America’s Most Secular and Religious Cities

The Barna Group is an Evangelical Christian polling organization that focuses on the state of Christianity in the United States. Most of its research consists of determining the demographic and ideological makeup of American Christians. According to its official mission statement:

The ultimate aim of the firm is to partner with Christian ministries and individuals to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States. It accomplishes these outcomes by providing vision, information, evaluation and resources through a network of intimate partnerships.

Given this goal, the Barna Group is considered a reliable and trustworthy source regarding Christianity — after all, since it wants assist fellow Christians in engaging with one another or reaching out to secularists, its imperative to provide only the most accurate information available.

So, I thus far trust its conclusions, including the following study concerning America’s most secular cities. See where yours ranks (my hometown and current residence, Miami, Florida, is pretty high at 20th place).

The group’s criteria for determining irreligion were as follows:

Barna Group tracks the following 15 metrics related to faith, which speak to the lack of Christian identity, belief and practice. Read more of Barna Group’s research on the “Nones,” secularization and post-Christian America.

Post-Christian = meet at least 60% of the following 15 factors (9 or more factors)
Highly Post-Christian = meet at least 80% of the following 15 factors (12 or more factors)

1. do not believe in God
2. identify as atheist or agnostic
3. disagree that faith is important in their lives
4. have not prayed to God (in the last year)
5. have never made a commitment to Jesus
6. disagree the Bible is accurate
7. have not donated money to a church (in the last year)
8. have not attended a Christian church (in the last year)
9. agree that Jesus committed sins
10. do not feel a responsibility to “share their faith”
11. have not read the Bible (in the last week)
12. have not volunteered at church (in the last week)
13. have not attended Sunday school (in the last week)
14. have not attended religious small group (in the last week)
15. do not participate in a house church (in the last year)

Interesting stuff, although perhaps not terribly surprising, as most of the cities are in regions well-known for their secularism (the Northeast and the West Coast). A number of large Southern and Midwestern cities weren’t far behind though.

Meanwhile, the organization provides a list of the country’s most “Bible-minded” cities, based on an interesting metric: not only individuals who report reading the Bible in a typical week and who strongly assert the Bible is accurate in the principles it teaches. After all, many avowed atheists have read the Bible, while many pious Christians haven’t. By measuring both the knowledge and attitude toward the Bible, one can get a rough approximation of religiosity.

Unlike the previous study, this one offers a pretty detailed breakdown:

On trend with much of the New England area, cities within the state of New York were on the lower end of the Bible-minded rankings. As for patterns in the three other most populous states, the research reveals the following.

  • Florida: Though in the South, most of the major cities on the peninsula rank near the bottom middle of Bible-minded cities, including West Palm Beach (28%, ranked 53rd out of 96 markets), Tampa-St. Petersburg (27%, rank: 57), Orlando (25%, rank: 64), and Miami (24%, rank: 70). The exceptions to these patterns are in the northern part of the state, including Pensacola / Mobile (45%, rank: 13) and Jacksonville (41%, rank: 20). These two cities are more on trend with other Southern states and likely reflect more of a native Floridian or Southern population and fewer transplants than the Southern Florida cities.
  • California: In addition to San Francisco being among the lowest rated, most of the major California cities are in the bottom third of the rankings. The Los Angeles media market represents a pretty normal range for California cities with 24% of the residents being Bible-minded (ranking 68th out of 96 cities,). San Diego (24%, rank: 74), Sacramento (24%, rank: 72), and Fresno / Visalia (25%, rank: 66) were also bunched in the same range. Bakersfield, CA stood out as being among the most Bible-minded cities in the Pacific states (39%, rank: 26).
  • Texas: As part of the traditional “Bible belt,” Texas stayed fairly true to trend, with most of it’s major cities ranking in the top half of Bible-minded cities. Dallas / Fort Worth ranked as the top Bible-minded city in Texas (38% Bible-minded, ranking at 27th) over San Antonio (36%, rank: 33), Houston (32%, rank: 39) and Austin (29%, rank: 48). Notable exceptions to the Bible-mindedness of Texas cities were Harlingen / Weslaco / McAllen / Brownsville (28%, rank: 56), Waco (27%, 59), and most significantly El Paso (23%, rank: 80). These exceptions are likely a result of these markets having a higher percentage of Hispanic Catholics, who are less likely to engage the Bible.

This didn’t surprise me. California is a large and diverse state with around 35 million people, and it’s long been split between it’s secular and liberal coastal and southern regions, and its more religious and conservative north and central ones. The influence of its large and typically pious Hispanic community can certainly be felt.

Meanwhile, Florida and Texas are fast-growing traditionally conservative states that are receiving an influx of immigrants and northerners, many of whom are irreligious or non-Christian. Demographically, they’re also fairly young and urban, two features that characterize secularism in the United States. Even among the fast-growing Hispanic communities in these states, there’s been a growth in both irreligion and Evangelical Christianity. This state of transition is reflected in the fact that both of these traditionally conservative states have become “purple” politically, although established Republicans continue to maintain most of the political power.

Here’s more analysis:

Among the nation’s largest 30 cities, 10 of them are in the top half of the Bible-minded market rankings, while 20 of them are in the bottom half. Generally speaking, the more densely populated areas tend to be less Bible oriented. Only three of the most Bible-minded cities are among the largest 30 cities—Charlotte (7th), Nashville, TN (14th) and Raleigh / Durham, NC (22nd). The other 22 top Bible-minded markets have fewer than 1 million households.

Still, among the largest markets there are many more relatively Bible-minded cities, including Dallas / Fort Worth (27th), Atlanta (28th), Indianapolis (32nd), Houston (39th), St. Louis (41st), Cleveland (43rd) and Detroit (46th).

Philadelphia (28%, rank: 52) is among the most Bible-minded cities along the eastern seaboard, ranking slightly higher than the aforementioned Northeastern cities as well as Washington, DC (25%, rank: 63) and Baltimore (26%, rank: 60).

Chicago is the nation’s third largest city, and while it tends to be a bastion of many evangelical organizations, ranks between New York and Los Angeles in terms of Bible-mindedness (23%, rank: 76th). Colorado Springs, CO, which is also home to many Christian organizations, is right in the middle of the pack (29%, rank: 51st). By comparison, Denver is ranked lower (71st) with about one in four individual’s qualifying as Bible-minded (24%).

In the Northwest portion of the country, the cities are all fairly similar, with about a quarter of the population being Bible-minded, including most notably Portland OR (25%, rank: 65th and Seattle, WA (24%, rank: 69th).

I also find the commentary at the very end interesting, as it sounds like something out of a marketing agency (indeed, George Barna, the group’s founder, expressly stated that his aim was to provide “research and marketing expertise as a service to Christian ministry”).

First, the large range of Bible-minded scores—from 52% in the highest markets to 9% in the lowest—shows just how diverse the nation’s population can be, from city to city. The rankings reflect an overall openness or resistance to the Bible, and in some markets half or more of the population claim to be open, while in other areas the proportion that is open to the Bible is more like one in ten adults. These gaps make a significant difference in the tone and tenor of conversations about Christianity, morals, public education, and spirituality, among many other topics.

Second, although there are outliers—cities in which the Bible-minded rankings are significantly above- or below-average—the overall picture that is painted depends on one’s vantage point. The least sanguine way to analyze the results would be to emphasize the lack of Bible-mindedness in America; in 91 out of 96 markets a majority of the residents are not Bible minded.

However, a more optimistic way to view those markets would be to look at those cities with at least one-fifth Bible-mindedness—meaning those areas where at least one out of five adults are open to engaging and esteeming the Bible. Among some researchers, this proportion—20%—is often thought to be something of a social or technological “tipping point” (for example, once one in five people had mobile phones, the momentum toward more people owning mobile phones began to grow exponentially). In this analysis, 83 out of 96 cities in the U.S. have at least 20% of their residents qualifying as Bible-minded. Christian leaders should recognize that most of the major cities in the nation continue to have basis for biblical engagement among a significant share of the population.

As ministry leaders in particular, it’s important to keep both vantage points in tension. Whether you live in a city ranked in the top half of Bible-minded cities or in the bottom half of Bible-minded cities, there are still tens of thousands of people to reach regarding both the message of the Scriptures and their importance. However, no matter what type of city you live in, there is also a significant remnant of Bible-minded individuals. The key is to not merely “preach to those insiders” but instead to equip and empower those who do believe with a strong and relevant message to take out into their communities, vocations and spheres of influence. They are the tipping point and can have great influence on the greater city.

Take all that as you will. Personally, I find it disquieting to speak of Christianity as if it were some product to sell, but of course, that’s not surprising given my own secularism.

11 comments on “America’s Most Secular and Religious Cities

    • Same here in Florida. I’m insulated from it living on the urban east coast, but I don’t have to venture far to see what you’re referring to either. It’s like two different worlds.

  1. Pingback: Swinging Chandeliers & the Ruining of Religion | For Christ and Culture

  2. If this research was actually sound and the statistical analysis was actually accurate, I would find this quite interesting. Sadly, this isn’t the case. Worse still, people are MISQUOTING the already deficient research! As a statistician, this makes me crazy!

  3. You have no credibility until you recognize Mormons are Christians and that Provo Utah is the most Bible-led community in the Nation.

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