Who practices what religion, where in Virginia
What role does geography play in determining the religious characterization of a region? Are people more likely to live in a certain place if they practice a particular religion? Is the hypothesis that large metropolitan areas are more likely to be home to diverse religious communities true?
The questions had long intrigued Shonel Sen and Rebecca Draughon.
Recently, Sen, a demographer at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, and Draughon, a graduate student in religious studies at AVU, took a deep dive in the demographics of religion in Virginia.
UVA Today caught up with Sen and Draughon to find out more.
Q. You said that this study was the result of both personal interest and professional curiosity. If you’re comfortable doing it, can you expand a bit? Where did each of you grow up and do you think this impacted your own religious beliefs?
SS: Growing up in India, I witnessed the practical realities of a plurality of deeply rooted religious roots operating in tandem with professional secularism. I myself was born into Hinduism, but my parents, not being very active practitioners, allowed me to choose my own belief system as I grew up, for which I remain incredibly grateful. And that flexibility has fueled my curiosity about the impact of religious beliefs on decision-making for different individuals and communities, as well as the extent to which they influence the demographic and socio-economic fabric of our society.
RD: I grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, in a lovely religious family. We went to an Assembly of God church when I was very young before moving to a Southern Baptist congregation. I have always been very curious about Christianity and other religions, and when I decided at undergraduate level to major in religious studies, my family was very supportive. I think they were hoping that I would end up in some sort of ministry, but I have always been more drawn to the academic study of religion. I landed at AVU for my graduate studies and am currently a doctoral student. candidate for the department of religious studies. In a way, I tried to make my curiosity about religion my profession.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about the methodology you used in this study, and how you were able to collect the data you needed?
A. Typically, data on religious identity is collected either by interviewing people (who may or may not identify with a religious tradition, or who may identify with a religious tradition, but may in fact not identify with a religious tradition). attending services) or by interviewing religious institutions and their affiliated members.
For this research, we mainly relied on the US Religion Census, which is accessible through the Association of Religious Data Archives, or ARDA. This survey, conducted every 10 years, polls churches and religious institutions for their membership data and contains statistics for 236 religious groups, including the number of congregations in each state and county in the United States and, where if applicable, the figures of members and subscribers.
Q. As you explore the religious makeup of Virginia and its localities, what have been your main findings and how do they compare, if at all, to national trends?
A. In many ways, religious leanings in Virginia mirror the rest of the nation, with 73% of Virginians identifying as Christians, just above the national average of 71%. A large proportion of people who do not identify as Christian actually have no religious affiliation, while only 6% of those surveyed identify with a non-Christian religion.
While the second largest religion differs nationally by region, Virginia is similar to its neighbors – North Carolina and West Virginia – with Islam being the second largest religious group.
By examining religious affiliations across Commonwealth locations, we were able to see who practices which religion where, the number of particular congregations in a given area, as well as the number of practitioners worshiping there.
Q. Did you break down by denomination within Christianity?
A. The categorization of religious traditions and denominations is often debated, so we followed the classification scheme standardized by ARDA. Almost 55% of the population of Virginia is not affiliated with any particular religious organization (church, synagogue, mosque, etc.) although some may consider themselves religious; 19% of residents are Evangelical Protestants, 11% Mainline Protestants and 8% Catholics. Other religions practiced in Virginia fall into the “other” category, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Mormonism, for example.
Q. Where are some of the most religiously diverse places in the state located and, on the other hand, where are the least diverse?
A. We looked at religious diversity using several parameters: number of congregations (number of particular groups in a geographic area); number of adherents (number of people who belong to a particular religion in a given locality); and the membership rate (the number of members per 1,000 inhabitants – which allows an indirect measure per capita to understand how diverse a given locality can be according to the size of its population).
When we look at the diversity across the number of congregations, the large metropolitan areas prevail. Unsurprisingly, Fairfax County, Prince William County, and the City of Richmond are where we find the most congregations of different faiths. These densely populated areas are also those where we find the greatest number of members. In many ways, this is very intuitive – in places where many people live, it is not surprising to find many different religious communities.
But congregation metrics only give us part of the picture. When we look at membership rates, that is, the number of people affiliated with a particular religion per 1,000 population, we find that several of the more rural areas in Virginia, including Danville and Emporia City, have rates comparable to those in heavily populated areas. .
To be clear, however, not all rural areas display high rates of non-Christian membership. Some of the smaller areas of Virginia, such as Charles City, have virtually no residents affiliated with a non-Christian religion.
Q. During your study, what surprised you the most and why?
A. We entered this research with the assumption that the large metropolitan areas within the Commonwealth would be the most diverse in terms of the variety of religions practiced. Although this hypothesis was confirmed by the data, we were surprised to see the high rate of non-Christian practitioners in the more rural areas of Virginia. This high rate of non-Christian adherents in some rural areas may seem counterintuitive, but it has given us a better appreciation of Virginia’s religious landscape and has shown the least degree of correlation between urban geography and the presence of various religious followers than we originally expected.
We were also surprised to see that Charlottesville, given its modest size, is home to three Buddhist congregations – the same number as the much larger county of Prince William and Alexandria, although the size of these congregations differs.
Another interesting feature was how much the high rate of non-Christian membership in rural areas is due to Islam. Although followers of Islam make up a very small percentage of Virginia’s population as a whole, it was interesting to see that its followers weren’t just in major metropolitan areas.
Q. Overall, what was your biggest takeaway regarding the effect of geography on the religious makeup of a region?
A. Outside of major metropolitan areas in Virginia, many more rural sites in the state also reflect religious diversity, often due to the presence of a large Muslim diaspora. Of the 29% of Emporia City’s non-Christian population, most are Muslims. This is not to say that all religious diversity can be attributed to Islamic followers; most of the 34% of Falls Church’s non-Christian population are Jewish. However, Islam remains a major driver of religious diversity in Virginia.
Q. How did the pandemic, if any, play into everything you looked at? And with the increase in vaccinations and the increase in the number of people likely returning to places of worship, do you expect the landscape to be much different in the future?
A. Although our results do not explicitly cover the pandemic period, as the data comes from pre-pandemic surveys, our research suggests that in the short term, factors such as the number of coronavirus cases and vaccination rates have occurred. leads to an evolution of the way of praying. and religious services offered. In-person gatherings may not return to normal as people get used to the routines developed during the pandemic. While we do not yet know the lasting effects of the pandemic on religious habits, it will be interesting to see if and how the geographic distribution of worshipers in Virginia is altered by the impacts of COVID-19 on births and migratory behaviors.
Q. Is there anything else that you found interesting or that you will keep an eye on for the future?
A. Even with the wide distribution of religious minorities and diverse communities within the Commonwealth, the majority of Virginia residents identify as Christians. It remains to be seen how this characterization might evolve over time.
Going forward, we look forward to the results of the next religious census (which is currently underway), to see how Virginia’s religious identity has changed over time.