World's Most Religiously Diverse Community in Small Georgia Town
The small town of Delia, Georgia, has become the world's most religiously diverse community, containing twenty-four thousand and five religious or spiritual groups among its twenty-four thousand residents.
While the exact count shifts daily, estimates place the breakdown of major belief systems as roughly representative of the world's as a whole, with about thirty percent Christian, twenty-three percent Muslim, fifteen percent Hindu, seven percent Buddhist, three percent with no religious affiliation, and two percent “other.” Such figures not only grossly generalize, but they also obscure the Venn diagram overlap between various meta-groups. The clearest such example is the messianic Sunnis, who fall toward the liberal side of Islam but revere Jesus Christ as the son of God. Another example are the pagans who claim to worship the Buddha within a Japanese red maple tree currently for sale at Woodard's Nursery. The Theravada and Tibetan Buddhists oppose such a belief, the Wiccans find it oddly specific, and the Zen Buddhists seem genuinely confused.
One explanation for the panoply of religions might be the high turnover rate experienced in each. Dr. Laura Holcomb, a cultural anthropologist from Mercer University who is studying the town, initially experienced an anxiety relapse when all of her qualitative subjects changed religions—some twice—in the same week. “I still had tapes to transcribe. I had stacks of books on Mithra cults and Edgar Casey to research simply for background when—poof!—half of them came in barefoot, claiming to be Franciscans,” she said. When Dr. Holcomb recovered, she began finding patterns in the frequent migration. “It's a buffet out there,” she said. “Starting Friday night with the calls to prayer, the whole weekend is like a carnival of gods: dervishes, public recitations of Scripture, fêtes, ascetic processions, moral protests, moral counter-protests, political street-theater, ganja smoke-ins, formations of tai chi practitioners, ritual baths in the lake, baptisms of every kind, weddings of every description. To stay with only one requires either enormous dedication or a severe lack of curiosity.” When asked about her own affiliation, Dr. Holcomb shrugged, blushed, and simply said, “I'm Catholic.”
In spite of the intense variation, Dr. Holcomb's findings suggest odd synchronizations across religious lines. Conversions spike in the first weeks of spring, for example, usually skewing to the pagan faiths. Alternatively, in the winter months, people change religions at only twice the normal rate of the overall United States. A fledgling study of Dr. Holcomb's study, “The Heavens Above: Charting Religious Conversion and Weather Patterns in 'Pandora's, Jesus', & Shiva's Box: Varieties of Religious Belief in Delia, Georgia,'” finds that the turnover correlates with incoming pressure fronts. In addition, an epidemiologist from UGA is working on research that suggests changes in religion follow a viral outbreak pattern; his colleague, a chaos theorist, has set out to map conversions on a Poisson distribution.
Among the variables Dr. Holcomb studied was the town's violent crime rate as correlated with religious activity. “To the relief of my more religious researchers,” she said, “the average rate of violence over three years did not deviate very far from that of nearby, less religiously diverse but otherwise comparable towns. That is, except for the extremist spikes.” The spikes Dr. Holcomb refers to are instances of individual or group violence deemed “ideological in nature.” “Three a year,” she said. “In April two years of the three. Otherwise, it was random.” When asked about the nature of the perpetrators, Dr. Holcomb explained, “The violent groups, the really hateful ones, come out of nowhere and usually die out once the incident has happened, after everyone gets arrested. If they do remain, they aren't nearly as active. I bet with more data, I could even spot them before the incidents—but at that point, what could you really do about it?” Further pressed on the types of faith that produced the violent groups, Dr. Holcomb tersely explained that the uniting factors among the violent groups are a cult-like insularity and feelings of opposition to the overall society. “Groups feeling like the whole world is going to hell, I see plenty of those every day. It's when they start rejecting that world, dehumanizing the people who they feel oppose them, that's one of the warning signs,” she said.
But those instances of terror fail to cloud the wonder Dr. Holcomb feels in this vibrant town. “I'm living in a dream,” she said, “where it's like all the souls of these people, their hearts, their joy and sorrow, are turned inside-out for all to see. Sometimes I remember with awe that the world is like this—it's overwhelming. I think I know what Edgar Mitchell meant when he looked back on the earth from Apollo 14, seeing it without any national map lines, just a blue and white and green marble, and he thought, 'That's home.' That's what I feel like, that somehow this is home, strange as it is.”
On only one day, May 3 of last year, did more than ninety-nine percent of Delia residents convert to a single faith. Although the phenomenon was over by sundown, Delia's tiny Episcopal church experienced its biggest attendance (and offering) to date.
Jackson Culpepper grew up in the South and is just fine being stuck with it. His work struggles with the contradictions of the region–pastoral beauty versus violence, community versus religiosity–to find ways that these struggles are everywhere, but only more visible in the South and its stories. He currently lives with his wife, Margaret Culpepper, two horses, and two dogs in east Tennessee.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEIT OSADCHUK