The idea we're going to hell in a handcart still persists. Apparently, we've been on the way for millennia. I'm not sure we're any closer.

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There is no doubt that society is becoming less religious. Statistics from the US, the UK, and many other developed nations show that religiosity is in decline. As a result of this demographic shift, there are those in society (particularly among the religious) who claim that, as a result, we are becoming less moral. Science.org recently elucidated this feeling:

According to a recent Gallup poll, 54% of Americans say the state of moral values in the country is “poor”—a record number. Some 83% say they believe morals are in decline. They aren’t alone: Survey data from a study published this week in Nature suggest that people in more than 60 nations share a general sense that people are less moral now than they used to be

Perceptions, however, don’t always track that well with reality.

There are several ways to cast doubt on the notion that we are morally backsliding. First, we have always thought this. The idea that we are going to hell in a handcart because of the moral decay that has gotten hold of society is a ubiquitous trope witnessed through history and geography. I could point you to the lessons from the Hebrew Bible in Micah 7.

And then 2 Timothy 3 sees the author warning of such moral decline in advance of the end days, which were apparently round the corner:

But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, slanderers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of [b]godliness although they have denied its power; avoid such people as these. 

It appears that across time and place, everyone seems to think that the present generation is bringing about a period of moral regression. After all, even Socrates was victim to such “the kids these days!” thinking:

Children; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. They no longer rise when elders enter the room, they contradict their parents and tyrannise their teachers. Children are now tyrants.

Attributed to Socrates (469-399 BCE) by Plato

That could honestly have been my parents talking.

On the contrary, McKinsey & Company released some research that found the opposite to be true:

Our study based on the survey reveals four core Gen Z behaviors, all anchored in one element: this generation’s search for truth. Gen Zers value individual expression and avoid labels. They mobilize themselves for a variety of causes. They believe profoundly in the efficacy of dialogue to solve conflicts and improve the world. Finally, they make decisions and relate to institutions in a highly analytical and pragmatic way. That is why, for us, Gen Z is “True Gen.” In contrast, the previous generation—the millennials, sometimes called the “me generation”—got its start in an era of economic prosperity and focuses on the self. Its members are more idealistic, more confrontational, and less willing to accept diverse points of view.

What we might have justification to say, then, is that people are actually becoming more universally moral than before.

Second, the argument is circular. Since Christians or religious people generally believe that “the continued persistence to exclude God from our daily lives has been fueling moral decline in our society and the world over,” then morality is seen as synonymous with belief in God. Becoming more secular as a society means, definitionally, we are becoming less moral. In this sense, the claim is nothing more than “we are becoming less religious.”

There is scope to suggest that this may well be a (morally) good thing.

Such religious people are trying to have it both ways.

Many evangelical Christians and other religiously conservative people complain about the onset of “wokeness,” as ill-defined as it is, at the hands of social justice warriors (SJWs). Samuel James, in his piece “We’re All Fundamentalists Now” for the National Review, states, “The social-justice warrior and the conservative Christian may be far apart in theology and politics, but they share the same impulse to be morally wakeful and alert.” He sees that the morality of the social justice generation on modern university campuses isn’t too far removed from the moral conformity laid out by religious educational institutions: “Elite college campuses today bear more than a passing resemblance to the Evangelical colleges they hold in contempt. The main difference is that students enrolling in a religious school are told in advance what they’re getting.” He adds that “the idea that we ought to make the culture we consume conform to a moral standard seems a novel one to the social-justice generation.”

This modern behavioral trend is overtly moral. In “Social Justice Warriors: The New Moralists,” Max Severin bemoans that such modern SJWs have a “tendency to hyper-moralize or use morality as a weapon.” It’s hard to reasonably argue we are less moral while at the same time nodding one’s head to claims that the youth are today hyper-moralizing.

Severin, moreover, sees a biblical connection with these moralists:

To draw an analogy with religion, the modern secular moralist resembles the Pharisee or the Sadducee whom Jesus criticized for myopically focusing on the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law. And, just as with the hyper-religious moralists in the story of Jesus, the modern secular moralists wield morality like a weapon — with an intent to “cancel”, or psychosocially destroy those who have transgressed. This approach is problematic on multiple levels, but most importantly it is likely to alienate people, including allies, and it is not likely to produce a situation in which an offending individual can grow or reform themselves (if, indeed, they have done anything wrong); in other words, it is a punitive and retributive approach to justice. From a rationalist perspective, Christian morality and metaphysics are grossly flawed, but secular moralists would do well to consider the admonishments to forgiveness, compassion, and against moral hypocrisy, which are said to have been espoused by Jesus.

Of course, many religionists might look at the modern secular moralist and admit that they are, indeed, being moral, it’s just the wrong type of morality. Of course, here we then get into arguments of what morality is and how we can access moral knowledge.

It’s hard to reasonably argue we are less moral while at the same time nodding one’s head to claims that the youth are today hyper-moralizing.

But to move away from the philosophy of this, it is worth understanding how skewed our perceptions can be from reality. The British Crime Survey routinely finds a huge gap between perceptions of crime and the actual crime data. The Office for National Statistics pointed out this difference in its 2017 report:

While the level of crime measured by the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) has been falling since a peak in 1995, the survey has consistently shown that most people perceive that crime across the country as a whole has still been rising, although the proportion of people reporting this has decreased in recent years.

When asked whether they thought crime had gone up or down in the country in the past few years, the majority of adults (60%) responded that it had gone up, which is higher than in the previous year (57%). However, even with this small but statistically significant increase, the figure is still lower than in the year ending March 20091 when 84% of people believed crime across the country had risen.

If crime is a reflection of morality, then it appears that our erroneous perceptions that crime is getting worse could underwrite our perceptions that morality is in decline. And here, it could be a case of our perceptions being warped by the doomsaying of click- and reader-chasing headlines in our media. Fox News and the Daily Mail have built a business model around such hell-in-a-handcart reporting. As Government Technology reported in March:

For example, there have been studies dating back to 2010 that highlighted how television media and crime shows can have a massive impact on the world, leading to mental health concerns like “mean world syndrome,” where unwarranted feelings of victimization impact feelings of safety and security. These feelings and predisposed narratives can inherently transition to social media and other digital community-based applications.

Last year, Laura Lindamood wrote in her piece “Misleading Media Coverage Can Derail Data-Driven Criminal Justice Reforms” that “FWD​.us documents that media coverage riddled with inaccurate and misleading information, dehumanizing language, and reliance on one-side sources contributed to an atmosphere of fear and distrust.” Laura Bennett, co-author of that report, explained, “What we found was just an unbelievable number of stories that were at best anecdotes, and at worst outright falsehoods. Language like ​‘thug’ appearing in headlines, and too many stories to count that were sourced exclusively from law enforcement.”

Neighborhood apps have recently been shown to skew our perception of crime, too. “The findings suggest that while actual crime rates are significantly associated with perceptions of crime rates, the use of neighborhood apps or websites led to higher biased perceptions of crime rates when controlling for actual crime rates,” Adam Fetterman of the University of Houston said of his research. “The frequent use of such services by a large portion of the population suggests that the findings, if robust, could have important implications for perceptions and behaviors related to people’s neighborhoods.”

And a sobering report using AI from earlier this year shows how over-reporting of crime has led to black crime being over-represented by 138 percent.

Given the voluminous diet of media we consume in our societies, it’s no wonder we have incorrect perceptions of crime and thus morality.

Humanists UK put it so well in a recent article on this topic:

The truth is that, despite all its problems, and accepting that new problems arise and will continue to arise all the time in every society on Earth, life in the UK is still – recent global political and economic turmoil aside – in a much better shape now than in any previous era of history. 

That goes doubly for ethnic minorities, for LGBT people, for people with disabilities, and for people with mental health conditions or any variety of neurodivergence. The public today is more concerned with human rights, and with equality of both outcome and opportunity, than at any other time in British history. 

Don’t let the naysayers have you fooled by a factitious picture of moral decline, holding up all the most troubling statistics on the Government’s list of problems-to-deal-with as their ‘proof’. 

Because if there has been a moral or social change in the British public writ large, it has been the enlargement of our moral compass, the widening of our empathy, and a growth in the public’s commitment to fairness and justice.

This is not a new phenomenon, but it is worth unpicking why it still prevails. The reasons are multi-faceted. And why we shouldn’t rest on our moral laurels as we continue to strive for a better moral present, it is worth reminding ourselves how far we have come in much of the world. Luckily, I can’t see myself being burnt at the stake later this week. We should be pleased with where we are as we look back to where we have come from, while at the same time looking to build on our progress.

Let me leave you with words from an old phonographic recording of humanist orator Robert G. Ingersoll:

I, too, have my religion. It is this: Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now; the place to be happy is here; and the way to be happy is to make others happy. This is the religion of usefulness; this is the religion of reason.

Robert G. Ingersoll

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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