A new poll on the politics, religiosity, and well being of Americans

April 8, 2012 • 9:47 am

There’s a new Gallup poll on religiosity, politics, and “well being” in America that, at least for religion, gives some surprising and some unsurprising results.

The unsurprising ones are that the five most religious states in the U.S.—with “religious” meaning “containing the highest proportion of individuals who are very religious” (i.e., those who consider religion an important part of their daily lives and who go to church once a week or almost once a week)—are Mississippi (59%), Utah (57%; Mormons, remember), Alabama (56%), Louisiana (54%), and Arkansas (54%).  In fact, it’s no surprise that all of the “top” ten states are in the south save Utah and Oklahoma, which, as Abbie Smith will attest, may as well be in the south.

It’s also no surprise that the least religious states are in New England, with the proportion of “very religious” being 23% in New Hampshire and Vermont, 25% in Maine, and 28% in Massachusetts.  Here’s the map (click to enlarge):

What did surprise me was the 32% of Americans who see themselves as “nonreligious”:

Gallup classifies 40% of Americans nationwide as very religious — based on their statement that religion is an important part of their daily life and that they attend religious services every week or almost every week. Another 32% of Americans are nonreligious, based on their statement that religion is not an important part of their daily life and that they seldom or never attend religious services. The remaining 28% of Americans are moderately religious, because they say religion is important but that they do not attend services regularly or because they say religion is not important but still attend services.

Since roughly 10% of Americans don’t believe in God, and only about 1.5% go so far as to describe themselves as “atheists” or “agnostics,” I wonder how many of these 32% of “nonreligious” Americans are secret atheists who just don’t like the label, or are unwilling to confess to an interviewer that—horrors!—they don’t believe in God.  But before we get all excited about the growing number of nonbelievers, these data don’t square at all with Gallup’s own polls on similar issues taken over the last five years:

19% is a long way from 32%, and I’m at a loss to explain this disparity.

You can also see some “state of the states” maps from 2009-2011  giving the political leanings of Americans as well as their sense of well being.  You can look at these latter two maps over three years by clicking a button, and it’s interesting to see how much more Republican the U.S. has become since 2009.  Here’s the Republican map for 2011:

No surprise here: religious states tend to be Republican states, though there are some notable exceptions (e.g., Wyoming and Colorado are Republican but nonreligious).

And finally, there are three years’ of maps for “well being” divided by state, with that index subsuming (I think) factors like health, optimism, obesity, insurance coverage, and the like.  Here’s the map for 2011:

What’s striking about this map is that I see only one state—Utah—which is both highly religious and whose inhabitants have high “well being”.   That goes along with the theory that low well being is correlated with high religiosity, but some alert and ambitious reader might want to do a formal correlation between the figures from the Gallup poll.  If you’re into post facto rationalization, Utah makes sense because its inhabitants are Mormons, who tend to be very well off compared to other religious Americans.

h/t: Ant

59 thoughts on “A new poll on the politics, religiosity, and well being of Americans

  1. By comparison, a Canadian poll released yesterday indicates about 30% of Canadians don’t believe in a god.


    The online survey of 1,522 people, commissioned by the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies, also showed relatively low levels of trust in religious leaders, with 48% of respondents attributing the trait of trustworthiness to clergy.

    By contrast, 67% of those surveyed said they trusted “people who are religious” in general, and even more respondents — 73% — expressed trust in “people who are not religious.”

    This seems a marked contrast to the view of atheists in the US.

  2. I wonder how many of these 32% of “nonreligious” Americans are secret atheists who just don’t like the label, or are unwilling to confess to an interviewer that—horrors!—they don’t believe in God.

    What I’ve suspected for ages is that there are a massive number of what I call “functionally agnostic” people out there, and yeah, it wouldn’t surprise me if they made up fully one-third of the country.

    These are people that simply don’t think much about religion at all, and for whom the subject might never be raised but for the pollster who calls them up and asks them directly about their beliefs. It’s at this point that I think many people force themselves to give a definitive answer, not because of what an anonymous interviewer might think, but because they feel they ought to have an answer to the question. So the answer basically boils down to “Yeah, sure, I guess there’s a god”.

    And then they go back to not thinking about religion.

  3. There are many who view god as “the guy upstairs” but don’t believe the Bible and think that churches and the like are pretty much scams.

    My dad was such a person; he definitely believed in a god of some sort (one that *should* have done X, Y and Z) but not in a god from a particular religion.

    1. Totally agree that Utah doesn’t have that much well being in reality. What it has is people so beaten down by religion (and its hold on the state) that they can’t complain about anything, or even perceive that their life could be better. Let’s not forget that hypocrisy is a major component of most religions..

  4. I think there is a big leap of courage to move from having a very hazy belief in God to being an atheist. As long as you have some tiny amount of belief, you can convince yourself that it’s enough to escape any sort of eternal damnation, without it being a serious constraint on your way of thinking about secular matters. So my expectation is that we’ll see a higher rate of increase in unenthusiastic Christians than we will in people acknowledging atheism.

    1. I think it has lees to do with courage than with clear thinking. No god who invented hell is going to be appeased by some wishy-washy pretense of belief; he wants total commitment. But if that god doesn’t exist, then you have nothing to fear from him anyway. Once you realize that, it’s a lot easier to let go of the pretense.

      That said, I think the result is the same: a lot of people get stuck at the wishy-washy stage, without ever thinking it all the way through.

      1. At the end stage it’s not so much about God or the probable lack thereof. Being a known atheist, or even agnostic, has a significant social cost in most of the US. It does take courage to accept the potential for severely damaging family, friends, social connections, and even risking repercussions at work in some cases. The question arises if it is worth it to “come out”, or publicly stay at least in the “wishy-washy” phase, which is more socially acceptable. I’d bet many of my scientific colleagues who are nominally still “believers” or “accommodationists” fall in to that category. They just don’t want to hurt their families and friends.

    2. I think a better term for this demographic is “apatheism”. It is a “don’t much care” attitude that is closer, as you say, to weak theism than to atheism.

  5. In what sense is Oklahoma not part of the South? It’s at the same latitude as Tennesee and North Carolina, with four states stacked above it and only one below. Or did you mean Kentucky?

    1. In this context “the South” is a more specific term freighted with historical meanings, as opposed to the mundane term “the south” as in within the bottom half of the area in question.

    2. Oklahoma is midwestern, not Southern, although it is a Border State with some strong Southern culture influences. However, Oklahoma did not even become a state until long after the era of official plantation slavery that shaped the aristocratic and genteel culture of the South. FYI, the eleven Southern states are Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas. The six Border States (northern but with a Southern cultural influence) are Maryland, DC, West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Oklahoma.

  6. I’ve seen other polls indicating that c. 30-35% of Americans are basically secular in outlook, even if nominally theist. This seems to go along with that. Many people just seem disinterested in religion, and may not even be interested enough to actively reject it. The whole topic is just a big yawn for many.

    1. I think you mean “uninterested,” and I think you’re right. (A “disinterested” person can have a very high level of interest in a subject, but has no bias or prejudice on the topic. Regarding religion, this is likely the case with some agnostics.)

      You’re correct that many Americans have very little interest in religion (the unstated, underlying premise being that it’s just not that important). But even those with a meager religious interest probably harbor some sectarian bias — if not in favor of the religion into which they were initially inculcated, then at least an antipathy toward Islam.

      1. Oops. Yes, you’re right. Uninterested was what I meant to type.

        Yes, many of the uninterested identify as something or other, they often just don’t care. They may claim to be Christian, yet they wouldn’t read the Bible if it was the only book on the shelf. They believe, but not very much. They’re often too sensible to take it seriously, but not quite sensible enough to abandon the whole thing.

        1. Don’t beat yourself up about it, the use of “disinterested” for “uninterested” has been increasing for decades and practically everyone does it, even people you would expect to know better. I’m nearly over it, or trying to be because I think the battle is lost. Language moves on and there is no point complaining about “decline”.

      2. That looks like a very odd claim to me. How can you be an interested agnostic and not have a bias or prejudice in the question of gods? That would be like an interested fairy tale reader saying that he can’t tell whether there is a herd of unicorns in his back garden or not.

        Very few agnostics aren’t relying on religious reasoning in one form or other, the theology of “NOMA” being the major example. Certainly the interested agnostics have huge problem of looking at the question empirically. Which I would argue means “rationally” and/or an attempt to be unbiased.

        1. I may not have been as clear as I could have been in that assertion. My point was that an agnostic my be very interested indeed in the topic of religion generally, but have no preference for one religion over the other — on the basis that the veracity of religious claims is essentially unknowable — and thus be disinterested among the various religions.

      3. On a strictly linguistic note, there has actually never been a time in the history of modern English when “uninterested” and “disinterested” were not used interchangeably. That is not to say that there have not been preferences for one or the other in particular usages. However, those preferences have actually reversed themselves in only the last 150 years.

        The reason for such a change has been evolution in the meaning of “interest.” Until the later eighteenth century, this word was predominantly used to refer to a financial interest. Over decades, there was a shift, and the meaning of intellectual interest has become much more common. At any given time, “uninterested” has been used mostly (but never exclusively) to refer to a situation in which an individual did not have an “interest,” for whichever meaning of “interest” was more important at the time. That means that in 1820, “uninterested” was likely to mean, “having no stake in a matter”; now it’s more likely to mean, “not intellectually stimulated by.” In either period, the alternative negation, “disinterested” was reserved by some (but not all) users for the other meaning, to draw a distinction.

        1. I’m no prescriptivist, standing on ceremony (and have little patience for them). The issue ought to be whether the distinction in meaning serves a useful function. At least under current usage standards, the uninterested/disinterested distinction does, and is thus worth preserving, I think. Since “uninterested” is a perfectly good English word about which there is no current ambiguity, the use of “disinterested” in its stead needlessly risks confusion. Although the intended meaning will often be clear from context (as it was in Achrachno’s comment), that will not always be the case.

          A similar situation obtains as to “enormity” and “enormousness,” though that distinction is probably past preserving.

  7. If New England has better science and sex education, you could hypothetically link that awareness to people having better diets and exercise. I can tell you in Massachusetts there are many city-run parks where people can exercise and the standard of environmental safety (except air standards) is better and that is linked to citizen awareness and demand.

    Also while some people had Easter gatherings with fatty food others of us were jogging at the local reservior.

        1. Oh don’t mind me. I was just marveling at how awesome you must be to have turned up your nose at all those fatty foods and gone out for a jog. Thanks for sharing your awesomeness with us. You’re better than those other people, I mean, you went jogging!
          Sorry, but I can’t stand self righteousness even from atheists. It tends to make me sick. That’s how your comment sounds to me, but maybe I’m wrong?

          1. I find ‘righteousness’ more sickening in people who feel the need to point it out (whether it was there or not). amelie’s comment did not strike me as ‘righteous’, but yours definitely did. So, congratulations, it is you who is special! 🙂

            1. 😉 People do seem to get inordinately irritated when I discuss working out. Honestly, I don’t consider myself any more athletic than anyone else!

            2. Let’s go around in a circle, shall we? I hate people who hate people who point out self-righteousness. Okay? Your turn.

          2. Well, at least you are willing to ask me to clarify. The last part was meant as a half-hearted joke (I was in a crappy mood when I posted it) the comment was generally trying to support Dr. Coyne’s hypothesis that perhaps more non-religious societies can promote wellbeing. The last part referring to the fact that on a nice weekend the non-religous can go out for exercise while the religious have social obligations which probably entail sitting around with family and eating high-caloric foods.

            1. There are many reasons to feel superior to deluded religious folks, but having a better diet is not one of them (seriously?). Your excercise and diet (and your need to point it out to others) might keep you out of the grave a few more years, but you’ll be joining the rest of us there soon enough. Some of the healthiest and happiest people I know are fat and lazy. By the way, I ate a chocolate Easter bunny after leaping two tall buildings in a single bound and then helping a blind person cross the street. I think I’ll run a marathon now…backward.

              1. I don’t think this line of arguing is driving the scope of knowledge forward much but allow me to make two points:

                1. You are putting words in my mouth when you say I consider myself superior. Read my comment again. What I said was at a religious gathering the religious could miss an opportunity to get exercise and healthy food. And that is a pretty fair statement.

                2. Of more relevance is that (and I should have added this before) the David Allison study, although controversial, demonstrates that plastic, air and light pollution and a change in gut bacteria may have doomed us to obesity despite diet or exercise. A fact blatantly ignored by medical celebrities. I have taken that to heart and tried to consume more acidophilus and avoid plastic.


                And as much as I love chocolate bunnies, don’t kid yourself. Obese folks, medically speaking, not only live shorter lives, but ones of lesser quality and comfort.

  8. So it’s not lack of numbers that is the problem, but general apathy to prevent fundamentalists from taking over government.

    1. Yes.

      The lunatics who hate women, gays, and the last 300 years since the Enlightenment were elected in 2010 by a minority of Americans. But they were the only minority that bothered to show up and vote that year. Thus vaginal probes and scarlet letters for all women.

      As the old saying goes, democracy gets you the government you deserve.

  9. There are probably many more closet atheists than show up on polls, even anonymous polls. Some cannot admit it to themselves. There are fears of admitting to atheism: social opprobrium, family disapproval,job atmosphere, and maybe even fear of physical harm. It is usually the religious (extremists) who are violent. (It isn’t atheists who bomb Planned Parenthood clinics, kill mds etc). So it could be hoped that the non-religious will become more evident, “out”, as they realize that they are not alone and are belong to growing numbers of secularists. Let’s help them on their rational way by speaking up, out, with
    courage on our own atheism!

  10. I think the idea that US is “a christian nation” got some trouble!

    19% is a long way from 32%, and I’m at a loss to explain this disparity.

    It is different polls and different questions, so I assume that you can get at the discrepancy if you knew the polling data.

    For example, the running poll asks for a grading of “importance”, while classification poll seems to have asked for “importance”. Some of “fairly important” and “Not very important” could then be claded together in the self classification, while the “very important” probably all go in one bin.

    Or the Gallup polls are lousy, but I don’t think they are on record for that.

  11. Our view is that it is not so much religion/magical beliefs that are an obstacle to fact-based policies and behaviors but the human brain’s simple inability to comprehend the long term, data and facts.

    Religion/magical beliefs are a symptom of a brain that can’t process complexity — at all!

  12. This was asked on the page that shows a larger version of the religiosity map, but I think it’s interesting:

    Posted April 8, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    As an outsider I’m curious as to the reasons for the apparent low religiosity of Colorado and Wyoming. Has there been an influx from the coasts? Were that the case I should have thought there would have been a similar effect in Montana.”

    I was pleasantly surprised to see Colorado as being below average, but then again, I live in Colorado Springs, so my views are undoubtedly skewed.

  13. Gallup pollster here. I’m one of the folks on the ground who actually administers this survey by phone.

    The way the poll is structured might help to explain some of the disparity between the “nonreligious” classification (an artefact of the way the survey data is analyzed, since it combines different responses to two different questions) and the relative rarity of “nones”.

    After about ten minutes of asking questions about health, employment, happiness, and general wellbeing, the subject quite suddenly turns to religion, right after asking the respondent how satisfied they are with the area they live in (and how safe they feel there).

    The question is: “Is religion an important part of your daily life? Y/N”; followed promptly by, “How often do you attend church, synagogue, or mosque — at least once a week, almost every week, about once a month, seldom, or never?” (I once got yelled at by a Buddhist respondent for not having “temple” on that list.)

    Then the poll closes with a few political questions (more for those who identify as Republicans this season, obviously), and the demographics. Near end of the demographics section is the religious preference question: “What is your religious preference: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, another religion, or no religion?” The question very specifically says “preference”, not “belief”, and a great many respondents will say outright that they do not believe in God but still have a cultural preference. So that’s where they get grouped.

    The interviewers are trained to remain detached and neutral, and a probing question like, “so do you want to be put down as ‘Protestant’ or as ‘no religion’?” is sometimes called for, sometimes not, depending on what the respondent said and the discretion of the interviewer. Generally, if a single clear answer was given, it must taken at face value; if the response can be construed more than one way (e.g. the respondent says something like, “well, Jewish and atheist really”), a request for clarification is made. That’s all there is to it.

  14. Perhaps this is showing my ignorance of life outside my childhood bubble as a Southern Baptist-turned-BornAgain from Alabama, but the only thing that’s surprising to me is that those “very religious” states only polled in the 50s%.

      1. Interesting. So, just as Scientology doesn’t exactly make people rich, Mor(m)ons are rich before they become members. That would make sense. The next question would be: “what is it about intelligence that prevents its sufferers from becoming rich?”

        1. Forget it. Stupid question. I wrote before I thought. Obviously, since other religious nuts are not very well off, this is irrelevant.

          The better question would be: “what is it about Scientology and Mor(m)onism that makes them so attractive to rich morons?”

          1. I know from experience in my own family that scientologists seek out rich old ladies to get at their money. So it is the other way around, rich morons are attractive to scientologists. In fact, nothing new in this universe, Catholic priests have wooed old rich ladies for centuries.

  15. The Republican chart is odd. Overall, the nation has become somewhat more Republican – 37.5% in 2009 and 40% in 2011. Yet in 2009, nine states are above average in their % Republicans and in 2011, 21 states are.

    Looking more closely, it appears the 2009 data are comparing the states against the 2011 average. Naturally, this would make the reddening seem more dramatic. There’s also the effect of a skewed distribution; the median state in 2011 in Pennsylvania at 41.3% Republican, which indicates that there’s a shorter tail on the Republican side. This would also push more states into the “above average” category.”

    I’m not saying that there’s not a trend towards more Republican leaning. They appear to have made gains in almost every state, and large gains in states like Utah and Colorado, but the maps are less straightforward than I would like.

  16. What is telling about morality and religiosity is that none of the states with above average religiosity have abolished the death penalty.

  17. It’s interesting to compare these latest Gallup results (on politics and religious belief or preference) with some other survey results published by Pew within the last few weeks, based on data collected in March.


    Full 19-pp. pdf: http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Issues/Politics_and_Elections/Religion%20Release.pdf

    3-pp. summary pdf: http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Issues/Politics_and_Elections/Religion%20Release%20-%20Topline.pdf

    On the one hand (according to Gallup and the depressingly predictable panel of theist-friendly types on Meet the Press on April 8th, a majority of American adults want their presidential candidates to profess some sort of religious faith and associate “having a personal faith” with trustworthiness and ethical behavior. On the other hand, at least 38 percent of American adults think that “there has been too much expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders” . . . an all-time high, say the folks at Pew.

    Further, 54 percent of respondents said that churches should keep out of politics.

    I wonder how much overlap there is between the groups represented by Pew’s 38-percent and 54-percent numbers and the 32-percent segment of the American population that Gallup identifies as “nonreligious, based on their statement that religion is not an important part of their daily life and that they seldom or never attend religious services.”

    My guess is that many of the 32-percenters consist of inertia-bound, incurious “believers in belief,” who go along to get along and who can’t bring themselves to drop the occasional lip service that they pay to vague religiosity for social and psychological reasons.

  18. Reblogged this on The Socialist Agenda and commented:
    There is a direct correlation between being religious and having a low standard of living. Religion teaches its adherents to tolerate injustice, a toleration which the corporate elite exploit. But, we know there are no magical beings that control the natural forces. And, if there were a divine plan, one could not expect to alter that plan with petty, serf-serving prayers. In fact, if one accepts the idea of an “all-knowing,” “benevolent” god, then one must assume that he does, in fact, understand your situation, and the situation you find yourself in is according to his will. Subsequently, the socialist expectation of government-imposed economic fairness is anti-religious. Socialism, by its very nature, is atheistic.

  19. I agree that small-s socialism is more consistent with atheism, or anti-theism, or deism, than with theism, because it doesn’t assume that some deity is going to create or maintain a socially just, civilized society; it is up to us, as human beings.

    Unfortunately, the most obvious real-world experiments with socialism, at the nation-state level, have not been “by their nature, atheistic” in operation. They have mimicked or copied the worst features of theocratic religious regimes. I don’t recall who came up with “The God that Failed” as the title for that famous anthology about the failings of 20th-century state socialism/communism, but it was on the mark.

  20. I had a girlfriend who considered herself “non religious” but she was one of the most religious people I’ve ever met; she actually broke up with me because I refused to convert to Christianity. It seems to me that there are deeply religious people who don’t like the title “religious” because of the negative connotations associated with being “religious”.

    So it might be undercover atheists, but it might also be the undercover religious.

  21. Two factors that may help explain Utah’s outlier status for well-being: relatively low economic inquality and the tight-knit community that Mormonism creates. Both of these have been shown to contribute to well-being.

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