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  1. Opinion

Tampa Bay ranks low in religion census

Published May 22, 2012

Did you hear the one about the Catholic, the Jew and the Protestant arguing in a bar about the best place to worship in Tampa Bay?

That's it. That's the entire joke.

Apparently, no one goes to church around here.

The 2010 U.S. Religion Census was recently released, and, it turns out, Tampa Bay is rather faithless.

Of the 51 metro areas of at least 1 million residents, Tampa Bay placed 50th in its percentage of worshipers. Only Portland, Ore., stands between us and eternal damnation.

Now, I'll grant you, we've not had much luck with recent poll dances. It seems we've come out near the bottom of practically every index, survey and study imaginable.

Let's see:

We've lost more construction jobs than any other metro area. St. Petersburg is the saddest city in America, according to a magazine. We're first in the nation in home foreclosures. We're the most financially distressed market in the country, according to a nonprofit credit agency. And Tropicana Field is the third-worst stadium in creation.

So, yeah, we get it. This is our awkward phase. We're poor, we're moody, and we're going to be the last market picked in a game of dodgeball.

But now you're telling us we're heathens, too?

The census, conducted by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, measured the number of adherents of each religion in each market in the nation.

The figures cannot possibly be exact, but they give a general idea of how many people are affiliated with any given congregation in a market.

So it makes sense that Salt Lake City, with a large Mormon population, ranks highest, with 73.4 percent of residents going to church. Birmingham, Ala., is next at 70.9. Boston, with its heavy Catholic presence, is in the Top 10.

And it's probably predictable that younger, hipper markets such as San Francisco, Denver and Seattle fall near the bottom of the rankings.

And then there's Tampa Bay, with 34.7 percent of residents identified as regular churchgoers. To put that into perspective, Las Vegas was at 35.7.

Got that? We're less pious than Sin City.

If you're looking for explanations, our melting pot nature probably has a lot to do with it. Just as sports teams suffer from a lack of tradition and long-term allegiance, so do places of worship.

"It's during times of transition and change that people take time to reconsider religious affiliation,'' said Dale Jones, the director of research services for the census. "From an evangelical perspective, transition is a good time to bring people to the church.

"But from an overall perspective, transition and change is also a good time for those people to drop out of churches altogether.'

The biggest drop in Tampa Bay from 2000 to 2010 was in the Catholic population, but Jones said that might be because of a change in methodology for counting.

"Attendance at Mass has not been as consistent as it was in the past,'' said diocese spokesman Frank Murphy. "We have some work to do, but that's nothing new.''

Catholics still outnumber followers of every other religion around here, and Tampa Bay would still be near the bottom of the census even if there had been no drop among Catholics in the past decade.

No matter how you look at it, we didn't have a prayer.

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