The Non-Religious States of America

New survey data indicates that religiously unaffiliated people in the U.S. are diverse—and in many places, they make up a greater share of the population than any faith group.

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

There was a time, not too long ago, when the vast majority of Americans identified as Christians, at least nominally. In some places, this dynamic hasn’t changed much: Head south, for example, and you’ll find that roughly 60 percent of Mississippians are Baptists. But in at least 20 states, religiously unaffiliated people make up a greater share of the population than any one faith group or denomination.

These findings are drawn from a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, which sampled more than 101,000 U.S. adults between January 2016 and January 2017. The report’s state-by-state break-downs offer a detailed look at the geography of American religion—and non-religion. People who don’t identify with any particular religion also don’t fit any particular demographic mold: They come from a range of racial, income, and educational backgrounds. While Christianity still dominates the country’s religious landscape, people who don’t have much connection to religion are gaining an increasingly large cultural footprint in certain places.

Religious disaffiliation isn’t exactly new in the U.S. The country has always been home to a sizable minority of people who don’t go to church or identify with any faith. Religiosity has come in waves: Historians say that early 19th-century America looked a lot like America today, for example, with large groups of people not associated with any religious institution.

Over the last few decades, religious disaffiliation has been rising relative to earlier points in the 20th century. In 2014, Pew Research Center found that the share of unaffiliated adults in the U.S. had grown from 16 to 23 percent over a seven-year period. While roughly 70 percent of American adults identify as Christians, the so-called nones—people with no religion in particular—have been growing as a share of the population.

The new PRRI data shows that this is happening more noticeably in some places than others. Roughly 41 percent of Vermonters and 33 percent of those from New Hampshire aren’t affiliated with any particular religion, carrying the banner of secularism for the Northeast. This was also true in the Pacific Northwest, where more than one-third of residents in Oregon and Washington didn’t claim a specific faith.

But there were some surprises in the geographic break-down, too, including states that don’t fit regional stereotypes about secular, coastal elites or hippie-ish mountain terrain. Non-religious people compose the largest share of the populations of Hawaii and Alaska compared to other faith groups. In general, the non-religious states of America are concentrated west of the Mississippi River, according to PRRI, spanning Arizona to Nebraska to Wyoming.

Non-religious Americans are often portrayed in stereotypical fashion. They’re the white, yuppie city dwellers of Portland; the blue-haired atheists who attend Skeptic conferences; or the godless youth at progressive political rallies. While these images aren’t necessarily wrong, they’re incomplete. Non-religious Americans come from a range of income, education, and racial backgrounds.

According to PRRI, religiously unaffiliated Americans are neither particularly rich nor particularly poor, and their income mirrors that of the country overall. As I wrote last spring, the effects of religious disaffiliation show up prominently among members of the white working class, many of whom don’t attend church very often. Religiously unaffiliated Americans are also less educated, on average, than many of their faithful peers: Less than one-third have a college or post-graduate degree, placing them below Muslims, white mainline Protestants, white Catholics, Jews, Hindus, and other groups.

Not identifying with a religion doesn’t necessarily determine whether or not people believe in God. According to PRRI, atheists and agnostics account for only 27 percent of all religiously disaffiliated people. Most people without a particular faith tradition say they’re secular—their defining quality is a lack of religion, rather than a particular belief. Meanwhile, among those who say there are religiously disaffiliated, 16 percent say they are a “religious person,” suggesting that institutions, not beliefs, may keep them away from religion.

Almost every religious group in America tilts female, with women making up slightly less than two-thirds of groups like Unitarian Universalists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Among the religiously disaffiliated, the story is the opposite: Fifty-five percent are male, along with nearly two-thirds of self-identified atheists and agnostics. And while religiously disaffiliated people span every racial and ethnic group, they’re more predominant among those who are white and Asian: One-quarter of white Americans aren’t religiously affiliated, along with more than one-third of Asian Americans.

Almost by definition, religious disaffiliation is shaped by absence—the church services people don’t attend, the faith they don’t have. But in the North and the West, from Hawaii to Maine, people who don’t identify with a particular religion are finding new ways of gathering. For the rich, this might involve luxury activities like SoulCycle or CrossFit. For most people, it takes other forms: The journalist Terry Mattingly recently wrote about people who find spiritual community at Waffle House, for example. This kind of community is much harder to measure in a survey than traditional church-going. But in an age of disaffiliation, it may end up being just as important.