Does Religion Matter at All?
About a month ago, Abort73 received some scathing feedback from a middle-aged man in Minneapolis. Scathing feedback is not that uncommon for us, but it’s usually too vague and nondescript to even answer. In this case, however, the accusations were very specific. Here’s how his diatribe opened:
Why doesn't [Abort73] suggest rejecting religion, particularly the Abrahamic varieties? This seems like the clearest and most helpful information, as the more secular a population is, the more societal health increases, including fewer abortions. States in the USA with the highest teen pregnancy rates are all compromised [sic?!] by religious fundamentalists.
Whether religious fundamentalists comprise or compromise those states with the highest teen pregnancy rates, his material assertion is the same: the more religious the state, the higher the teen pregnancy rate—and the higher the abortion rate. Never having examined the connection between a state’s religious fervor and its rate of teen pregnancy, I had to do some digging to determine whether our detractor was right. As it turns out, he’s half-right.
Listed below are the ten (actually 11) most religious states in America according to Gallup’s 2013 survey results. The first number is the percentage of residents who are considered “very religious”—a designation applied to anyone who says religion is important to their daily life and who attends religious services on a weekly basis. The second number is the state’s national teen pregnancy rank for 2010, according to the The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy:
- Mississippi: 61% / 2nd highest teen pregnancy rate
- Utah: 60% / 45th highest teen pregnancy rate
- Alabama: 57% / 15th (tie) highest teen pregnancy rate
- Louisiana: 56% / 6th highest teen pregnancy rate
- South Carolina: 54% / 10th (tie) highest teen pregnancy rate
- Tennessee: 54% / 15th (tie) highest teen pregnancy rate
- Georgia: 52% / 11th highest teen pregnancy rate
- Arkansas: 51% / 4th highest teen pregnancy rate
- North Carolina: 50% / 20th highest teen pregnancy rate
- Oklahoma: 49% / 5th highest teen pregnancy rate
- Kentucky: 49% / 15th (tie) highest teen pregnancy rate
On the other side of the spectrum, here are the 10 least religious states—along with their corresponding teen pregnancy rank:
- Vermont: 22% / 49th highest teen pregnancy rate
- New Hampshire: 24% / 50th highest teen pregnancy rate
- Maine: 27% / 47th (tie) highest teen pregnancy rate
- Massachusetts: 28% / 47th (tie) highest teen pregnancy rate
- Oregon: 31% 38th (tie) highest teen pregnancy rate
- Nevada: 32% / 7th highest teen pregnancy rate
- Washington: 32% / 34th highest teen pregnancy rate
- Connecticut: 32% / 41st highest teen pregnancy rate
- Hawaii: 32% / 10th (tie) highest teen pregnancy rate
- DC: 32% / NA
There are a few notable aberrations in the data above. Nevada and Washington have a low percentage of religious residents and a high rate of teen pregnancy—while Utah has a high percentage of religious residents (mostly Mormon) and a low rate of teen pregnancy. New Mexico has the highest rate of teen pregnancy, but is only the 26th most religious state. Nevertheless, some disturbing patterns do emerge. Five of the most religious states are in the top ten for the highest teen pregnancy rates, and five of the least religious states are in the top ten for the lowest teen pregnancy rates. I’ll be the first to admit that this is troubling. Shouldn’t the transformative work of the Holy Spirit be producing better results in those states that are the most culturally influenced by Christianity? And before you put a negative spin on religion by arguing that Christianity and religion are incompatible, may I point you to James 1:27. We should all aspire to true and undefiled religion—a religion that submits to our Creator and serves our fellow creatures. As fashionable as it’s become for evangelicals to claim otherwise, religion is not a dirty word. With the exception of Utah, Gallup isn’t so much measuring “religious” influence as it’s measuring Christian influence—and the numbers get even worse when we look at teen sexuality.
Here again are the ten (11) most religious states—along with the percentage of high schoolers in each state who have ever had sex:
- Mississippi: 54.2%
- Utah: Not Reported
- Alabama: 49.8%
- Louisiana: Not Reported
- South Carolina: 47.5%
- Tennessee: 47.5%
- Georgia: Not Reported
- Arkansas: 49.4%
- North Carolina: 47.3%
- Oklahoma: 50.1%
- Kentucky: 44.7%
These are the corresponding percentages for the least religious states:
- Vermont: Not Reported
- New Hampshire: 42.8%
- Maine: 42.6%
- Massachusetts: 38.1%
- Oregon: Not Reported
- Nevada: 43.8%
- Washington: Not Reported
- Connecticut: 41.1%
- Hawaii: 35.9%
- DC: 53.5%
If we average the available numbers together (without regard to population), we learn that 48.8% of high schoolers in the most religious states have had sex while only 42.5% of high schoolers in the least religious states have had sex. That’s not the result I would have expected—nor is it something that can or should be swept under the rug. It’s bad enough when Christianity has no effect on a culture’s sex ethic. How much worse is it when Christianity has a negative impact?! Our “friend” from Minnesota looks at the numbers above and concludes that a complete denouncement of Abrahamic religion is the only sensible course of action to take. He writes:
[Abort73.com] completely ignores the positives of both birth control and sex education. Restricting access to sex education and birth control results in higher pregnancy rates.
In his mind, the reason that teenagers in the more religious states get pregnant more often is because they don’t receive as much sex education, and they don’t use birth control as frequently as their less-religious peers. Is that a fair assessment? It’s hard to say. Though teenagers in the most religious states are 13.9% more likely to have sex, they’re only 3.6% less likely to use birth control. According to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 84.7% of sexually-active teens in the most religious states use birth control—compared to 87.8% in the least religious states. At this point, it’s helpful to look at actual teen pregnancy rates instead of just comparing ranks. For the most religious states, the average teen pregnancy rate is 64 pregnancies per 1,000 teenaged girls. For the least religious states, the average is 50 pregnancies per 1,000 girls. That’s a difference of 24.6%—which is too much to attribute to either the difference in sexual activity or the difference in birth control use.
So where does all this leave us? Is Mr. Minneapolis right? Is religious devotion helping to drive the abortion industry?! To that question, the answer is thankfully, “No.” Below are the abortion rates for the most religious states (2011), followed by the percentage of teen pregnancies that end in abortion—excluding miscarriages—as determined by comparing total teen abortions and total teen births (2010):
- Mississippi: 3.7 / 5.2%
- Utah: 5.4 / 14.0%
- Alabama: 10 / 18.1%
- Louisiana: 13.1 / 14.6%
- South Carolina: 7.1 / 13.3%
- Tennessee: 13.1 / 20.2%
- Georgia: 16.8 / 24.6%
- Arkansas: 7.6 / 12.4%
- North Carolina: 14.6 / 26.0%
- Oklahoma: 7.9 / 12.5%
- Kentucky: 4.6 / 8.3%
And these are the abortion rates for the least religious states:
- Vermont: 11.7 / Not Available
- New Hampshire: 12.9 / Not Available
- Maine: 9.9 / 29.5%
- Massachusetts: 17.9 / 42.0%
- Oregon: 14.1 / 29.4%
- Nevada: 20.6 / 24.0%
- Washington: 16 / 36.1%
- Connecticut: 21.3 / 48.5%
- Hawaii: 21.1 / 29.1%
- DC: 28.5 / 34.3%
On average, there are 9.4 abortions for every 1,000 women aged 15-44 in the most religious states, while there are 17.4 abortions for every 1,000 women aged 15-44 in the least religious states. The disparity is even greater amongst teenagers. An average of 15.4% of teen pregnancies end in abortion in the most religious states, compared with 34.1% in the least religious states. Overall, women in the least religious states are almost twice as likely to have an abortion as women in the most religious states, and teenagers in the least religious states are more than twice as likely to have an abortion. In regard to abortion at least, religion does seem to influence behavior. Whether you believe that influence to be positive or negative will depend upon your opinion of abortion. Despite his assertion that secularization is the best way to reduce the frequency of abortion, the man from Minneapolis describes himself as someone who believes “abortion is a fundamental human right and [is] actively working to protect it.” In other words, he doesn’t actually have any ethical interest in reducing the number of abortions. He closes his remarks with the following:
I had a child aborted when I was 30 and have never regretted the decision. I was told the mother’s life would have been in danger, which would have left her existing child motherless. I'm also certain that the physical and mental well being of myself and my mother would have been improved if she had had an abortion while I was still in the womb.
The hopelessness and despair of this man—who believes he and his mother would have been better off if she’d aborted him—is the most discouraging takeaway from all of this. And there’s plenty else to be discouraged about. So far as I can tell, Christianity is having almost no redeeming effect on teen sexuality. Actually, that’s the best-case scenario according to the data. The worst-case scenario is that Christianity is having a negative effect on teen sexuality—leading even more teenagers into fornication. Whatever is causing this—whether it’s rebellion against parental values, a failure to adequately instruct our children or Romans 7:7 in action—something is seriously wrong.
I’m glad that the people who are the most serious about their faith are at least less likely to get an abortion, but the ultimate goal is not to keep teenagers from having an abortion or to keep them from getting pregnant, or even to keep them from having sex. The ultimate goal is for men and women of all ages to live in happy harmony with their Creator God and their fellow creatures—a harmony that stems from lives manifesting the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. But where are all the lives like that?! Why isn’t my life more like that?! It’s easy to cast stones at survey data, but maybe we should look in the mirror instead. If we don’t, we’re going to continue losing our kids, and we’re going to continue losing those who are looking in from the outside—like this cynical and dejected man from Minneapolis.
Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. You can also find him on Facebook and Google+. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.