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We're irreligious out here, but be not proud

Both Alaska and the New England states outdo Oregon and Washington in ranking low on the religiosity scale. A new survey finds that belief correlates strongly with Red states.

Just as it appears that the defining political issues of 2010 will be the "tea party" agenda of government spending and regulation, health-care reform, and anything that emerges from the mouth of President Obama, along comes the Pew Forum on Religious Life to remind us just how much our godliness (or lack thereof) divides the nation.

The Pew Forum, which has been tracking American religious habits since 2001, recently published a state-by-state report called "How Religious Is Your State?" Predictably, perhaps, it found that the Pacific Northwest is near the bottom of the religiosity scale, with Washington ranked 36th and Oregon 40th of 46 rankings (some smaller states were combined, leaving 46).

Sounds like the "None Zone," the subtitle of a 2004 comprehensive study of religion in this region by Pacific Lutheran University Provost Patricia Killen, who found 63 percent of Northwesterners had no religious affiliation (compared to 41 percent nationally) and 25 percent had no religious identity (compared to 14 percent nationally). Both Killen and Pew caution against over-interpretation of this data, noting new forms of spirituality play a role in this region and a relatively low number of respondents are atheists.

The latest Pew survey does reinforce, however, the consistent fault line between "blue" and "red" states in terms of religion.

Red states, the hard core of the Republican Party in its current incarnation, dominate the "religiosity" scale, with Mississippi, Alabama, and other Southern states ranking highest. And states low on the scale, with the rogue state of Alaska the outlier, are nearly all safely in the Democratic column. It may be one of the truest ways to define the differences between Americans in the new century.

Asking people to define how important religion is in their lives, the average among the 46 "states" was 56 percent. Of the 20 states with higher numbers, all would be considered Republican states in terms of the last three national elections. In contrast, of the 24 ranking below the national average, only three (Alaska, Montana/Wyoming, and Arizona) would be considered Republican strongholds.

Similar rankings prevailed for Pew questions regarding worship attendance, frequency of prayer, and belief in God "with absolute certainty."

As for the Pacific Northwest's reputation as the "None Zone," is appears to be in some danger: Washington and Oregon on all four Pew questions ranked as more religious than the odd-couple combination of Alaska and New England.

Now, if Pew or some other organization can just come up with a survey that combines environmentalism and religion, perhaps the Pacific Northwest can vault itself into the ranks of godliness currently dominated by other parts of the nation.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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