An important place to start in analyzing New England religious trends is with the facts. The best resource I could find on religious trends in New England was “Religion and Public Life in New England”, the 2004 edition. So some of the information presented may be dated to some extent, but is nonetheless helpful in creating a basic framework to understand religion in New England.
According to the North American Religion Atlas, almost 70 percent of New Englanders who claim a religious identity are Catholics. (RAPLINE 11-12) New England is, by a comfortable margin, the most intensely Catholic region in the United States. (RAPLINE 12) According to NARA researchers, who compiled data on 149 religious bodies, 42 percent of the region’s residents are affiliated with the Catholic Church. (RAPLINE 27)
These facts have been evident in many encounters I’ve had in my short amount of time in New Hampshire and the greater New England area. Many of the people who attend the church where I’m an associate pastor have come from a Catholic background. We recently helped an older lady from the community move to another apartment, and had a time of prayer together afterwards. We’ve only begun to get to know her, so we don’t know for sure, but it’s pretty clear by many of the things she shared with us that she comes from a Catholic background.
Yet unfortunately it could be surmised that unified times of prayer between common Catholics and Protestants is not all that common. The region’s life still bears the marks of the long struggle between Protestants and Catholics that began in the 1840s, when the massive immigration by Catholics from Ireland began. Within a few decades, Catholics outnumbered Protestants in New England. (RAPLINE 12) This is a topic we will look at in further detail as we discuss the history of religious tension in New England. But for the sake of summary in this section we can say that this vigorous rivalry persisted for more than a century and was resolved, in the decades after WWII, not with outright victory, but with a kind of unspoken truce- a truce which those on both sides still take some care not to upset the delicate balance of forces. In this mood, religion is treated as a force with great divisive potential. In New England, it is therefore often addressed obliquely or not at all. (RAPLINE 12-13) I have experienced an animosity towards religion amidst the everyday people of New England. For many people it is a sore subject that brings up bad memories of being burned by recent hypocrisy in poorly led churches. But it’s interesting to know that this is not merely skin deep. New England has had generations of religious and spiritual conflict.
I know I have a bias because it’s my place of residence, but I found many interesting facts about religion in New Hampshire. In one sense, Catholicism in New Hampshire shrank in the latter 20th Century. In New Hampshire, Catholics shrank from an estimated 37 percent of the population in 1965 to only 28 percent in 1999. (RAPLINE 59) Yet somehow a great influx of Catholics came in at the very end of that century. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Catholics in New Hampshire rose 45 percent. (RAPLINE 28)
However, these facts don’t say much of the general population of New Hampshire. In fact, The increased attractiveness of New Hampshire as a place of residence for young, affluent and libertarian out-of-staters-means that the social composition as well as the religious and political attitudes associated with a specific state’s population will likely change. (RAPLINE 75) To put it in modern day lingo, we have many “hipsters” that are moving into New Hampshire these days, and I’m happy about it, because this is the generation and culture that I identify with the most! However, it could be generally said that many of New England’s residents don’t connect themselves with religion. (RAPLINE 13) Maybe we could understand why after many years of religious conflict, but we’ll also see how the influence of Unitarian Universalism played a huge part in New England shifting away from a biblical understanding of the world. This will also be a topic we will tackle as this discussion moves forward.
Inevitably, there is and there may continue to be an increasing popularity of an individualized, de-institutionalized religion and the increased prevalence of New Age spiritual retreat centers and practices in New England. (RAPLINE 76) And it may be no wonder why the lovable wonderful, salty cynics of New England see no other option for religion than this, because they’ve had both a historical and current bad experience with institutional religion. But where did this unrest begin?
- Why did Catholics and Protestants come to America (wiki.answers.com)
- I Am A New England Protestant/Catholic “Mutt” (benjaminbradfordwhite.wordpress.com)
- How did religion play a part in the expansion of the colonies (wiki.answers.com)