Monday, December 28, 2009

How the most religious states fare.

The Pew Survey has released information on the most religious states in the United States and the least religious. They look at four factors to rate the depth of religious belief. The four questions rate the importance of religion, worship attendance, frequency of prayer and certainty in the existence of a god. I’m not convinced that the middle issues are as important as the other two. Using the two more important factors the top ten most religious states would be: Mississippi; Alabama; Arkansas; South Carolina; Tennessee; Louisiana; Georgia; Kentucky; North Carolina; and Oklahoma. Using all four survey questions wouldn't appear to change the ranking significantly.

The ten least religious states would be: New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, Massachusetts, Alaska, California, Nevada and Colorado.

With this in mind we can test a claim made by religious folk the when people are more religious society is more moral, stable, peaceful and prosperous. These are objective claims that can be investigated. So I did.
Blessings from God?

First, let’s investigate the claim that religious people receive material blessings from their deity because they are religious. This claim is quite prevalent. I heard it from the pulpit frequently, especially by the top leaders of the Religious Right. You will often hear it said that America is prosperous because has been a “Christian nation.” And the Bible clearly indicates that long-life is one blessing from Jehovah to his followers. If this is true we would expect those states with higher levels of religious fervor to more prosperous than those with lower levels of religious belief.

I looked at two different statistics that would indicate some sort of benevolent blessing to the believing states as opposed to the more secular states. First, I thought the poverty rate would be a good place to start. If the Christian deity increases prosperity due to one’s faith then the more religious states ought to have lower poverty rates and the more secular states ought to have higher poverty rates. Unfortunately it seems the deity got it backwards: the percentage of people living below the poverty line in the ten most religious states averaged out to 16.67%. In the more secular states the percentage below the poverty line was 10.3%—at least according to the Census Bureau.

So would the deity do better with life expectancy. Many Christians make the claim that believing and surrendering to God will increase life expectancy. Once again, if this is true then the most religious states ought to have an longer average life expectancy than do the least religious states. Again it seems the deity got things backwards. The average life expectancy in the ten most religious states was 74.9 but in the least religious states it was 77.8. Of course I don’t think religion has anything to do with life expectancy, but if it did, then it would appear that religion lowers life expectancy instead of increasing it.

Personal Morality

One of the most persistent claims I hear from Christians is that without the belief in some sort of deity it is not possible to be live a moral life. They are quite blunt that a belief in God is necessary otherwise people will live immorally and violently. First, lets look at some firm numbers that will indicate if this is true.

Christians are very adamant about sexual morality. It is an absolute sin to have sex outside marriage—this is a widespread belief most likely believed by the dominant conservative sects. The smaller “liberal” denominations are a bit more flexible. So does religion increase, or decrease, the likelihood of having sex outside marriage? First I looked at the data for the number of teenage births as a percentage of all births in the state. If belief in a god acts as some divine chastity belt then the teen pregnancy rates ought to be lower in the ten most religious states. In those religious states teen pregnancies made up 16.7% of all pregnancies. In the less religious states it was 10.3%. A different way of measure teen pregnancy rates can be found here, but it comes to similar results.

I also looked at the percentage of all pregnancies for unwed women. This is one of the key moral messages that the conservative Christians preach. So how’s it working out for them on that front? In the religious states 39% of all pregnancies were to single women. In the least religious states it was 33.8%.

Christians preach the “sanctity of marriage” very loudly. They say marriage is so sacred that gay people can’t have it because they would “degrade” it. I was a bit worried that the least religious states might lose out on this one because the Pew Survey listed Nevada as one of the least religious states. Nevada is a divorce mecca because it has the easiest divorce laws in the United States. So people go to Nevada for the express purpose of getting a divorce. That means Nevada has the highest divorce rate in the country, as you would expect giving the circumstances. What I found was the divorce rate per 1,000 people, in the most religious states, was 3.95 and in the least religious states it was 3.91. If I exclude Nevada’s high divorce rate the less religious states have an average of 3.62 per 1,000. So, even with Nevada included the less religious states have lower levels of divorce. Excluding Nevada the difference is even more pronounced.

Please remember I’m not particularly opposed to divorce nor am I opposed to sex before marriage. I’m even in favor of sex after marriage. I am just using criteria that Christians emphasize and showing that their belief system doesn’t even seem to support the results they say they want.

Morality Toward Others

To me the real test of morality isn’t whether you get pregnant, or have sex outside marriage, or even get a divorce. The real test of morality is how you treat others. Many believers tell me that without a god then there is no objective morality about things like rape and murder. So I looked specifically at the issues of violent offenses against other people. If religion makes people moral than the more religious states ought to have less violent crime while the less religious states ought to have more violent crime.

First, I looked at violent crime in general. The Census Bureau keeps such statistics on the basis of the numbers of such crimes per 100,000 people. In the religious states there are an average of 520.7 violent crimes per 100,000. In the less religious states the number is significantly lower: 370.3. What about forcible rape? That really ought to be a double taboo since it includes violence and sex outside marriage (usually). In the ten most religious states the average number of rapes, per 1,000 population was 30.3; in the less religious states it was 24.5. So, far this wasn’t looking good for the religious states.

I then decided to check out murder rates. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard believers argue that murder is only wrong because God says it is, and since unbelievers don’t believe in a god then they have no moral restraint on killing others. I was doubtful of that myself. So I checked the murder rate per 100,000 population. In the ten most religious states the rate was 7 murders per 100,000 people. In the less religious states it was 2.49. That’s almost a 3 to 1 ratio.


I looked at two main areas. The first is whether believers are somehow blessed by their deity for believing. That they have higher poverty rates and shorter life expectancy in states that are more religious than in those that are less religious seems to contradict that idea.

The second area regards the larger realm of personal morality. That two has two areas. The first of them was how people in religious states act according to the moral teachings of their own religion. We see that that what most conservative Christians would describe as “sexual sin” is more prevalent in religious states than in the less religious states. And divorce, which strikes at the very heart of the “sanctity of marriage” believe is higher in the religious states and lower in the more secular state. It would seem that the people in the least religious states are more likely to live up to “Christian morality” than the people in the more Christian states.

The second area of morality was how people act toward others. For that we looked at violent crime in general, violent rape and murder. There is little question about the immorality of these actions and widespread consensus that such acts are wrong and should be outlawed. What we saw was that stronger religious beliefs did not lower the rate for these crimes at all. The states with highest “faith” rating had more violence, rape and murder than the state with the lowest rating.

There are other ways to checking how these states compare. We could use VD rates as a proxy for morality indicators. I believe if we do the more religious states would lose out again. We can look at polls on things like torture—but polls done on that topic showed support for torture higher among religious people than non-religious people. We could look at the well-being of children in the two groups. A quick look at the “Kids Count” index of the Anne E. Casey Foundation shows that the religious states doing less well than the less religious states. Alabama ranks 48th; Arkansas 47th, Georgia 42nd, Kentucky 41st, Louisiana 49th, Mississippi 50th, North Carolina 37th, Oklahoma 44th, South Carolina 45th, and Tennessee 46th. In comparison the less religious states did as follows: Alaska 35th, California 20th, Colorado 22nd, Connecticut 4th, Maine 12th, Masschusetts 5th, Nevada 39th, New Hampshire 1st, Rhode Island 15th, and Vermont 8th. (I can’t say whether I agree with these ratings, they are used just as an example. Child abuse rates could be used as well.)

If you think there are other valid data sets to use suggest them in the comment section. I’d be curious to see how these two sets of states compare to one another across a wide range of measurements. I picked ones I thought were obvious and uncontroversial and didn’t know precisely what current statistics would show when applied to the states in the Pew Survey. I did not pick the states, I use the Pew data. Pew doesn’t rate the kind of religious beliefs well here though other surveys they have done do indicate the kind of Christianity that predominates. So, you will find that many of the professed Christians in the less religious states actually tend to be “liberals” in theology while the Christians in the more religious states tend to be more fundamentalist. That would indicate a wide divergence of religious intensity than is showing here. The divergence is because these numbers make the less religious states appear more religious than they are while underestimating the fervency of the believers in the more religious states.
Notes on methodology: In all cases I used percentages or rates per 100,000 (or per 1,000) population. This standardizes the rating so that the numbers take into account the varying population sizes. All the numbers used are unaffected by population differences. I took the statistics for all 10 of the most religious states and averaged them to one number. I then did the same for the 10 least religious states. This averaging out allows to compare the differences between the two groups as a whole. To duplicate my spreadsheet go to the sources listed and take down the data for the 20 states being studied. (I did this by one set of data for the most religious states and another for the least religious states.) Total up the numbers and average them out. Unless there is a typo in my spreadsheet, and I tried to check it carefully, then you should get the same results.

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