Survey finds faiths, practices far more diverse than U.S. as a whole

Alternative religions really do thrive in Marin
San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 2, 2002
Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer

The Good Book is old hat in Marin County, where the teachings of Gautama Buddha and a host of New Age spiritualists are beginning to eclipse the Bible as the most prevalent guidebook for a better life.

A recently released survey by San Francisco’s Institute of Jewish and Community Research shows that a far higher percentage of people in Marin County than in the rest of the country embrace alternative religions or no religion at all.

The findings, gathered from random telephone interviews of 604 people in April and May of 2000, do not mean the famously wealthy and liberal suburban county is full of barefoot pagans wearing robes and worshiping in the woods. But the study suggests the county would not be a bad place to start looking if one were trying to find people of that spiritual bent.

“There are all these conjectures about Marin and the Bay Area being a different kind of place socially, politically, ideologically, and that’s certainly borne out in this study,” said Gary Tobin, who, with Patricia Y.C.E. Lin, conducted the study for the institute. “People in Marin are much more open and share different definitions of belief, of a higher power, of God and nature. I think it lends credence to the notion that openness and change are the norms in this community.”

The Institute of Jewish and Community Research is a nationally respected research organization that conducts scientific studies on American religion, often, but not always, in the context of its relationship to Judaism.

The survey, which has a 5 percent margin of error, shows that in virtually every category, people in Marin outpace the rest of the nation in their lack of enthusiasm for traditional Western religions.

There are more people — 23 percent — who put “other” as their religious preference than there are Jews or Catholics in Marin. The “others” are just behind Protestants — 27 percent — as the most popular religion in the county.

Of those surveyed, 15 percent said they had no religious preference, compared with 6 percent with no preference in a nationwide Gallup poll.

Only 38 percent of Marin residents attend religious services once a month or more, compared with 60 percent in the national Gallup poll. Only 49 percent pray before meals, compared with 86 percent in the rest of the nation. And 57 percent believe in God, compared with 86 percent in the entire United States.

More people in Marin — 80 percent to 62 percent — believe that “other religions” provide equally good paths to God, and 96 percent believe a person can be good without believing in God, compared with 74 percent elsewhere, the study says.

Tobin warned that the statistics are based on self-reported beliefs and behaviors, which may not be completely accurate in gauging real-life habits, like, for instance, praying before meals.

“People tend to over-report what they consider to be positive behaviors,” said Tobin, who characterized the study as the most comprehensive ever done of religion in Marin. “Probably fewer people in both places actually pray before meals. What is important is that people around the country are far more likely to pray before meals than people in Marin.”

Even so, Marin residents consider themselves just as spiritual as the rest of the nation, the study showed.

Of those Marin residents who put “other” as their religion, 26 percent practiced Buddhism alone or in combination with some other belief, such as Celtic or New Age spiritualism. Hindus, Muslims, Taoists, Baha’is, Rastafarians, adherents of the Goddess religion, pagans, those who worship “love,” and supporters of the metaphysical make up the rest.

The study concludes that many people in Marin are “spiritual seekers” who were influenced in some way by the 1960s.

“People in Marin, even though they may not affiliate with a spiritual congregation, do have a spiritual consciousness,” said Kevin Tripp, executive director of the Marin Interfaith Council, which represents 42 congregations and spiritual communities embracing seven different faiths. “For a lot of people in Marin, spiritual practices are very important, even though they may not relate to traditional faiths. I think that’s wonderful.”

Not that any of this is a surprise. It may, nevertheless, be ammunition for those who blame Marin County for creating John Walker Lindh, who left San Anselmo and joined the Taliban in Afghanistan. In July, the 21-year-old convert to Islam agreed to serve 20 years in federal prison on two charges relating to aiding the Taliban.

Some pundits and right-wing commentators saw a direct connection between Lindh’s mother introducing him to American Indian and Buddhist spiritual practices and his eventual association with militant Islamic fighters.

“The criticisms are correct because, you see, this area gave birth to the American Taliban — it was a place where it could be born,” said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, a fundamentalist Christian organization based in Anaheim, in response to the study. “The Bay Area, especially the north Bay Area, have never been friendly to Christianity and the traditional approach to God.”

Even some local Christians are piling on.

“It goes almost without saying that there is a lack of faith here,” said Fred Carlsen, vice president of the Marin office of Gideons International, which supplies Bibles. “I do object to some of the wild ideas that go on under the guise of religious faith. Marin actually has some satanists here.”

Tobin, the president of the Jewish institute, which has conducted many studies of religion and ethnicity in America, said such criticism is not only intolerant, but unsupported by the facts.

“The notion that exploring religious options and having a variety of options leads somehow to someone becoming a traitor and fighting against his country is a dangerous idea,” Tobin said. “It’s an example of the extreme fear of the unknown. It has absolutely nothing to do with the landscape of religious tolerance in Marin.”

Tobin said, however, that he understands why Christian leaders would be concerned, given that Jews in Marin are seemingly just as likely as other people to embrace alternative spiritual beliefs or no religion at all.

Jews make up 13 percent of Marin’s population, compared with 2 to 2.5 percent in the rest of the nation, yet Tobin said they are less religious than their counterparts elsewhere. Only 40 percent of Jewish people in Marin were members of a congregation, a lower percentage than Protestants and Catholics.

“Jews are low on nearly all the measures of prayer, reading Scripture and so on,” Tobin said. “I think that is partially because many of them identify themselves as an ethnic group, not a religious group.”

Ultimately, Tobin said, the situation in Marin is a microcosm of what is probably the prevailing attitude throughout the Bay Area and a reflection of a nationwide — albeit less pronounced — trend rejecting organized religion.

“A lot of the trends that are starting in Marin and the Bay Area are ones that will affect the nation as a whole,” Tobin said. “If anything, it is a call to religions that they need to find alternative ways to engage people.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday December 2, 2002.
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