1 January 2008

Do you think America is more moral today than 50 years ago?

A few months back, I engaged in an email debate with a friend over the question of whether or not America is less moral today than say 30 or 50 years ago. My friend believes, that it’s not even close, that our culture was way moral 30-50 years ago than it is today’s Post-Christian culture — and it’s due to his view that Christianity was much more mainstream in America back then. At the top of his bullet list is obviously, sexual immorality, permissiveness of homosexual lifestyles, filth and obscenity on television, etc.…

While I acknowledge that in some respects, it is true that the times are less moral, that on the whole, the present age is no less moral than previous times. In countering his assessment, I offered up the following points…

  • …end of segregation and diminished racism. Racism still exists, but it’s far less prevalent, and among younger Americans, much less in effect. I predict that each successive generation will witness a lower percentage of those guilty of this sin.

  • …attitudes toward women — even in the recent past, women were seen as subservient to men, denied career and educational opportunities based simply on their sex. Even the vernacular of the day illustrated this truth — women were referred to as “broads” or “dames”.

  • …things that were hidden then are much more open today. Immorality existed to an equal or greater degree but in an era with no cell phones, 2 or 3 television channels, and a handful of radio broadcasts, the gap between cover and transparency was vast. Today, with the proliferation of the internet, cable, satellite, and ubiquity of cell phones means a lot more laundry is aired out in public.

  • …less acts of violence committed by man against his fellow man.

Our email exchange brought to mind this wonderful essay by Steven Pinker, A History of Violence.

On the scale of decades, comprehensive data again paint a shockingly happy picture: Global violence has fallen steadily since the middle of the twentieth century. According to the Human Security Brief 2006, the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade. In Western Europe and the Americas, the second half of the century saw a steep decline in the number of wars, military coups, and deadly ethnic riots.

Zooming in by a further power of ten exposes yet another reduction. After the cold war, every part of the world saw a steep drop-off in state-based conflicts, and those that do occur are more likely to end in negotiated settlements rather than being fought to the bitter end. Meanwhile, according to political scientist Barbara Harff, between 1989 and 2005 the number of campaigns of mass killing of civilians decreased by 90 percent.

The decline of killing and cruelty poses several challenges to our ability to make sense of the world. To begin with, how could so many people be so wrong about something so important? Partly, it’s because of a cognitive illusion: We estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples. Scenes of carnage are more likely to be relayed to our living rooms and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. Partly, it’s an intellectual culture that is loath to admit that there could be anything good about the institutions of civilization and Western society. Partly, it’s the incentive structure of the activism and opinion markets: No one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better. And part of the explanation lies in the phenomenon itself. The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead. As deplorable as they are, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the lethal injections of a few murderers in Texas are mild by the standards of atrocities in human history. But, from a contemporary vantage point, we see them as signs of how low our behavior can sink, not of how high our standards have risen.

I realize that the focus of this essay was on one aspect of morality, and it was a global outlook, not national. And Pinker cites a number of varied theories on why this reduction of cruelty and violence has occurred, with a caveat that it’s by no means certain to endure. But it’s notable as our perspective on these matters can be so distorted. Consider how increased television news coverage of violent crimes, even while such crime incidents are in decline, are perceived to be more problematic by viewers.

It must be said that the concept of a Post-Christian world that is more moral than the Christian culture of a previous age is troubling to a Christian. But that depends on what the definition of a Christian is — is it applicable to those that call themselves Christian, but who often act in ways contrary to Christ? What of those who don’t flaunt their Christianity but yet do the stuff Jesus did? And what about those who don’t even claim Christ as their savior, yet spend their lives conducting the great commission he instructed his followers to carry out?

On another issue, a litmus test for many conservative Christian voters, legality of abortion offers another puzzle. The less reverent European culture, where abortion is legal and contraception widely available, has an abortion rate half of the rate of the more religious United States.

The wealth of information that comes out of the study provides some striking lessons, the researchers said. In Uganda, where abortion is illegal and sex education programs focus only on abstinence, the estimated abortion rate was 54 per 1,000 women in 2003, more than twice the rate in the United States, 21 per 1,000 in that year. The lowest rate, 12 per 1,000, was in Western Europe, with legal abortion and widely available contraception.

What say you?


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