From The Atlantic
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.
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.
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.
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.