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:
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.