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Godless in Cascadia

What are the public policy implications of living in the None Zone, where religious affiliations are limited? A comparison between New England and the Northwest offers hints.
An incarnation of the Church of Light in Ibaraki-shi, Osaka, Japan. (Wikimedia Commons)

An incarnation of the Church of Light in Ibaraki-shi, Osaka, Japan. (Wikimedia Commons) None

The Pacific Northwest is known as the "None Zone" for its high percentage of people who say they aren't affiliated with any religious group: nearly two-thirds. Twenty-five percent of people in Washington, Oregon and Alaska say they have no religion at all. The numbers are even higher in British Columbia. Nones are the largest "religious" category in the region. And the numbers of the non-religious are growing here and elsewhere. In 1990, 8 percent of Americans claimed full non-religious None status. Today, it's around 15 percent.

Recent results have shown a surge of Nones in New England, land of the Pilgrim's pride. The biggest None state is Vermont, with more than a third of the population, 34 percent, having no religion. This number leaves the U.S. portion of the Pacific Northwest in the dust, yet if you add in all the New England states, including those with large Catholic populations like Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, the upper left hand corner still beats the right on the overall percentage of the non-belongers.

One question that came up at this week's (April 22) conference at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, "Cascadia: Religion, Spirituality and Community in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia" was, who are the Nones and are there any differences between them. In other words, are Cascadia's unchurched the same as New England's? Both far corners of the country have a history of independence and progressiveness, and environmental concern (from Thoreau to William O. Douglas). Are Nones the same everywhere?

Mark Silk, director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, laid out a few facts and theories. For one thing, in sketching the profile of Nones, they tend to be male and young, but in the Pacific Northwest, they're not as young nor are they over-educated. In other words, non-religious independents here tend to be a mainstream group reflective of the region's general demographics. NW Noneness is normal, not anomalous. Also, nationally, Nones are well represented among whites, African Americans, Asians and Latinos. The growth of Nones has been in every state and every racial group. It is no fringe phenomenon.

So are Nones the same everywhere? Silk says not necessarily. For example, he points to two political issues that, it could be argued, suggest that New England Nones and Northwest Nones come in different flavors. Both issues are ones that might find greater resistance in states where religious adherents are in larger numbers.

In New England, for example, same-sex marriage is being legalized. It was signed into law in Vermont and is recognized in Massachusetts and Connecticut. It has not been implemented yet in any Northwest state. On the other hand, the only two states in the country that have legalized assisted suicide are Washington and Oregon. We lag behind on gay marriage, but are way out front on the right to die. Why?

Silk theorizes that New England Nones come from a tradition of egalitarianism and that there is sympathy across the political spectrum for laws that are equalizers. Marriage equality would have that kind of appeal. In Vermont, both Republicans and Democrats supported making it legal.

In the Northwest, however, we have a strong strain of frontier libertarianism still, an attitude that also bridges traditional party affiliations. There's a suspicion of authority and institutions, not simply religious ones. Community, nurtured in New England, is somewhat suspect here, but arguments in favor of giving an individual control over his or her fate with legalized suicide would have strong appeal.

So while Nones, from New England's town hall communitarians to the Pacific Northwest's Microsoft libertarians, might agree that answers to civic issues won't be found in church or the Bible, that doesn't mean they have identical public policy priorities.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Apr 23, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

It's interesting to learn that the national percentage of "nones" has doubled since the heyday of the Moral Majority. Certainly intolerant bible-thumpers are finally overstaying their welcome, just as the "revolutionaries" of the 1960s did before them. People in these types of movements never seem to realize that you can't simultaneously demonize and convert the members of a society that you find distasteful.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Apr 23, 11:18 a.m. Inappropriate

There are some interesting ideas about why Nones are growing, according to Mark Silk.

One is that fewer people have been raised with strong religious identities and that with the rise of general spiritual seeking and non-denominational churches, religion is seen as something you choose, rather than something you're stamped with as a youth. People once might have said, "Well, I was raised Methodist so I guess that's what I am." Now they say, "I was raised Methodist, but I'm not sure what I am now." They haven't yet made an affirmative choice.

Also, Silk says the politicization of religion and politics in the '90s may have made people wary of declaring an affiliation. To say what your religion is might convey of political beliefs and attitudes that you don't actually share, or simply might feel uncomfortable having people know. To say you're a Christian might imply that you are a right-wing, homophobic Republican evangelist, for example. Not necessarily true, but who wants to have to explain all that? Americans are often reluctant to declare political affiliations, considering themselves open-minded and independent. In this way, the movement to merge politics and religion could have driven some people away from organized religion and/or made them reluctant to take on the baggage of bias that comes along with making an affirmative religious declaration.

Posted Thu, Apr 23, 8:46 p.m. Inappropriate

I think one thing folks fail to recognize is that sometimes indicating "none" merely means "none that I want to share with you." Also, there's a good share of folks who, despite having a sense of spirituality, just don't feel it's necessary to go to a place to share that with others once or more a week. These are the kind of things it's very hard to pin down with a survey.

debbalee

Posted Fri, Apr 24, 8:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Well written article on an interesting subject. I didn't know the number of Nones is growing nationally. Also, I hadn't noticed the egalitarian emphasis in the Northeast and the libertarian streak in the Northwest.

I would be sad to be labeled a "None", and I'm utterly confounded by the "right to die." These well meaning people need to hire a marketing firm.

billw

Posted Fri, Apr 24, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Billw, I also was surprised by the description of the Northwest as "libertarian." Most of my close friends lean libertarian, but ever since high school we've been a fringe element looking on in awe and disgust as our fellow citizens continue to elect folks who wish to make practically everything we do illegal or compulsory. I'll grant that Washington has more libertarians than most states, but try as we might, we seem to have little practical influence in a political system so heavily dominated by the boutique socialists of Seattle.

dbreneman

Posted Fri, Apr 24, 8:45 a.m. Inappropriate

skip k.o.b...... i was born and raised in toledo, ohio. my parents raised me to be a catholic priest, and to read books, even as a little boy. i spent 4 years in a lovely, poor, 400 acre wooded franciscan monastery, mount saint francis, mostly socializing and reading. although i didn't have words for it i had moved into a different intellectual space that those around me: there is no god or, even bed, god is life.

i left the monastery and, eventually moved to seattle. at the university book store i stumbled on the gia fu feng and jance english translation of the tao te ching. from that moment to this i love asian philosophy and poetry. the only thing that i knew about china in the midwest was chop suey, and about japan was world war ii. i am surrounded by folks with diverse identifies who are strongly influenced by asian and native american spiritual attitudes. asia is huge here.

it's interesting that one of the first major influences on the arrival of asian philosophy and creativity in the u.s. was kenneth rexroth who spent his teen years in toledo, ohio. rexroth, by then living and encouraging the beat poets in san francisco and recognized as a well knows poet and translator, took a teenage sam hamill under his wing. sam eventually moved to port townsend where he continued his lovely translations of japanese and chinese poetry and philosophy and, with tree swenson, started copper canyon press, the premier poetry press in the u.s.

after all of these years and folks like rexroth & hamill, and the gentle arrival of zen priests, and the obvious influence of a huge asian immigrant community, the west coast has a large asian influence. monotheism, and the idea of the trune god, is really incidental to asian conceptual life. when i moved to seattle from ohio i came home.

lipotufu

Posted Sat, Apr 25, 12:31 a.m. Inappropriate

I see where you're coming from regarding Northwest libertarianism versus Northeast egalitarianism. The latter, though, is being preached all over Seattle — along with the gospel of community, institutions, and, yes, authority — and one would think the true libertarian position on marriage would be to get the state out of it entirely. If that's going too far, then the libertarian position would seem to be removing reference to sex from the statute and letting any two (or more?) consenting adults enter into the contract. The Northwest libertarian streak explains the passage of I-1000 (I hear the first two prescriptions have just been filled) but not the failure of gay marriage to gain acceptance just yet.

Fascinating topic, though, especially to me as one of these "Nones." I would love to see figures on whether people consider themselves Methodist Nones, Jewish Nones, Catholic Nones, etc., or simply Nones.

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