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Is modern society in decline?
8 July 2017 (c) 2017
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 (especially in the 20th century); 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 -- indeed, this is a concern raised by both secular writers on the left and fundamentalist writers on the 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 also note the numerous wars in Europe and elsewhere that have been fought 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, either moral decline or overall decline in standard and quality of living:
- The decline of family units: out-of-wedlock births and single-parent households. An area of grave concern in modern society, particularly in the U.S. and Western Europe, is the decline in the stability of two-parent nuclear families. In the U.S., the percentage of children born out of wedlock has risen from just 10.7% in 1970 to 41% in 2010 [Health2010], although the rate may now be stabilizing [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.
Children born to unmarried women are more likely to grow up in poverty (particularly in the U.S.), have lower-than-average educational attainment and become unwed parents themselves, among other things, compared with children born to married couples. Forty-seven percent of unwed mothers in the U.S. are at or below the poverty level; by comparison, even mothers who marry after conception experience only a 20% poverty rate (2002 data). The percentage of households unable to meet basic expenses is 30-36% for cohabiting and single parents, but only 15% for married couples (2002 data) [Urban2002]. Some have said that high rates of unwed parentage are an inevitable feature of a highly technological, urban, and secular society. But this claim is countered by Japan, which is certainly highly technological, urban and secular, but where only 2% of children are born to unwed mothers [Ventura2009].
The rate of divorce has been slowly declining -- see item #2 below -- but more couples are living together unmarried. 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 mariage within three years). Educational level is a major factor here. Among women without a high school diploma, 70% lived with a parter as their first union, compared with just 47% of those with a bachelor's degree; furthermore, 33% of women without a high school diploma became pregnant in the first year of living together, versus only 5% of women with a bachelor's degree [Lopatto2013].
- Internet fraud and "addiction". Nearly 60% of all email is now spam [Liebowitz2011], much of which is utterly fraudulent -- enticing users to enter personal data into a phony website for identity theft, or to pay money in advance of a fictitious financial transfer, or, even more tragically, to meet a child abuser [Whitney2009]. Along this line, many youth and young adults devote huge amounts of time to Internet-based distractions such as gaming and social networking, which time, in many cases, crowds out time for homework and family involvement [Kaiser2010].
- Internet porn. The internet has also unleashed enormous amounts of pornography. According to a 2013 report, porn sites get more visitors per month than Netflix, Amazon And Twitter combined [Porn2013]. And habitual porn consumption has consequences. Many employers in the U.S. and elsewhere, especially in government, high-tech, medical and legal professions, prohibit employees from viewing porn using company computers or networks, since such material is widely regarded as sexist, time-wasting and not in keeping with a professional work environment; repeat offenders are often terminated. For example, in 2014, the U.S. government reported that large numbers of federal employees have been caught viewing porn on government computers, with some spending as much as six hours per day; most of these employees have been or will be terminated [McElhatton2014]. Porn usage also undermines many marriages. A 2016 study found that divorce rates double when one of the partners starts watching porn [Shultz2016].
- Growing income inequality. Income inequality is particularly pronounced in the U.S. A December 2013 report by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office found that the average after-tax, inflation-adjusted household income of the top 1% of the population grew by a whopping 201% between 1979 and 2010. For those in the 81st through the 99th percentile, income grew by 64% in the same period; for the 60% of the population in the middle of the income scale (21st through 80th percentile), incomes grew only 40% [CBO2013].
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). Here are some of the latest statistics:
With regards to the last two items, 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 -- prima facie evidence of a wholesale breakdown of morality. Yet the facts point in quite the opposite direction. The 2013 violent crime rate was 5.4% lower than in 2012, and the 2013 property crime rate was also 5.4% lower than in 2012, with similar year-to-year declines for at least 15 years. These rates are down by more than a factor of two since peaking in 1994 [FBI2013; Oppel2011].
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]. In 2013, homicide figures in the largest U.S. cities dropped even further, with New York City declining to 333 (down from 417 in 2012), Chicago to 415 (down from 506 in 2012), and Los Angeles to 255 (down from 298 in 2012). New York City's 2013 figure of 333 homicides is down a breathtaking 85% since 1991, when 2245 homicides were recorded, and Los Angeles' figure of 255 homicides is down a staggering 91% from 1991, when 2401 homicides were recorded. The 2013 figures for both cities are the lowest since solid data began to be collected in the 1960s [Sanburn2014]. Similar declines have also been seen in many other major western nations, although not quite as dramatic as in the U.S. [Economist2013a].
In the wake of numerous high-profile killings in 2015 and 2016, there is concern that U.S. violent crime rates may be trending upwards again, such as they have in Chicago for example. But they have fallen so far for so many years that even with a significant uptick, rates are still far below what they were in earlier decades [Park2016].
This decline in crime has confounded criminologists. While some of this decline is undoubtedly due to demographic factors (fewer 16- to 24-year-olds), 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 cities such as Los Angeles and New York City cannot remotely 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, these statistical facts can no longer be ignored.
- Marriage and 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]. As mentioned above, the real issue here is that significantly more couples and parents are foregoing marriage, which is a valid concern.
- 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 married Americans 55 and up are somewhat more likely to report indiscretions (20%), those aged 19-55 report significantly fewer (only 14%); thus almost certainly these rates will further decline as the 55+ age cohort further increases in age [Wolfinger2017].
- Teenage sex, pregnancy, 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 2013 there were only 8.2 abortions per 1000 women 15-19, which is down by two-thirds since 1992 [CDC2016c]. Along this line, 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% in 2015; the percentage who have ever had intercourse has declined from 54% to 41%; and the percentage who have had sex with four or more people has plummeted from 18.7% to just 11.5% [CDC2016a].
- 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 2013 the abortion rate has dropped to only 12.5 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 2013, women aged 15-19 years accounted for only 11.4% of all abortions, whereas in 1991, 20.4% of all abortions were in this age bracket [CDC2013]. 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 2016 U.S. government report found that the percentage of persons aged 12 through 17 who drank alcohol in the past month declined from 17.6% in 2002 to just 9.6% in 2015, while a 2016 University of Michigan study found that the percentage of 12th graders who reported having been drunk during the past year declined from 53.2% in 2001 to 37.3% in 2015. Even more dramatic declines have been seen in teen smoking -- only 8% of U.S. high school students smoked cigarettes in 2016, down from 13% in 2002, and only 11.3% used e-cigarettes, down sharply from 16% in 2015 [McGinley2017; NIDA2016]. Cocaine and crack usage have also declined sharply -- in a 2011 University of Michigan report, these rates were at the lowest levels since the study began tracking them. One area of concern is marijuana usage: in 2011, 17.6% of 10th 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].
On the other hand, there is concern at the present time that at least some of these favorable statistics may reverse. For example, a recent study found that 4% of American adults had reported using marijuana between 2001 and 2002, whereas 10% did between 2012 and 2013. Abuse and/or dependence problems have increased accordingly, from 1.5% to 3% [Seaman2015]. These increases are not yet seen in teenage drug statistics, although that is expected to change [SD2015b]. Even more worrisome, heroin use has jumped in the past few years, particularly among upper-middle-class whites [Seelye2015].
- War. It is widely believed that recent years have seen more violence and deaths due to warfare than ever before. Surely the 20th century, with tens of millions killed in two horrific world wars, must be the worst ever? In raw numbers, this is undeniably true. But if we normalize these statistics by population, then beyond the "blips" of the two world wars there is an unmistakable trend of decline. 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]. Other researchers have come to the same conclusion. For example, a 2010 Canadian study confirms that since 2000, military conflict has killed 90 per cent fewer people each year than in the 1950s, and since the end of the Cold War 20 years ago there has been a 70 per cent decline in the number of high-intensity conflicts [Reuters2010]. See also [Mueller2009].
- 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.
- Life expectancy. Even most die-hard pessimists acknowledge that people are living longer than in earlier decades and centuries, but it is widely believed that this increase has leveled off in the last decade or two, particularly in North America and Western Europe. Not so. The latest 2011 statistics from the U.S. government's Division of Vital Statistics indicate that life expectancy rose for the tenth consecutive year, to an average of 78.2 years, up from 70.8 years in 1970 [Kochanek2011]. The principal blight on the U.S. picture is that its ranking among developed countries has slipped from 20th in 1987 to 35th today [Park2011], with even greater slippage among poor women [Tavernise2012]. Worldwide average life expectancy reached 71.5 years in 2013, up from just 65 years as recently as 1990, based on the latest data from 188 nations [Preidt2015]. See also the next item for more details.
- Worldwide living conditions. There is widespread concern that our global economy, while lifting up some, has condemned hundreds of millions of others to extreme poverty, particularly in light of the current worldwide economic recession. Weren't living and working conditions better, at least on average, before all the complications of the 21st century interconnected world? According to the latest United Nations Human Development Report, published in 2015, the number of people living in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 per day) fell from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015. During this same time, global inflation-adjusted average income per capita increased from $8,510 to $13,551; the global child mortality rate dropped from 90 deaths per 1000 live births to just 43; the global youth literacy rate (ages 15-24) increased from 83% to 91%; and the number of children enrolled in primary education increased in all regions, and more than doubled in sub-Saharan Africa [UN2015, pg. 74].
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 large-scale, widespread 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. This perception of steep decline is, by all indications, 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 in single-parent households, or to couples that are not married. There is far too much fraud and general dishonesty in today's society and commerce. And we may yet see serious large-scale warfare, genocides and other mayhem that will overturn whatever progress has been made in overall civility. For example, just because progress has been achieved in crime is no guarantee that these declines will continue -- instead, we may see a leveling out or even a resurgence.
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]. So 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. For example, a 2015 Pew Research study found that 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]. 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