Which States Are the Least Religious? Which are the Most?
My Definitive Ranking Using Multiple Data Sources
This post is more of a “me thinking out loud” than anything else, because I get this question a whole lot. It’s about states, specifically what parts of the country are the least religious and which ones are the most religious. That question is posed by potential church planters looking for the most fertile ground to start up a new church. It’s also asked by atheists and agnostics when they are thinking about where would be a good place to move to if they wanted to be around like minded people.
Here’s the thing about that question - it’s not really that easy to answer from a statistical perspective. It seems so tantalizing easy but that’s just not the case. The reason is actually really easy to understand, too. Sample size. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
I don’t think people fully realize how small national surveys used to be. When I was in graduate school, the ceiling was about 3,000 people. Divide that by 50, and you see the problem that I am running in to here. You may get a hundred or more in big states like California or Texas. But you aren’t going to get any real numbers in Vermont or Montana.
I wrote about this in a ton of depth for Religion News Service a couple years ago in post entitled, “How religious is your average 22-year-old? A new golden age of survey data opens a door.” That ‘Golden Age’ has opened the door for folks like me to get a lot closer to the answer about the most religious states and the least religious ones.
The Cooperative Election Study has over 60,000 people in the most recent wave - collected about a year ago. It’s got 129 folks from North Dakota in there! And, 224 from Montana. There are more Californians in the 2022 CES than the entire sample of the General Social Survey in 2021. So, now we can do some state level analysis.
Let’s get right to the maps, then. This is the share of folks who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular in the 2008 and the 2022 version of the Cooperative Election Study. I intentionally kept the bins the same in both years to give folks a clear impression of just how fast the nones have risen.
In the 2008 map at the top, the dark blue tells a pretty clear story - the nones were way more concentrated in the western part of the United States. They were north of 40% in both Washington and Oregon. The only other state that was less religious was Vermont at 42%. There are also big pockets of nones in California, and Arizona, too.
Where weren’t the nones in 2008? The entire mid-section of the country. States like Minnesota and Wisconsin scored really low at 23% and 25% respectively. But of course the Bible belt didn’t have a bunch of nones. Just 23% in Mississippi and 18% in Louisiana. But there were a bunch of states in the low to mid twenties all over the middle section of the country, though.
In 2022, nearly the entire map is a dark shade of blue - meaning at least 35% non-religious. Now there are four states that are more than half non-religious: Washington, Oregon, New Hampshire, and Maine. But there are also lots of states in the mid-forties, too: Nevada, California, New Mexico, and Colorado to name a few.
Outside the Dakotas, the only part of the country that is not dark blue is the Bible Belt. In most of those states about one third of the population is non-religious. That’s the case in Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, and South Carolina. The nones are basically everywhere now and in large numbers. It’s not just isolated pockets in certain states.
How about we combine those two maps into one? This is the change in the share who were nones in 2022 compared to 2008.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Graphs about Religion to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.