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Does the Bible Make Americans More Violent?

Americans can be notoriously prudish about sex, yet our entertainments are stuffed with violent acts. Could this go all the way back to the Bible?

My friend Li is an Evangelical Christian and, in keeping with her family values she keeps an eye on what her children view and read. In the summer, she took her 12-year-old daughter to the Hunger Games. “It’s the perfect movie for her,” Li commented. “No swearing and no sex.” No swearing; no sex. Just people stalking and killing each other.

The Motion Picture Association of America agrees with Li’s priorities. So did the writers of the Bible.  Our love-hate-love affair with violence goes way back.

It goes way back, and it also appears to be changing. In his 2011 book,  The Better Angels of our Nature, Stephen Pinker lined up information from a wide variety of sources to show that human societies are  less violent now than ever in recorded history. Violence dropped precipitously with the agricultural revolution, and then again with the Enlightenment and more recently, with the emergence of universal human rights. In the U.S., recent decades have seen a decline in murder rates and gun ownership. This finding is counterintuitive for several reasons. We have become more sensitized to kinds of violence that once were accepted as normal, like child and wife abuse; modern weapons of war have made killings more dramatic; we forget how brutish our ancestors really were; and thanks to media, modern incidents of violence produce shockwaves of trauma that once were impossible. All of this obscures a long and vast trend line toward—it sounds weird to say it—a kinder, gentler world. A medieval British man was fifty times more likely to die at the hands of another man than is his modern descendant.

We might be even farther along this path were it not for a love affair with fantasy violence that, if anything, appears to be growing.

The Motion Picture Association of America has been rating sex, violence and profanity in movies since 1968, with the goal of limiting how much of each children absorb—or at least giving parents a tool that lets them make the judgment call. In 2006, the Annenberg Public Policy Center  reviewed the top grossing movies since the rating system began.  In fact, they reviewed movies all the way back to 1950. They found that explicit sex and violence had both increased over time, but that “ratings creep” affected only violence. Explicit sex is still reserved for “R” rated films; explicit violence is not.

Many parents naively trust that media targeted at young children are developmentally harmless even though brain science  suggests otherwise. They similarly tend to assume that a G-Rating means a movie is low on violence. In reality, it may mean simply that the violence is less realistic or designed to trigger laughter rather than fear. A Harvard study published in 2000 reviewed every animated feature film produced between 1933 and 1999,  74 in total. At the time,  the findings made headlines because they were startling:

-- Every single film had at least one violent act. The amount of footage devoted to violence ranged from 6 seconds to 24 minutes.

-- Most of the films showed physical fighting as a means of resolving conflict.

-- Characters used weapons including swords and guns and every-day objects.

-- In half of the movies at least one character gave violence a thumbs-up at some point by cheering or laughing.

follow up  in 2004 showed that G-rated movies, like all others, gradually are becoming more violent. A  2007 study sampled 77 PG-13 films and tallied 2251 violent actions, with nearly half causing one or more death.  Researchers classified most of the incidents as “happy violence” meaning it was “cool, swift, and painless.” Today, by the age of 11, the typical American kid has seen almost  8000 murders on TV. Why? Because we like it that way. Movies that are rated R for violence make more money than those that are rated R for other reasons. We are attracted to violence and we are inured to violence.  Most Americans—not just my friend Li--find murder to be more acceptable fare for children than sex or swear words.

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