Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44.2 (2001) 300-303
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The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty
The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty. By David G. Myers. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2000. Pp. xv + 414. $29.95.
American Paradox is an ambitious book. In it, David Myers surveys American society today, looks closely at its recent past, and speculates about its future. This assessment of where we have been and where we are headed is enormously impressive, both in its scope and in its depth. In fact, I wondered how Myers managed to master--with so much nuanced understanding--recent research on such a wide range of topics. Then I wondered how he managed to present this complicated and often contradictory literature so clearly, accurately, and with such wit. As I read I was often struck by the sheer beauty of the language and the rhythm of the words. But all this is packaging. The book shines in the clarity, [End Page 300] insight, and courage of the arguments; the skillful use of recent research and facts to support the argument and the craft displayed in the writing also add to the book's impact. American Paradox is a book well worth reading.
Myers tells the reader in the first pages of the book that he is an experimental social psychologist, suspicious of the colorful anecdote, with a strong preference for evidence from population surveys, data, and research. He assesses this evidence from a hard-headed but soft-hearted perspective, with a concern for the real people behind the figures, and from a foundation of personal religious faith.
America has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams of material affluence, Myers argues, but failed miserably morally and socially. We have worshipped at the shrine of radical individualism, with a resulting loss of collective well-being that ultimately also damages individuals. This enormous, impressive material success coupled with troubling, corrosive social failure constitutes the paradox in the title of the book.
Myers begins his survey of our recent past with the sexual revolution and its consequences, from vastly increased rates of sexually transmitted disease and children born to unmarried women to the substitution of cohabitation for marriage, at least to some extent. He points to some good news in incipient signs of a "new sexual revolution," with a swing in values toward commitment in relationships and away from casual sex, teenage sex, and births to teens. From this point, Myers turns to marriage, pointing out the well-known increases in divorce and the less-well-known increases in personal "misery" that accompany them. Myers links current high rates of depression and declines in personal happiness to divorce and, ultimately, to the relative rarity of close, stable, committed marriages. Married people are happier, on average, than the single, and while we might expect high rates of divorce to weed out unhappy marriages, leaving those still married as shining examples of the best of the best, instead happiness of the married has declined over the last 30 years. Some researchers point to increasing demands on marriage for personal fulfillment and to the inherent instability of any marriage in a land of no-fault--read unilateral--divorce. Myers admits that solutions for strengthening marriage without victimizing any of the participants are far from easy, but lists suggestions, starting points, and grassroots efforts.
Perhaps the biggest losers in America's rush toward radical individualism have been its children. Myers points to steady rises since 1970 in the proportion of children in poverty: every fifth child lives in poverty, and one in three experience episodic poverty in any year. Reports of child abuse have surged, and arrests for juvenile violent crime, teen suicide, and scores of academic aptitude tests all worsened between 1960 and the mid-1990s, with some improvement thereafter. Divorce and unmarried childbearing mean that many more children now than 30 years ago are living in single-parent or stepparent families, which, on average, produce worse outcomes for children. Divorce itself...