July 16, 2012

Approaches to Studying Irreligion and Secular Spirituality in the Pacific Northwest

by Dusty Hoesly

When scholars write about religion in the Pacific Northwest, they often claim that its defining feature is a lack of religion. In fact, one of the few book-length treatments of PNW religion is subtitled "The None Zone," a reference to the fact that nearly 25% of Oregonians and Washingtonians are unchurched and unaffiliated, or self-identify as not religious. (See Susanna Morrill’s Book of the Month post on that book here.) What's more, this has been the case historically, whereas states like New Hampshire and Vermont are only recently similarly irreligious. Those labeled by scholars as Nones are the largest bloc of respondents on social scientific surveys in the PNW.

Since no single religion dominated the region historically, there is no legacy of institutional affiliation or tradition that guides religious thinking or behavior. So what holds the region together? For most scholars, the rejection of institutional religion and a sense of place bind PNW cultural and spiritual identity. But what is the import of this rejection of religious identification? And what kind of spiritualities, values, and attitudes prevail amongst this heterogenous group?

In this post, I will summarize the work of several scholars who study (ir)religion in the PNW, and then offer some suggestions for future research.

Tina Block, Assistant Professor at Thompson Rivers University in Canada, offers a historical perspective in her essay "Religion, Irreligion, and the Difference Place Makes: The Case of the Postwar Pacific Northwest." For Block, during the post-World War II period, secularism came to be seen as an authentic part of PNW regional identity. PNW secularism is not a demographic but a cultural trend, one that was actively constructed by residents, she contends. Using newspapers, national surveys, church records, and oral interviews, Block traces the story of how sacred and secular are blurred in the PNW, and how irreligion came to be seen as a regional cultural marker. People across all gender, class, racial, and ethnic boundaries in the PNW are less religious than their counterparts in other regions. What unites these people is a sense of place that privileges cross-border interpenetration, high mobility rates, a myth of rugged individualism and independence, and the social acceptability of irreligiousness. In households and public constructions of the region's past and present, secularism became a hallmark of PNW culture in the social imaginary. In popular and academic representations of the PNW, writers ignore religion entirely or highlight the irreligiousness of the region.

Mark A. Shibley, Professor of Sociology at Southern Oregon University, has explored the spirituality of secular people in the PNW in several essays, combining sociological survey data and textual analysis of books written by regional authors. In "Secular but Spiritual in the Pacific Northwest," an essay in the volume Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone, Shibley contends that very few of the so-called Nones are actually atheists or agnostics. Rather, they largely fit into the squishy label "spiritual but not religious." Most Nones believe in God and miracles, according to survey data. These people experience the sacred in non-institutional forms through direct, personal experience. Shibley claims that "what is distinctive about religion in the Pacific Northwest is not the psychological orientation of individuals so much as social structural facts noted above--religious heterogeneity and low-affiliation rates" (141-142). He identifies three types of this secular spirituality: New Age and New Spirituality, nature and environmental religion, and anti-government apocalyptic survivalism. Connecting these strands are utopianism, millennialism, and dualism. Shibley reiterates similar themes in his essay "The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia," a chapter in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest. Here he explores New Spirituality and Earth-based religions, asserting that "[in] Cascadia alternative spirituality is popular religion" (37). For Shibley and other scholars, environmentalism is a sort of civil religion in the PNW, and sustainability is the credo. Elsewhere in Cascadia, in a chapter called "Mapping Spirituality and Values in the Elusive Utopia," sociologist Andrew Grenville similarly shows that Cascadians are more liberal, libertarian, laissez-faire, DIY, and utopian than other regions in Canada and the U.S. They combine privatized belief, institutional skepticism, and personal responsibility (DIY) into a general "live and let live" regional attitude.

Frank Pasquale, a research associate with the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College (Hartford, CT), has been researching the values and practices of self-identified hard secularists in Portland and Seattle for several years. Using ethnographic research and membership surveys of secularist organizations, Pasquale investigates those who self-identify as atheist or agnostic, who he calls Nots (rather than Nones). In "The 'Nonreligious' in the American Northwest," an essay in Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, Pasquale reports that 3-4% of Pacific Northwesterners are Nots, nearly double the national average. Most are white, male, middle-class, well-educated, liberal, and unmarried or without young children. Many interviewees and respondents express societal skepticism, metaphysical skepticism, a strong sense of individualism, wariness of dogmatism, and ambivalence about proselytizing of any particular view. Pasquale also observes that difficulties in data gathering occur, in part, because of a cultural stigma against atheists and the inconsistency of scholarly labeling (atheist, secular, skeptic, humanist, nonbeliever, etc.), problems that Pasquale tries to circumvent through participant observation and using subject-derived labels rather than scholar-imposed terms.

Monica R. Miller, a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow for Religious Studies at Lewis & Clark College, has begun a research project in 2010 called "Youth Culture & the Remaking of Religion in Portland, Oregon." Recognizing that institutional forms of religion are declining amongst American youth, even as subjective spirituality remains strong, this effort attempts to gather data from Portland youths about the kinds of religiosity that they practice, with a specific emphasis on material culture. Through ethnographic on-the-street interviews and a survey, Miller and her research associates are examining the everyday religiosities of PNW youths in coffee shops, tattoo parlors, nightclubs and bookstores. Using sophisticated understandings of constructions of what counts as "religion," Miller interrogates along with her subjects the meaning of religion, what it looks like in everyday life, and how humanism and religion often commingle. This work will culminate in a series of articles and a manuscript called Faith in the Flesh: Manufactured Zones of Insignificance.

These approaches, ranging from historical to sociological to anthropological, converge around a few themes. Each of these scholars agree that religion looks different in the PNW, that irreligion is hallmark of the region, that secularity commingles with spirituality in personally meaningful ways, that secularism is a normative presence rather than the mere absence of religion, and that nature is a powerful element in PNW religious identity. There are some directions that future research should investigate.

Future scholarship should examine more fully the commingling of sacred and secular, carefully noting how conceptions of religiosity and spirituality are defined differently by scholars and by subjects themselves, and how various labels can overlap. For example, some evangelical emerging church folks may self-identify as Christian but also as "spiritual, but not religious." Others may claim to be both atheist and Buddhist, or agnostic and Catholic. And curiously absent is the contingent of folks who claim to be apathetic about religion; do they fit into scholarly boxes such as atheist, agnostic, spiritual, etc.? Scholars should begin with subjects' own views and language about what experiences they deem special, sacred, or extraordinary, and then proceed to develop scholarly categories based on these first-order terms, rather than imposing labels upon subjects who must check boxes which are more convenient for researchers than messy but accurate descriptors of individuals' beliefs and practices.

Definitions of secular and sacred are messy and interpenetrating, and scholars must dig into the nitty-gritty to get at where the people are to see their everyday spiritualities. In what ways is a search for authenticity similar to a spiritual seeking, while also a critique of institutional forms of religion? How does the region's DIY culture relate to creativity and homegrown spiritual renewal? Does the region's artisanal and craft traditions influence religious and spiritual attitudes? How are popular cultural norms integrated with or divergent from religious identities? And if consumption is also production in the postmodern age and in the PNW, how is this dynamic reflected in the region?

Few scholars have examined race and religion in the Pacific Northwest. In what ways are indigenous and Asian religions, for example, appropriated in the PNW, and are these appropriations different than in other regions? Do Asian American religiosities look the same in the PNW as in California or New York or Atlanta? What is the history of interactions between white supremacist religions in the region and other religious groups? What are the specific issues Native American religionists face? Why are racial minority groups similarly less religious than their counterparts in other regions?

Scholars also under-emphasize the cultural and religious divide between the more urban and liberal parts of Oregon and Washington, which lie west of the Cascade mountain range, and the more rural and conservative parts east of the mountains. When scholars explore the irreligiousness of the PNW, they are largely talking about Portland, Seattle, and other major urban centers rather than the smaller communities that comprise most of each state's geography. A fuller exploration of PNW religion must head east from the cities. Other comparisons could be made between the historically low-affiliation rates in the PNW with the recent surge of secularism in New England states like Vermont and New Hampshire. In what ways does secularism in the two regions look similar or different?

Mount Hood, Oregon.  Photograph by Julie Kelly, via National Geographic
Lastly, despite what many commentators claim, the natural beauty of the PNW is not a singular explanation for its lack of institutional religious affiliation. Few, if any, empirical studies include data about the proclivity of Pacific Northwesterners towards nature and environmental religion. This argument, instead, rests mostly on anecdotal evidence. Similarly, when scholars argue that PNW regional religious identity rests on a sense of place, they often suggest that this sense of place is stronger and more defining than in other regions of the U.S. But this claim seems dubious to me. Anyone reading Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, or Terry Tempest Williams will clearly see a sense of place pervading their conceptions of their regions, and no less strongly than in the PNW. Natural beauty and a sense of place are not enough to distinguish PNW religiosity from the rest of the country. To hear many scholars tell it, PNW mountain ranges are responsible for the region's secularism and its sacredness. Instead, scholars need to examine how constructions of nature and wilderness contribute to the creation of a secular regional identity.

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