I wasn’t aware of this collection of plots until Jeffrey Tayler highlighted it in today’s Salon piece, “Bill O’Reilly’s nonsense ‘nihilism’: now the Fox News host is even lying about God.” I won’t reprise Tayler’s essay, which deals with O’Reilly’s mistaken notion that without God, life has no meaning and “anything goes.” In view of the pervasive atheism in countries that are more moral and more healthy in societal terms than is the US (24% of Danes and 16% of Swedes believe in God, compared to about 90% of Americans), O’Reilly’s thesis simply won’t wash.
Frankly, I’m surprised that the “atheism = immorality” trope is still with us in light of all the palpable evidence against it, including the fact that American nonbelievers aren’t running amuck in the streets. Tayler disposes of it neatly, but I want to show you some graphs that his essay links to; figures on the characteristics of different US states that have been collated and presented by Josh Sager at The Progressive Cynic. His notes are indented; mine are flush left:
Human development (well being) by state:
The first map is color-coded based on a meta-measure of a society called the “human development index.” This index was created by the Social Science Research Council as a composite measure of the health, education and income levels within each state—the higher the number (or darker-colored the state on the map), the more developed the state.
As this map clearly shows, the most developed states are clustered in the northeast, around the great lakes, and on the west coast, while the least developed states in our country are almost exclusively in the Deep South and Appalachia.
Levels of poverty by state:
As you can see in the map [below], American poverty is concentrated in the south, from Arizona all the way to the East Coast; additionally, Michigan, West Virginia and Kentucky are high-poverty states.
As you can see in the map [below], income mobility and the ability to “work your way up” (or down) is tied to the state in which you are living. All but one (Utah) of the states which have higher than average upward income mobility rates lean progressive, while all of the states with low upward income mobility rates lean conservative.
As is illustrated in the map [below], there are wide disparities in high school graduation rates, both on state and regional levels. For the most part, the northern United States has higher graduation rates, while the southern United States has lower graduation rates.
Corporal punishment in schools:
In addition to having lower levels of educational achievement, right-leaning states in the south and Midwest account for virtually all instances of corporal punishment (hitting students) in the United States—this is simply because these states are the ones that have refused to ban the practices.
Life expectancy: Healthy years of life beyond age 65:
As the map [below] illustrates, the right wing’s southern stronghold is composed of states that have, far and away, the worst life expectancies in the United States. This isn’t a purely a partisan issue, and involves a mixture of culture and bad policy.
The south is home to extreme poverty, a lack of accessible health care (ex. Texas leads the nation with 25% uninsurance), lax worker/environmental protections, and a culture that consumes massive amounts of fatty fried foods. These factors create a perfect storm of bad health that severely erodes the life expectancy of huge portions of the southern population.
The site gives higher rates of obesity, stroke, and heart disease in the South. I’ll skip those and just give you one plot of:
Overall accessibility and quality of health care:
Given the lower life expectancies and higher prevalence of chronic diseases in conservative states when compared to progressive state, it is unsurprising that there are similar disparities in the quality/accessibility of health care.
As you can see in the map [below], the health care systems of the Deep South and southwest are the worst in the nation, while those in the northeast and north-central regions are the best. This defies a purely partisan divide (ex. a lot of rural states suffer from low hospital accessibility), but the fact remains that the most conservative states in the nation tend to have the worst health care systems. This lack of health care is a particular problem for the south because, as previously described, it is the site of such an epidemic of chronic and life-threatening disorders.
Finally, two other indices of social dysfuncationality:
Teen birth rate:
The map [below] illustrates teen birth rates for teenagers aged 15 to 19. The obvious pattern is that conservative southern states have far higher teen pregnancy rates, while northern states, particularly in the progressive northeast, have far lower teen pregnancy rates. [JAC: There’s also a similar map for teen pregnancies in mothers between 10 and 14!]
Incarceration rate: The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any First World country—higher even than many third world countries. It’s a national shame, and the inmates are largely black, and involved in drug offenses.
As the following map illustrates, conservative states—particularly in the south—have significantly higher rates of incarceration than progressive state. Many of these incarcerated Americans are in jail for non-violent crimes, including millions of Americans who are simply non-dealers in jail for drug possession.
All of this illustrates the point that the states that are the most socially dysfuncational in the U.S. are those in the South. Those also happen to be the most politically conservative states, and we might wonder whether conservatism itself has caused this dysfunction. It’s possible. But what Tayler emphasized, and what I want to reprise here, is that these conservative and dysfunctional states also have the highest degree of religiosity, as shown in the following graph:
The American right wing has long been allied with a coalition of Christian religious organizations. Originally, these organizations were mobilized in opposition to the school desegregation movement, but they shifted to focus on restricting abortion in the late 20th Century and, more recently, to fighting advances in gay rights.
Given this alliance, it makes sense that there would be a correlation between the religiosity of a region and the likelihood that they would vote conservative (most highly religious Americans are Christians).
As you can see with the [following] map, the right wing southern block is in thrall to religious adherence (mostly Evangelical and Baptist Christianity, with a Mormon outpost in Utah) to a degree not seen in any more progressive state. This isn’t to say that progressive states are secular, merely that their residents are, on average, less extreme in their religious adherence than residents of conservative states.
Now these are all correlations, and there are a number of hypotheses to explain them. Those include the notion that conservative politics is the prime mover here, which leads to both social dysfunction and higher religiosity. That’s possible because conservatives don’t do much to help the dispossessed, and American conservatism is historically allied with high religiosity. Alternatively, there could be historical reasons for the high levels of crime, poverty, teenage births, and low levels of health and education in the South, and that could not only be at least a partial result of conservative governments (which repress minorities), but also a cause of higher religiosity. Or, higher religiosity could itself promote political conservativism. Finally, more conservative religions could promote more conservative politics. Surely several of these factors must obtain.
In fact, there’s substantial evidence that worsening social conditions, irrespective of politics, have a profound effect on religiosity. When income inequality fluctuates in the U.S., so does religiosity—in the same direction, but a year behind. That implies that when people feel worse off than they did before (and income inequality is a biggie in terms of how people feel about their social well-being), they become more religious. There is also striking correlation among First World countries between social dysfunction and increased religiosity, in the same direction (more successful societies are less religious). Greg Paul’s paper on this correlation (see his figure 1) give the conclusion in its abstract, though he doesn’t partition out liberal versus conservative governments, and such a distinction might be hard to make in countries like Switzerland which are socially conservative but also liberal in many policies. Part of Paul’s abstract:
The historically unprecedented socioeconomic security that results from low levels of progressive government policies appear to suppress popular religiosity and creationist opinion, conservative religious ideology apparently contributes to societal dysfunction, and religious prosociality and charity are less effective at improving societal conditions than are secular government programs. The antagonistic relationship between a better socioeconomic conditions and intense popular faith may prevent the existence of nations that combine the two factors. The nonuniversality of strong religious devotion, and the ease with large populations abandon serious theism when conditions are sufficiently benign, refute hypotheses that religious belief and practice are the normal, deeply set human mental state, whether they are superficial or natural in nature. Instead popular religion is usually a superficial and flexible psychological mechanism for coping with the high levels of stress and anxiety produced by sufficiently dysfunctional social and especially economic environments. Popular nontheism is a similarly casual response to superior conditions.
The solution is easy: vote out the conservatives and loosen the grip of faith on America.