarked on his study of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, like this:
“Friendship according to Aristotle is the ‘most necessary’ virtue. . . . [F]riendship is one of the foundations of civilization. It is what binds a city together.”
Mattix observes that this classical notion is repeated down through history. The idea is that to live only in solitude is to live a sub-human life. His conclusion:
“It seems to me that we’ve lost this high view of friendship as an aspect of human identity, which we now regularly confuse with personality or view as a discrete construction of the autonomous will rather than as something that is composed of universal attributes. So, it is no surprise that our lives increasingly look like those of the cyclops. We live in caves, in fenced-in back yards, and “consume” each other—on television, in movies, on Facebook and Twitter. And because our lives (I’m speaking generally here about American culture) are ordered around maximizing physical pleasure, not virtue, they must end in suicide when the body’s capacity for physical pleasure wanes. The opioid crisis starts with this low view of human nature and won’t end until a grander view is recaptured, which I don’t see happening any time soon.”