Godless in Cascadia
by Knute Berger
An incarnation of the Church of Light in Ibaraki-shi, Osaka, Japan. (Wikimedia Commons)
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.