Americans are becoming less religious, especially young adults. That’s the takeaway soundbite from The latest Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study. But what about Maine?
The Almanac of American Politics describes Maine as “a state with a distinctive personality,” labeling us as “ornery” and “contrary minded.” Does this hold true with regards to our changing views on religion?
Yes, and no.
Maine is the third least religious state in America, behind Vermont and New Hampshire. That’s fairly “contrary minded,” especially in a country that leads most wealthy nations in religiosity (nearly twice as religious as the next three wealthiest countries).
However, as the national trend goes, Maine follows suit, with a notable decline in nearly every category addressed in the Pew’s Religious Landscape Study.
Just how have things changed in Maine since Pew’s last study in 2007?
If you’re starting to feel that Mainers are becoming a sour bunch of folks, however, you’d be wrong.
Perhaps this is due to the fact that we appear are meditating more frequently:
With a significant shift towards science and reason, it is not surprising to see acceptance of evolution on the rise (Maine ranks second — just behind Vermont — among states who believe evolution occurred without God’s involvement):
And as was reflected in the 2009 Maine same-sex marriage bill, we have come to overwhelmingly believe that homosexuality should be accepted:
Curiously, though, we have become more anti-choice over the past 7 years. This is out of step with New England as a whole. Three-quarters of New Englanders say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
When taking in each of these trends in Maine, it is natural to wonder just how politics play into our changing beliefs. Do these shifts towards secular morality, science, and reason (and away from organized religion) signal that we have become a state of “godless Democrats“?
What is to be made about all of this? Is Maine, along with all of America, going to crumble and decay, as less and less of us subscribe to traditional religion? As we start relying less on religion for moral guidance, will Maine become victim to rampant crime, corruption, and violence?
Phil Zuckerman, writing in the Los Angeles Times, describes the oft-cited fears that accompany secularization:
The theory is simple: If people become less religious, then society will decay. Crime will skyrocket, violence will rise and once-civilized life will degenerate into immorality and depravity. It’s an old, widespread notion. And it’s demonstrably false.
If it were true that when belief in God weakens, societal well-being diminishes, then we should see abundant evidence for this. But we don’t. In fact, we find just the opposite: Those societies today that are the most religious — where faith in God is strong and religious participation is high — tend to have the highest violent crime rates, while those societies in which faith and church attendance are the weakest — the most secular societies — tend to have the lowest.
According to the latest study from the Pew Research Center, the 10 states that report the highest levels of belief in God are Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Oklahoma (tied with Utah). The 10 states with the lowest levels of belief in God are Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Alaska, Oregon and California. And as is the case in the rest of the world, when it comes to nearly all standard measures of societal health, including homicide rates, the least theistic states generally fare much better than the most theistic. Consider child-abuse fatality rates: Highly religious Mississippi’s is twice that of highly secular New Hampshire’s, and highly religious Kentucky’s is four times higher than highly secular Oregon’s.
It is, of course, impossible to conclude from any of this data that secularism, in and of itself, causes societal well-being, or that religiosity causes social ills. Peacefulness, prosperity and overall societal goodness are undoubtedly caused by multiple, complex factors — economic, geographic, cultural, political, historical and so forth. That said, it is clear that a strong or increased presence of secularism isn’t the damaging threat to society so many continually claim it to be. If only the likes of O’Reilly and Huckabee would take heed.
To mirror Zuckerman’s citings of secular nations having a higher rate of well-being, Maine is one of the five safest states to live in the United States, according to Maine Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris. “We have a serious crime rate of one per thousand population compared to the average throughout the United States of four per thousand.”
David Harkhuff, in the Portland Phoenix:
Maine had the lowest violent crime rate in the country in 2012 – 122.7 incidents per 100,000 people, the Muskie Center at University of Southern Maine reported. State data revealed that crime decreased 9.1 percent overall in 2013 – the largest decrease in 20 years.
Time will tell whether Maine, and the US, will continue to become less religious — or why. There are a constellation of factors at play here, and deeper analysis will be found in the days and weeks following the release of the study.
Meanwhile, regardless of our beliefs, we can all look upon the sheer beauty of our state with an increased feeling of wonder and a greater sense of wellbeing. That’s certainly something we can agree upon.