New England surpasses West Coast as least religious region in America, study finds
New England, where the Puritans and others sought religious freedom, has surpassed the West Coast as the least religious region in America, according to a new major national survey.
The study, released last week, showed that since 1990, the percentage of Americans claiming no religion has nearly doubled, growing to 15% last year. That was the overall conclusion. But tucked inside the report are figures offering portraits of various regions.
Catholic Education Foundation provides...Nonbelievers, skeptics and the unaffiliated are clustered in New England and along the Pacific, even as all 48 states surveyed have become less religious, the American Religious Identification Survey found.
On the West Coast, 20% of residents identified with no religion last year, compared with 22% of New Englanders.
Whereas Pacific states have long been called the "unchurched belt," the irreligious population over the last two decades grew more in New England -- where it nearly tripled -- than in any other region.
To account for the rise of "Nones" in the six-state region, researchers with the survey point to the area's shrinking Catholic population: New England is now 36% Catholic, down from 50% in 1990.
"There's a complete reciprocal, a correlation of Catholics to no religion," said the survey's principal investigator, sociologist Barry A. Kosmin of Trinity College in Connecticut.
Survey respondents were not asked whether they left the Catholic Church, but Kosmin and religion scholars said Catholics may feel disaffected with religious institutions in general or estranged by clergy sex abuse scandals.
"The obvious suspect here . . . would be the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church," said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College and Columbia University. "In New England, particularly Massachusetts, that hit pretty hard." Indeed, Massachusetts saw its Catholic population drop 15 percentage points and its unaffiliated group jump 14 percentage points between 1990 and 2008.
But outside New England, 13 states, primarily in the Sun Belt, saw upticks in their Catholic population.
In California, Catholics climbed 8 percentage points and are now the largest religious group in the state at 37% of the population.
In Texas, Catholics grew 9 percentage points to total 32% of the state. However, they are still outnumbered by other Christian denominations, which account for 48% of the population even after falling 20 percentage points.