Distributed Mind

Some Miscellania on Crime

According to an old AP article, the peak number of murders in Gary, Indiana occurred in 1995 when there were 132 murders in a city of about 103,000 people, or about 1 per 1000. It's lower these days (almost half of that), but still quite high. A very frightening exercise is to compare that1995 murder rate to hot spots over the world now. It turns out that Gary of 1995 wasn't much better off than some of the world's scariest places now - in some cases it was worse. I'm not sure really what to do with that. Should Gary's homicide rate make me more concerned about Baghdad's, or should Baghdad's make me more concerned about Gary's? Either way, it is a scary number. (Incidentally, back then the unsolved murder rate in Gary was something like 90%.)

On a completely different point, we hear a lot about how bad off society is these days, and one of the continually cited indicators is violence. If we look at statistics about violence though, the numbers seem to suggest that much of this decline is - how shall we say? - completely made up. Well, that's not quite true. Taking homicide as an indicator of violence, we would find from the Bureau of Justice Statistics' table of homicide rates (and their useful summary complete with a very helpful chart) that the homicide rate in 2002 was the same as in 1966. The homicide rate was starting to increase drastically in the late 1960s, and it stayed elevated until the late 1990s when it dropped steeply. So, the homicide rate is higher than it was in the days of Beaver Cleaver, but it's lower now than it had been for some time. Certainly, it is better now than it was a little over a decade ago. A look at their chart on longer-term trends shows that the current level is the same as it was prior to 1920! (The low homicide rate of the '40s, '50s, and early '60s was not typical for the century, though admittedly prior to 1910 those numbers show a surprisingly small homicide rate back then.) So, while we may be surrounded by more images of violence (though I suppose someone had better check!), we are not more murderous in this nation today than we were in most of the decades of the Twentieth Century (assuming that data is essentially correct). This fact makes me even more skeptical of falling-sky arguments. Don't get me wrong, I don't like what I see when I look around, but let's not pretend that we continue to reach new depths, because it simply isn't true. (I know that we could look at other numbers that would tell us other things about this nation, like divorce rates, abortion rates, and so on, that would give us a more negative picture - and indeed on some fronts things may be worse than they were - but, interestingly, not in all).

Of course, murder rates, as in Gary and Chicago, tend to be higher in cities. The BJS "Crime Data Brief" from 1999 points out that much of the decline in the homicide rate in the 1990s came from cities of 1 million or more inhabitants (which does indeed exclude Gary, though some quick, rough calculations show that Gary's homicide rate change alone would have made a nearly 0.4% drop in the national homicide rate). I can't help but wonder how much our view of current American society is colored by cities. This leads me to wonder if rural states are in part more conservative because of lower crime rates. The violent crime rate by state (which can be found in Table 5 of the 2004 "Crime in the United States" report) though seems to not be highly correlated to politics or even population density, though I didn't bother to actually calculate the correlation.

On to another, vaguely related topic. I was talking to Justin on Thursday about, when comparing different nations, how poorly violent crime rates (among other things) correlate with religiosity. The United States is very near the top of industrialized nations in religious participation, and I think most observers would agree that among true Christian believers it must have one of the highest rates as well. Most European nations, on the other hand, are in dreadful condition Spiritually-speaking. And yet... their violent crime rates are rarely higher and often lower than ours. This puts to lie, I think, the idea that atheists will be automatically more evil in general. I am not talking about sin - clearly one can not expect to find a "righteous" atheist in Christian theological terms. What I am talking about is public morality. Even Paul said the God-less could be lawful on occasion (see Romans 2:14-16). Despite this apparent disconnect (which I admit may not be complete; some would point to inculcated "Judeo-Christian morality," for example), many in this country like to claim that most of the problems in this nation are due directly to declining faith in God. Well, perhaps we would be even worse off (in secular terms) with lower rates of belief and religious participation, but many essentially atheistic countries are doing better than us. I think we need some careful consideration about the relationship between the faith of some and the condition of the society as a whole. Which is not to say that evangelism - true evangelism concerned with souls not a "culture war" which is concerned with political points and lip-service - is unimportant, but rather to say the exact opposite: We may not be able to save our society no matter how faithful we are, but we can bring persons to God one at a time. To do that we must both announce the saving grace of God but also demonstrate that faith. But let that demonstration be a true demonstration and not demonization - there is no place for self-righteousness in the kingdom of God.

posted at 01:31:07 on 04/23/06 by ben - Category: Religion

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