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.
The 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.