On Fear

One Safe Generation focuses on reducing real threats to the physical safety of children. But media coverage, Internet hype, and even many parenting books do their best to divert attention to threats that are statistically tiny by comparison.

Fear sells papers and drives online traffic, so half-overheard urban myths that "a child is abducted every 40 seconds" and "child abduction rates have risen 444 percent since 1982," always uncited, continue to make the rounds. Christian parenting books often seize this opportunity, sounding a frightening "values" alarm. Crime is spiraling out of control. Morality is on the retreat. Our children are at greater risk of teen pregnancy, kidnapping, and violent death than ever before. Terrified parents are offered the solution—Jesus.

But are the frightening claims actually true? Are our kids less safe and less moral than ever before? Consider these statistics:

• According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime rates across the board have declined continuously since 1994, reaching the lowest level ever in 2005.10

• Teen pregnancy is on the decline. According the Guttmacher Institute's 2006 report, teen pregnancy rates are down 36 percent from 1990 to the lowest level in thirty years.11

• Child abduction rates—always infinitesimal—continue to fall. Rates of violent crime against children have fallen by nearly 50 percent since 1973. The child murder rate is the lowest in forty years.12 Any given child is fifty times more likely in any given year to die from a world-ending comet or meteor (1 in 20,000) than to be abducted by a stranger (1 in 1 million).13

So why do we fear unlikely things and ignore far greater risks? An article in Scientific American Mind summed up the psychological research:

• We fear what our ancestral history has prepared us to fear, like confinement, heights, snakes, spiders, and humans outside our tribe.

• We fear what we can't control. The car is less safe than the airplane, but our hands are on the steering wheel of one and not the other.

• We fear things that are immediate (strangers around us) more than the long term (global warming).

• We fear threats readily available in memory. Every plane crash, every child abduction, every home invasion is covered by the news media and takes on a significance far beyond the actual threat.14

We can provide our children the best security and the least fearful environment by assessing risks intelligently and refusing to give in to those who benefit from fear mongering and the sounding of moral alarms.

Q: Why is it so important for nonreligious parents to "come out"? Won't my child benefit from a lower profile?

A: One of our main goals as parents should be the creation of a saner world for our kids. One of the best ways nonreligious parents can do this is by working toward a world in which religious disbelief is no big deal. That's the goal, of course—not to dominate the culture, not to wipe religion off the map, but to simply make religious disbelief no big deal.

We can learn a great deal from the progressive movements that have preceded us. Racism becomes difficult to support once you know and love someone of a different race. Homophobia falls apart when you learn that your neighbor or your child is gay. The same is true for religious disbelief. Religious people are currently surrounded by closeted nonbelievers. This makes it possible for them to retain a caricature of the nonreligious as someone "out there," far away, wild-eyed and repugnant, alien and threatening. When instead they learn that sweet, normal cousin Susan doesn't believe in God, a powerful shift must take place to accommodate the new information.

Many nonreligious people think the shift will downgrade them in the eyes of the other person. After talking to literally hundreds of nonbelievers about their "coming out" experiences, I am happy to report that it generally works in reverse: Instead of downgrading the friend or relative, most religious people will upgrade, however slightly, their overall opinion of the nonreligious. Their caricature becomes less supportable when a face both known and loved is placed on it.

If every nonreligious person were to reveal her beliefs to those around her, gently and with a smile, the predominant cultural attitude toward religious disbelief would be profoundly altered overnight. Fear and mistrust would not change to instant approval by any means, but the simplistically drawn image of the nonreligious would necessarily become more complex, more nuanced, more accurate. It almost always goes better than you think it will. And it would go a long, long way toward allowing our children toward think freely and independently about questions of religious belief.

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