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Poverty Higher In States That Ban Atheists From Public Office

There are seven states in the USA with constitutions that prohibit atheists from holding public office: Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

There are two testable justifications for these discriminatory provisions:

1. Atheists should be banned from public office because atheists cannot be effective leaders and will lead to problems for the states in which they hold public office
2. A divine being controls the universe, and that divine being gets angry when atheists hold public office, so that divine being punishes states where atheists are allowed to hold public office

A specific test that should confirm or refute these justifications is an examination of the poverty rate in the states where atheists are allowed to hold public office, and compare that to the poverty rate in the states where atheists are banned from holding public office. If either or both of the above justifications are valid, then the poverty rate in states that ban atheists from holding public office should be lower.

I looked at the data from the Census Bureau. Specifically, I used the bureau’s average of the last three years of data, which is calculated in order establish a more steady sense of relative poverty in each state, compensating for swings in the data from year to year. I averaged the poverty rates in the two sets of states, and here’s what I found:

discrimination against atheists increases poverty

These results show that there is indeed a relationship between constitutional provisions that ban atheists from public office and the poverty rate, but it’s exactly the opposite relationship that the justifications for the discrimination would predict. States that prohibit atheists from holding public office have a higher average rate of poverty (15.4%) than states that allow atheists to hold public office (13.1%).

There are three reasonable explanations for this pattern that I can think of (Supernatural explanations aren’t reasonable, so I’m not going to speculate that there is a divine being who hates discrimination against atheists and metes out punishment accordingly):

1. Allowing atheists into public office encourages people of greater ability to run for office, thus increasing the effectiveness of government in a state
2. Allowing atheists into public office is part of a state culture of open-mindedness that tends to attract people of greater ability, who are able to keep themselves out of poverty
3. States that have high rates of poverty tend to make poor decisions, because their most talented residents tend to leave in desperation, and prohibitions on atheists in public office are just one symptom of a more general statewide ineptitude

Whichever explanation is true, or even if there’s some other dynamic at play, this much is clear: Banning atheists from holding public office doesn’t make the residents of a state, and it just might hurt them.

4 comments to Poverty Higher In States That Ban Atheists From Public Office

  • Charles Manning (manning120)

    I’ve lived most of my life in Texas and didn’t know about this prohibition. However, it’s obvious that virtually all politicians in Texas are adherents to religion. I believe Texas has 10 to 15% non-believers in any organized religion. I’m unaware of any such individuals holding public office in the state.

    Did you draw a distinction between agnostics and atheists? Are there states that bar one and not the other?

    • It’s not me drawing the distinction. It’s the constitutions of the states. In the case of Texas, the clause reads like this: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.”

      Would agnostics acknowledge the existence of Supreme Being? Probably not. They might acknowledge a possibility.

      I love that language, stating that there will be no religious test, except for the one that we Texans are about to describe. The federal constitution is clear. No religious test. No exceptions. Texans never seem to think that the rules apply to them.

      Texas, like every single state in the USA, has an increasing number of non-religious residents, and a decreasing portion of the population that still retains religious beliefs.

      Maryland is like Texas, requiring a statement of belief, not just in a god, but in the existence of God, the Christian character. The other states focus in on atheists more specifically, prohibiting public office for any why deny the existence of gods or Supreme Beings.

    • Jim

      Charles, it may be that nearly all politicians in Texas are adherents of one religion or another, but according to a 2010 census of congregants, 44% of Texans are not adherents of any religious body:

      http://www.thearda.com/rcms2010/r/s/48/rcms2010_48_state_name_2000_ON.asp

  • Ralph

    Maybe there is more poverty in states that ban atheists because believers in God are more likely to favor policies that stick it to the poor–just like Jesus.

    Or maybe God is hiding his existence by making life crappy for the people who believe in him. His ways aren’t our ways, you know.

    Or maybe people just tend to cling to a belief in God–and call for the state to make other people cling to it too–when they live in a shithole and their life sucks.

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