This month, Gallup released the results of their annual poll on religious practice in America.
The most religious state? Mississippi, which has held the crown since 2008. According to the poll, 59% of Mississippi’s residents report being “Very religious,” meaning that “religion is important to them, and they attend religious services weekly or almost weekly.”
And the least religious state? It’s Vermont, where 59% of their residents report being “Not religious,” meaning “religion is not important to them, and they seldom or never attend services.”
Gallup also noted that only 16% of Vermont’s residents reported being “Very religious”—a figure that was six points lower than any other state.
If you look at the map of the poll’s results below, you’ll see that religious behavior tends to be a regional phenomenon. The most religious states in America are in the Southwest and Southeast—which is heavily Protestant—and the least religious states are clustered in New England and on the West Coast. After Vermont, the least religious states—in order—are Maine (55% “Not religious”), New Hampshire (51%), Massachusetts (49%), Oregon (48%), and Washington and Alaska (both 47%).
So why are New England and the West Coast so “unchurched”?
Some have theorized that it has to do with politics. New England and the West Coast are also the most politically liberal regions of the U.S. Author Martin Cothran and others have argued that liberalism—more than conservatism—is an ideology, and that liberals tend to make politics their religion.
If you compare Gallup’s map of Religiosity in America with 2016’s electoral map, it’s hard to miss the correlation:
Another possible factor is education. Though not as close of a correlation as politics, many of the least religious states in America also consistently rank as the best educated in various surveys, and vice versa for the most religious states. Like it or not, higher levels of education do tend to have a secularizing effect on societies. Strong religious practice usually depends on strong families. But the more education women receive, the less likely they are to have children and remain at home to raise them.
Yet another factor, which is connected with education, might be income level. For the most part, the poorer the people, the more religious they are. One can interpret this phenomenon more cynically, in the Marxian sense of religion being the “opium of the people”, for instance. Or, one can interpret it in the New Testament sense that “You cannot serve both God and mammon,” and that worldly comfort has the effect of making a person feel that he or she does not need God.
But whatever interpretation one gives to the phenomenon, the most religious states in America do tend to have the lowest average household income, while the least religious states tend to be the wealthiest. As author Nigel Barber has argued, states like Maine or Oregon that seem to be exceptions to this rule are really not. Though they may not have as high of an average income as their regional neighbors, they still have a high quality of life.
So, apparently, the modern-day American version of Pascal’s Wager is this: You can be liberal, educated, and financially stable, or you can risk it all for eternal happiness. ;)
Dan is a former Senior Fellow at Intellectual Takeout. He received his B.A. in Philosophy and Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas (MN), and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can find his academic work at Academia.edu.