Where The Nonbelievers Are


New Gallup data on religion breaks down by state how many Americans identify as “none”:

Take a look at the map. Vermont and Mississippi are on opposing ends of the spectrum: 56 percent of those surveyed in the Green Mountain State aren’t religious, while only 10 percent of those surveyed from the Magnolia State said the same. But each of those states represent an extreme, outranking the next most- and least-religious state by five percentage points. Compared to the rest of the country, Vermont is more the exception than the rule—the average for the U.S. skews toward the bottom end of the spectrum, at just 29.4 percent.

In one part of a larger essay, Beinart looks at how America’s religiosity is fading:

Americans remain far more willing than Europeans to affirm God’s importance in their lives (although that gap has closed somewhat among the young). But when the subject shifts from belief in God to association with churches, America’s famed religious exceptionalism virtually disappears.

In 1970, according to the World Religion Database, Europeans were more than 16 percentage points more likely than Americans to eschew any religious identification. By 2010, the gap was less than half of 1 percentage point.According to Pew, while Americans are today more likely to affirm a religious affiliation than people in Germany or France, they are actually less likely to do so than Italians and Danes.

Even more interesting is the reason for this change. Many of the Americans who today eschew religious affiliation are neither atheists nor agnostics. Most pray. In other words, Americans aren’t rejecting religion, or even Christianity. They are rejecting churches.

One cause Beinart identifies:

In Europe, noted the late political scientist James Q. Wilson in a 2006 essay on American exceptionalism, the existence of official state religions led secularists to see “Christians as political enemies.” America, Wilson argued, lacked this political hostility to organized religion because it separated church and state. But today, even without an established church, the Religious Right plays such a prominent and partisan role in American politics that it has spurred the kind of antireligious backlash long associated with the old world. Barack Obama is the beneficiary of that backlash, because voters who say they “never” attend religious services favored him by 37 percentage points in 2008 and 28 points in 2012. But he’s not the cause. The people most responsible for America’s declining religious exceptionalism are the conservatives who have made organized Christianity and right-wing politics inseparable in the minds of so many of America’s young.