New data on the religiosity of U.S. states and its correlation with accepting evolution

February 12, 2017 • 9:00 am

Back in 2013 I put up a post showing a negative correlation between the religiosity of American states and their acceptance of evolution, a relationship that also holds among European countries (see original post for figures). At that time, I had access to religiosity for only the 10 most and 10 least religious states in the U.S., but all of the former were in the bottom half of the “accept evolution” list, while all the the latter were at the top. That kind of result needs no statistics to be significant. Here’s a figure I show in some talks:


Now this is a correlation, not a proof of causation, but I think there’s a third factor that explains both: social well being.  People tend to be more religious when their social conditions make them feel powerless or marginalized, and we all know that rejection of evolution is based almost entirely on religiosity. In terms of social well-being, states in the South tend to be lower than others on many indicators. Thus the relationship above—and a similar relationship among 32 European countries, which would be even stronger had I data from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa—suggests to me that acceptance of evolution is ultimately tied to socioeconomic factors that promote religion. That in turn suggests that perhaps the best way to increase acceptance of evolution (something we’re all pondering this Darwin Day) would be not to teach evolution better or more pervasively, but to reduce the influence of religion.

Here’s a bit of evidence for this supposition: the Gallup/Healthways data for well-being among America states  in 2016 (see full data here), data that takes into account many measures of social “health”:


While the data don’t line up perfectly with religiosity, I’d be willing to bet there’s a correlation among all the states, for states with the highest well being tend to be less religious, and vice versa (given historical factors, we don’t expect a perfect relationship).  Perhaps some reader will plot this relationship, as well as correlating acceptance of evolution with the newest data on religiosity in the US  released four days ago by the Gallup organization.

In its new survey, Gallup polled 174,969 people, with at least 480 in every state, and sorted them by religiosity as follows:

Gallup classifies Americans as “very religious,” “moderately religious” or “nonreligious” based on their responses to questions about the importance of religion and church attendance. Very religious Americans say religion is important to them and report attending services every week or almost every week. Nonreligious Americans are those for whom religion is not important and who seldom or never attend religious services. Moderately religious Americans meet just one of the criteria, saying either religion is important or that they attend services almost every week or more often.

Here are the most and least religious states, classified using the “very religious” criterion (data for all states is at the link above):


If you put the new religiosity data on the graph above, there is still no overlap between the two groups of states. Thus, with respect to acceptance of evolution, the least religious states continue to all rank higher than the most religious states.  

For comparison, here are the Gallup data from 2009:


The rankings are more or less similar to those for 2016. Among most religious states, Utah joined the list this year (Mormons, no doubt), and Mississippi tops the list for the ninth year in a row. As usual, Alaska and states in New England and on the Pacific coast (and, surprisingly, Nevada), come off as the least religious states. Here’s a map showing the religious landscape for the latest data (greener = more religious).


Well, we don’t expect either religiosity or its upshot, acceptance of evolution, to change much over 8 years, but it’s useful to remind ourselves from time to time of this relationship, as well as of the relationship between low social well-being and high religiosity. In that respect, I think, Marx was right:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Finally, the data show a slight increase in secularism in the U.S. Overall, Gallup found that the percentage of U.S. adults identifying as very religious has shrunk from 41 percent in 2008 to 38 percent in 2016, while the number of nonreligious people has increased from 30 percent in 2008 to 32 percent in 2016. That’s not much of a change, but it buttresses other data on “nones” (those who don’t formally identify with a church) showing what I think is an inexorable march towards the de-religionizing of the U.S.


56 thoughts on “New data on the religiosity of U.S. states and its correlation with accepting evolution

  1. Heartening that by your one table, 41% in Mississippi are less than Very Religious, I guess. Of from the other table , for 15% there, religion doesn’t play an important role.

    I would have expected lower numbers.

    1. I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that these less fortunate states contain plenty of more mentally healthy people. In some cases, I suspect, a very small adjustment in immigration or economic factors could bring about a significant switch in the overall political climate. For example, the so called swing states. This could be the reason republicans fight the ACA tooth and nail. They are afraid healthy people might vote democratic.

  2. It would be interesting to see a study that tests the hypothesis that religiosity in a state is correlated with economic well-being over time. For example, if such a study were to show that religiosity in states went down with an increase in economic well-being and went up when economic well-being decreased then we could reasonably conclude that increasing economic well-being is one way to diminish the role of religion in society. Probably something like a 20 year time frame would need to be studied to get valid results.

    1. The more secular European countries tend to be the most equal.

      I think it’s a comforting myth for metropolitan liberals that rural people are poor because they are ignorant rather than ignorant because they are poor.

      You’ll find a similar correlation between religiousity and poverty in run down urban areas too.

  3. I think it is important that we not ignore the impact of rural vs urban in this mix or comparison. America is an ever changing group moving continuously to a more urban and less rural place. Watching election results shows this in spades as just about any state shows far more republican vote in the rural parts and only goes democratic in the big metro areas. The well-being comes into play here as well with the rural area being at the bottom of well-being. This natural movement is caused primarily by education and job availability.

    Look at just about any state and you see this. Missouri is an example with Kansas City and St. Louis being somewhat democratic while the rest of the state is solid republican. The cause of this is very easy to see in any town in any state. When the kids graduate from high school some go on to higher ed. Those are the ones who do not come back. Those who do not go on in school tend to stay put. Therefore, the rural area shrinks and the well being goes down in those rural areas and small towns. The politics, the religiosity and well being are the result of this educated vs not educated.

  4. Why do all of the least religious states have the colder temperatures?! Same for countries (Nordic). I would much prefer the cultural and political climate of Vermont over that of my home state of Texas but I prefer the warm winters! Although if the Dominionists continue to gain ground here I may have to purchase some warmer clothes and pack my bags.

    1. It’s kind of a dilemma for some. Stay put and you can feel you’re helping to keep some balance of local sanity. After all, we must be brave in the face of ignorance and cretinism. Move to an enlightened state and you can coast along with like minded neighbors. Why should it be my responsibility to keep these fools afloat? What’s a liberal to do?

      1. It is a question I ponder, not that I’m likely to move anywhere. I live in a liberal part of a mostly liberal city surrounded by a conservative ring of suburbs and a state that eight years ago began to emulate Mississippi. Vermont looks pretty attractive to me but I think I’d feel a bit like I had given up the good fight.

      1. The Northern Lights are a heady thing to see. That does not take belief in a loving god to see. All it takes is seeing it.

  5. I’m willing to attribute more causality to religious faith for the unhappy correlates for evolution and well-being. People raised in faith are trained from childhood to not think critically. That results in a lessened ability to solve real-world problems of all sorts and if you have trouble solving problems you are likely to have economic and social stagnation.

  6. It’s such a shame that republicans take advantage of the insecurity in the red states by aggravating fears. The whole immigration thing feeds the terror of lost jobs, loss of economic status to those “others”, and losing their very way of life to hoards bringing an alien culture. The ACA they promise will dispose of your grandmother via death panels. The penultimate practitioner of such evil politics will remain nameless as there may be children reading this.

  7. I’m surprised to see Alaska on the least religious list. That’s probably due to my ignorance – when I think of Alana, I think oil, guns, and Sarah Palin (I admit that only the last is directly correlated with religion).

    1. Alaska is the exception I think because of what I said in the earlier comment. Although a very low population state, more than half of the pop. is in the Anchorage metro. So the percent of urban pop in Alaska is high. Look at North or South Dakota, both low population but also much more rural. Few cities of any size, particularly N. Dakota. So high in religion.

    2. Since Alaska is second on the well-being scale, it is not surprising that it is low in religiosity. What is surprising is that Alaska is a very Republican state. All the other states on the low religiosity chart are Democratic or middle-of-the-road. Clearly, for Alaska, other factors than religiosity are in play to explain its Republican orientation. It may be Alaska’s frontier heritage of supposed self-reliance with its small government tradition that explains this.

      1. I think it might be because a lot of their wealth relies on fossil fuels. My vague recollection is their wealth is fairly recent and is a result of oil reserves in the north of the state. I could be wrong. Any Alaskans around?

        1. I’m not an Alaskan but have been there. I suspect part of that well-being may be measured by “income”. If so, it is always going to show high in this area simply because of geography. The same geography that puts Hawaii high on the list wealth-wise. Everything cost more in Alaska and Hawaii. And I mean a lot more. Now you are in my area – logistics. Everything must be shipped to Hawaii and Alaska. Not only that but you have to pay for round trip rates for everything. The only think shipping back from Alaska is Salmon. Hawaii – pineapple. So the result has to be high wages to live there.

          That is your logistics lesson for the day.

        2. The state of Alaska gives each family member annual dividends from their oil profits. Below is something I found. So if you are a family of four, in 2015 your check would be over $8,000. Not bad if you can stand the extremes of weather, isolation, and sunlight.

          “According to the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, Alaska has been paying out Permanent Fund Dividend checks ranging from $331 to $2,069 per person since 1982. The payout for 2015 was $2,072, the highest payout yet and a $188 increase from 2014.”

          1. But overall, what Alaska does with it’s oil money is the same as Texas. Avoid a state income tax. The cost of living in Alaska is probably even higher than Hawaii, at least Oahu. The other Islands could be even more.

            1. I agree. I’ve been to Alaska many times. I once took a photo of a soda vending machine back in late 80’s. $5 / can. I wonder what they charge now? I also had King Crab at a restaurant on Kodiak island. It was $50! And King Crab doesn’t have to travel far to reach Kodiak.

  8. That in turn suggests that perhaps the best way to increase acceptance of evolution (something we’re all pondering this Darwin Day) would be not to teach evolution better or more pervasively, but to reduce the influence of religion.

    If religiosity and rejection of evolution are related to poverty, tackle poverty. That’s a legitimate role for government. Reduce poverty and you will get a more secular, more scientifically literate society, and with the added benefits of less crime, better health, and a larger market for goods and services.

    1. Unfortunately, those currently in power have no problem with poverty…their policies actually increase poverty, so I guess you can say they like it.

  9. Religion is not the “illusory happiness”, it is a real happiness. All delusions, which fulfill the deep human need for something higher than everyday existence,something holy and sacred, yield deep satisfaction and happiness. This is why Einstein supposedly said “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind …”
    This means that scientific or so called secular world view will not win peoples minds and hearts if it will not offer sense and values for their lives. Material goods and entertainment is not enough…
    Take at least the Carl Sagan’s proposal: “we are a way for the universe to know itself”
    This means that our current existence has deep sense and meaning, and we have a responsibility and possibility to pass it over to the next generations, which will live much higher and different lives (think about AGI). If we will not destroy the conditions for their existence. It is not important that we will die, the most important is about them.
    I have been told by many people:”If there is no God, then what is the sense? You can steel and do anything! Latvian philosopher Maija Kule in her book ‘Eirolife’ wrote that ‘if there is no religion then there is no morality’.
    Are we so stupid egoists? Without broad sight and values?
    Imants Vilks

    1. By “illusory,” I’m sure Marx meant, “Not what it seems to be,” in other words: a happiness based on a promise that would not be fulfilled. As far as Einstein’s quote goes, most experts think that “science without religion” means “science without a sense of awe,” as Einstein did not believe in a person god and was at best a deist.

      BTW, since you seem to accept God, would you mind posting your EVIDENCE for that belief before you post any further here?

      Finally, since you think that atheism entails immorality, how do you account for the morality of Danes, Swedes, and other atheists?

      1. Sorry for writing (too) short. Illusory means not based on facts. A definition of faith: Faith is the acceptance for truth of some statements about which it is known that they are not proven.
        There are many delusions in current societies. Which provide satisfaction and feeling of happiness. But that doesn’t mean that we have to accept and use them.

        “that atheism entails immorality”?
        Latvian poet Vizma Belsevica wrote, I try to translate:

        Blessed are those mentally weak
        With minds like dewy meadows
        For they are given
        Not to know their weakness.

        This is why I never ask them why they think that if there is no God then there is no morality. They do live in their own world.

        1. Simply put, faith is belief without evidence. That is why we would ask for some evidence. A poem from Latvia does not cut it. If you only quote the religious you will get nothing but justification for what you think

    2. I had an exchange on Facebook just today with someone pitching the “If there is no god then I would rape and murder my children” argument. It is completely idiotic, of course. Even I, who doesn’t particular like this fellow, think more of him than that. If only his fear of eternal damnation prevents him from these crimes, I’m glad I live nowhere in his vicinity.

      Nor can I believe the arrogant stupidity of implying that people who don’t believe in an imaginary friend are all child rapists and killers of their own offspring. Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, it is annoying. Pardon my French.

      1. I think it was Penn Gilette that answered to the question what prevented atheists from raping and murdering as much as they wanted: “that is precisely what I’m doing, I rape and murder exactly as much as I want to (0)”, it is a brilliant riposte I often use now.

  10. Further evidence (if any were needed) that the US is actually two countries — one benighted the other slouching (however fitfully) toward enlightenment.

    There’s no coincidence in the high correspondence between the states of high-religiosity/evolution-denial and the states that went red in our last presidential election. (The breakdown is even more insidious; even the states that didn’t vote Trump comprise blue islands of densely populated urban areas and college towns surrounded by vast tracts of sparsely populated red counties where superstition and low-information reign rampant).

    It is also no coincidence that the states of high-religiosity, with their strongest concentration in the old Confederacy — the states of the Party of personal responsibility and rugged self-reliance — are all net receipts of largess from federal tax dollars.

    I’m sure our new education secretary has plans for rectifying this benightedness and hypocrisy.

    1. The blue islands of a densely urban population surrounded by rural red also explains why the Republicans control the House of Representatives and most state governments. Voter concentration and gerrymandering combine to raise questions about just how democratic is the American government, on both the federal and state levels. There is little prospect that this situation will change any time soon, but the effort must begin to change state government, which determines the boundaries of congressional districts for the House and state legislatures.

      1. I am constantly bewildered that a country that considers itself such a great democracy is so open about gerrymandering.

        Most democracies have electoral commissions that determine boundaries in a fair and non-partisan way based on population size, geography, and other such factors. They do not take voting patterns into account.

        All our electorates have roughly the same population. Following each census, political parties wait in trepidation to see whether any boundary adjustments to keep electorates the same population size are good or bad for their party.

        I would think any population would demand that. If a representative is guaranteed their seat because of gerrymandering, they do not have to work for the people they represent. They are free to follow any agenda they choose, including one to enrich themselves at the expense of their constituents.

        1. [Heather, I finally got a handle on Melania: she’s the Mitteleuropa Bond girl who helps (and bones) 007 when he’s sent here to expose her husband, after MI6 discovers he’s a deep-cover Spectre agent who’s stolen the US presidency with the help of an evil Russian despot.

          Ya gotta hand it to the Donald; he may be a policy dolt, but he knows how to typecast a tv series. 🙂 ]

          1. Ha ha! Good one.

            Now if we live long enough for the documents to be declassified we might discover you’ve stumbled on the truth! 😀

        2. Most democracies have electoral commissions that determine boundaries in a fair and non-partisan way based on population size, geography, and other such factors. They do not take voting patterns into account.

          Well, most democracies also have more than a binary choice when electing their representatives.

          Dig down on almost any type of political dysfunction in the US–gerrymandering, low voter turnout, social divisiveness, etc.–and you’ll find our ridiculous two-party system at its root.

          1. Quite true – the two party system is a problem. It’s the major reason for the current dysfunction in US politics imo.

            A more representative system is needed such as in Germany, Japan, or NZ. More representative systems have much higher voter turnout and voters are generally more knowledgeable on the issues because their vote makes a difference.

        3. “All our electorates have roughly the same population.”

          In the United States as well all congressional districts have roughly the same population. The Supreme Court in 1964 ruled that this had to be the case – “one person, one vote.” This is not the problem, which is the fact that state legislatures draw up congressional districts with totally bizarre shapes to favor the party in power even though these districts have roughly the same population. In its post-1964 form this is what gerrymandering is. Voter concentration is also part of the equation (and is separate from gerrymandering) and is often forgotten why one party (usually Republicans) have the advantage. Because Democratic voters are largely concentrated in urban areas, even if the congressional districts were shaped more symmetrically, Republicans would have the advantage. That is, in the urban, Democratic areas, Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives may win with 95% of the vote or face no opposition at all. In rural areas, Republican candidates might win with 65% of the vote. Since it takes only 50% +1 to win (in a two person race), it is irrelevant by how much you win. The net result is that gerrymandering in conjunction with voter concentration (by party affiliation) give Republicans a big advantage. Ending gerrymandering would only partially solve the problem of the inequitable Republican advantage.

          1. Are all electorates across the country c. the same size? (Genuine question.)

            I was unaware of 1964 Act – thanks for info. (This is a topic I’m very interested in, though I don’t know as much about your system as I should.)

            1 person, 1 vote doesn’t work for the electoral college. The vote of a voter in a rural state can be worth well over three times that of a Californian voter, for example.

            1. Here is some more detail. The 1964 Supreme Court Decision (Reynolds v. Sims) was actually the culmination of series of “apportionment cases”, and it decided that state legislative districts had to be roughly the same in population. A few years earlier, the Court had applied this principle to the House of Representatives.

              These articles provides more detail. As you will see the issue is quite complex. Nevertheless, gerrymandering is more a problem of how district lines are drawn than the number of people in the district.



              Yes, the one person, one vote doesn’t apply to the Electoral College or the election of the United States senators. It would take a constitutional amendment to change this and that isn’t happening any time soon.

              1. The original case on “one man, one vote” was the 1962 decision in Baker v. Carr.

                The Roberts’ Court paved the way for GOP legislatures to enact the latest rash of redistricting and voter-suppression laws when it overturned the “pre-clearance” provisions of the Voting Rights Act 1965, which required the old “Jim Crow” states to seek approval from the Justice Department before changing their voting laws, in the 2013 decision Shelby County v. Holder.

          2. Of course you are not referring to the Senate with 2 per state. You can attempt to make the house equal, at least in numbers per representative but the Senate is a joke.

            Also, this gerrymandering can and has been easily prevented in a couple of places. In Iowa for one the districts for house of rep. are determined by a special commission or panel and there is no special effort to design the districts by types of voters. And, even in Iowa, which use to be as much democrat at republican can no longer say that. It is red, through and through.

            I don’t see how the two party system can be changed if, indeed, that is even the problem. It has been a natural thing since the administration of George Washington.

  11. Accepting evolution is accepting that humans are not moral superior to other animals.

    I believe this is the main reason for not accepting the full implications of the theory evolution.

    All major religions of today accept and justify Human superiority over other animals (this even includes Jainism). This is not so strange considering they were created during the agricultural revolution.

    Funny enough even those (secular) humanists, who accept the Theory of Evolution, believe that humans should be treated better than animals.

    Moments of wonder.

  12. What is going on in Rhode Island? Why are they so unhappy? (or at least score low on well-being). RI is definitely bucking the trend.

  13. This makes one wonder if Republicans don’t work for economic well being (though they say they do) because of an unconscious ( or conscious) sensd this could work towards a reduction of religiosity.
    It is well established that at least some liberal religions predominate more in high income brackets. The average income of both Unitarians and liberal Episcopalians is well known to be far higher than the nation. I would not be surprised if this was not also true of liberal Quakers (there are also Evangelical Quakers) and American Buddhists.

  14. I also am a proponent of this, lift the well-being of the population as a whole and religiosity will fall but not only that so will other social ills, such as teenage pregnancies, crime, mental health to name a few.
    See: the Spirit Level.Richard Wilkinson& Kate Pickett
    What concerns me about this is, what will happen in these states and countries when well being is compromised and possibly go backwards, as in economic decline say, by global warming, the Robert Mugabe effect? that turning a country into a basket case.
    This says to me that whatever or however, non religiousity has to be very entrenched so going back is not a concideration to contemplate and perhaps even laughable..something I find attractive, like worshipping the sun. Actually sun worship has more merit but you get my point… i simply do not feel confident enough about human cognitive stability to think if we do not saturate and embed non religiousity like a trait in nature in any given creature it won’t be very stable and a collapse is always on the cards.

  15. Downloaded the well being data from the recent Gallup report and used the percent highly religious also from a different Gallup report and ran the Pearson correlation along with a plot and it is shown below. The correlation was -.404 which is significant at p<.0035. The plot will not paste here but it looks like a typical inverse relationship. Although we can't say that well being accounts for all of the variation in religiosity it certainly is a major factor at 16%.

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