June 24, 2008

Religion in America: Massachusetts Among Least Religious States

The latest survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life was released yesterday and it's got some interesting bits. Every newspaper is reporting on it, but so far the best summary I've seen has been in the Boston Globe. Some excerpts from that article:

Americans see truth in a range of faiths, massive study finds
State among nation's least religious

By Michael Paulson

The United States is a nation of believers: most Americans say they believe in God, they pray, and they attend worship services regularly; they also believe in angels and demons, in heaven and hell, and in miracles.

But they also say, contradicting the teachings of many faiths, that truth comes in many forms. Large majorities of Americans say that many religions - not just their own - can lead to eternal life, and that there is more than one way to interpret religious teachings...

New Englanders are among the least likely to say they are religious, according to the study. Massachusetts lags behind the nation - often near the bottom of all states - in the percentage of its residents who say they are certain that God exists...

The study confirms a fact known widely by scholars of religion in public life: the more often people attend worship, the more likely they are to be politically conservative. Mormons and evangelical Protestants are the most likely to be doctrinally orthodox and politically conservative, while Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists are more liberal in both their theology and their politics, the study finds.

But there is tremendous diversity within each faith - among evangelical Protestants, for example, only 52 percent describe themselves as conservative, and 30 percent say they follow government and public affairs only some of the time. Although evangelicals have traditionally been viewed as Republican voters, the poll suggests a significant minority do not view themselves as conservative...

...The study found that 70 percent of Americans - and even 57 percent of evangelical Protestants - believe that many religions can lead to eternal life...

"While one applauds what could be thought of as an openness to other religions, one has to wonder if this is essentially bland secularism," said Todd M. Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary...

The poll, like many others, finds Americans claiming to be deeply faithful - 92 percent say they believe in God. But conceptions of God vary - 60 percent, including most Christians, say they believe God is a person, while 25 percent, including pluralities of Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, believe God is an impersonal force...

On gay rights, Buddhists, Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants are the most likely to say homosexuality should be accepted, while Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Muslims and evangelical Protestants are the most likely to say homosexuality should be discouraged. Overall, 50 percent of Americans said homosexuality should be accepted by society, while 40 percent said it should be discouraged...
One of the implications I see in this survey is that Americans make a lot of stuff up, picking and choosing to create their own religions that support what they already believe. That's better than strict dogmatism, but it also demonstrates a certain refractory essence when it comes to examining empirical reality. While the survey never asks a question that would reveal the source of the religious melange held to by large numbers of Americans, I suspect that much of it has its origins in various self-help type books and talk shows. Oprah Winfrey probably exerts a good deal of influence on the religious landscape, for example. Whatever the sources, though, one might well ask why it is necessary to look outside of the natural world to the supernatural and posit things like eternity to begin with. That's where the refractory nature of belief comes into play; people believe in things like heaven and demons despite there being no evidence that they exist, but they'll reject empirical knowledge that conflicts with their beliefs.

Looking at the massive amount of data comprised by the US Religious Landscape Survey itself reveals a number of items worth consideration. For example, the single largest religious group in the US is identified as the Evangelical Protestant Tradition (26%). On a state-by-state basis, that tradition is most prevalent in Oklahoma (about 53%), Arkansas (~53%) and Tennessee (~51%) and least prevalent in Utah (~7%). New England has comparatively few; Connecticut/Rhode Island combined, for example, stand at about 10% Evangelical, and Massachusetts is at 11% as are New Hampshire and Vermont.

Catholicism is the next largest religious tradition, about 24% of the entire US population. It's most prevalent in the Northeast on a state by state basis. 43% of those surveyed in Massachusetts identify themselves as Catholic, as do 43% of those in Connecticut/Rhode Island and 42% in New Jersey. On the other hand, it's a long way between Catholics in Alabama (6%), Tennessee (7%) and West Virginia (7%).

16% of Americans consider themselves unaffiliated with any particular religion. That includes 26% of New Hampshire/Vermont residents, 25% of those from Maine, and 27% of respondents in Oregon. Missionaries looking for converts would have their work cut out for them in Kentucky (12%), Texas (12%), and North Dakota (12%), the states with lowest numbers of unaffiliated respondents.

The most religious state in the country — or at least the one where the most people said they have absolute certainty in the existence of God, demons, hell, what have you — is Mississippi (91%), but theists in other southern states shouldn't despair too much. The southeastern US is a hotbed of absolute faith; Alabama (86%) and South Carolina (86%) are hot on Mississippi's tail. At the other end of the spectrum are Vermont and New Hampshire (54%), Maine (59%) and Connecticut/Rhode Island (57%), the only states where fewer than 60% of respondents were True Believers. Massachusetts came in at 60% on this question, which isn't too shabby, all things considered. Makes me proud to be a New Englander. This is all very much in keeping with the question of how important religion is/should be in one's own life. 82% of Mississippians think it's "very important," but only 36% of New Hampshire and Vermont residents agree.

24% of Americans surveyed said that their own religion was right and everybody else was wrong. That view is most prevalent in Utah, where 50% of respondents hold it. When it comes to religious tolerance, you can't beat Maine; only 13% of those respondents took the "my way or the highway to hell" position. Maine isn't much more tolerant than Massachusetts (15%) or New York (18%), though.

Fully 33% of Americans said that they believe in absolutely literal interpretation of their religious scripture (also known as fundamentalism). If you want to find concentrated fundies, Mississippi is definitely the place to be. It leads the nation in fundamentalist presence; 64% of respondents there are religious literalists. Alabama is far behind (54%) and West Virginia a distant third (53%). New Hampshire/Vermont (16%), Massachusetts (18%) and Connecticut/Rhode Island (18%) residents are the least likely to be fundamentalist in their views of scripture.

But how effective is prayer, you ask? Well, so did the Pew people. It turns out that praying in Mississippi is most likely to make your wish come true; 46% there say their prayers are answered at least once a month. Alabama is a close second to the divinely-poofed paradise of answered prayers at 44% and Tennessee and North Carolina tie for third at 42%. If you're in New Hampshire/Vermont (19%), Massachusetts (21%) or Maine (21%), God's ignoring you. The survey never does ask what people are praying for, though. It could be that people in Mississippi are praying more often for a steaming bucket of crawdads and Vermonters for world peace. Crawdads are a lot easier to come by, after all. The survey doesn't say.

There's a lot more information to be had in this survey and it's all rather interesting. Go click around.

On a personal note, I'm very glad to be in Massachusetts and not, say, Mississippi, Alabama or Tennessee. Fundamentalism just isn't my thing (surprise!) and I like living in a place where religious belief doesn't play a major role in shaping the culture. I saw enough of that in North Florida, thanks.

On a somewhat critical note, though, I wonder about the utility of lumping some states together. I'm not sure that lumping Vermont and New Hampshire makes for an accurate read. Vermont is an extremely liberal state, whereas New Hampshire tends to be fiscally conservative and socially libertarian. Likewise, my experience in both Florida and California lead me to believe that those states should really be split into regions for a survey like this. The extreme southern part of Florida is very different from the north in its social, religious and political make-up as are the coastal and inland parts of California. New York, for that matter, is an exceptionally heterogeneous state. Binghamton and Elmira have very different outlooks on religion than does New York City.

Meanwhile, another day is beginning here in largely secular, non-fundamentalist, gay-accepting, stem cell research embracing Massachusetts. No crawdads here, but the clam chowdah is pretty damned good. Maybe if I pray hard enough I'll get a free bowl for lunch today. My odds appear to be about 1 in 5 that it'll materialize sometime over the course of the next month, anyhow.

Mmmmm... specially-created Chowdah.

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