Rather than grum­bling about moral de­cay, we ought to cel­e­brate freedom

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY AN­DREW FIALA Spe­cial to The Bee

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, God­fear­ing 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.

MARK LAMBIE The El Paso Times/AP

Los An­ge­les-based artists Noah Re­ich, right, and David Mal­don­ado, be­hind the tree, hang a heart-shaped sign on a tree Sept. 1 out­side a ben­e­fit con­cert by Khalid for the Wal­mart shoot­ing vic­tims in El Paso, Texas.

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