ST. PETERSBURG — A recent study says the Tampa-St. Petersburg region has one of the lowest rates of religious affiliation in the country — a distinction that has drawn national attention to the area and even a suggestion from one radio host that visitors stay away.
The Tampa area was the only one in the southeastern U.S. to crack the top 10 on the list of most religiously unaffiliated people among 30 major metropolitan areas surveyed by the Public Religion Research Institute.
The figure here was 25 percent of the population compared to 22 percent nationwide.
Portland topped the rankings with 42 percent of its population unaffiliated, followed by San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and Boston. Cragun said earlier research has shown that communities in the Pacific Northwest and on the East Coast are less likely to be religious, but Tampa-St. Petersburg sticks out in the crowd, said University of Tampa professor Ryan Cragun.
“I’ll admit, that was surprising to me,” said Cragin, who specializes in nonreligious sociology and secularism.
Religious beliefs often correlate with political views, with Democrats and progressives more likely to have larger numbers of people unaffiliated with a religion, Cragun said.
But that doesn’t necessarily explain the Tampa numbers.
“Yeah, it leans that way in presidential elections, but I don’t see it as a bastion of liberalism in Tampa and St. Pete,” he said.
Conservative radio host Glenn Beck, whose program is heard on WFLA (970 AM) in Tampa, disagrees, putting his own stamp on the survey’s findings by ranking the region No. 6 on his list of 15 cities to “avoid like the plague.”
It’s not clear how Beck came up with the No. 6 or why he refers to the metropolitan area as St. Petersburg.
“Sorry to break it to you, St. Petersburg,” Beck told his listeners Tuesday. Without much more detail, he said, “These are the cities you don’t want to live anywhere around when things get worse and worse.”
Beck, a Mormon converted from Catholicism, has denounced what he calls a “vilification” of religious liberty in the country.
“If you look at that list, these are the cities that already having trouble,” Beck told listeners. “We haven’t even hit the road bump.”
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, seemed nonplussed by Beck’s proclamation and tweeted about the comments Wednesday morning.
“Woke up, sun shining, & @glennbeck lumping #StPete in w/ Portland-San Fran-Seattle-Denver-Phoenix as cities to avoid. An honor! #ThanksGlenn,” Kriseman tweeted.
The Public Religion Research Institute collected data for its survey in 2014 through 50,000 telephone surveys, half to cell phones and half to land lines. The institute asked about religious beliefs. In the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, 532 respondents participated, said the institute’s research director Dan Cox.
The Tampa area had the highest rate of unaffiliated people in the state, but other Florida cities weren’t far behind, with Miami at 21 percent and Orlando at 18 percent.
Cox said Florida as a whole stood out among states in the Southeast.
“It’s really interesting to see the variability,” he said. “Florida has sort of a unique culture.”
The survey was done as part of the institute’s examination of American values and cultural change.
In a separate poll on attitudes toward religion, conducted by Gallup in 2013, Florida did not stand out. The state didn’t rank among the 10 most religious or least religious states.
UT’s Cragun said a rise in the number of religiously unaffiliated people is to be expected anywhere in the U.S., since along the continuum or religious belief, this is the fastest growing group.
The Tampa area’s younger-than-average population, compared with the rest of the state, could contribute to its high ranking. Young people are less likely to affiliate with a religion, Cragun said.
The region’s diverse population and higher education rates could also place it higher than other Florida cities.
“When you have to be around people who don’t share your religious beliefs,” Cragun said, “you are generally less religious.”