Just say 'none'

Looking for values among America's least-churched – the people of the Northwest.
Crosscut archive image.
Looking for values among America's least-churched – the people of the Northwest.

What is the None Zone? It's a term coined by religious researchers who reported in 2004 that the Pacific Northwest – Washington, Oregon and Alaska – is the only part of the U.S. where a majority of people (more than 60 percent) check "none of the above" when asked their religious affiliation. That compares with 40 percent nationally. And nearly one-third say they are purely secular "humanists" or have no religion at all. That compares with 19 percent nationally and a mere 11 percent in the South.

In short, the None Zone is the opposite of the Bible Belt.

Seattle has gained a reputation as a particularly godless corner of the None Zone. For a time last summer, the most-watched video on the Seattle Channel Web site was a Town Hall lecture by Christopher Hitchens about his provocatively titled book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

During the City Council races last fall, candidate Tim Burgess was put on the defensive for being a Christian "values" voter. In Seattle, that made him suspect despite his liberal, green, and pro-gay politics. And in November, Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist D. Parvaz was excoriated by right-wing Web sites and the Fox TV crowd for seeming to condone "church burning" in a piece about a self-proclaimed performance artist who was alleged to have contemplated torching a church for the sake of "art." One Northwest Republican blogger concluded that Parvaz "obviously hates Christians." Though a complete misreading of what Parvaz said, it fit the image that liberal Seattle's idea of religious tolerance is to tolerate people who would burn churches.

Seattle and the Northwest are not completely irreligious. There are plenty of Catholics and Protestants, and there's a yeasty fermentation in the number of evangelical entrepreneurs, New Age groups, neo-pagans, and other nonmainstream religious groups that call the area home. The West has always been ripe for religious and utopian experiments. And many Nones still profess a belief in God. They may not sit in a pew on Sunday, but most aren't atheists. They may simply be skeptics of organized religion.

Perhaps the largest contingent of Nones are nature worshippers. In an article on specific Northwest religious trends, called "Secular But Spiritual," Mark Shibley of Southern Oregon University wrote that "nothing is more central to Northwest nature religion than the idea of wilderness." Preserving wilderness, therefore, is a sacred act. As a result, he says, "Much contemporary environmentalism in the Northwest is a religious system." You get a sense of that zeal in the growing movement led by Al Gore, Greg Nickels, and others to save the world from the apocalypse of global warming.

The source of Seattle values would be a private matter if it wasn't for the city's widespread cultural and technological influence; it matters to people everywhere if Microsoft supports gay rights or whether Starbucks shows a mermaid's bare breasts on its logo (it once did, but no longer).

Few expect perfect moral behavior from corporate players – heaven help you if you raised your child to be like Boeing, a company that has a history of bullying and cheating to get what it wants. But knowing the source of a company's values can offer insights into its behavior. Newspaper and magazine columnist (and founder of Microsoft's Slate magazine) Michael Kinsley says that Ayn Rand is popular at Microsoft. She was an atheist who originated the philosophy of Objectivism and touted the virtues of selfishness and dog-eat-dog competition. No wonder she's the darling of Redmond's chosen.

Another reason values matter: Seattle is a biotech research center, and we stand at the threshold of fundamentally changing the world with cloning, gene manipulation, nanotechnology, the wiring of human brains, the impact of new drugs, and genetic treatments. We also are home to global organizations that will spread these techniques and technologies to the world. What do these people who carry our future in their hands ask themselves when they go into work each day? "What would Jesus do?" "What would the Dalai Lama do?" "What would Ayn Rand do?" "What would Gaia do?" "What would Darwin do?"

Here in the None Zone, there is no single answer, but the answers are still important.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.