BIRMINGHAM, ALA. -- God only knows who gets to heaven, but the Southern Baptists estimate 46.1 percent of Alabamans risk going to hell.

Since the figure from church research on potentially doomed souls was made public, it is Baptists who are feeling the fire, however.

The Southern Baptist Convention's county-by-county breakdown of who's bound for heaven and who isn't -- unless they are born again and accept Jesus Christ as their savior -- hit the Birmingham News on Sept. 5. It's been the buzz in some Alabama pews ever since.

Under the headline "Baptists Count the Lost," the front-page story included a detailed map and box listing the 1.86 million "unsaved" by county in precise percentages.

The Baptists said the numbers were only a guide on where to establish new churches and find more followers.

But some of the faithful, Baptists as well as others, are incensed.

"It is the pinnacle of presumptuousness to construct a formula for quantifying the unsaved," Jack Denver of Homewood, a self-described "practicing Christian" wrote in a letter that was among about a dozen the newspaper published from irate readers.

The Southern Baptists have done such demographic research for years, said Martin King, a spokesman for the denomination's Atlanta-based Home Mission Board, which compiled the study and has national figures he would not disclose.

King added that the Baptists do not claim to be passing judgment.

"We don't know who's lost and who's saved," King said. "All we know is that as we understand the doctrine of salvation, a lot of people are lost."

But being lost means going to hell, King said, and he understands why others are upset with the list.

"People take offense when we say, according to Scripture, if you have not accepted Jesus as your personal lord and savior, you are not going to heaven," he said. "They don't like hearing that they're not going to heaven."

Still some are asking whether America's largest Protestant denomination, with close to 15 million followers, is trying to play God instead of preaching the Gospel. It seemed especially insulting in this Bible Belt state where religion may be the only thing more sacred than college football.

The Rev. Patrick Cullen of the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Birmingham said Roman Catholics viewed the index with amusement more than anything else.

"One gentleman leaving church last Sunday said we should get T-shirts saying, 'I'm one of the 46 percent,' " Cullen said. About 3 percent of Alabama's 4 million residents are Catholic.

The Rev. Mickey Morgan of the First United Methodist Church of Birmingham said Friday his denomination places more importance on individuals and God relating in their own ways.

"I think God is more interested in making sure everyone is in a right relationship to each other and to God than in tallying up the lost," Morgan said.

The study took each county's population and subtracted from it membership of all churches. After that, Baptist researchers used a secret formula to estimate how many people from different denominations and faiths were probably going to heaven.

King said estimates of the unsaved from other creeds were based on how closely those groups' beliefs matched Southern Baptist doctrine. That means, for instance, that a higher percentage of Methodists are saved than are Roman Catholics, according to the study.

The index applied the traditional Baptist view that Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and members of other non-Christian religions are not saved, the paper said.

Virtually everyone not belonging to a church congregation was counted among the lost, King said.

The Rev. Thomas Rainer, pastor of the Green Valley Baptist Church in Hoover and the mission board's Alabama representative, said he was amazed by the fuss.

"It has a good motive behind it, and that is not one of judging, but of reaching," he said.