Welcome to the second installment of act three of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s biggest problem but your own. If you missed one or more of the previous installments, the entire series can be found here.

Last time we met Dr. Jean Twenge, author and professor, who has documented in our nation “a clear cultural shift toward individualism and focusing on self.” With the help of Ayn Rand and Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, we also asked ourselves, In our radically selfish world, what god do we now serve?

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Fifteen years after her groundbreaking research on individualism, Dr. Twenge helps us answer the question:

Individualism puts the self first, which doesn’t always fit well with the commitment to the institution and other people that religion often requires. As Americans become more individualistic, it makes sense that fewer would commit to religion.

Of course she’s right: more Americans are now serving a god other than God, or, if you prefer, no god at all. It’s not a new discovery or concern. In 1941, C.S. Lewis warned us of “the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.” Roughly seven decades later, author-theologian Tim Keller put some meat on the bones:

The secular worldview says there is only this world. The here-and-now material universe is the only reality. The natural is real, there is no supernatural … there is no transcendent … no spirits and souls, no god or devil.

Lewis argues it goes against our human nature, denying our desire for something not of this world. “Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.” Certainly Ayn Rand would cheer this evolution and, looking at the data, Lewis’s observation has been confirmed.

Religious “nones” are people who self-identify as atheists, agnostics or who say their religion is “nothing in particular.” The term does not include what I suggest is an equally prominent group of people, those who self-identify with a religious denomination but rarely or never give God a second thought, much less regularly attend worship services or participate in anything potentially deemed “religious.” That being noted, currently, here in the United States, we are experiencing an unprecedented rise of the self-labeled “nones.”

Looking at all adults, 16% of us said we were nones in 2007. Last year the number was 23%, an increase of 20 million people, or 52%. Millennials, young adults aged 20-35, are driving the growth of nones. According to Pew Research, 35% of millennials identified as nones in 2015, far surpassing Catholics (16%) and mainline Protestants (11%). The 2015 CIRP survey of American college freshman provides a remarkably consistent data point: 30% of the first-year college students identified as nones.

Professor Twenge analyzed data from surveys of 11.2 million teen respondents taken between 1966 and 2014. In a 2015 press release, she concludes “millennials are the least religious generation of the last six decades, and possibly in the nation’s history.” She attributes the shift to “cultural change, not to millennials being young and unsettled.” And she rejects the popular theory that, while organized religion is on the decline, some hazy notion of “spirituality” is replacing it: The young survey respondents “report being less spiritual and spending less time praying and meditating … religion has not been replaced with spirituality.”


A host of scientific studies tell us that, accompanying the rise of the nones, we would expect to see a rise in depression, suicide, unhappiness, and stress levels. In 2004, the American Journal of Psychiatry reported “subjects with no religious affiliation were more often lifetime suicide attempters and reported more suicidal ideation.” In addition to suicide, the study found that nones have worse general mental health (BPRS), significantly higher aggression, higher impulsivity, and a higher likelihood of substance abuse than those who identify with a religion.

Quoting the work of Amherst psychology professor Catherine Sanderson, in 2014 the Washington Post reported “people who have religious beliefs are happier than those who don’t.” Across the pond, in 2003 the University of Warwick found that “religious people are happier than those without spirituality in their life.” Data from the Austin Institute confirm the findings: 45% of people who regularly attend worship services say they are “very happy.” Only 28% of nones respond likewise.

Without a doubt, nones are on the rise. Studies and research warn us suicide and depression should increase as a result. So what’s going on out there in the real world? How are we doing as a nation of 23% nones? How are millennials, the vanguard of the movement, faring?

The short answer is, Not good.

Two weeks ago the National Center of Health Statistics released startling data that has been widely-reported: Between 1999 and 2014 the suicide rate in the US rose by 24%. The actual number of suicides increased by 47%, from 29,199 in 1999 to 42,773 in 2014. The New York Times reported “the question of what has driven the increases is unresolved, leaving experts to muse on the reasons.”

Really? Experts need to “muse” on the reasons?

Science tells us a lack of religious affiliation – being a none – leads to negative outcomes including suicide. Nones have increased by 52%, suicides by 47%. What conclusion might one draw?

Unfortunately the bad news does not end there. Deaths in the US from drug overdoses hit an all-time high in 2014, increasing 137% since 2000, to 47,055 Americans. Certainly heroin and other illicit drugs, as well as powerful opioids, are killing us, but “more Americans than ever are overdosing on anxiety drugs,” a fact I find almost inconceivably ironic.

No, it’s not because more of us are taking drugs such as Xanax and Valium. The number of filled prescriptions did triple between 1996 and 2013, but the number of overdoses quadrupled during the same time period. Can you believe it? We’re killing ourselves with drugs intended to curb our anxiety! That right there makes me anxious and in need of a sedative.

We’re not just drugging ourselves to death. Alcohol is killing Americans at the highest rate in 35 years. In 2014 more than 30,700 people died from alcohol-induced causes.

Millennials, the vanguard of the nones, are also the vanguard of gloom and doom. They report the highest levels of clinical anxiety, stress, depression and suicide compared to any other generation at the same age, according to Psychology Today. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of millennial suicides increased 22% and suicide is the third leading cause of death of young American adults. According to the American College Counseling Association, depression rates are soaring and 44% of college students have experienced symptoms of depression. Millennials also lead in anxiety disorders: 12% have been diagnosed, a rate 50% higher than Gen Xers and 71% higher than Baby Boomers.

I searched for an “expert” willing to connect what appear to be self-evident dots, but I failed to find one. At least in the secular media, no one seems willing to associate the increase in nones with the tragic increase in suicide, depression, stress and anxiety.

What’s interesting is plenty of commentators are talking about another phenomenon, our culture’s strange and inexplicable battle with vague feelings of dislocation and despair.

Recall what we read last time from Julian Edney, the author of Greed: “We exist in a kind of void, in which individualism flourishes….” In a 2013 cover story on the pursuit of happiness, Time noted that Americans, “trying to quell some psychic angst,” spend $10 billion annually on various self-help measures. Psychology Today in 2009 noted that “we all have personal addictions … workaholism, shopaholism, rationalism … [which are] our futile attempt to fill a spiritual and emotional emptiness within.”

Adding Doses of Hope Daily Foundation is a non-profit with a mission “to encourage, empower and elevate.” It acknowledges the void and almost connects the dots, suggesting that “we try to find a way to fill that emptiness, that void, by drinking, drugs, sex, relationships, work, eating, etc.” Among other empowering resources, it offers an eight-week program to help us improve our emotional wellness.

Is it just me, or are all of these sources dancing around a reality we don’t want to contemplate, much less discuss? Psychology Today waltzes the closest, noting in its laundry list that rationalism – from the dictionary “a belief or theory that opinions and actions should be based on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response” – is a “personal addiction” and “futile attempt” to fill the void.


From one standpoint, it’s an extraordinary admission. Rationalism, the very foundation of our enlightened, western, secular society, is an addiction and vain effort to suppress a painful hollow in our lives, a hollow we try to escape with drugs and alcohol and, the ultimate escape, suicide.

On the other hand, given what we’ve learned today about nones and mental health and our current state of despair, it’s tragically obvious: Rationalism has rendered us a neurotic, paradoxically self-obsessed and self-loathing, mess, a nation of Woody Allens. We literally kill ourselves trying to cure our own anxiety. If that doesn’t work, we literally kill ourselves.

Certainly an argument can and will be made disputing the correlation between nones and mental despair, despite the science predicting it. Pick a post-modern boogeyman: social media, bullying, our stagnant economy, student loan debt, income inequality, reality television. As a society we have plenty of reasons to medicate ourselves into a stupor or, as Psychology Today phrased it, “to gratify some long-buried need, to heal or at least numb some festering psychological wound.” Between rising sea levels and finding time to binge Netflix, not to mention the lunacy of the ideology and politicians the other guy supports, we have so, so many reasons to be depressed.

Or do we?

And how does any of this relate to our quest to define greed? I suggest to understand greed we must first understand ourselves, and that is the rocky path we are now on. Apart from drugs and alcohol and checking out early, how do we deal with the mysterious void, how do we try to quell our psychic angst? The answer to those questions might just answer our ultimate question, What is greed?