|Carina Nebula [Courtesy NASA]
Is science or religion to blame for the decline of modern society?
David H. Bailey
Updated 1 October 2019 (c) 2019
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 society's focus on 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 highly secular writers on the left and highly religious writers on the right.
Religious writers blame science
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.
Criticisms of science by religious fundamentalist mostly focus on the perceived deleterious effects of evolution. For example, John Morris, President of the Institute for Creation Research, recently declared, "Furthermore, evolution has evil fruits. The failed concepts of racism, fascism, Marxism, imperialism, etc., are all founded on evolutionary principles, as are the extant concepts of Freudianism, promiscuity, abortion, homosexuality, drug use, etc." [Morris1997]. When Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis was asked in an interview with CNN if children are being harmed by lessons on evolution, he said, "Oh, absolutely. ... If there's no supernatural, if there's no absolute authority, if I'm just a product of death and violence in a struggle over millions of years, then who decides right and wrong? Who decides good and evil?" [CNN2000]. Jerry Bergman of Answers in Genesis, which operates the Creation Museum, further elaborates [Bergman1999]:
Of the many factors that produced the Nazi holocaust and World War II, one of the most important was Darwin's notion that evolutionary progress occurs mainly as a result of the elimination of the weak in the struggle for survival. Although it is no easy task to assess the conflicting motives of Hitler and his supporters, Darwinism-inspired eugenics clearly played a critical role.
More recently, creationist Ray Comfort declared, "[Darwin's] racism was blatant, indefensible, and was shaped by his belief in evolution." [Comfort2009]. Along this same line, David Klinghoffer, a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute (the principal sponsoring institution for the intelligent design movement), associates the murderous excesses of Josef Mengele (of Holocaust fame) and Charles Manson with Darwin's legacy [Klinghoffer2009a; Klinghoffer2009b]. Benjamin Wiker, another Discovery Institute writer, blames Darwin for eugenics, Nazism, euthanasia and sex education [Wiker2004; Newton2010]. For additional details, see
Secular writers blame religion (and even science)
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]. In a related but strange twist, historians Will and Ariel Durant question whether progress is real [Durant1968], and "critical theorists" blame the Enlightenment and scientific advances of past centuries for the disasters of the 20th century [Pinker2011b, pg. 133]. For additional details, see
So do these claims (from both camps) have any substance? What are the real facts here?
Darwinism and the Holocaust
First of all, with regards to the Holocaust, there is no evidence that science in general or evolution in particular played any significant role in Hitler's decision to institute the Holocaust. Instead, all evidence points to virulent anti-semitism, possibly inflamed by sources such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fraudulent document purporting to be a plan for world domination by Jewish leaders. As Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf [Hitler1922]:
My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison.
(It should be added here that Hitler's profession of Christian belief in this passage should not be taken at face value, because from other sources it is clear that Hitler did not take Christianity very seriously.)
There is some truth to assertions that the eugenics movement was inspired by evolution. But decades before World War II, biologists realized that human genetics was much more complex than earlier thought, and many scientists and defenders of evolution were speaking out against eugenics. As Clarence Darrow wrote, shortly after defending the teaching of evolution in the 1925 Scopes trial: "We have neither the facts nor theories to give us any evidence based on biology or any other branch of science as to how we could breed intelligence, happiness, or anything else that would improve the race." [Darrow1926]. Biological research has advanced considerably since Darrow wrote this passage, and numerous genetically-linked diseases and conditions have been identified. But the overall conclusion is the same as in 1925: the arena of human genetics is very complicated, and it is both futile and ethically questionable to attempt to "improve" the human stock by selective reproduction.
It is also worth pointing out that Darwinian evolution, as it is currently understood in the scientific literature, argues against racism, both in the general sense of presuming that humans are utterly disconnected from the rest of the animal kingdom, and also in the more specific sense of presuming that some regional racial groups are fundamentally inferior. This is because recent in-depth studies of human genetics and DNA and have shown that humans are highly homogeneous, genetically speaking. There is more genetic variation between members of a native tribe of, say, 100 members, than there is between a randomly-chosen set of 100 human beings scattered around the world. What's more, all humans are descended from a small group only about 100,000 years or so ago, an eyeblink in geological history. Modern Europeans are even more closely related, sharing ancestors within the past 1000 years [SD2013e].
Religion and religious wars
With regards to the claims of the atheist writers such as Hitchens, numerous observers have faulted their writings on this topic as openly polemic. In other words, these writers have cherry-picked a handful of provocative details from the large trove of available historical material, ignoring the many positive aspects of religion and providing no useful new insights. For example, these writers' discussion of religious wars mostly ignores the much more numerous and much more costly wars that have been fought on purely secular grounds, such as the Mongol conquests, the Napoleonic wars and, of course, the two world wars of the twentieth century. Most other scholars who have written about religion in history have recognized that while religion has its dark side, nonetheless the major religious movements have been a great blessing to humanity. For example, historians Will and Ariel Durant, who although they were not particularly religious themselves, nonetheless acknowledged, "Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age. ... There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion." [Durant1968, pg. 43, 51]. For additional discussion of this topic, see Atheists.
What are the facts behind the decline of society?
There are some aspects of society today that most observers would agree represent moral decline. One concern is out-of-wedlock births. In the U.S., this percentage rose from just 10.7% in 1970 to 41% in 2017; [Martin2018]. Another example is Internet fraud and pornography. In spite of efforts to prevent and constrain such abuses, a large percentage of email is now spam, and there are countless attempts at financial fraud and even child abuse [Liebowitz2011; Whitney2009]. A third example is environmental degradation, notably climate change and species extinction, which has worsened in spite of the fact that the scientific facts have been clear for years [Oreskes2019; Plumer2019].
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 is a brief summary of some statistics, taken from Pinker's book and other sources. Additional details and references are given at Decline.
For numerous additional statistics and additional details on the above items, see Decline.
- 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. According to the latest FBI report (dated 2019, covering the year 2018), the U.S. violent crime rate was 368.9 per 100,000, which is down 51% from 1991, and the U.S. robbery rate was 86.2 per 100,000, which is down 68% from 1991 [FBI2019]. In New York City, for example, from 1991 to 2018, the homicide rate dropped by 90% to a rate of 3.31 per 100,000, the lowest rate in 50 years; burglary and auto theft rates have also dropped by similar percentages [Kanno-Youngs2019; Southall2017]. In Los Angeles, the crime rate ticked up from 2013 through 2017, but then dropped back down in 2018 to the previous record-low levels; homicides, for instance, are down 75% from 1991 [Chang2019]. There has been an uptick in a few U.S. cities (e.g., Chicago and Baltimore) in recent years, but crime continues to fall in most others. This is not just an American phenomenon -- crime has dropped so much in Western Europe that the Economist asked "Where have all the burglars gone?" [Economist2013a].
- 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].
- Divorce. In the U.S., the divorce rate per thousand people peaked in 1981, and has declined ever since, even if one normalizes by the number of married couples [Miller2014]. For example, from 2008 to 2016, the overall divorce rate dropped 18%, largely due to the fact that millennials (born 1980-2000) are divorcing at much lower rates than in previous eras. Because of these demographic factors, the U.S. divorce rate is likely to continue declining for the foreseeable future [Steverman2018].
- Marital infidelity. 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]. 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. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. teen birth and abortion rates have all reached record lows, spanning four decades, down more than 70% from the rate in 1991 [Hamilton2017; Jatlaoui2018]. Along this line, according to a 2017 report from the CDC, the percentage of high school students who ever had intercourse has declined from 54% to 39.5% [CDC2016a; CDC2017a].
- Abortion. As mentioned above, teen abortions are down significantly. This is actually true across all age groups. According to a 2018 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2015 the abortion rate has dropped to only 11.8 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 2015, women aged 15-19 years accounted for only 9.8% of all abortions, whereas in 1991, 20.4% of all abortions were in this age bracket [Jatlaoui2018]. A separate study by the Guttmacher Institute found that in 2017 the abortion rate had declined to 13.5, which is the lowest rate in their tabulations since abortion was legalized in 1973 [Guttmacher2019].
- 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. 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]. Another area of concern is a sharp jump in teens vaping: a 2019 study found that more than 11% of teens vape nicotine on a near-daily basis [Knowles2019]. Even more worrisome, opiod abuse has jumped sharply in the past few years, prompting governments in the U.S. and elsewhere to take strong countermeasures, although the latest data for 2018 shows a slight decline [Goodnough2019].
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. 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! And we may yet see serious large-scale warfare, genocides and other mayhem that will obliterate any notion of progress in civility. Also, it is important to note that current U.S. crime rates are still much too high. U.S. homicide rates, for example, are still five times or more higher than levels that have prevailed in much of Western Europe for many years [Pinker2011b, pg. 118-119].
For additional discussion, see