Today’s students are an anxious bunch, with 1 in 4 college students taking psychotropic medications, according to the American Psychological Association. Mental health issues among teens and young adults have increased over the last decade, with anxiety and depression the most common concerns. This wasn’t always the case, so what has changed?
Scientists don’t have a definitive answer, and it’s likely due to multiple causes that are intertwined, including the snowballing influence of being surrounded by other anxious humans, stress from participating in social media, a constant stream of negative news, more frequent comparisons to wealthy and attractive people, unhealthy diets, vaping and other substance abuse issues, economic and financial pressures, an increase in the divorce rate, overindulgent parenting that promotes self-esteem over coping with disappointment, an excessive focus on oneself and a corresponding lack of empathy, excessive academic pressure to get into “good” colleges, stress from an increase in the available options for personal identity, the availability of an overwhelming amount of information that increases confusion, and a mismatch between the natural environment in which humans evolved and the artificial and technology-infused environment in which we live.
That’s a lot of things for a young person to contend with. Some days you have to wonder how they’re still standing. And in addition to all those trends working against today’s kids, there has been a decline in religion and religious schools, which provide a sense of purpose and a community with shared values such as peace and gratitude that serve as a bulwark against life’s challenges. Regardless of one’s belief —or not — in a higher power, there’s no denying that scientific studies of religion and spirituality are generally supportive of their mental health benefits.
Most religious schools aspire to educate for wisdom, wonder and joy — virtues that are lacking in modern life. Pursuing these calls us to thoughtfulness. Contemplating the mystery of how the universe began and the vastness of creation promotes humility. The amount of energy needed to create all that is seen and unseen is enormous, and you come away with the sense that there is something greater behind it all. This puts our lives into perspective, giving us needed rest from our hyper-connectedness and self-absorption, which yield to awe and gratitude that help us see life as a gift.
“The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility. ... The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle,” Albert Einstein said. There’s comfort in the fact that physical laws govern the universe. There is an order to things, not just in the physical realm, but in the social, economic, political and moral realms as well. Truth isn’t relative to one’s personal circumstances or culture. Some things are universally true, good and beautiful.
No matter where you live or who you are, isn’t friendship still among the noblest of human arts? In what culture are charity and mercy not virtues? Can you name a government that is immune from corruption? “Relativism,” Robert Littlejohn wrote, “permits each person to define his own version of each of these values, resulting in a world in which six billion people are each encouraged to live according to unrelated and even opposing definitions of notions that are fundamentally important to civic harmony.”
A fundamental contradiction of modern, secular education is that in its effort to be neutral with regard to viewpoint, it promotes relativism to the point in which there are no standards with which to evaluate the other points of view and perspectives that relativism values. This leaves students even more confused, and understandably anxious.
It is impossible to teach students from a neutral worldview. Even the worldview that says all worldviews are equal is taking a position. Religious education done well promotes a particular view of the world, examines alternative views and explores doubts. It gives students a place to stand while they explore what they believe. Modern education is more like quicksand, where students find themselves quickly buried and unable to see anything. Religious education provides a place to stand and a light to shine in the search for truth.
This sort of liberal religious education differs greatly from the religious fundamentalism that has become popular in the last few decades. Religious fundamentalism adopts the mentality of scientism, which says science is the best or only way to see the world, and applies it to religion. It promotes dogmatism and certainty over the humility and peace that the world’s major religions have long promoted, and has contributed to the decline of religion and religious schools, which have much wisdom, wonder and joy to offer to an increasingly anxious world.