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Is modern society in decline?
Updated 15 June 2018 (c) 2018
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; war; and a general decline in personal morality and religiosity. There is also concern that modern science and technology is leading to a widening of the gap in living conditions and educational opportunities between prosperous first-world nations and impoverished third-world nations. Such concerns are raised by both the secular left and the religious right right.
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. For additional details, see Decline-blame.
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 highlight, among other things, the numerous wars fought in Europe and elsewhere in the name of religion. For additional details, see
Atheists and Decline-blame.
So what are the real facts here?
Some examples of decline
There definitely are some aspects of society today that most observers agree represent decline, or at least areas that need further study and assistance:
- Out-of-wedlock births and single-parent households. In the U.S., the percentage of children born out of wedlock has risen from just 10.7% in 1970 to 41% in 2013 [Curtin2014]. For births to American women under 30, fully 50% are now out of wedlock [DeParle2012]. These figures are even higher in certain nations of Western Europe. But these rates now appear to have topped out and are starting to decline. In Japan, only 2% of children are now born out of wedlock [Ventura2009]. Along this line, significantly more couples are living together unmarried than in decades past. A 2013 study found that 75% of American women have lived with a partner without being married by the age of 30 (although 40% of these unmarried partners transitioned to marriage within three years) [Lopatto2013]. Educational level is a major factor here. Fully 70.7% of women aged 30-50 with four years of college are currently married, versus only 53.5% of those without a high school diploma [Kopf2017]. What's more, 78% of women who are college-educated when they are married are likely to be married 20 years later, versus only 40% of women who have a high school education or less [Wang2015; Coontz2014]. Among women with a bachelor's degree, only 5% became pregnant while living together, versus 33% of women without a high school diploma [Lopatto2013; DeParle2012].
- Internet fraud and "addiction". At least 60% of email is now spam [Liebowitz2011], much of which is utterly fraudulent [Whitney2009]. Many youth and young adults devote huge amounts of time to Internet-based distractions [Kaiser2010]. Internet porn is also an issue. Many employers in the U.S. and elsewhere prohibit employees from viewing porn on the job, since such material is widely regarded as sexist and time-wasting [McElhatton2014]. A 2016 study found that divorce rates double when one of the partners starts watching porn [Shultz2016].
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 or, even more broadly, in overall standards of living, at least on a global level (although there are problems at certain state and national levels). In 2018, Harvard social scientist Steven Pinker analyzed this phenomenon in detail in his book Enlightenment Now [Pinker2018]. He cited hundreds of examples where the popular perception of pervasive decline is not only wrong, but perversely in error. Here are some of the latest statistics, taken both from Pinker's book and other sources:
With regards to worldwide living conditions, Matt Ridley asks us to imagine a better-off-than-average family somewhere in Western Europe or Eastern North America in 1800 [Ridley2010, pg. 13]:
- Crime. It is widely believed that crime, from minor burglary to serious violent offenses, is spiraling out of control. Yet the facts point in quite the opposite direction. The 2015 U.S. violent crime rate was 372.6 per 100,000 residents, down by a factor of two since peaking in 1993. Property crime has also dropped by nearly a factor of two since 1993 [Gramlich2017]. In New York City, from 1991 to 2016, the homicide rate dropped by 87%, and the burglary rate and auto theft rate also dropped by similar percentages [Kirby2017]. In Los Angeles, homicides are down 76% from 1991 [Poston2015]. The figures for both cities are the lowest since solid data began to be collected in the 1960s. Crime has dropped so much in Western Europe that the Economist asked "Where have all the burglars gone?" [Economist2013a]. There has been an uptick in a few U.S. cities during the past year or two (e.g., Chicago and Baltimore), but in most other cities, in the U.S. and elsewhere, crime continues to fall. For example, in New York City there were only 286 homicides in 2017, only about 1/8th of the 2245 recorded in 1990, and the lowest since the 1950s when the city's population was much smaller [Southall2017; Park2016].
This decline in crime has confounded criminologists. While some of this decline may be due to demographic factors (fewer 16- to 24-year-olds), crime continues to fall in some areas where this age bracket has recently started to grow again. Others have suggested that the legalization of abortion in the 1970s has reduced crime, 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).
- Life expectancy. Life expectancy in Europe and America hovered around 35 for over two centuries, before soaring, starting about 1880, to over 80 at the present time. Worldwide, life expectancy has soared from 29 in 1880 to 71 today. Along this line, infant mortality has plunged from 25% in much of Europe as recently as the late 1800s, to a fraction of a percent today. Similar precipitous declines have recently been seen in numerous other nations, including the poor regions in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa [Pinker2018, Chap. 5].
- Disease. As recently as the early 1900s, epidemics repeatedly ravaged populations around the world, striking down hundreds of millions, both rich and poor. But within the past century disease after disease has been either eradicated or enormously reduced, thanks to research, vaccines and better medical care. These include smallpox (eradicated in 1977), polio (only 37 cases remain) and Guinea worm (only 25 cases remain). Others likely to be eradicated in the next decade include elephantiasis, river blindness, blinding trachoma, measles, rubella, sleeping sickness and hookworm. Deaths by malaria have fallen 60% since 2000, and WHO workers hope to reduce this by another 90% by 2030 [Pinker2018, Chap. 6].
- Malnourishment. Throughout history, waves of famine have decimated societies worldwide, with hundreds of millions of victims, and hundreds of millions more have suffered from malnourishment. As recently as 1870, the number of worldwide famine deaths per 100,000 was 1400; today it is virtually zero. Similarly, in spite of widespread dire predictions by writers such as Paul Ehrlich in the 1960s that the world would soon face mass starvation, the percentage of people in the developing world who are undernourished has declined from 35% in 1970 to 15% today, and further reductions are all but certain in the decades ahead as scientific agriculture continues to advance [Pinker2018, Chap. 7].
- Economic output. China and India, each with over one billion persons, have now achieved the same per-capita income that Sweden had in the mid-20th century, thanks in part to the "great convergence," namely the phenomenon of poorer countries advancing faster than richer ones. More importantly, the number of persons worldwide living in extreme poverty ($1.90 income per person per day or less in inflation-adjusted 2014 dollars) has dropped from 90% a century or two ago to just 10% today, and every day the number of persons in that category drops by a whopping 137,000 [Pinker2018, Chap. 8].
- Economic nequality. Inequality remains a big challenge, but it is worth noting that on the worldwide stage, as mentioned above, inequality has actually been decreasing -- poorer nations are rapidly catching up to their first-world peers. Within first-world nations, there has been a hollowing out of lower-skilled jobs, and this certainly merits much more study and effort to deal with, particularly in light of looming advances in robotics and artificial intelligence. B ut thanks to various social programs in nations worldwide (which are much more extensive than in prior decades and centuries), the impact of this income inequality has been greatly reduced. For example, in terms of consumption, the number of U.S. poor has declined 90% since 1960, from 30% of the population to just 3% [Pinker2018, Chap. 9].
- Environment. At the present time, many are focused on the daunting challenge of dealing with climate change, which surely deserves all the effort that society can muster. But progress is definitely being made, particularly in green energy technology. And by almost all other measures, the environment is getting cleaner, although much remains to be done: the proportion of the world that drinks tainted water has fallen by 60% since the mid-20th century; five key atmospheric pollutants have been reduced by an average of 50%; and annual deforestation, which was soaring in the 20th century, has now fallen by nearly 70% [Pinker2018, Chap. 10].
- War. It is certainly true that World War I and World War II had the most wartime fatalities in history. But when normalized by world population at the time, they do not even make the top eight -- they are merely "blips" on a declining trajectory. According to Harvard scholar Steven Pinker, "violence has been in decline over long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence. ... [I]t's a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars and perpetration of genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals." [Pinker2011a]. Pinker documents this phenomenon in detail in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined [Pinker2011b].
- Status of women. In 1964, only 9% of American women aged 25-29 had at least a bachelor's degree, but by 2013, 37% of women had at least a bachelor's degree, a significantly higher percentage than that of men (30%). Women are also more likely to continue education after the bachelor's degree. In 2012, American women earned 60% of all master's degrees (up from 46% in 1977), and earned 51% of all doctorates (up from 21% in 1977) [Pew2015b]. On the other hand, it is clear that much remains to be done. In 2012, median hourly earnings for women 16 and up were 84% of men. Even more importantly, in 2014 only 5.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women, and in 2013, only 16.9% of Fortune 500 board seats were held by women [Pew2015b]. And as recent news has made clear, millions of women suffer sexual harassment and discrimination in the work place: in 2017, 22% of employed American women report at least one incident of harassment, and 42% report at least some form of discrimination (earned less than someone doing the same job, treated as if they were not competent, received less support from management, passed over for important assignments, etc.) [Gramlich2017a].
- Race relations. The recent headlines of racial incidents mask the broader trend downward over time. In 1940, 60% of American black women worked as domestic servants; by 1998 the figure was only 2.2%. In 1958, 44% of American whites said they would move if a black family became a next-door neighbor; by 1998 the figure was only 1%. In 1964, only 18% of American whites had at least one friend or colleague who was black; by 1998 the figure was 86% [Thernstrom1998]. On the other hand, there are indications that progress has stalled. In 1967, American black household income was only $24,700, compared with $44,700 for whites (i.e., only 55.3% of whites). In 2014, the figures were $43,300 for black households and $71,300 for whites (i.e., only 60.7%), only a minor improvement. The net worth of white households, as of 2014, was roughly 13 times that of black households. Recent revelations of violence against racial minorities by law enforcement officers have compounded these problems. Thus it is clear that there is much to be done here [Pew2016].
- Education, work and family life. Worldwide literacy has increased from 20% two centuries ago to 80% today, and the figure is rapidly rising. The same is true for basic education -- in every nation for which reliable data are available, the average years of child schooling has increased from 1980 to the present, dramatically in many cases. The average years of schooling in Cambodia today (four) is comparable to that of the U.S. in 1900. Average working hours are decreasing worldwide, and average leisure time is increasing. By and large, jobs available today are significantly more interesting and fulfilling than in years past. Many yearn for the "good old days" of the mid-20th century when parents spent more time with children, but this too is an illusion. In 1924, only 45% of American mothers spent two or more hours with their children every day; by 1999, 71% did. In 1924, only 60% of fathers spent one or more hours; by 1999, 83% did. Today, both single and working mothers spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in 1965 [Pinker2018, Chap. 16, 17].
- Divorce. Many cite soaring rates of divorce as evidence for a breakdown of the family, 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 government data [Miller2014]. As a November 2014 New York Times article concluded, "Despite hand-wringing about the institution of marriage, marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time." [Miller2014].
- Marital infidelity. While many decry the perceived decline in marital fidelity in today's indulgent society, the results of research studies point point in a different direction. For example, in a 2013 Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who agreed that "Married men and women having an affair" is morally acceptable actually declined from 7% in 2001 to 6% in 2013. In fact, marital infidelity ranked last in the poll in moral acceptability -- lower than human cloning, suicide and polygamy [Newport2013]. In a separate study conducted in 2012 by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the percentage of Americans saying that sex with a person other than one's spouse is "always wrong" or "almost always wrong" rose from 84.0% in 1973 to 91.9% in 2012 [Smith2013]. Reliable statistics on how much infidelity actually happens are harder to come by, but even here the results are clear. In the latest data from the General Social Survey, while 20% of married Americans 55 and up report indiscretions, only 14% of those aged 19-55 report any; thus almost certainly the overall rates will further decline as the 55+ age cohort further increases in age [Wolfinger2017].
- Teenage sex, birth and abortion. It is widely believed that teenage sex and birth rates are exploding out of control. Yet according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. teen birth and abortion rates have all reached record lows (spanning four decades). In 2016, the birth rate for women aged 15-19 dropped to 20.3 births per 1000 women, down more than two-thirds from the rate (61.8) in 1991, when the rates peaked [Hamilton2017]. Similarly, in 2014 there were only 7.5 abortions per 1000 women 15-19, which is down by two-thirds since 1992 [Jatlaoui2017]. Along this line, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of high school students who have had sexual intercourse in the past three months has declined from 38% in 1991 to just 30% (2015 data); the percentage who have ever had intercourse has declined from 54% to 39.5% (2017 data); and the percentage who have had sex with four or more persons has plummeted from 18.7% to just 9.7% (2017 data) [CDC2016a; CDC2017a].
- College campus "hookup" culture. Many decry a broadening "hookup" culture on college campuses. 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 slightly (from 65.2% in 1988-1996 to 59.3% in 2002-2010), as did the percentage who reported having more than one partner in the previous year (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]. To the contrary, there are indications that fewer young people are interested in casual or promiscuous sex [Bahrampour2016].
- Abortion. As mentioned above, teen abortions are down significantly. This is actually true across all age groups. According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2014 the abortion rate has dropped to only 12.1 per 1000 U.S. women aged 15-44, a new record low. What's more, it is also not true, as many presume, that the percentage of all abortions due to teenagers (aged 15-19) is increasing. Instead, the fraction has declined -- in 2014, women aged 15-19 years accounted for only 10.4% of all abortions, whereas in 1991, 20.4% of all abortions were in this age bracket [Jatlaoui2017]. A separate study by the Guttmacher Institute found that in 2014 the abortion rate had declined to 14.6, which is the lowest rate in their tabulations since abortion was legalized in 1973 [Guttmacher2017].
- Teenage alcohol, cigarette and drug use. Here again, the latest facts differ sharply from public perception. A 2017 University of Michigan report found that only 19.7% of 10th graders had used alcohol in the past month, down from from 42.8% in 1991 and 41.0% in 2000; and that only 8.9% had been drunk, down from 20.5% in 1991 and 23.5% in 2000. Even more dramatic declines have been seen in teen smoking: only 5.0% of 10th graders had smoked in the past month, down from 20.8% in 1991 and 23.9% in 2000. 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]. Cocaine and crack usage have also declined sharply, to the lowest levels since the study began tracking them. One area of concern is marijuana usage: in 2017, 15.7% of 10th graders reported having used marijuana in the past month, up from 8.7% in 1991 (although down from 20.5% in 1997) [Miech2017; Seaman2015]. Even more worrisome, opiod and heroin use has jumped in the past few years [Seelye2015].
- Religious belief and participation. There is a widespread perception that church attendance and religious belief have significantly declined during recent decades. Indeed, according to a 2015 study, the fraction of Americans who decline to be affiliated with any particular denomination has increased from 16.1% in 2007 to 22.8% in 2014 [Pew2015a]. But in other ways they remain fairly traditional. Beliefs in life after death, for instance, closely resemble those of the older generation, and more Americans 18-29 engage in daily prayer today than 20 years ago [Pew2010; Pew2012]. See Religion fade away for additional discussion.
The family is gathering around the hearth in the simple timber-framed house. Father reads aloud from the Bible while mother prepares to dish out a stew of beef and onions. The baby boy is being comforted by one of his sisters and the eldest lad is pouring water from a pitcher into the earthenware mugs on the table. His elder sister is feeding the horse in the stable. Outside there is no noise of traffic, there are no drug dealers and neither dioxins nor radioactive fall-out have been found in the cow's milk. All is tranquil; a bird sings outside the window.
Oh please! Though this is one of the better-off families in the village, father's Scripture reading is interrupted by a bronchitic cough that presages the pneumonia that will kill him at 53 -- not helped by the wood smoke of the fire. (He is lucky: life expectancy even in England was less than 40 in 1800.) The baby will die of the smallpox that is now causing him to cry; his sister will soon be the chattel of a drunken husband. The water the son is pouring tastes of the cows that drink from the brook. Toothache tortures the mother. The neighbour's lodger is getting the other girl pregnant in the hayshed even now and her child will be sent to an orphanage. The stew is grey and gristly yet meat is a rare change from gruel; there is no fruit or salad at this season. It is eaten with a wooden spoon from a wooden bowl. Candles cost too much, so firelight is all there is to see by. Nobody in the family has ever seen a play, painted a picture or heard a piano. School is a few years of dull Latin taught by a bigoted martinet at the vicarage. Father visited the city once, but the travel cost him a week's wages and the others have never travelled more than fifteen miles from home. Each daughter owns two wool dresses, two linen shirts and one pair of shoes. Father's jacket cost him a month's wages but is now infested with lice. The children sleep two to a bed on straw mattresses on the floor. As for the bird outside the window, tomorrow it will be trapped and eaten by the boy.
In short, there is absolutely no substance to the claim that science is responsible for the perceived decline in morality or living standards. And there is absolutely no substance to the claim that religion is responsible for this perceived decline either. This "decline," by all objective measures, is highly exaggerated in the public arena, both from 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. Far too many marriages end in divorce. Far too many children are being born and raised out of wedlock in single-parent households. There is far too much fraud in commerce. Racism and racial inequality, and sexism and gender inequality continue to be very serious issues, particularly in the U.S. And we may yet see serious large-scale warfare, genocides and other mayhem that will overturn whatever progress has been made in overall civility. Along this line, current U.S. crime rates are still several times higher than levels that have prevailed in Western Europe and most other first-world nations for years [Pinker2011b, pg. 118-119]. For example, a January 2016 study published in the American Journal of Medicine found that the American gun homicide rate is 25 times higher than in 22 other high-income nations, and the overall American gun death rate is ten time higher [SD2016a]. Thus the U.S. still has a long way to go to reduce crime.
Furthermore, from a larger perspective there are many other serious challenges that urgently need our attention, including long-term global warming, the many biological species threatened with extinction, and the hundreds of millions of the human family that still remain in extreme poverty. So society certainly needs to redouble efforts to educate youth, preparing them for a global information-focused economy, and to guide them through the ever-changing landscape of potentially destructive paths, ranging from alcohol, tobacco, drugs and crime, to sexually transmitted diseases and out-of-wedlock births. But 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.
Along this line, there is one bright spot in the report, mentioned above, that 50% of births to American women under 30 are out of wedlock: nonetheless women with a four-year college education are overwhelmingly likely to be married before having children [DeParle2012]. What's more, marriages are much more stable when both partners have a four-year college education (see above for details) [Wang2015; Coontz2014]. Thus encouraging all young people, men and women, to become well educated, not only helps them become better informed and economically independent, but also helps to promote stable marriages and to ensure that the next generation of children will be raised in better home environments.
For additional discussion, see