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New England Morality

A quick note on what some might call the New England Morality Miracle – I wouldn’t call it a miracle, actually, because it’s an accomplishment, not a matter of divine providence. That’s kind of the point, if you think about it.

Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine achieved the lowest rate of teen pregnancy of any states in the USA. The South, with all its Bible Belt posturing about sexual morality, turned out to be a hotbed of teen pregnancy. Mississippi in particular turned out to be the the worst of the worst, with a social epidemic of pregnant teenagers.

Southerners loudly proclaim that their right wing, literalist breed of Christianity is the only thing that can keep teenagers from having sex. Obviously, that isn’t the case. In fact, it seems to be the opposite.

New England’s success in keeping teenagers from getting pregnant is associated with a different kind of moral view. New England is home to high concentrations of non-religious people, and those who are religious in New England tend to be a lot more philosophical in their beliefs than people in other regions. New England is the home of non-literal traditions of belief. These traditions don’t hold, as the Southern Baptists do, that moral status is a simple, all or nothing thing of purity or damnation. They teach a more practical morality that takes context into account.

Think about the implications for teenagers, and the differences in sexual behavior shouldn’t be surprising. Which do you think will encourage teenagers to act with more maturity – a stubborn, absolutist teaching, or a little bit of context?

The tricky thing about moral absolutism is that it’s a lot less absolute than it at first appears to be. When an absolute moral code is broken, it is broken absolutely, as if there isn’t anything left to lose. The result can be ungracefully chaotic. Southern Christian teenagers just can’t keep their pants on, and don’t know what to do once they get their pants off. That’s the cost of fundamentalism for you – the worst of both worlds. Under Biblical literalism, you get neither sexual abstinence nor sexual competence.

4 comments to New England Morality

  • Anonymous

    Exactly what make you an expert on Moral absolutism, you get a lot of traing in seminary school?

  • What we hope to teach our teens is that sex means something. In context, that is a strong, viable message. Hang out with some of the people you label in generic terms — I’d love that — and perhaps you can see the bigger picture. I’m excited that teens in the NE are getting it. I’m grieved that the teens in southern states may not, but it won’t stop me from working with teens to respect themselves and others and to run after their goals in every area of their lives.

    • Jim

      Your assumption about who we “hang out” with isn’t safe. Given the prevalence of Christians, and the relative prevalence of fundamentalist Christians, in this country, it is statistically speaking very difficult not to end up “hanging out” with such individuals. As Peter Blau pointed out a generation ago, it is much more likely statistically that we “hang out” with fundamentalist Christians than that you “hang out” with atheists. The number of fundamentalist Christians with whom we “hang out” also should statistically speaking be greater than the number of atheists with whom you “hang out.”

      At a personal level, these trends are expressed in likelihoods. At a population level the trends are constrained to be the case, which implies that atheists as a group are much more familiar socially with fundamentalists as a group than vice versa.

  • Anonymous

    Talk about blinded by ideology! How do you reasonably come to your conclusions in this piece?

    Let me see, if I understand your premise…New England has more (non-religious people) The south has more (southern Baptists)

    New England has fewer teen pregnancies, The South has more teen pregnancies.

    So by your logic, the one is the cause of the other. The ideas of culture, education, population density, race, weather, social customs, age at onset of puberty, and on… had no bearing at all. It was all to be blamed on that OLD TIME RELIGION.

    Good thinking! Make the facts fit your opinion!
    Oh by the way. Many people with dark skin are poor, many people with light skin are wealthy, therefore dark skin must make you poor…..

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