The Bible Belt isn't merely a nickname. It is a verifiable geographic trend.
In a 2014 ranking of "Bible-minded" U.S. cities, an assessment commissioned by the American Bible Society, Knoxville ranked 10th, dropping nine spots from its 2013 position as No. 1.
But, with Chattanooga topping the list instead, Tennessee remained one of the three most heavily represented states on the list, the others being Kentucky and North Carolina. Each of these states contains three cities ranked within the top 20.
In addition, all but one city in the list's top 10 share a border with Tennessee, forming a snake-like belt across the Southeast.
Dale E. Jones, secretary-treasurer of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, one of the pioneers of the religious census, noted the importance of gathering such data.
"Religion is a major sociological phenomenon in any country," Jones said. "Whether you're attending or not attending tells you something about the culture."
Prior to 1950, religious data in the U.S. hadn't been gathered on the county level. ASARB began conducting religious censuses in 1950 and has since conducted one every decade.
Religious data for the census is gathered from more than 100 different religious groups across the country as well as from households at random. Notably, more populous cities were generally found less "Bible-minded."
The ABS' "Bible-mindedness" study was based upon data collected from the 2010 religious census conducted by the ASARB.
Criteria for qualifying as a "Bible-minded" person included whether or not the person had read the Bible in the past seven days, as well as the extent to which the person believes its accuracy.
In Eastern Tennessee, rises observed between the 2000 and 2010 censuses indicate an increase of 191,000 more people associating with a religious institution of some kind. Despite this growth, Jones says actual commitment levels to specific religious congregations has plateaued over the last decade, at best.
"Overall, religious organizations aren't building up much," Jones said. "They're convincing people to become part of their organizations. Some are gaining; some are losing, but the net is about the same as it was 10 years ago."
Although Kathleen Connelly, senior in philosophy, noted a "national trend" away from religious affiliation, she asserted the inability of this trend to account for the influence of regional culture and tradition.
"I think there's an important extent to which people in the South, and Appalachian people specifically, feel they need to retain a sense of identity that is distinct from a national American identity. An extent to which people feel like their identity is being threatened by the growing secularization of the United States."
Citizens of Appalachian Tennessee, like Chattanooga and Knoxville, Conelly suggested, "see religion as such an integral part of their identity in a way that people in the rest of the country might not." This disparity, she proposed, could account for Tennessee's overall high ranking.
"Despite the fact that nationally there is a trend toward secularization, I think locally there could be a trend in the reverse direction," Conelly said. "Because people are kind of clinging to this identity that they feel might be threatened.
The study, however, cannot account for the exact extent to which personal accounts align with truth. Across denominations, Christian devotees invest faith in the Bible to varying degrees.
A 2007 Gallup Poll reported a third of Americans believe the Bible to be literally true. That is, they believe the Bible to be "absolutely accurate and should be taken literally word for word." Of those claiming to attend church every week, 54 percent considered the Bible "the actual word of God." Church attendance was also highest in the South.
"It's important to recognize that some people say they're Christian and go to church," Jones said. "But when we ask the church, they don't know about them."
Conelly mentioned a recent investigation of New York's higher-than-expected ranking on the list that likely "distorted" results. Researchers, during their calls to subjects, did not make a distinction between the Torah and variations of scripture, thus skewing statistics. With a large Jewish population, New York ranked artificially high on the list.
But not all assumptions about America's cities align with collected data. Contrary to its name, Providence, R.I., was ranked the least "Bible-minded" city in America.