A south Oregon town is a magnet for spiritual seekers who reject mainstream religion but are searching for enlightenment
ASHLAND, Ore. – In Ashland, North America’s newest spiritual mecca, the well-off, educated residents who fill the coffee bars, boutiques and healing centers do not see themselves as mere Americans. They see themselves as citizens of a sacred cosmos.
In this idyllic town of 20,000 in the isolated south of Oregon, it seems almost more difficult to find someone who hasn’t written a book on spirituality than someone who has.
This new wave of Oregon seekers contains adamant critics of their federal government. They’re convinced American culture is a violent wasteland. And they tend to roundly condemn organized religion, particularly President Bush’s evangelical Christianity, as “exclusivist.”
At the very least, Ashland — which until recently was most renowned for its 7-decades-old Shakespeare Festival — may have joined Sedona, Ariz., and Boulder, Colo., as the continent’s top centers for alternative religion.
It is a quaint, European-looking community of artists and the educated, but spiritual seekers who are flocking to this remote resort town in the soft-green Cascade Mountains, 200 miles south of Portland and 350 miles north of San Francisco, say they believe they’re looking at paradise on Earth.
There are 15 coffee shops, countless boutiques, numerous outdoor restaurants, spas, poetry groups and a dizzying assortment of therapy centers, says Bob Paterson, owner of the well-stocked Blue Dragon secondhand bookstore. For his part, Paterson was into alchemy when he moved to Ashland, and now he’s into aikido, a martial art.
Despite the city’s relative isolation, housing prices are high: The average price (in 2003, using statistics from the Southern Oregon Multiple Listing Service) is about $300,000. People who work in the service industry struggle to find affordable housing here.
Southern Oregon University is in Ashland, and the city’s artistic life is vibrant. It’s not uncommon to see musicians, jesters and actors wandering in costume through the bustling streets.
President Bush’s re-election campaign is toast here, Paterson says, pointing to bumper stickers like the one that reads “Drop Bush, Not Bombs.” The Ashland-based National Public Radio station, one of the most popular in the country, frequently hosts New Age speakers and recently advanced the book The New Pearl Harbor by Claremont Graduate University religion professor David Ray Griffin, who writes that the Bush administration may have allowed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to occur.
Like one of Ashland’s famous leading lights, Neale Donald Walsch, author of Conversations With God, many folks in Ashland believe the rat-racing, polluted outside world is headed for doom. They have come to Ashland for the region’s Mediterranean-like air and to live closer to Mother Earth.
Judy Honore, the blond, bubbly owner of Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, says, “I stopped going to Catholic Church. The ocean became my religion. When I snorkel, I marvel at the variety of fish.
“I’m not into Jesus, Buddha and Moses,” Honore says. “When I die, I figure there will be a lot of room in heaven for all of us.”
The dozens of big-name spiritual authors who have moved to this town have together sold more than 10 million copies of their books, books with titles like The Seat of the Soul and A Mythic Life: Learning To Live Our Greater Story.
In many ways the soft-spoken residents of Ashland typify the spiritual personality of Cascadia, the rugged expanse of evergreen forest that stretches from Oregon through Washington to the Canadian province of British Columbia. But the spiritual visionaries who are making Ashland their home are having an effect elsewhere, too.
The region’s gurus are headed by Walsch, who says Conversations With God was dictated to him by the Supreme Being. It was on The New York Times’ bestseller list for more than 140 weeks.
Ashland is also home to venerable psychotherapist Jean Houston, who guided Hillary Rodham Clinton in a conversation with the late Eleanor Roosevelt. And there are rumors from Walsch’s camp that his friend Deepak Chopra, head of a veritable spiritual empire, is on his way.
Other big New Age names include Gary Zukav, author of the multiyear bestseller The Seat of the Soul, as well as James Twyman and mystical film producer Stephen Simon. The shelves of the city’s many bookstores are peppered with dozens of tags boasting “Local Author.”
But nothing reveals more about the eclectic religious personality of Cascadia than the growing presence of “the Nones.”
In fact, the Northwest is at the forefront in representing what scholars are calling the fastest-growing “religious” group on the continent: people who declare they have no religion.
In the United States, the percentage of people who say they have no religion, or “Nones,” doubled in the past decade to 14 percent. In the same period in Canada, the figure rose from 11 percent to 16 percent.
In the Northwest, the “Nones” are stronger than anywhere else on the continent. In Oregon, the percentage of residents who claim to have no religion is 21 percent. In Washington state, the religious “Nones” account for 25 percent. In British Columbia, it’s 35 percent. It would be safe to say Cascadia has a much higher proportion of people who basically dismiss religion as too authoritarian, divisive and doctrinaire.
But their widespread disapproval of formal religion belies the intense spirituality fermenting on the Northwest coast. This is a region where the so-called nonreligious have definitely not given up on searching for divinity.
And Cascadia has become a fertile land for often-contentious new religions. Oregon and Washington have been home to the Rajneesh commune, psychedelic guru Ken Kesey, the original Unification Church (the Moonies), long-established pagan groups and Ramtha, the 35,000-year-old warrior who speaks his wisdom through a former housewife.
Releasing themselves from the religious shackles of the past, for good or ill, many residents of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia have been promoting a fluid, freedom-loving, highly personal mysticism. And they don’t care if they’re regarded as more than a little flaky.
“It’s still the frontier here. Different people for different reasons have come here seeking Eden,” says Mark Shibley, a noted professor of religion at Southern Oregon University.