Determining how “religious” a country or state is – well, that’s quite complicated. After all, what does it mean for a society to be “religious,” right?
In order to measure religiosity at the societal level, sociologists primarily focus on the 3-B’s: Belief, Belonging, and Behavior. In short: belief in the supernatural (usually God), belonging to or identifying with a religious group or denomination, and behaving in religious ways: going to religious services and engaging in rituals, rites, or celebrations, etc.
It is safe to say that a state or country is highly religious when most people there strongly believe in the supernatural, identify themselves as religious, and engage in lots of religious behaviors. And a state or country can be considered weakly religious (or more strongly secular) when most people there don’t believe in anything supernatural, don’t identify themselves as religious, and don’t engage in much religious activity, if any. The most religious countries in the world include nations such as Malawi, Niger, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Cameroon, Burundi, Senegal, and Ethiopia and the least religious (most secular) countries include nations such as China, Japan, Estonia, Sweden, Norway, Czech Republic, Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia Azerbaijan, and Germany.
But what about the 50 states of America?
According to the latest Pew research, the ten most religious states with the highest proportion of “highly religious” individuals are:
1. Alabama (most religious state in the USA)
6. South Carolina
7. West Virginia
10. North Carolina
And the ten least religious (most secular) states with the lowest proportion of “highly religious” individuals are:
1. Massachusetts and New Hampshire (tied for least religious/most secular state in USA)
2. Vermont and Maine (tied)
4. Wisconsin, Alaska, and Washington (tied)
5. New York
6. Colorado and Hawaii (tied)
According to the latest Gallup poll, the ten most religious states in the USA with the highest proportion of “very religious” inhabitants are:
4. South Dakota
5. South Carolina
And the least religious (most secular) states with the lowest proportion of “very religious” inhabitants are:
4. Rhode Island
10. New Hampshire (tied with Washington)
You’ll notice that the two lists are not identical; they use different methods, different questions, and different criteria. But both Pew and Gallup are national, representative samples – just about the best data we have right now. And despite some differences, most of the highest and least religious states make it on both lists from both surveys. So the overlap between the two sources presents a pretty clear picture.
When you look at the lists of most/least religious states, some interesting correlations appear. For example:
* The most religious states are most likely to be full of Trump supporters. Not so much for the least religious states. Go figure. I thought religion was supposed to make you more loving and moral? Clearly not.
* The most religious states tended to be states that felt like it was perfectly legal and proper to enslave people of African descent – until a war forced them to cease -- while the least religious states outlawed slavery many years before their Southern neighbors. I thought religion was supposed to make you more ethical and humane? Clearly not (at least not in the 19th century).
* The most religious states are much more likely than the least religious states to be plagued by poverty, crime, under-funded schools, under-funded hospitals, obesity, gun violence, and unemployment. But wait – isn’t religion supposed to be good for society? Hm…strange.
* The most religious states all have and employ the death penalty. Most of the least religious states have abolished it. But isn’t religion supposed to make you more merciful and forgiving? Guess not.
* The most religious tend to have the highest teen pregnancy rates, while the least religious states tend to have the lowest. Guess that faith-based “abstinence only” sex education doesn’t quite work, does it?
The take-home message? The next time your aunt or uncle or senator or congressperson insists that religion is good for society – and that secularism is bad – suggest that they actually check out the data. If data means anything to them at all, that is. With strongly religious people, it usually doesn’t.