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Staff File Photo / A group of women pray on the steps of Chattanooga City Hall during a 2011 Mothers Against All Violence rally.

Hamilton County, according to a just-released survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, is slightly less religiously diverse than the average county in the country.

In what the organization calls "the most comprehensive resource available on religious diversity in America," the average county score — based on a scale where 0 is a complete lack of diversity and 1 is complete diversity — is 0.625.

Hamilton County, meanwhile, has a score of 0.577 but is the second most diverse county in the metropolitan region. Whitfield County, Ga., with a score of 0.646, is the most diverse county while Dade County, Ga., with a score of 0.412, is the least diverse in the region.

Yet, Hamilton is the least diverse of the four largest counties in the state. Of those, Davidson (0.705) is the most diverse, followed by Shelby (0.604) and Knox (0.584).

The survey also breaks down by county the concentration of major religious groups in the country.

Of those groups, Hamilton County exceeds the U.S. average percentage of white Christians (in general), white evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants and Black Protestants, and it equals the percentage of Jewish Americans.

However, it is below the U.S. county average percentage of white Catholics, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Hispanic Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, other Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu and the religiously unaffiliated.

But in what will surely be taken as a positive sign by most groups, the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans — also known as "nones" — has declined to 23% after hitting a high of 26% in 2018. And in even better news for the groups, the decline was the strongest in younger people, who often are the quickest to drift away from religion.

Though the numbers weren't large, the religiously unaffiliated among ages 18-29 fell from 38% to 36%, and the so-called "nones" among ages 30-49 fell from 26% to 25%. Previously, those numbers had been climbing since 1986 when only 10% of ages 18-29 and 8% of ages 30-49 were religiously unaffiliated.

Similarly, the percentage of white Christians in the U.S. had fallen to 42% in 2018 but rebounded to 44% in 2020. The rise was driven by an increase — since 2016 — of white mainline Protestants to 16.4% and a stabilization of white Catholics, who have increased or declined little since 2013, to 11.7%.

Twenty-one percent of Hamilton County residents are religiously unaffiliated, slightly below the U.S. county average of 23%. However, Hamilton has a higher percentage of religiously unaffiliated residents than any other county in the area.

Montgomery County (Clarksville) has the highest percentage of religiously unaffiliated residents (25%) in the state, while Campbell County and Chester County (11%) each have the lowest percentage of the "nones."

Among the state's four largest counties, Hamilton has the highest percentage of white mainline Protestants (19%). Knox County (Knoxville) has 17%, Davidson County (Nashville) has 14% and Shelby County (Memphis) has 12%.

It is second among the four for white evangelical Protestants with 33%, trailing Knox (40%) but ahead of Davidson (22%) and Shelby (18%).

While white evangelical Protestants make up 14% of the U.S. population, four of the counties with the highest percentage of such Protestants in the country are in Tennessee. All four (Campbell, Cocke, Johnson and Scott) are in East Tennessee, and two (Campbell and Scott) are in the 3rd Congressional District, which also includes Chattanooga. Campbell (63%) has the second highest concentration of white evangelical Protestants, and Scott is sixth (62%).

Hamilton County has the highest percentage (12%) of Black Protestants in East Tennessee and the second highest percentage east of West Tennessee, other than Davidson. Haywood County in West Tennessee has the highest share in the state with 43% of its religiously affiliated.

The percentage of White Catholics in Hamilton County (4%) is lower than in each of the state's three other largest counties (Shelby, 6%, and Davidson and Knox, 5% each).

The religiously affiliated in Hamilton County, according to the survey, also include 2% Hispanic Catholics (the national average is 8%) and 2% Hispanic Protestants (the national average is 4%).

The survey shows Hamilton County has a population of less than 1% of Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindu.

Since this is the organization's first such survey, we have no way of comparing the county percentages to those in the past, but it goes without saying that our county has become more diverse in the past 10 years. The key takeaway for those who have seen the number of religiously adherent in the country fall so dramatically in the first 20 years of this century is that the trend seems to have at least slowed. How and if the religious groups take advantage of this trend will be their next test.

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