Aug 2007

Feral Teens: A result of godlessness?

There’s a discussion over at The Sharpener regarding the Feral Teen Menace (TM) which has apparently sprung up in recent years. It seems that the youth of today is uniquely troublesome and all manner of measures are being considered (even if only by authoritarian right-wingers) to deal with them. The tabloids have decided that cheap booze is largely responsible for the problem, and banning the consumption of alcohol in public along with raising the legal drinking age to 21 are just two of the ideas being proposed.

As an aside, I’m mildly amused by the fact that people from the Norman Tebbit end of the political spectrum can propose increasingly heavy restrictions on alcohol consumption in order to deal with modern teens without causing too much of a furore. Yet woe-betide an Islamic scholar who suggests anything of the sort. White right-wingers are simply proposing sensible solutions to a rising tide of lawlessness. Brown moslems, on the other hand, are trying to impose a global caliphate on us all. Go figure.

Anyways, I’m not a fan of alcohol as it happens and haven’t had more than a couple of drinks in the past few years. But that’s purely a biochemical thing (it makes me feel shit these days, where once I found it pleasant) and certainly isn’t an indication of a prohibitionist mindset. Drop round with some pot and see how long it lasts if you don’t believe me. So while a public drinking ban wouldn’t personally impact on me, it’s clearly a ridiculous idea. Criminalising someone for having a cold beer in the park on a warm day just because the tabloids claim the kids are all out of their skulls on alcopops and vandalising bus-shelters is an over-reaction (to put it mildly) and any claims that raising the drinking age to 21 will have a significant impact on crime conveniently ignores the evidence provided to us by the USA.

Incidentally, I have a dare for anyone who genuinely believes that raising the drinking age to 21 is a good idea. Find yourself a twenty-year-old squaddie just returned from a tour in Iraq and tell him he can’t have a pint down his local. If he refuses to listen, then attempt to restrain him. Go on! Do your civic duty!

All the same, I do believe that we are witnessing a major social problem right now and it is manifesting itself most clearly in the youth. The social fabric is indeed beginnning to fray somewhat, and today’s kids do seem less respectful of their own communities than was once the case. Youth crime rates have increased somewhat faster than population and youth suicide is off the scale (that last fact can partly be attributed to a lessening of the social stigma surrounding suicide and a consequent increase in suicides being recorded as such, rather than as “death by misadventure” as was often the case previously, but that’s clearly only part of the explanation).

My own view is that youth crime has little to do with the fact that we allow people to get pissed when they’re eighteen. We’ve been permitting them to do that since Tebbit was a nipper and while the man has clearly spent his life being a menace, even I must concede that he probably wasn’t guzzling white cider and mugging old ladies when he was a teenager.

No, my own view is that our social problems are simply the inevitable consequence of a late-capitalist civilisation that is itself clearly committing suicide. Socialism — for all its many faults — has at its core an attempt to give each individual a stake in a wider society. This is in direct opposition to the individual materialism required by consumer capitalism and instilled in us by a constant barrage of psychologically manipulative media imagery. If people find genuine fulfillment and contentment in the simple things in life… family, friends and a sense of social worth, then any attempt to convince them that fulfillment can only be found via the purchase of a new car or an expensive watch or a holiday in the Seychelles is doomed to failure. Therefore we’ve created a generation who feel utterly detached from society and the comfort, security and contentment it offers. Self-obsessed, self-serving, isolated and unhappy individuals make by far the best consumers. This is just common sense. Why therefore, are we surprised that our civilisation has created them? Or that a widespread sense of social alienation should lead to a lack of respect for that society?

Add to that an awareness of impending environmental catastophe (which, whether you believe it will happen or not, is clearly a significant part of the belief system of modern youth) and you have a recipe for nihilism. We’ve annihilated the future. And people with no future either get angry or they get depressed. The crime / suicide thing.

Now, personally I don’t think there’s much we can do about this. Without a wholescale restructuring of our society, removing the emphasis on personal consumption and attempting to knit back together that social fabric, there’s just no option beyond ever-more authoritarian policies. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have an alcohol-related social problem for instance.

However, one thing struck me about the debate currently taking place at The Sharpener, and I want to focus on it. That’s the idea that the root cause of the Feral Teen Menace is our increasing godlessness. As our culture becomes more secular and religion plays a diminishing role in the lives of individuals, so crime increases.

Perhaps surprisingly, I do think there’s something in this. No, I’ve not recently found Jesus or anything… I actually found him years ago as it happens. He was down the back of the sofa along with a handful of loose change, a broken comb and a silver ring that no bugger could recall having seen before. I lost him soon afterwards though… told him to wait in the car when I went in to buy some cigarette papers and matches and when I came out he’d wandered off. But he’s a grown man so I figured he could take care of himself.

Aaanyways, while pretty much all religious beliefs are obviously irrational, it’s a very blinkered atheist indeed who would insist that religion plays no part in creating a sense of social inclusion. I’m not suggesting that’s a justification for the various evils that god-botherers have unleashed upon the world. It isn’t. And dispelling the superstition and nonsense of religion is clearly a good thing. But there’s a whole baby / bathwater nexus going on that needs to be examined.

See, most of my readers will acknowledge that, on balance, the influence of religion on society is negative. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say “very negative”. Any Christians who are offended by this can take their religion and… forgive me with it. However, it’s not 100% negative. It has certain positive roles to fill, one of which is to offer that sense of social inclusion I mentioned. So while the secularisation of society is, on balance, a good thing; the fact that it has happened without putting alternative systems in place to take over the positive roles once played by religion has led to a number of social problems.

A local example… there’s a hospital in Cork City that I’ve been in more times than I’d like. It used to be run by a religious order but has now been transferred to the state. There’s not a doctor in the place who won’t admit that the levels of hygiene and administrative efficiency have dropped dramatically since the changeover. It seems that a cleaner who believes they are doing God’s work is better at their job than one who is doing it for a paycheque. This is not an argument in favour of religion. It’s an argument in favour of ensuring that people have something other than the minimum wage to inspire them in their work. I’ve no idea what that should be (I doubt it’s “a bit more money” though).

So yeah, religion played a role in providing social inclusion. Now that it no longer functions that way, and we’ve failed to replace it with anything, it simply stands to reason that social inclusion has been negatively affected. To expect otherwise is unrealistic.

However, I decided to put this theory to the test, and the United States is ripe for analysis. Tracking down a state-by-state breakdown of crime statistics is pretty simple (US States Crime 2004 -2005). However, tracking down a state-by-state breakdown of religiosity isn’t quite so simple. In the end I decided that — given we were taking a look at ‘godlessness’ — I’d use the American Religious Identification Survey (PDF file) carried out by the City University of New York in 2001 which provides a State by State Distribution of Selected Religious Groups (Table 15), including those who identify with “No Religion”. It is this group I compared against the crime stats. I’m assuming that both the crime stats and the religious stats are roughly typical, so the slight disparity in the years they were gathered shouldn’t prove too important.

The results were illuminating. Clearly there will be numerous factors influencing the crime statistics on a state-by-state basis, from quality of policing to economic conditions. I have focussed on violent crime in the hope of ruling out at least some of the economic influence on the statistics. Despite these other factors, however, I assume that those who link ‘godlessness’ with crime would argue that less violent crime should occur in those states with a low percentage of people who describe themselves as having “no religion”, while a high proportion of non-religious people in a state would correlate with a higher crime rate.

In fact, there’s absolutely no clear statistical correlation whatsoever. There’s some interesting blips, certainly. North Dakota has the highest proportion of religious people, and also has the lowest violent crime rate. Which is a pretty good start for the “godlessness equals crime” folks. But the state with the third highest proportion of religious people (South Carolina) has the highest violent crime rate of any state, with only the almost entirely urban District of Columbia beating it. And DC — whose violent crime rate is almost double that of South Carolina — is in the top quarter of the religious stats, while Washington state — the most godless of them all — is in the bottom third of the violent crime stats.

So while I accept that an increasing secularism could logically lead to greater social exclusion and a consequent rise in crime rates, the actual data from the United States shows little or no evidence for this.

NOTE: I’ll format the full stats for publication here if anyone wants them. Alternatively I can email the Excel spreadsheet to anyone who wants it… or make it available for download should someone request it.

Posted in: Opinion