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Politically Thinking: Polls shows Vermont not religious

Last week the Gallup Poll released a study claiming that Vermont was the “least religious” state in the nation. Gallup ranked all the states on a religion index, based on the answers to two yes-or-no questions included with the firm’s regular presidential election tracking polls in 2012. The first question was “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” The second question was “Do you attend religious services every week or almost every week?”
Respondents were classified as “very religious” if they answered yes to both questions. Only 19 percent of Vermonters answered both questions positively. All six New England states were among the “least religious” in the nation, with index scores ranging from 31 in Connecticut down to 19 in Vermont. The “most religious” states in the nation, with scores of 50 or more, were southern states such as Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, as well as Utah.
While Gallup’s study received a fair amount of press attention, it is based on an overly simplified concept of religion. Gallup assumes that participation in organized religious activities — attending services at least several times a month — is a necessary condition to being called a “very religious” person. Other studies take a more nuanced view of religion.
The Pew Research Center’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, published in 2008, shows that 26 percent of Vermonters, the highest percentage of any state in the country, described themselves as “religiously unaffiliated,” in other words, not adherents of any organized religion or denomination. However, these findings do not demonstrate that Vermonters are “not religious.” Lack of religious affiliation and lack of religious belief are not the same thing.
The Pew study also emphasized the fluidity of religious affiliation in the United States. Nearly 30 percent of American adults consider themselves no longer affiliated with the religious tradition in which they were raised. If switches among various denominations in the Protestant tradition are counted, almost half of Americans now practice a different religion from that of their youth, or consider themselves no longer affiliated with any organized religion. The large numbers of Vermonters who do not call themselves adherents of any religious tradition reflect the larger American religious landscape in a time of transition.
The academic researchers Gary Tobin and Patricia Lin conducted studies on religious affiliation and belief among residents of the San Francisco Bay area, a region that, like Vermont, has comparatively low levels of adherence to organized religion and low attendance at religious services. Tobin and Lin found that a considerably higher proportion of Bay Area residents than nationally adhered to religions outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This is confirmed by the Pew study, which found that nearly 10 percent of Vermonters, again the highest in the country, identified with religions other than Christianity or Judaism, primarily Eastern traditions and other world religions.
Tobin and Lin also found that about 70 percent of their Bay Area respondents agreed with the statement “A person can be religious without believing in God.” While 85 percent of Bay Area residents believed in a “divinity” of some sort, only 57 percent identified that divinity as “God,” while 28 percent preferred the concept “A Higher Power.”
Nationally, Gallup has found that 86 percent of Americans use the term “God,” while only 8 percent refer to “A Higher Power.” If this question were asked of Vermonters, their answers might very well be more like those in the Bay Area than in the nation as a whole.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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