The geography of religion

Here’s an interesting map showing religious adherence in the United States:

Map - US Religious Adherence

The scale reads as follows:

Dark – 75% or more
Med Dark – 55% to 74.9%
Medium – 45% to 54.9%
Med Light – 35% to 44.9%
Light – 0% to 34.9%

The first thing to understand is that “religious adherence” is defined as those who identify with a church or religious denomination. It does not include everyone with religious beliefs. Nor does it represent attendance at religious services. For example, religious adherence in the United States is reported at 50.2% , while 42% attend religious services at least once per week, and anywhere from 71% to 92% (depending on which poll you believe) report a belief in God. Religious adherence would seem to be a good proxy for a minimal degree of religious commitment.

The “light” counties seem to be concentrated in the western and northwestern states. It’s interesting to track how this plays out politically. Far northern California is the least religious area of the state, but also the most politically conservative. Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Arizona share this unlikely admixture. In my neck of the woods, the sentiment leans strongly libertarian which translates into GOP politics most of the time – a phenomenon that is common in the western states. The intellectual framework of libertarianism has always been atheistic, though some have tried to Christianize the movement. Despite the low rate of religious adherence in far northern California, I would guess that well over 60% of my neighbors believe in God – probably more than 80% once you get out of the city – and although they don’t identify with a specific religious group they are generally respectful of those who do.

It’s interesting to observe that religious adherence doesn’t always translate into a virtuous society or culture. Witness Memphis, New Orleans, and New York City. Another surprise: there’s a lot of “light” in West Virginia, Virginia, and Eastern Kentucky. I typically think of Appalachia as very religious, but things seem to be changing fast.

Whenever I begin to despair about California’s frightening godlessness, it always helps to look at Europe. Here’s a sobering map of belief in God in Europe:

Now, that makes me feel better. California, which boasts 62% believing in “God or a higher power”, looks positively fanatical when compared with Great Britain, France, Germany, and Scandinavia! We’re doing slightly better than Spain; we seem to be on par with Italy and Ireland; and we’re a little behind Poland and Portugal when it comes to religiosity.

3 thoughts on “The geography of religion

  1. Interesting to find that H. L. Mencken’s Bible Belt still exists running, like any proper belt, down the middle of the country from Wisconsin to Texas.

    Note too that the Deep South is less religious than the real Bible Belt. It’s even more so if you take into account those in the South who, like Jimmy Carter, have a fake religiosity that they display a bit too openly to be real. I live there and matters are improving, but historically the South has been more churchy than Christian. Your denomination meant more than what you believed.

    The mainstream news media has relocated that belt around the country’s ankles in an effort to equate being religious with being racist. That illustrates both their anti-religious bigotry and just how clueless they are about words. In Mencken had wanted to sneer at Southern religiosity, he’d have referred to the Bible Socks.

    It’s a source of continual amazement to me that so many journalists seem to have such a poor grasp of the meaning of words. Putting a Bible Belt around the ankles is one illustration. The politics of recent decades also illustrates that.

    The first sentence I heard from Bill Clinton told me he was a liar. He had that silky smooth, “ah feel yore pain” tone that con men use. Journalist’s only belated picked on his lying and even today claim he is a ‘good liar.’ He’s not a good liar. He’s not even a poor one. He’s so obviously a liar, his intonation says so even when he’d telling the truth.

    The first sentence I heard from Obama told me something similar, that he was a pompous ass who used big words like “optimal” without knowing what they meant. For him words are just sounds to impress. He has no feeling for what they mean. “Hope and change” meant nothing to him, which is, of course, why his deluded followers could inject almost any meaning they wanted into it.

    Interesting to see the contrast in Scandinavia between Sweden (under 30%), Norway (under 40%) and Finland (under 60%). That’s a substantial, two-to-one difference. And as you note religiosity doesn’t equate to virtue. Chronically corrupt Italy is one of the most religious countries in Western Europe. The European map would be more interesting if it were broken down by region and not just country. UK on that map implies that England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have the same religiosity. I doubt that.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Theism and Humanism: The Book that Influenced C. S. Lewis by Arthur Balfour


  2. Jeff here’s a link to a site with a variety of maps of religion. You can map the whole country or individual states. You can also display major groupings (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, “Other”, etc.) or you can display individual denominations.
    I’m not surprised about Appalachia. Half my ancestors are from West Virginia. It’s not like the quaint stereotypes. More like the negative stereotypes (with plenty of exceptions, of course).


  3. Thanks for the link, Bruce. Looks like a great resource. Could it be that statistically defined “religious adherence” is low in Appalachia because their Christianity is informal and unorganized?


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