Just call us ‘ORENONE’: ‘No religion’ is most common response in church membership surveys
When Christopher James of Eugene feels the need for introspection, he often straps on his backpack.
“When I get out into nature, immediately I can feel my body chemistry change,” he says. “It’s such a physical experience, it affects the rest of me.”
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James, 28, sees the outdoors as a place to cultivate his spirituality. But ask him about his religion and he’ll tell you he has none.
He has plenty of company, throughout the country and especially here in Oregon. The number of Americans who claim no religious identity in surveys, dubbed “nones” by experts, has roughly doubled in the past decade, making them possibly the third-largest group in the nation, after Catholics and Baptists.
They rank No. 1 in Oregon – one of only four states where “no religion” was the most common answer in a religious identification survey commissioned by City University of New York in 2001. The other states were Washington, Idaho and Wyoming.
Other recent studies draw similar conclusions, including a 2002 survey commissioned by the Glenmary Research Center in Tennessee that identifies several cities in Southern Oregon and Northern California – including Corvallis, Eugene, Medford and Redding – as those where Americans are least likely to have a religious affiliation.
Yet most of the 29 million Americans who pick no religion say they believe in God and often pray or meditate – habits not that different from the folks who fill the pews each Sunday.
James, who works for the nonprofit Sustainable Forestry Project, fits the mold. While asserting he’s not religious, “I do believe in a higher power,” he says. “For me, it exists more in the order of the universe and everyday life.”
It’s a mistake to assume Oregonians aren’t religious just because many of them avoid organized religion, says Mark Shibley, who teaches sociology of religion at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. He’s also a contributor to a book due out next spring, “Religion in Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The `None’ Zone.”
“Religion is about fundamental questions of meaning and purpose,” Shibley says. “If dominant institutions aren’t providing that for individuals, they’ll seek and explore and find those things in other arenas.”
Leading edge of trend
The trend lines present intriguing questions: Are Oregonians “ahead of the curve,” leading the way as more Americans move away from traditional denominations? And just where do people uncomfortable with mainstream religion go for spiritual nourishment?
While Mormons in Utah and other dominant regional faiths will persist for a long time, Shibley says the trend of fewer people identifying with historical traditions is likely to continue across the country – especially in places such as the Northwest where one denomination has never dominated.
As for spiritual alternatives, Shibley identifies three he says are predominant in the Northwest:
ï¿½ A “nature religion” embraced by people such as James who find their spirituality amid snow-capped mountains and ocean surf.
ï¿½ A New Age spirituality manifested in everything from channeling to crystals to astrology.
ï¿½ An “anti-government milleniallism” movement that encompasses survivalism and end-of-the-world scenarios.
Other experts, of course, have other theories. Two University of California at Berkeley professors, for example, contend that most people who say they have no religion are political moderates and liberals who feel the “religious right” has co-opted organized religion, and so want nothing to do with it.
So-called “nones” tend to be politically active and care about such things as the environment and corporate and personal ethics, says Patricia O’Connell Killen, who teaches American religious history at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.
“For many people, the religious institutions out there aren’t effectively addressing what they see as truly significant issues – mainly the environment and how we can and should be a human community,” Killen says.
But Killen, editor of the forthcoming book “None Zone,” and Shibley also caution that it’s important not to overstate the trend.
Within Christianity, Catholics and Mormons continue to see their flocks grow in Oregon, and many conservative nondenominational churches are thriving – in part, Shibley says, because of a “market savvy” approach that’s pulled young people away from more traditional evangelical groups.
But in Eugene, at least, the circumstantial evidence for nontraditional religious tastes isn’t hard to find.
Wings, the long-standing personal development training firm based in downtown Eugene, serves about 1,000 new clients each year. When the question gets posed at seminar retreats, “most everyone says they’re `spiritual’ but maybe only 15 percent say they’re `religious,’ ” says Kristine King, the company’s president and co-founder.
A couple of blocks away, Windows Booksellers specializes in Christian theology, church history and Bible studies. But co-owner Jon Stock estimates that roughly 20 percent of his customers are non-Christians or Christian skeptics. “We live in one of the most unchurched areas of the country so there’s this vacuum, but people still have those impulses of spirituality,” he says. “They may detest or reject traditional forms, but they’re still seeking.”
At the secular Book Mark bookstore, also downtown, owner Larry West devotes two side-by-side shelves to books on “Religion” and “Spirituality,” respectively. He says he sells roughly twice as many from the “Spirituality” side.
But the most popular books related to religion at his store are about Buddhism, which gets a larger shelf to itself. “It does very, very well,” West says. “A lot of people here look at it more as a philosophy of life than as a religion.”
For his own part, West, 60, says he’s an atheist – “definitely a `none’ ” – when it comes to religion. “I think a lot of people feel the way I do, that living a good life, ethical life, is what matters,” he says. “It’s nothing against organized religions, they all have good ideas, they just seem to get perverted too often.”
At Mother Kali’s near the University of Oregon, clerk Tiffany Haggmark says the feminist bookstore caters to “a lot of people who don’t feel organized religion leaves room for further exploration of their values and beliefs.”
Haggmark, 19, has lived all her life in Eugene, a community she says doesn’t worry much about religious labels. “I’m asked `What’s your astrological sign?’ much more than, `What’s your religion?’ ” she says.
Haggmark’s own reading tends toward books on paganism and earth-centered spirituality, environmentalism and sustainable living. She says she doesn’t claim a religion but nourishes her own sense of the divine.
“God to me is a cell or a tree or a flower,” she says. “It’s carbon-based.”
James, the environmental worker, says personal hardships – including a heart condition requiring five surgeries – has helped define his sense of spirituality, as has the time he’s devoted to immigration rights, anti-war and other social causes. He says he feels called to serve others, even though the motivation may not spring from traditional religious sources.
“I’ve had my own struggles and I couldn’t have gotten through them without other people,” he says. “I really believe that we’re all so very connected, and I wouldn’t feel good about my own existence if I didn’t try to contribute in some way.”York