Is science or religion to blame for moral decline?

Introduction

It is widely believed that modern society is in sharp decline. Among the ills cited are skyrocketing rates of crime, divorce, teenage sex, teenage births and drug abuse and a general decline in personal morality and religiosity.

Religious fundamentalists frequently pin the blame on modern science in general, and on evolution in particular. For instance, at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky (a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio), one display, warning of the consequences of a scientific worldview, features photos of a nuclear explosion, a collection of skulls from the Holocaust, and what may be a photo of a woman undergoing an abortion. Another exhibit in the museum, named “Graffiti Alley,” displays news clips about birth control, abortion, divorce, mass murder, stem cells and war.

Not to be out-done, numerous secular writers blame religion. Christopher Hitchens declares that religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children” [Hitchens2007, pg. 56]. These writers also note the numerous wars in Europe and elsewhere that have been fought in the name of religion [Atheists].

So do these claims (from both camps) have any substance? What are the real facts here?

Some examples of decline

There are certainly some aspects of society today that most observers would agree represent moral decline. Internet fraud and porn are clearly a problem. For example, matrimonial lawyers report that excessive interest in online porn is a factor in half of all U.S. divorce cases [Divorce2010]. And even though some progress has been made recently in thwarting spam, 70.5% of all email is now spam [Liebowitz2011].

Another area of grave concern in modern society is the rising percentage of children born to unmarried women. In the U.S., this percentage has risen from just 10.7% in 1970 to 18.4% in 1980, to 28% in 1990, to 33.2% in 2000, and to 41% in 2010 [Health2010]. Social problems such as this are exacerbated by the growing level of income inequality, especially in the U.S. Average after-tax, inflation-adjusted household income of the top 1% of the population grew by a whopping 275% between 1979 and 2007; for the bottom 20%, incomes grew by just 18% [Ventura2009].

Other statistics: Where is the decline?

But beyond items such as the above, it is difficult to identify any clear-cut instances of significant decline in morality. Here are some of the latest statistics:

  1. Crime. It is widely believed that crime, from minor burglary to serious violent offenses, is growing worse every year, and is prima facie evidence of societal disintegration and a wholesale breakdown of morality. Yet the facts point in quite the opposite direction. Indeed, the latest U.S. crime data has stunned even the most optimistic of observers. In the wake of the worst economic slowdown since the Great Depression, where millions were thrown out of work or homes, the 2011 violent crime rate was 4.5% lower than in 2010, which in turn was 5.5% lower than in 2009. Similarly, the 2011 property crime rate was 1.3% lower than in 2010, which was 2.8% lower than in 2009. In fact, the 2011 overall U.S. crime rate is the lowest in 40 years, and is down by more than a factor of two since peaking in 1994 [FBI2011; Oppel2011]. Interestingly, the largest cities have seen some of the largest declines. In New York City, from 1990 to 2011, homicide dropped by 80%, burglary dropped by 86%, and auto theft dropped by 94% [Zimring2012].

    Similar declines have also been seen in many other major western nations, although not quite as dramatic as in the U.S. Among the G-7 nations of Europe, robbery rates declined 21% from 1995 to 2010; homicide rates declined 32% (from already low levels); and vehicle theft fell 46%. In England and Wales, for instance, 400,000 cars were stolen in 1997, but only 86,000 in 2012 [Economist2013a].

    This decline in crime has confounded criminologists worldwide. Some of this decline is undoubtedly due to demographic factors (fewer 16- to 24-year-olds). But crime continues to fall in some areas, such as London, where this age bracket has recently started to grow again, and the sheer magnitude of the decline in places such as Los Angeles and New York City cannot be ascribed merely to demographics. Others have suggested that the legalization of abortion in the 1970s has reduced crime, by reducing the number of youngsters growing up in poor environments. But crime rates have continued to fall in the U.S. long after the post-Roe-vs-Wade cohort passed through the 16- to 24-year-old age bracket, and they have also fallen in Canada and the U.K., where abortion was legalized long ago. Better policing and law enforcement may be helping, but again cannot be more than a partial explanation [Economist2013a]. Harvard social scientist Steven Pinker argues that people worldwide, especially in major first-world nations, are becoming fundamentally more averse to crime, especially violent crime [Pinker2011b] (see Violence for additional discussion). But whatever the explanation, the breadth and magnitude of these statistical facts can no longer be ignored.

  2. Divorce. One of the most commonly mentioned ills of modern society is a soaring rate of divorce. But here too the facts say something different. In the U.S., the divorce rate per thousand people peaked in 1981, and has declined ever since. Indeed, the divorce rate in 2005 (3.6 divorces per 1000 population) was the lowest since 1970. It is true that the marriage rate has also been declining, but even if one computes the number of divorces per married couples, here too the rate has fallen, from a peak of 22.8 divorces per 1,000 married couples in 1979, to only 16.7 in 2005 [Stevenson2007]. These figures are based on a 2007 study and data only up to 2005, but U.S. divorce rates since 2005 have continued the pattern of slow decline, according to the latest federal government data [National2011.
  3. Teenage sex and birth. It is also widely believed that teenage sex and birth rates are exploding out of control. Yet a 2009 report from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics reported that the percentage of American high school students who have had sex (2007 data) is somewhat lower than in 1991 (47.8% versus 54.1%) [Parker2009]. More recently, in 2011, the U.S. teen birth rate fell to 31.3 births per 1000 women aged 15-19, a record low. This is 25% lower than 2007, and only half the rate in 1991, when the rate was 62 births per 1000 teens [Loehrke2013].
  4. College campus “hookup” culture. Along this line, many decry the “hookup” culture on college campuses, and cite this as clear evidence of moral disintegration. Yet in a study published in August 2013, University of Portland researchers found that the percentage of college students who reported having sex at least weekly in the past year declined from 65.2% in 1988-1996 to 59.3% in 2002-2010. Further, the percentage who reported having more than one partner in the previous year also declined slightly over this time, from 31.9% to 31.6%. These researchers concluded, “Our results provide no evidence that there has been a sea change in the sexual behavior of college students or that there has been a significant liberalization of attitudes towards sex.” [SD2013f].
  5. Abortion. Some say that the teen birth rate is lower only because more young women are getting abortions. But the number of abortions in the U.S. peaked in 1991 at 24 per 1000 U.S. women aged 15-44, and has dropped since then to 16.1 [CDC2008].
  6. Teenage alcohol, cigarette and drug use. Here again, the latest facts differ sharply from public perception. According to a 2011 report by University of Michigan researchers, only 12.7% of 8th graders reported any alcohol usage in the prior 30 days, which is down by nearly half from the 25.1% level in 1991. Among 10th graders, the figure is down from 42.8% in 1991 to 27.2% in 2011, and among 12th graders, it is down from 54% in 1991 to 40% in 2011. Even more dramatic declines have been seen in teen smoking — in 2011, only 6.1% of 8th graders, 11.8% of 10th graders, and 18.7% of 12th graders reported any smoking in the prior 30 days, which are down from 14.3%, 20.8% and 28.3%, respectively, in 1991. Cocaine and crack usage have also declined sharply — in the 2011 report, these rates were at the lowest levels since the study began tracking them. One area of concern is marijuana usage: in 2011, 7.2% of 8th graders, 17.6% of 10th graders, and 22.6% of 12th graders reported some usage in the previous 30 days, which figures are roughly the same as in 2003. But even these figures are down from 1997 when these rates peaked [Johnston2011]. Along this line, the prevalence of drinking and driving among youth 16-19 has dropped by more than half since 1991 — from 22.3% to 10.3%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Brown2012].

Conclusions

In short, there is absolutely no substance to the claim that science is responsible for the perceived large-scale decline in morality. And there is absolutely no substance to the claim that religion is responsible for this perceived decline either. This “decline,” by all objective measures, simply does not exist, or at least certainly not to the extent that it is typically pictured in commentaries of the secular left and the religious right. It is a regrettable consequence of the media’s fascination with bad news, and the overall scientific and mathematical illiteracy of the public.

On the other hand, there is no room for complacency. Just because progress has been achieved in crime and other social ills for the past 15 years or so is no guarantee that these declines will continue — they may reverse!

This is an arena where both science and religion can join hands in benefiting society. Science can study and document the dangers of social ills and our progress (or lack of progress) in combatting them. Religion can work with both youth and adults to help them recognize their obligations to the larger human family, both locally and globally, and also to recognize the futility of resorting to violence, gangs and warfare to settle differences. Thus encouraging everyone, men and women, to become well educated, not only helps them become better informed and economically independent, but also helps ensure that the next generation of children are raised in ideal homes.

For additional details and discussion, see Decline and Violence.

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