Beware the prophets of doom. There is always work to be done to make the world a better place. But doom and gloom sap the will to do good. These are not the dark ages. There are reasons for hope.
One worry is mass violence. Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, blamed recent mass shootings on “the absence of a moral core in our culture today.” He cited a Wall Street Journal poll showing that Americans are less patriotic and less religious than 20 years ago. Perkins bemoaned the decline of religion in schools and public life. He said we teach kids that “they come about by chance through primordial slime and then we’re surprised that they treat their fellow Americans like dirt.”
But the data about violence offers hope. Murder rates have declined from a high point 40 years ago. In 1980, the murder rate peaked at around 10 per 100,000. In 2017, the last year with published FBI data, the murder rate declined to 5.3.
We are safer today than we were in the 1980s and 1990s — thanks to a concerted human effort to improve the world. Mass shootings are terrible and alarming. But they are not a sign of general moral decay.
Terrorists, however, turn to violence because of fear and anxiety. Mass shooters have given up hope in democracy, humanity, and life itself. But our collective outrage at senseless slaughter indicates that empathy and compassion are alive and well.
Furthermore, the decline of patriotism and religion that Perkins cites may be a sign of moral progress. Knee-jerk patriotism is morally problematic, as is intolerant fundamentalism. Americans have become more enlightened about our commitment to God and country.
Let’s begin with religion. There is wisdom in losing faith in religious organizations that allow sexual predation. Americans who value religious liberty should rightly reject religious intolerance. And Americans who understand science should be skeptical of religions that deny evolution, climate change, and modern medicine.
With regard to patriotism, the American commitment to country ought to be open-hearted and self-critical. Closed-minded nationalism does not work in a world united by commerce and the Internet. No thinking person should affirm the jingoism of “my country, right or wrong.” We know that our nation has made mistakes. We should learn from them.
And in fact, we have learned to be better. Today we are more critical of violence, racism, and sexism than in previous generations. Nostalgia for the Greatest Generation and the patriotic, God-fearing 1950s misunderstands history. The good old days were not good for blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, Jews, Catholics, atheists, homosexuals, the disabled and women.
Yes, there is still work to be done today. But acknowledging our imperfections is the key to moving forward.
Rather than grumbling about moral decay, we ought to celebrate our freedom and equality. We are more compassionate and inclusive today than in previous decades. We also have a vibrant and free public sphere.
We also ought to celebrate modern science. We live longer and better today than our grandparents did. Perkins suggests that evolutionary theory encourages us to treat human beings like dirt. But evolution is fundamental for the astounding success of bio-medicine.
And in fact, the more aware we become of the fragility of intelligent life on this planet, the more likely we are to care for it. Human intelligence emerged at the end of billions of years of Earth history. Human civilization has only existed for a few thousand years: a blink of the planet’s eye. This is our moment under the sun. This is our only chance to learn to care for the planet and each other. There is nowhere else we can go. No one is going to save us but ourselves.
Continued progress requires the best insights of scientists, psychologists, criminologists, economists — as well as preachers and theologians. Religious faith is declining. But it is not going away. Religion must be included in creating the future. But we need to get beyond nostalgia. We need to understand the progress that we have made. And we must work to build an enlightened future where there is less violence, less ignorance and more faith in humanity.