Friday, May 11, 2012

Mississippi v. Vermont

The Late Singer/Songwriter
Phil Ochs

There is abundant data to suggest in studies based on demographic, anthropological and sociological research (Zuckerman, Gervais, Norenzayan, US Census data, UN reports, etc.) that a correlation exists between religiosity and disparities in economic and social well-being.

Research on individual and national prosperity; on the ongoing oppression of women, children and minorities; on reason and rationality; and on hate crimes and other violence show that high rates of stress occur where poverty and strong religious belief continue unabated. As a result, these negative trends impact mental and physical health, crime rates, education access, and citizen involvement, which then all impact individual and social happiness.

As a companion to these reports, in the United States, Mississippi is considered the most religious state while at the other end of the spectrum Vermont is the least religious state.  Each state has its educated, happy and elite, as well as good, moral and just people and we certainly cannot judge individuals by their state’s trends. To do so would be a form of ignorance and prejudice.

However, data is startling when one breaks down education, health and crime statistics compared to the relative size of each state factoring in the assumption that faith and religion are supposed to lead to social justice and happiness.  Here again, that assumption is challenged by the facts.

Less than fifty percent of Mississippians (48%) have some college or a college degree. Those without a finished high school education hovers above 21%.  In Vermont, close to sixty percent (58%) have completed college and less that 10% have dropped out of high school.

The murder rate between the two states is startling. In Mississippi, the rate stands at 10.1%; in Vermont it is 1.8%, and nationally it is 6.1%.  Incarceration rates per 100,000 residents stand at 810 for Mississippi and 373 for Vermont. State-wide unemployment in Mississippi is 6.6%, while in Vermont it is 4.2% and nationally the average 8.2%. 

Income disparity is another factor impacting religious belief as those who are poorer tend to be more fervent believers. Hence, the Catholic Church and many faiths continue to focus on Central and South America as well as Africa to build their flocks as more Western societies focus their energies and resources on science and reason.  And in the middle-east, we see religious extremism proliferate as democratic and secular movements lead by the more educated are marginalized through ongoing threats (and actual) violence and intimidation.

Mississippian’s average income is $27,800 per year and Vermont’s is slightly higher at $32,200 per year. However, Mississippi’s state poverty rate is very concerning as it is 16.3%. This means close to 20% of the state’s citizens live below the federal poverty line. While in Vermont, that number stands at half or 8.3%.

Educationally, only 18.2% of Mississippi’s middle-school students have reached 8th grade reading proficiency. While in Vermont, that number stands double at 38%. Almost 12% of the children born in the state of Mississippi suffer from low birth weight, while in Vermont, the number is 7%. Sadly, the American obesity epidemic is 34% in Mississippi and in Vermont it is 22%.  High for both states, but a full one-third of Mississippians are obese. 

So what do we know based on these statistics?  Faith tends to draw in the disenfranchised and fills those needing to externalize their suffering with servitude, artificial hope in a next life and prayer. While faith offers comfort it also promotes bigotry.  But this is nothing new as Mississippi has a long history of being anti-affirmative action on the basis of biblical “truth.”     

Some may remember the folk singer Phil Ochs.  He and Bob Dylan were contemporaries but as Dylan sought and found critical and commercial success, Ochs kept to his more radical beliefs and roots.  Here are three verses from the Ochs’ song entitled “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” The song is a little too radical for my own tastes and very accusatory, but we also have to remember it was written to castigate the leaders of the state where civil rights workers were murdered and where outward racism was extoled as a positive value. Clearly, things have changed for the positive in Mississippi and our nation, but we still have far to go.

The last stanza of Ochs’ song still rings truest to me:

Here's to the state of Mississippi,

For Underneath her borders, the devil draws no lines,
If you drag her muddy river, nameless bodies you will find.
Whoa the fat trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes,
The calender is lyin' when it reads the present time.
Whoa here's to the land you've torn out the heart of,
Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of!

And here's to the laws of Mississippi
Congressmen will gather in a circus of delay
While the Constitution is drowning in an ocean of decay
Unwed mothers should be sterilized, I've even heard them say
Yes, corruption can be classic in the Mississippi way
Oh, here's to the land you've torn out the heart of
Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of

And here's to the churches of Mississippi
Where the cross, once made of silver, now is caked with rust
And the Sunday morning sermons pander to their lust
The fallen face of Jesus is choking in the dust
Heaven only knows in which God they can trust
Oh, here's to the land you've torn out the heart of
Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of

So what do we do with this information from the studies and research?  Do we continue to marginalize those whose faith would pass laws which impact our secular and Constitutional rights just as the faithful  would seek to avoid encountering our own secular views and values? My answer to that is, No!  The action we take as atheists is still one of uncensored education, the sharing of knowledge and the exposition of scientific truth as well as non-violent political activism. 

We can reach out to those we disagree with but we cannot and should not accept their theistic approach to life or the discovery of knowledge.  We must reject faith as backwards and unimportant. Doing anything less would be an accommodation which I and many others refuse to contemplate as it means we then promote theology as an equally viable way of knowing the world, which we freethinkers believe it is not.  

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