America’s Most Religious Cities

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The most religious cities in America won’t be a surprise to most. Except for Holland, Mich., all of the cities are either in Utah , headquarters of the Mormon faith, or the Bible Belt. The least religious cities are in New England and along the California coast.

No one has ever given an adequate explanation for why the South has become the primary center of religiosity in America. It is  probably not because it was part of the former Confederate States. Cynics would argue it is because residents in these areas tend to be poorer and undereducated. But that assumes faith and organized religion are tied to ignorance — a slippery slope of intellectual snobbery. If it could be entirely demonstrated, then the discourse over why people adopt religion would be over, and its source would be beyond debate.

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Indeed a review of the states home to the most religious cities shows high poverty and low high school and college graduation rates. However, when reviewing education and income levels by city, it appears that the state data are misleading. Most of these cities have high school graduation rates that are not statistically significant from the national average, or are even higher. Median income is lower in several of these places, but Gallup Editor-in-Chief Dr. Frank Newport explained that this has little to do with religion.

The fact that certain states and metro areas are more religious, Newport explained, has much more to do with the culture than other socioeconomic factors. He explained that when controlling for things like race, poverty, and education level, the tendency to be religious was still much higher in some parts of the country than others. “There is a cultural milieu in these states which really seems to affect how religious people are, and may even affect them when they move. No matter where you’re from, if you move to Mississippi, you’re more likely to become religious than if you move to Vermont” he added.”

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One thing that Newport confirmed correlates well with religion is political preference. The states these cities are located in — Georgia, Mississippi, Utah, Alabama, and Arkansas, all voted for Romney in the last election. The 10 least religious cities are all located in states that voted for Obama. According to Newport, “being religious is a major predictor of political preference. If you look at the exit polls for the November election, if you reported never going to church, you were way above average in voting for Obama.”

In order, the most religious cities, according to Gallup are Salt Lake City; Montgomery, Ala.; Jackson, Miss.; Birmingham, Ala.; Huntsville, Ala.; Greenville, S.C.; Augusta, Ga.; Little Rock, Ark.; Baton Rouge, La.; Greenville, S.C.; Ogden, Utah; and Holland, Mich.

As for the least religious cities, they include San Francisco; Burlington, Vt.; Boulder, Colo.; Manchester, N.H.; Portland, Me.; Springfield, Mass.; Santa Rosa, Calif.; Eugene, Ore.; Boston; Bremerton, Calif.; Albany, N.Y.; and Madison, Wis. The most ready explanation for what these cities have in common is that most have large universities, an argument that education spawns lack of faith and disdain for organized religion. That is a one-dimensional view, which also appeals to stereotypes of America intellectuals.

Methodology: Results are based on telephone interviews conducted as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey Jan. 2 to Dec. 29, 2012, with a random sample of 244,917 adults, aged 18 and older, living in 189 metro areas within the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, selected using random-digit-dial sampling.

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