Religion plays an important role in many people’s lives. It can unite us socially, and a belief in a deity or deities that forms a force larger than ourselves can help to assuage worries and fears that may feel too heavy to bear alone. Religion also provides some people with guidance. In the US, people follow a variety of religions, and a number of people are also self-proclaimed atheists, meaning they do not believe in the existence of any God or Gods.
According to Pew Research Center, among those who are religious followers, evangelical protestant Christians form the largest religious group in the US. This is followed by mainline protestants, and Catholics. Followers of non-Christian faiths account for about 6% of all religious followers in the country and atheists about 3%. About 16% of people in the US profess to following “nothing in particular”, when it comes to religion.
Pew Research Center used the Religious Landscape Study (RLS) to provide these statistics, which questioned over 35,000 Americans from all 50 states regarding their religious affiliations, beliefs, and views, The site also looked at which US states are the most religious. In this case, people who were “highly religious” were defined as those who believe in God, pray daily, and attend religious services regularly.
Survey results showed that Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee were the top three most religious states in the country, at the time of the survey in 2016. Louisiana, Arkansas, South Carolina, West Virginia, Georgia, Oklahoma, and North Carolina came next in the list, in that order. Why are people so religious in these areas? A large part of it has to do with history, and the establishment of the American Bible Belt.
Evangelical Protestantism In The South
The term “Bible Belt” in the US most readily references a geographic area that covers many southern states in which people often adhere to socially conservate evangelical Protestant views on life. These states include all of those listed in Pew Research Center’s top ten most religious states, as well as Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Texas, and Virginia, and southern parts of Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana.
Historians often trace the Bible Belt’s history back to the end of the 18th century, and the beginning of the 19th century. Following the American Revolution, the Anglican Church of England no longer received local tax money and was disestablished in the US. Religious followers formed the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA, and people living in the South began turning to the leadership of Methodist and Baptists preachers. Religious revivals such as the Cane Ridge Revival formed part of the Second Great Awakening, which was a strong protestant religious movement that spread in the US at this time via highly emotional meetings and preaching. Thousands of people flocked to hear these preachers speak.
It was a time of great change in the nation following intense violence and upheaval. It could be that people were seeking guidance as to what was right and wrong, as well as the grounding effect of community, which some found in religion. It is also true that church attendance had declined greatly throughout the US by the late 1700s. Some no longer believed in God, and many were busy chasing a living, and felt they had no time for religion. This spurred churches to sponsor the religious revivals mentioned above, in an attempt to gain new followers. Religious camp meetings were held for days at a time. Those who attended got the chance to socialize with new friends and old, something that was not always possible on the frontier in America as people lived far apart. These meetings also provided Americans with a chance to trade with one another and to catch up on news, in addition to being able to practice religion.
Due to these factors, religion in the South and elsewhere gained a strong following at this time. In part due to the success of the revivals, religious values have been passed down through history and are still felt in the Bible Belt today, and are reflected in people’s personal lives, as well as in politics and society as a whole.
A Pious Future?
Is the US becoming more religious as time goes on, or less? According to Gallup.com, the percentage of Americans who can be described as “very religious” has shrunk in the last few decades. It is expected that the religious or non-religious tendencies of different regions of the US will remain the same for some time, such as the South being home to many who believe in God and places like New England, Maine, and Vermont being the location of the least devout, but fewer and fewer people are now following Christianity in the country, as a whole.
According to a Pew survey, Americans in general have positive views of religion as a part of society, but there has been a fall in public confidence in organized religion over the last thirty years. Sex abuse scandals involving religious leaders, and the desire to keep religion out of politics has contributed to this decline. About two-thirds of US adults surveyed by Pew said churches and other houses of worship should stay out of politics, and three quarters of the public said that churches should not favor one candidate over another.
That being said, people surveyed expressed nostalgia for the days when churches were the driving force behind hospitals and community-based institutions. Over 50% of respondents expressed their view that religious organizations do more good than harm in the US. In addition, far more adults in the country expressed their belief that religious organizations strengthen society’s morals and that they bring people together more than they divide them.
In terms of basic regular attendance at religious institutions, it seems that the future will continue to grow more secular. How this will play out in society as a whole in the US is uncertain. If religious revivals such as those of the past recur, this scene could change. It remains to be seen however, if the seeds of interest remain in the general public.