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Raising Freethinkers is in production, so I’m prepping the proposal for another book. One of the major themes of this one is fear, both real and imagined, and its use and misuse. In the process of researching it, I am (as usual) uncovering things at turns delicious and appalling. Thought I’d share a bit.

Media coverage, Internet hype, and even many parenting books seem hellbent on diverting our attention from legitimate but often abstract threats to dangers that are more tangible but statistically quite rare.

Fear sells papers and drives online traffic, so half-overheard urban myths that “a child is abducted every 40 seconds” (false) and “child abduction rates have risen 444% since 1982” — never with a citation of any kind — continue to make the rounds. Christian parenting books often seize this opportunity, sounding a frightening “values” alarm. Crime is spiraling out of control. Morality is on the retreat. Our children are at greater risk of teen pregnancy, kidnapping, and violent death than ever before. And terrified parents are offered the solution: Jesus.

But are the frightening claims actually true? Are our kids really less safe and less moral than ever before? Consider these statistics:

• According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime rates have declined continuously since 1994, reaching the lowest level ever in 2005.1 Given the fearful hype, would you ever guess?

• Teen pregnancy is on the decline. According the Guttmacher Institute’s 2006 report, teen pregnancy rates are down 36% from 1990 to the lowest level in 30 years.

• Child abduction rates—always infinitesimal—continue to fall. Rates of violent crime against children have fallen by nearly 50 percent since 1973. The child murder rate is the lowest in forty years. Any given child is 50 times more likely in any given year to die from a world-ending comet or meteor (1 in 20,000) than to be abducted by a stranger (1 in 1 million). (“A Fistful of Risks,” DISCOVER, April 1996)

So why do we do this? Why do we fear unlikely things and ignore far greater risks? An article in Scientific American Mind summed up the psychological research:

We fear what our ancestral history has prepared us to fear, like confinement, heights, snakes, spiders, and humans outside our tribe;

We fear what we can’t control. The car is less safe than the airplane, but our hands are on the steering wheel of one and not the other;

We fear things that are immediate (strangers around us) more than the long-term (global warming);

We fear threats readily available in memory. Every plane crash, every child abduction, every home invasion is covered by the news media and takes on a significance far beyond the actual threat.

We can provide our children the best security and the least fearful environment by assessing risks intelligently and refusing to give in to those who benefit from fearmongering and the sounding of hysterical moral alarms.
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1The Bureau’s phrasing. I assume that “ever” means “since complete modern records have been kept.”

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.