The Cause of Declining Violence—Enlightenment? Or Incarceration?

Steven Pinker rightly deserves to be included among the New Atheists. “Religion Poisons Everything!” is a principal theme of his newly published bestseller, Enlightenment Now, and also of his previous book The Better Angels of Our Nature.  And while he is given credit for loading up his books with evidence, his case against Christianity is ridiculously weak—perhaps nonexistent even. It is a weakness that would not be forgiven in a Christian who proclaimed without evidence, “Atheism Poisons Everything!”

In truth, it is a point of contention between atheists and Christians as to what in fact is the poison that poisons everything.  And rational people ought to demand evidence for deciding the case.  Any person who was seriously interested would realize that, today, we are in a better position to investigate the question than at any previous time.  This is because we are living in the midst of a great cultural revolution in which Christianity is being overthrown by secularism as the dominant culture-shaping force of our time.  Philip Rieff was one of the first to observe this phenomenon in his 1960s classic The Triumph of the Therapeutic. And Pew Research confirms that the trend is accelerating.

No one disputes the fact that America is less Christian today than at any previous time in her history.  And all would agree, as well, that the sixties marks the turning point of this cultural upheaval.  Thus, if Christianity really poisons everything, then things ought to be better now. Pinker claims that they are better, and one area where he claims to see this improvement is in the incidence of violent crime.  But I see something quite different.  Let’s have a look.


From Enlightenment Now

From The Better Angels of Our Nature

These graphs come from Pinker’s new-atheist duology, and what they show is an impressive drop in America’s homicide rate beginning in the early nineties and continuing all the way to 2014.  To find levels this low, you need to go all the way back to the fifties and early sixties. This of course is an important piece of evidence for Pinker’s argument that the Enlightenment is working, or, more specifically, that Enlightenment values—reason, science, humanism, and progress—are working.

One may wonder how exactly this works. The kid who drops out of school, for example, is certainly at risk for criminal activity.  What is Pinker’s Enlightenment program for rescuing such at-risk kids?  A syllabus of Immanual Kant, David Hume, and John Locke?  Is this why violence has declined? Is there some Enlightenment discussion group at Goodreads that mobsters are flocking to?  There is a real question here about the practical transmission of elite culture to the general population.  How else are you going to reduce violence if you don’t reach the minds of potentially violent criminals?

Religion, of course, does not suffer from this problem.  It has a logical mechanism to explain how it affects large populations:  It’s not an elitist movement for one thing.  It teaches its foundational moral and spiritual principles with simple parables and fables.  The truth is that if Enlightenment values like humanism ever reached the general population, it required some populist vehicle like religion to do it.  And there are plenty of people out there like me who believe that that is exactly how it happened.  Yes, Enlightenment values contributed to progress.  But that’s because, before they were Enlightenment values, they were Christian ones (as I explained here).  And they came packaged in a form that all people could digest—young and old, educated and not.

But since Christianity is only a force for “counter-Enlightenment” ideals, according to Pinker, he necessarily rejects the idea that Christianity could have spread Enlightenment values, a point not unnoticed and not unappreciated by other more sympathetic reviewers of his book:

These counter-Enlightenment trends include Catholic…modes of thought which…have always stood…in opposition to the values that Pinker…credits with the advances made since the 18th Century.”

This leaves Pinker in a quandary.  He still needs some populist mechanism to explain how Enlightenment values got transmitted to the general population.  If Christianity didn’t do it, what did?  Taking the long view of the question, we see that Pinker is probably in trouble. For prior to the arrival of electronic media, Christianity pretty much had the monopoly on popular culture.  But with the rise of the ubiquitous entertainment industry, the Church experienced real competition for the first time in more than a millennium.  Today, there can be no question about the power of Hollywood to communicate its values and ideas to the world.  And don’t they know it!

Thus Hollywood gives Pinker a way out of his predicament.  It gives him a quite reasonable and secular theory to explain how Enlightenment values trickle down to the common man in order to effect our *** new world order of peace and tranquility.***  It’s not Immanuel Kant, people.  No, this is Steven Spielberg’s Enlightenment. And with movies out there like Schindler’s List, it’s not half bad, as theories go.

Now for the punchline.  With Christianity on the way out and Hollywood on the way up, we have a good idea where our contemporary values come from.  So, by deduction and extrapolation, I conclude that it is in fact these values which deserve the credit for any current change in the state of violent crime in America. Pinker says violence has declined.  Is he right about that?

Let’s put the question this way:  Is it as safe in secular America today as it was in the Christian America of the forties and fifties?  The clear answer is, “Not by a long shot.”  Pinker is only tracking homicides, but violent crime also includes rape, robbery, and assault according to the FBI’s crime statistics.  Once you factor in these other crimes, you see that a person in 2014 was almost 2.5 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than in 1960.  You are 2.75 times more likely to be raped.  And since females are overwhelmingly the victims of these sex crimes, we have good reason to wonder why Pinker thinks they ought to sign up for his optimism club.

And 2014 is the rosiest picture that  America’s secular “enlightenment” can paint for us because the numbers start climbing again in 2015 and 2016.  If you look at years prior to 2014, the numbers are off the charts. In 1991, for instance, you were almost 5 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than in 1960.  Even Pinker himself describes secular America from the late sixties through the nineties in barbaric terms.

So what do we make of the decline in homicides then?  Viewed in the context of skyrocketing violence, Pinker’s Enlightenment theory looks positively absurd.  I have a different theory.

the al capone effect?

I call my theory the Al Capone Effect.  Its central concept can be stated thus:

When you take the tax-evader off the streets, you also take the murderer too.

From an APA commentary on the National Research Council’s report on mass incarceration

The Al Capone Effect offers what I think is a more reasonable explanation for the  lower homicide rate:  Decades of epidemic levels of violent crime have led to the mass incarceration of violent criminals. The National Research Council’s 2014 report on mass incarceration confirms this: the current incarceration rate is seven times higher than it was in the sixties and early seventies (see graphs below). Thus the explanation for fewer homicides has nothing to do with some sweeping cultural enlightenment.  It’s really just a simple case of subtraction—A larger percentage of violent criminals is already locked up, leaving fewer violent criminals on the streets to commit their crimes. In the absence of an enlightenment, another way to reduce crime is to throw everybody in jail.

Present Incarceration Rate: 700/100,000. Source: “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences,” The National Research Council, 2014.

Incarceration Rate, 1960s: 100/100,00. Source: “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences,” The National Research Council, 2014.


Pinker’s books reveal an important moral about the hazards of scientism.  It’s possible for a theory to be true in all the pie charts and bar graphs of clever men and still be dead wrong as a theory about the world.  This is what happens when all of that carefully massaged and manicured data no longer accurately describes reality.  Such is the case with Pinker’s violence argument. Closer inspection reveals more sophistry than science, for what is actually true turns out to be the very opposite of what Pinker claims. What the evidence really shows is that America has become more violent as she has become less Christian.  And I count myself among those who believe that this is no coincidence.

2 thoughts on “The Cause of Declining Violence—Enlightenment? Or Incarceration?

  1. A Scientist

    As with all multifactorial issues, thinking that “one thing” is the sole cause for something is sophomoric. Neither secularization nor incarceration can realistically be considered to be causal in something as complicated as violence. And to use this example of “scientism” is misguided. Rather, it is an example of someone using selective data to support a singular view – something this website does time and time again as well. The proper terms are bias, partiality and partisanship.

    1. John Gravino

      “A Scientist” says: “Neither secularization nor incarceration can realistically be considered to be causal in something as complicated as violence.”

      Yes, complex things may come about by multiple causes/variables. Nevertheless, even complex things have causes. And certainly mass incarceration may be playing a causal role in the lower incidence of violent crime. You might be the only scientist—or human, even—to think differently on the matter, especially when you consider that a primary objective of incarceration is precisely to get criminals off the streets to make those streets safer.

      As far as the causal role of religion goes, the question is presently being studied at the school of public health at Harvard U. One of the scientists studying the question is Tyler VanderWeele. He just spoke at Duke Medical School this past February. One of the conclusions of their research? THERE IS LIKELY A CAUSAL LINK BETWEEN THE DECLINE IN ATTENDANCE AT RELIGIOUS SERVICES AND THE PRESENT EPIDEMIC OF SUICIDE. So, A Scientist, what could be more complex or “multifactorial” than suicide? Yet scientists now believe that lack of religion is likely a causal factor.

      Are they saying that religion is the ONLY factor? Of course not. And nor have I made any such claim either.

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