About Those Irreligious New Englanders

Call it the story that won’t die. A 2012 Gallup Poll purported to reveal that New Englanders are the least religious of all Americans, with Vermonters leading the non-churched pack and Bay Staters checking in at number four.

This data has been endlessly recycled, including in a recent Boston Globe column. It’s also been red meat for conservative evangelicals, who have flooded talk shows, editorial pages and the blogosphere with comments suggesting that New England is Sodom and the West Coast is Gomorrah. Alas, it has also provoked counter-responses from the unchurched that fall considerably short of enlightened skepticism.

It’s child’s play to cast doubt on the data. As the 2012 election results proved, Gallup is many years removed from conducting truly scientific polling. Second, Gallup measured a single criterion: the percentage of each state’s residents that attend religious services in a given week. There is no way of knowing from the Gallup data whether the same individuals attend regularly or randomly, not can we infer anything about what attendees believe or practice.

To paraphrase a youth minister friend, the idea that attending services makes you religious is like spending time in a garage and thinking you’re a car. Gallup numbers are in need of serious parsing, the likes of which is done each year by the Pew Research Center.

Still, questions remain: Do New England religious practices depart from the norm? Are we really irreligious? Does any of it matter? The short answers are yes, no, and perhaps.

Massachusetts is in step with the rest of the nation in that religion is refracted through a Christian lens. According to Pew numbers, 75.8 percent of all Americans consider themselves to be some variety of Protestant or Catholic, and fewer than 6 percent combined are (in descending order of population size) Jewish, Mormon, Buddhist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslim, or Hindu. By contrast, 16.1 percent of Americans are classified as “unaffiliated,” the latter category definitely in need of parsing.

Bay Staters identify with Christianity, but they don’t exactly wear out the pews. So-called “Bible Belt” states such as Mississippi (58 percent) and Alabama (56 percent) reportedly have twice as many attending church in a given week as Massachusetts (27 percent), whose attendance rate is far below the national average (41 percent)—that is, if we believe the numbers. Not everyone does. Episcopal priest Harvey Hill, who originally hails from the South and served in Georgia, calls Bible Belt attendance “dramatically overstated.” He notes, “Church is such a part of the culture there that people will just flat out lie about how often they go.”

Still, Hill agrees there are regional differences. He also notes that in the South a stranger is first asked his or her name and then, “What church do you attend?” Aaron Minton, a self-described “post-evangelical Protestant” who has taught at Christian schools and conducts youth ministries in central Massachusetts, agrees. Minton grew up in fundamentalist churches and did his undergraduate work at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Virginia. “Church simply isn’t the center of life here like it is in the South, where religious institutions also run most of the social activities,” he points out. “That doesn’t work up here. People already have stuff to do.”

Minton is also doubtful that any sort of Pat Robertson/Jerry Falwell/Rick Warren type of evangelicalism will take root in Massachusetts. One reason, he notes, is money. “People in Massachusetts complain about money all the time,” says Minton, “but there is a lot more money here, and the need for a safety net is far less. Affluence does not breed religion in the same way that poverty does.”

Numbers suggest that Minton is correct. Connecticut is the third richest state in the Union; Massachusetts the fourth. Only Maine has per capita income levels below the 2010 national average of $27,300. By contrast, six of the 10 poorest states are in the Deep South, where folks might be attending church more, but aren’t exactly exemplars of religious rectitude.

Nine Southern states rank in the top 14 for heaviest users of Internet porn; New Englanders rank near the bottom. Six of the 10 states with the highest murder rates are in the Bible Belt; four of the eight lowest are in New England. The Center for Disease Control shows that Massachusetts has the fourth lowest divorce rate in America; four of the highest are in the South.


Evangelical churches have made small inroads in Massachusetts and there are even a handful of sprawling “megachurches,” but whereas evangelical denominations are now the largest expression of religious identification in the nation (26.3 percent), fewer than 10 percent of New Englanders assume that mantle.

This is both ironic and explainable. Oddly, New England once had the reputation for serious faith now associated with the South. It is, after all, a place settled by very serious Protestants: Separatist Pilgrims, Puritans and Anabaptists. You want religious fervor? Colonial New England offered banishments, witch-hunts, Quaker hangings and schisms. Religion was such a life-and-death matter that many of the men who shaped the United States Constitution associated New England with dangerous levels of intolerance and insisted that the First Amendment ban official religions. They also laid down the principles of church/state separation.

Please hold retorts that this was a long time ago. The most powerful evangelical preacher of the late 19th century, Dwight L. Moody, hailed from Northfield, where he founded Northfield Mount Hermon School. New Englanders maintained a reputation for uptight piety, dourness and discomfort with modernity into the mid-20th century. It took a 1953 Supreme Court decision for the phrase “Banned in Boston” to begin to atrophy. It took another in 1965 for Connecticut to allow even married couples to purchase condoms. Within living memory, New England was the “Bible Belt.” Consider Catholicism, the 1960s, politics and education among the factors that changed this.

A strong affiliation with Roman Catholicism is one the most significant ways in which New England differs from other regions. New England was the cradle of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution. Think millions of European immigrant workers from historically Catholic lands: Ireland, Italy, Poland, French Canada and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They poured in until World War I and a restrictive 1924 immigration bill froze them out, but by then, parish churches, cathedrals, and parochial schools were as much a part of the New England landscape as red brick factories and dairy herds. Catholicism supplanted Protestantism and, the church sex scandals notwithstanding, it retains the loyalties of 43 percent of the region’s church service attendees, a whopping 45 percent again as many as the national average (23.9 percent).

But one should not soft-sell the problems of Catholicism. Even though mass attendance has been dropping since the 1950s, sex abuse sent confidence in the church to historic lows; as Ron Story, a UMass emeritus history professor, notes, “The scandals have had a terrible effect that shook people’s very trust in the institution and made them question church teachings on other things as well.”

That list would include the necessity of attending mass. Although it officially remains a mortal sin not to attend mass, the “For Sale” or “Available” signs in front of Northampton’s St. Mary’s and St. John Cantius churches speak for themselves. According to the National Catholic Reporter, one of every 10 Americans is an ex­-Catholic. If you collected them, they would constitute the third largest denomination in the country. According to data collected at Fordham University, 74 percent of Catholics attended weekly mass in 1958; the figure is now around 24 percent. These numbers alone explain the bulk of New England’s declining church attendance levels. More people have left the Catholic Church since the 1990s than attend Protestant services.

Declining mass numbers are also consistent with what Hill calls the “deinstitutionalization” of religion in America. Many Americans are, in Hill’s words, “happily unchurched.” Jennifer Walters, Smith College’s dean of religious life, agrees. She observes “great resistance to religion as thought of in a certain way. Students are curious, but affiliation is another matter.” Michael Corrigan, the chaplain at Northfield Mount Hermon, adds that many students “simply don’t know much about religion. They’re not rebelling against anything because religion was never anything their families were invested in.”

These comments raise the question of how belief came to be uncoupled from religious institutions. In Massachusetts, 23 percent of the population list their religious identity as “none” or “unaffiliated”–a percentage equal to the national average, but one that also surpasses all mainstream Protestant denominations combined. But forget what you read on the blogosphere or hear from televangelists: unaffiliated does not mean non-believer. Religiosity studies are a much better guide to faith than attendance records, and New Englanders actually have the lowest percentage of self-described atheists and agnostics in the country. Roughly 90 percent of Americans profess a belief in a higher power, and that includes nearly 70 percent of the “nones.” According to Pew, however, more than one in three Americans call themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” a cohort disproportionately made up of baby boomers and Generation Xers. This explains why so many younger Americans, in Corrigan’s words, “have no real understanding” of the specifics of any religion.


New England was an epicenter of the 1960s counterculture. Dozens of communes popped up between Amherst and Putney, Vt., the student body tripled at UMass, and thousands of those who came for four years became New England lifers. Vermont’s population increased by 50 percent from 1960 on, most of it due to transplants, not natural increase. A sizable number of New Englanders retain at least remnants of the 1960s drive toward questioning authority (including religious leaders), alternative lifestyles and mind expansion. If you think the latter is just a code phrase for drugs, pick up a copy of Many Hands, the Pioneer Valley’s guide to holistic health. If you’re looking for practices that are “spiritual” but not necessarily “religious” (in an institutional way), you’ll find them there–spiritual therapies, mindfulness seminars, guided energy classes, spiritual dance. You’ll also find plenty that makes you wonder if Eastern religious practices are grossly underreported: Taoist medical practices, spirit-based religions, shamanist and yogic practitioners, Ayurvedic regimens, past-life regression therapy, Reiki training. Small wonder that the region’s students insist, as Walters notes, “You can’t think of your own religion as the only way.”

Education changes perspectives in lots of ways. Massachusetts’ permanent residents are actually slightly older than the national average, but all Bay State social data is skewed by young folks attending one of the Commonwealth’s 111 four-year colleges. Thirty percent of them come from outside New England. The ratio of college students to residents in Massachusetts is double that of Alabama, and four times that of Mississippi. As Story trenchantly observes, “One of the fun things about being a college student is that you don’t have to go to church. You get to explore and cast off restraints, even if you return to them later in your life.”

Walters reminds us to not confuse legitimate searching with lack of interest. Today’s college students, she observes, “were affected by the late 1990s and by 9/11. Muslim students grew up blaming themselves and feeling they needed to prove, ‘I’m not a Muslim like that.’ Christians offended by evangelicals felt they had to say, ‘I’m not a Christian like that,’ and Jewish kids uncertain about Israeli politics felt compelled to announce, ‘I’m not Jewish like that.’”

There is little doubt that evangelical politics such as those espoused by the infamous Westboro Baptist Church have turned off legions. Aaron Minton entered Liberty as a conservative, and exited as a liberal when he grew disgusted by many of Jerry Falwell’s teachings. His embrace of the “post-evangelical” label grew from his discomfort with the idea that a Christian had to be anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-intellectual, and a Republican. For educated people–and Massachusetts has more college grads than any other state–there is often a disconnect between faith and reason. As Story comments, all those colleges bespeak the presence of a lot of professors and professionals “who are trained in rationalist discourse.”

Psychologists Miron Zuckerman, Jordan Silberman and Judith Hall add a volatile dimension to Story’s observation. They’ve done an extensive analysis of studies and found a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity. Dumb Christians who believe whatever they’re told? Not necessarily.

Hill remarks, “Religious dogma doesn’t have to be anti-pluralism, but it often is.” You’d never know this from listening to Fox News, but 38 percent of all Democrats consider themselves religious, while just 28 percent of Republicans make such a claim; that is, unless one is a white male. Massachusetts remains relatively lily-white by national standards (84 percent versus 78 percent) but come election time, it’s colored blue. Gay marriage was an uphill battle, but there’s little traction to repeal it. Bay Staters are routinely more liberal than the national average on issues such as the death penalty, immigration reform, abortion and a host of other social issues.

Corrigan bluntly notes, “There is huge distrust of organized religion. A lot of young people simply assume that being a Christian means you’re a Republican.” When Moody founded Northfield Mount Hermon, social Darwinism, with its emphasis on individualism and justification of wealth, dominated Protestantism. It gave way to the Social Gospel and responsibility to the downtrodden, but the Reagan years saw a return to social Darwinism. The Reverend Andrea Avayzian of the Haydenville Congregational Church agrees that “Christianity is associated in many minds with right-wing beliefs and tenets. Young people see it as stuffy, exclusive, not gay-friendly and not relevant.” But she adds, “Progressive Christians don’t get enough attention on the airwaves. Being a Christian means a commitment to service, being generous, working with poor people, giving hospitality. It’s a tall order. Jesus did his ministry in a community.”

The last point is a sore spot for many. Ministers and academics share skepticism over whether it’s desirable to be “spiritual but not religious.” Although everyone I interviewed thought it possible to find meaning outside a formal religious body, each felt that a spiritual community was far more likely to foster patterns and habits conducive to a meaningful religious life. Walters notes that one “could attend service online from Chicago,” but is unlikely to develop a spiritual life from doing so. Corrigan says that when someone tells him they can find meaning by communing with nature, he asks, “Do you? How often? How do you stay fit in your faith?” Hill also used an exercise metaphor with regular practice as the key to a meaningful religious life. By his reckoning, the number of people who can “sustain a deep and meaningful religious life on their own is about the same percentage as those who can become saints.”

These concerns notwithstanding, no one expressed surprise or alarm over the Gallup Poll data. Walters notes that it’s not that people aren’t interested in spirituality: “The problem is that the structure we offer isn’t the right church.” The Reverend Janet Bush of Northampton’s Unitarian Universalist Society sees the current trends as a wake-up call. “We must ask: What is it we are supposed to be doing. Are we spreading the Good News in a way that matters?”

And wouldn’t it be splendid if this much-needed dialogue began in skeptical New England?•

Author: Rob Weir

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