11/13/2014 10:01 am ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

Why Religion Is so Weak in Maine

Recent research has clearly shown that religion is much more important in poorer countries. The same principle is true of states as I report in a paper to be published in Cross-Cultural Research. Yet, Maine stands out as a poor state where religion is relatively unimportant. Why?

Poverty Predicts Religion
Around the world, religion serves as a salve for life's miseries. That phenomenon is illustrated by the fact that natural disasters and traumas of all kinds evoke a strong religious reaction. Such events remind people that much of what happens to them is outside their control and they resort to religion as an emotional security blanket.

In poorer countries, life is a great deal riskier thanks to vulnerability to natural disasters, infectious diseases, poor harvests, death during childbirth, and so forth. In developed countries, many of these risks are better controlled thanks to improved public health, better hospitals, social welfare programs, earthquake-proof buildings, and so on.

For that reason, religion is weakest in developed countries having the best quality of life, such as Sweden and Japan. It is strongest in places like sub-Saharan Africa where the quality of life is extremely low and life expectancy is short. In these countries about 95 percent of people say that religion is important in their daily lives.

So why might just a quarter of Maine's residents see religion as important?

The Riddle of Maine as a Secular State
Outsiders might question Maine's status as a secular state. After all, residents just re-elected a creationist governor.

In assessing religious fervor, we must accept the results of scientifically-conducted polls by the Gallup organization. In their most recent results (for 2011), they found that only 25 percent of Mainers see religion as important in their daily lives. This compares to 59 percent of Mississippians making the same judgment.

Indeed, only two states are less religious than Maine, namely Vermont and New Hampshire (both scoring at 23 percent on religiosity).

Why is Maine so much less religious than Mississippi? The first plausible explanation is that Maine is actually a much more affluent state than Mississippi with a median household income that was 26 percent higher in 2010.

Maine is often compared unfavorably to other New England states but it is no longer really poor. Indeed, as far as the level of development is concerned (that looks at health, and education as well as income) Maine ranks 25 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, whereas Mississippi is ranked 50 (using 2011 data). Maine has a poverty rate that is only about half that of Mississippi (12.9 percent compared to 22.4 percent). So the better quality of life goes some way to explaining why Maine is so much less religious than Mississippi.

Atheism in the New England Water?
It is striking that the least religious states are all in New England. This is not because the New England water supply has a mystery chemical that brings out atheism. Apart from a relatively good quality of life related to human development, religion is weakened by having a small African American population, given that African Americans are more religious.

Indeed, the proportion of African Americans is one of the strongest predictors of a state's religiosity and it is no accident that Mississippi, the most religious state, also has the most African Americans. As to why African Americans are more religious, historians would point out that the church played a central part in the civic life of the community due to disenfranchisement but that argument is not so compelling today given the election of an African American president.

In my paper, I show that the greater religiosity of states with a large proportion of African Americans is explainable in terms of stress (measured as high blood pressure) and racism (location in the South).

Mississippi is a lot more religious than Maine because it has a lot more African Americans in the population (37 percent compared to 1 percent), as well as because it is poorer.

Each of these findings is consistent with the theory that religion helps people to find emotional security in places where people have little control over their own lives. Maine is not such a place.
Reading between the lines, Maine has a much better quality of life than its economic status would suggest. That is why religion is so surprisingly weak here.