I've been reading Walker Percy lately, that southern Catholic who thought that many moderns are “lost in the cosmos.” In his mock self-help book, Percy demonstrates the problems of modern mankind with a questionnaire which attempts to make the reader evaluate his or her place in the world. As I was reading this for a class, one question stood apart from the rest.
Percy asks his readers why scientists are trying to communicate with chimps and whales.
It's an odd question but Percy gets at the loneliness of modern man by showing how we long so deeply for communication with other beings, and yet are unable to communicate among ourselves. The tangible evidence for such a statement is everywhere (just observe the smartphone use on the subway, in the lobby, and even during class), and you can easily see this by looking at medical records over the past 20 years, which show the rapidly rising rates of depression.
Where does this depression and loneliness come from? The phenomenon isn't as new as you might think. In fact, Alexis de Tocqueville addressed it in his famous work, Democracy in America. Tocqueville wrote that Americans are Cartesian without ever having read Descartes, because they trust little and doubt often. With this kind of a mindset, ideals like friendship are not achievable, and leave the American person on his or her own, disconnected from the surrounding world.
As we all know, one of the features of modern society is the increase of leisure, separating us from necessity. Without necessity driving us to focus upon work and survival, we are left to face our loneliness.
So, it would seem to be the case that an overabundance of freedom as well as our tendency for Cartesian thought has put us in a predicament of sorts. We're no longer sure of our purpose, and have more freedom than we know what to do with. Our conscious is allowed to run wild, often leading to bouts of depression and other mental illnesses as we search for purpose in a seemingly purposeless world.
I would argue that we need religion now more than ever. Religion offers definition to modern life, encouraging us to act virtuously, limiting pure freedom and giving it purpose. It's the only remaining safeguard between us and what Percy referred to as “the hell of pure possibility.”