Reporters in our religion section here at Legal Schnauzer let out a collective guffaw the other day when they learned what country Alabama is most comparable to in terms of religious fervor.
The answer? Iran.
The information comes from a Gallup poll asking people in various locations if religion is an important part of their daily lives. Researchers then compared the results in American states to those in various countries. The results are comical--and more than a little disturbing.
For example, 82 percent of Alabamians said religion is an "important part" of their daily lives. The figure was 83 percent in Iran, leading our state to be paired up with one of the planet's most backward countries.
Alabama was not the only Southern state with a less-than-desirable pairing:
* Mississippi (85), Lebanon (86)
* South Carolina (80), Zimbabwe (81)
* Tennessee (79), Iraq/India (79)
* Arkansas/Louisiana (78), Romania (78)
* Georgia/North Carolina (76), Haiti/Tajikistan (76)
The least religious U.S. state was Vermont (42), which compared to Switzerland (42). Hmmm, would you rather your state be compared to Iran or Switzerland?
What does this survey say about Alabama, the South, and religion? Our crack religion team is not sure. But we are sure of one thing: It ain't pretty.
For example, here's a question to ponder: Does religious fervor promote unhealthy societies? The countries noted above hardly are known for their desirable, healthy living conditions. But what about their companion U.S. states? Well, the very states with high levels of religiosity also rank among the unhealthiest states in the U.S.
And the South has long had higher rates of violence than other regions of the country. This subject is explored in the fascinating book Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South.
How's this for irony? The Gallup poll came out just as Time magazine featured a cover story on "How Faith Can Heal." Time reported that a growing body of scientific evidence suggests faith actually promotes health. Research has shown that people who attend religious services have a lower risk of dying in any one year than those who don't attend.
Well, shouldn't the South be the healthiest region of the country then?
Here's the problem, I suspect: Research also shows that people who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God.
Does religion in the South have a toxic quality that it shares with religion in places like Iran? Are Southerners prone to believe in a punitive God? The answer appears to be yes.
What is it that warps religion in the South? My guess is that when many Southerners answered affirmatively to the Gallup question, they really weren't thinking about faith. They probably were thinking of a cultural/political mindset that could broadly be called "conservatism." And that has little, if anything, to do with genuine faith and a loving God.
In places like Alabama and Iran, I suspect, what passes for religiosity is driven by insecurities and fears, not faith. For example, the most "religious" countries in the Gallup poll are hardly known for supporting the interests of women and minority groups. The same can be said of the American South. These states and these countries seem to share a high level of distrust and fear regarding people who are seen as "different."
The bottom line? The Gallup poll shows what many of us have suspected for some time: Conservative thinking, whether or not it is cast in religious tones, isn't good for you.