July 2, 2012

Book of the Month:

Patricia O'Connell Killen and Mark Silk, eds., Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone

Review by Susanna Morrill

Like magma from below the religion’s volcanoes, religion in the Pacific Northwest is an energetic, viscous fluid that is capable of altering the public landscape, galvanizing citizens for action, but not in ways easily predicted or directed by leaders of religious organizations (18).
With these words, Patricia O’Connell Killen sums up the religious landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Having lived in the Northwest for the past eight years, for me, this simile effectively captures religion’s complicated presence here. As the editors and authors of this 2004 volume note, about 63% of the region’s population (Oregon, Washington, and Alaska) remain unaffiliated with any religious institution and no one institutional religious tradition dominates (or has ever dominated) the region, as is the norm in other areas of the country (22). Yet Northwesterners live, act, and talk in ways that are profoundly religious. A fascinating problem: How do we as teachers and scholars understand and study regional religious expressions that are so fluid and non-institutional? This is the task that the authors of The None Zone tackle with great success and in short order (the book is only 202 pages, including appendix and index). I used the book as an effective backbone for an upper level course on religions of the Pacific Northwest and, at the same time, it has provided a starting point for my own research on religion in the Northwest.

Killen, Silk, and their host of authors offer to students and researchers scholarly tools—good tools—to use, to change, to challenge. By creating some guiding categories and concepts, they establish a concrete starting point for understanding religious life in the Pacific Northwest. Of particular help is how they breakdown the religious landscape of the Northwest into four broad streams: fading semi-establishment religions, “sectarian entrepreneurs,” religions of the Pacific Rim, and those who identify as secular, but spiritual. With these categories they begin to capture the viscous, hidden, and flexible religious reality of the region.

The book has an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion written by various scholars who live and work in Oregon and Washington. As with all the books in this “Religion by Region” series (edited by Mark Silk and Andrew Walsh), much of the data used in the book is derived from the North American Religions Atlas (generated in 2000 from responses by religious groups) and the American Religious Identification Survey (generated in 2001 from responses by individuals).

However, the authors take both historical and sociological approaches to the material. Initially a bit disconcerting, I found these variegated methodologies worked extremely well in the classroom. They provoked students to think critically about the advantages and disadvantages of historical and sociological approaches to understanding religious life in this region and, more generally, to studying religion. Killen and Mark Shibley, for instance, give us the sociological, religious, and cultural lay of the land in the first chapter, emphasizing the region’s peculiarity: that “nones,” (those who claim no religious affiliation or identification) make up almost a quarter of the population in Oregon and Washington, a rate much higher than the national 14% (41). In the second chapter, Dale E. Soden offers a history of the semi-establishment religions of the Pacific Northwest: Catholicism, mainline Protestants, and Reform and Conservative Jews. The fact that the establishment religion is actually a grouping of three disparate, often conflicting religions demonstrates the historical religious heterogeneity of the region. James Wellman, using interviews with clergy, creates a profile of the regionally surging “sectarian entrepreneurs,” mostly non-denominational and Holiness/Pentecostal evangelicals who effectively employ business models and media communications (80). Lance D. Laird writes about religions of the Pacific Rim, skillfully combining in his discussion Native American traditions; traditions from East, Southeast, and South Asia; and religion of the Pacific Islands. Shibley takes up the formidable task of capturing and talking about those who claim to be secular but spiritual, those people taking full advantage the opportunities offered to them in the “open religious market” of the Pacific Northwest: New Age adherents, anti-government groups, and those engaging in “earth-centered spirituality” (140, 142). Killen finishes the book summarizing what has gone before, suggesting future avenues of research, and offering concluding insights on the material.

Occasionally, the brevity of the book detracts from the overall success of it. The main focus of the book is Oregon and Washington. Alaska is rarely mentioned beyond the introductory, contextualizing chapter and, when it is, the mentions are brief and not very elucidating. Within the larger series, this grouping seems like the best home for Alaska, but, at the same time, the little information we have suggests that Alaska is different enough from Oregon and Washington that it may deserve its own chapters or parts within the book. Native traditions in Alaska have a wider and weightier public presence than they do in Oregon and Washington (15.6% of the population in Alaska is of Native American or Alaskan Native heritage compared to less than 2% of the population in Oregon and Washington), while the long history of Orthodox Christianity in the state deserves a more in-depth and extended treatment (106). My sense is that there is simply not a lot of scholarship on religion in Alaska. In general, Native American traditions get short shrift in the book. Lance D. Laird successfully finds similarities in the influential yet peripheral status of Native American and Asian religions, but otherwise these religious traditions are different enough that they do not fit together completely comfortably in one chapter.

The category of “nones” is perhaps most exciting for scholars of Northwest religious life. Killen wonders if they are manifestations of the process of secularization and/or if they represent a new kind of modern American religiosity. This is a pertinent question in the present day when, nationally, more and more people identify with this moniker. Can the religious history of the Northwest help to illuminate these national trends? Is the region a kind of religious frontier that will send eastward missionaries of a new religious expression, Whitmans of the “none”-based spirituality? Can scholars of this region’s religious life discover valuable questions and concepts that will help illuminate this growing trend in the religious landscape of the U.S.? This book asks and provokes important questions. It is a valuable tool in the classroom and serves as the base of what I hope will be a burgeoning scholarship on the religious life of the Northwest, a scholarship that, in turn, may help us better understand larger trends within the religious landscape of the country.

Editor’s note: Have you read this book? What do you think about it? Join the conversation and leave your thoughts in the comments! If you have a suggestion for a future book of the month, or if you would like to review a book for the book of the month series, please contact us. Next month, Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp reviews Hokulani K. Aikau’s A Chosen People, a Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai'i (University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

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