The great decline of Western society: What are the facts?

[This is a repost of an article that appeared on 21 Dec 2011 at Science Meets Religion.]

One of the most common refrains in news and commentaries, from both the religious right and the secular left, is that modern society is in sharp decline: skyrocketing rates of crime, divorce, teenage sex, teenage births, drug abuse and war (especially in the 20th century). 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.

The religious right blames science in general and evolution in particular for these ills. One display at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, 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 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]. 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].

So what are the facts here? Who is to blame?

There are certainly some aspects of present-day society that qualify as instances of moral decline. For example, while the Internet has been huge benefit to society worldwide, it has unleashed tidal waves of pornography, fraud and “Internet addiction” that show no sign of abating. One other area of general 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]. 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].

But beyond items such as this, it is difficult to identify any clear instances of significant decline in morality or, even more broadly, in overall standards of living. 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. Yet the facts point in quite the opposite direction. In the U.S., in spite of the worst economic slowdown since the Great Depression, with millions out of work and many others in desperate economic straits, violent crime in 2010 actually declined by 5.5% from the 2009 level, and the 2009 level declined by a similar percentage from the 2008 level. In fact, the 2010 U.S. crime rates are the lowest in 40 years, and are down by more than a factor of two since peaking in 1994 [Oppel2011].
  2. Divorce. Another commonly mentioned ill is a soaring rate of divorce. But 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].
  3. Teenage sex and birth. A 2010 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 significantly lower than in 1991 (47.8% versus 54.1%) [Parker2009]. Similarly, in 2010 the U.S. teen birth rate fell to 34.3 births per 1000 teens, a record low. This is a nine-point drop from 2009 and a whopping 28-point drop since 1991, when the rate was 62 births per 1000 teens [CDC2011].
  4. Abortion. The number of abortions in the U.S. peaked in 1991 at 24 per 1000 U.S. women aged 15-44, but has dropped since then to 16.1 [CDC2008].
  5. Teenage alcohol, cigarette and drug use. 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 cigarette, cocaine and crack usage. 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].
  6. 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? 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; Pinker2011b]. See also the previous blog.
  7. 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 2010 study, Americans 18-29 years of age are less likely to be affiliated with a particular faith than the older generation. 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]. Similarly, a 1997 study of American research scientists (physicists, biologists and mathematicians) revealed that 40% of these scientists believe in God, a figure not significantly different than in 1916 [Angier1997].
  8. 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. But according to the latest U.N. report (2010), its Human Development Index rose in all but three nations (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe) from 1970 to 2010. For example, worldwide average income per capita in 2010 was $10,760, which is twice the inflation-adjusted level in 1970. Over this 40-year period, income per capita rose in all but six nations worldwide, with increases averaging 184% in developing countries and 126% in developed countries [UN2010].

With regards to the last item, 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]:

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 in general or evolution in particular is responsible for the perceived declined 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, simply does not exist, certainly not to the extent that it is often pictured in commentary of the left or right. It is a regrettable consequence of the media’s fascination with bad news.

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