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Where Is Trend Leadership in Religion-Free USA?

With all the information about religious identity gathered through the American Religious Identification Survey, one clear nationwide trend stands out: In all of the 48 states studied in the survey, the percentage of non-religious citizens has increased dramatically. This trend exists everywhere that the survey looked, from Mississippi to Massachusetts.

Of course, as with all trends, the change is not uniform. Although people in all states have become more irreligious, people in different states have become more irreligious at different rates. What patterns exist in these differences? Where are the strongest sources of the trend of Americans moving away from religion?

I once had a colleague who fancied herself an expert on cultural trends. She told me, in her expert way, that all cultural trends in the United States begin in California, and then hop to the East Coast, and then eventually spread to the middle of the country.

I’ve always been suspicious of such simplistic claims, but when the American Religious Identification Survey came out this week, I thought I would take a look to see if my colleague might be right. Yesterday, I put together a map of the most secular states in the USA. The map you see below is different. Instead of absolute strength of numbers, the map below shows strength (and weakness) of change. The states colored blue are in the top 10 slots, having shown the most increase in nonreligious residents over the last 18 years. The states colored red are in the bottom 10 slots, having shown the least increase in nonreligious residents over the same time.

religion trend map usaThe observant among you will see that there’s a great deal of overlap in the blue states of yesterday’s map and the blue states of today’s map. Most of the states with the greatest increase in nonreligious people also have the highest current percentage of nonreligious people.

That’s not so much of a surprise, but it could have been different. It could have been that some states led the way in moving away from nonreligion a long time ago, and then reached some kind of cultural plateau of secular citizens, which other states then caught up to. That’s not what’s happened. There’s variability, but the numbers behind this map show that many states that started out with a large percentage of nonreligious residents have kept right on with their rather rapid increase in secularity.

What is clear from this map is that California is not a trend leader when it comes to religion. Lack of religious belief is on the increase in California, but at a slower rate than the national average. California is lagging behind states in the northeast and northwest, rather than setting the pace. In fact, if you look at the rest of the survey results, you’ll see that there’s reason to believe that California is an outlier, and that its slower-than-average move away from religion could be due to an influx of religious people from outside the United States.

Yes, those same illegal immigrants that right wingers love to complain about seem to be slowing down the erosion of religion in California. The California trend appears to be a somewhat foreign one. I wonder if the Religious Right will adjust its rhetoric, and shift toward support of liberalized immigration. That would make sense, and so, for that reason, I doubt such a shift will happen. The Religious Right has demonstrated a tendency to base its policies on ideology, rather than reality.

7 thoughts on “Where Is Trend Leadership in Religion-Free USA?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great analysis. Interesting that the religious right spends so much time casting aspersions on the coastal states for being hotbeds of the godlessness that will nick your niece’s knickers, but all the while the greatest rise nonreligion is happening in heartland states like Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska.

  2. Len says:

    America slowly becoming Godless. Such Great News! Now we can become a Nation that can exist without any Blessing from God. What an exciting Future we have in store.

    1. Horatio says:

      Without people relying on the belief that the quality of their lives is controlled by blessings from divine beings, yeah, that’s a much more exciting future.

  3. Len says:

    It will be exciting alright. I’m sure you are going to love it. Was that too sarcastic?

    1. Jim says:

      Yes. Next time, be sure to use the phrase “H-E-double-toothpicks.”

  4. qs says:

    Schuma was babbling today again.

    Schumer speech on immigration. Schuma peddles biometric I.D. and employee verification scheme as solution.

    Mickey Kaus highlights the following from his speech:
    “What we need is for Congress to phase in E-Verify for all employers now, something that will take several years to roll out, assuming judges even allow it to go forward. But this administration won’t even implement the rule requiring federal contractors to use E-Verify”
    He also notes that the ACLU will have lawsuits ready.

  5. Jairo Mejia says:

    Unbelievers are right in most of their thinking

    You might be one of those who are abandoning Christianity; or one for whom religious beliefs are not just irrelevant, but baseless. You might be right, at least to some extent. Some traditional beliefs are not true, and the “God” of main line traditions simply does not exist. Most people don’t dare to confront their religious beliefs, opt for the status quo, or become marginalized.

    Bishop John Shelby Spong says that “Christianity Reformed From its Roots – A Life Centered in God” “rightly points out that those who seek to defend Christianity’s past are also killing Christianity’s future.” I accepted the challenge of finding the One who may be recognized even by Gnostics and atheists: the Existence! Eminent philosophers and thinkers might give you an idea if this book be an insightful reading for you (links below). You may look also at excerpts at

    Jairo Mejia, M. Psych., Santa Clara University

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