Is the World Getting Worse?

by | Dec 17, 2018 | 4 comments

As long as I can remember, church leaders have described the world and its peoples as “broken and hurting.” This along with other stock phrases such as “the poor and marginalized,” and “the least, the last and the lost” regularly pop up in prayers, Bible studies, and sermons.

Like news media that depend on bad or shocking news to get people’s attention, it’s almost as if churches depend on things looking bleak and bad in the world in order to motivate compassion or to claim relevance.
Before you protest that of course, we’re supposed to pay attention to people’s pain and suffering, please hear me out. While it’s important for churches to surface and address gaps in justice, equity and compassion, our unchanging lexicon hints that the world is a bad place that’s only getting worse. But what if that’s not true? What if—on the whole—the world is actually thriving and progressing? Click To Tweet
Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress is a thorough, comprehensive and compelling exploration of the effects of progress on the human condition and the earth we inhabit. It’s 453 extravagant and detailed pages about how life on earth is undeniably better, brighter, fairer and more just than ever before in human history. Pinker’s central finding is that humans live in a world in which all boats haven risen on a long tide of progress.   Even taking into account the Trump effect, we have made progress in every area of human striving including length and quality of life, health, health care, sustenance, wealth, closing the gap on inequality, safeguarding the environment, peace, safety, democratization of the world, equal rights, literacy, education, access to knowledge. Even happiness.
Philanthropist Bill Gates has discovered much the same scenario. He asserts in his 2014 letter: “By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient.” Gates goes on to say, “You might think that such striking progress would be widely celebrated,” but in fact the opposite is true. Persistent myths abound that the world is getting worse. (Pinker ascribes this tendency to believe the worst to the availability heuristic. If it’s in the news, it must be happening everywhere.) These myths harm organizations that effectively problem-solve poverty, violence, injustice, war and hunger.
These myths also harm the church. After all, the church’s primary product, if you will, is good news. Its what churches offer the world. If the world is getting worse, not better, this implies that churches have no impact. Worse, that the God we promote is ineffective. That the main prayer we pray each week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” never gets answered. Most depressing of all, if these myths are to be believed, the Lord’s Prayer can’t get answered.
Heaven knows there are still problems to be solved, evils to be dismantled, and atrocities to be halted. Yet, we must not bury the positive transformations that are taking place in outdated language.
How would church services be different if we found new, more accurate language to describe the world and its peoples? What if instead of “the least, the last and the lost,” humans are described as resourceful problem-solvers who partner with God to co-create new realities? What if instead of a “broken and hurting world” we highlight human resiliency? What if instead of “poor and marginalized” we referred to folks who are experiencing injustice as courageous and persistent?   How might that change our view of things?
The former language casts the world as a victim and the church its rescuer. According to the principles of emotional triangles, this simply perpetuates victimization.   The latter language empowers us to dream up new possibilities.
I say it’s time to lift up all that is going well and right in the world, along with what is not. All the ways God answers prayer as well as the prayers still to be answered. All the ways churches partner with God to make a difference in the world as well as the partnerships we must still take up.  To do that, we must develop a new lexicon and begin new conversations.

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  1. Bill Mankin

    One of the biggest steps forward for humanity is, I think, the elimination of legally sanctioned slavery and the widespread opposition to illicit slavery and human trafficking.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Yes, Bill, agreed. That is a sea change for humanity. Our next challenge is to fully address it.

  2. Peter Sawtell

    This is a thought-provoking article, Rebekah. You won’t be surprised that I’m most provoked by Pinker’s assertion that we’re doing better and better about “safeguarding the environment.” When I look at climate change (which the nations of the world haven’t found the strength to address adequately), species extinction (we’re in the midst of a cataclysmic extinction event), plastic pollution (from drinking straws and plastic bags to huge fishing nets to microfibers), and the depletion of resources (topsoil, aquifers), I see a global society that is spreading disaster, not progress. In 2011, I looked at the wide range of evidence and saw a world that is “damaged, depleted and destabilized.”
    Yes, we have seen remarkable achievements on many fronts, and I do celebrate a lot of them. But Pinker seems to be describing a world that is detached from the larger web of life, and the limits that are implicit in this finite world. He also seems to measure “progress” in a largely materialist way — with wealth, technology, years of life, etc. (Confession: I haven’t read the book, so I’m working from your short description, and a review from The Atlantic.)
    What is the measure of progress for us? Is it bigger houses and more stuff? Or is it progress toward God’s shalom (“thy kingdom come”) which leads us to sufficiency rather than excess (“give us this day our daily bread”)?
    I find Pinker’s optimism unconvincing when I look at the world through an ecological lens. If we continue to shred the web of life, then other forms of progress won’t hold up.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Thanks for your comments, Peter. Pinker does in fact dedicate quite a bit of space to climate change, and to environmental concerns, (most especially chapter 10, pp 121-155.) I found his approach quite interesting. He notes, through detailed analysis, how the world has been decarbonizing over time. And how economic growth and carbon-burning are not synonymous.
      Let me quote you one of his summary paragraphs:
      “As societies have become healthier, wealthier, freer, happier, and better educated, they have set their sights on the most pressing global challenges. They have emitted fewer pollutants, cleared fewer forests, spilled less oil, set aside more preserves, extinguished fewer species, saved the ozone layer, and peaked in their consumption of oil, farmland, timber, paper, cars, coal, and perhaps even carbon. For all their differences, the world’s nations came to a historic agreement on climate change as they did in previous years on nuclear testing, proliferation, security and disarmament. Nuclear weapons, since the extraordinary circumstances of the closing days of World War II, have not been used in the seventy-two years they have existed. Nuclear terrorism, in defiance of forty years of expert predictions, has never happened. The world’s nuclear stockpiles have been reduced by 85 percent, with more reductions to come, and testing has ceased, (except by the tiny rogue regime in Pyongyang) and proliferation has frozen. The world’s two most pressing problems, then though not yet solved, are solvable: practicable long-term agenda have been laid out for eliminating nuclear weapons and for mitigating climate change.” (p. 324)
      Now, how much the Trump administration undoes is yet to be determined. Even so, the fact that many US businesses and other stakeholders have continued to engage the Paris accords is a good sign. Not to mention the international chorus of young adults like Greta Thun.
      I find Pinker’s work to be an important re-framing of potentially paralyzing facts. Fear has the power to numb. Intense fear has the power to paralyze. If we can create space for some good news and a bit of optimism in the global conversation around climate change, it just may give people space to act from empowerment, not hide out in dread.


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