Catholic Heritage Lecture Series begins with talk on "unchurched" Northwest
The Catholic Heritage Lecture Series kicks off this month with an impressive lineup of nationally renowned and thought-provoking scholars. The theme is “Religion in ‘Secular’ America," and Patricia O’Connell Killen, academic vice president at Gonzaga University, will give the first lecture at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 27, in Pigott Auditorium.
Killen has extensively researched the religious landscape of the Pacific Northwest, and particularly its “unchurched” nature. Peter Ely, S.J., vice president for Mission and Ministry, says Killen is “the most sophisticated analyzer of this phenomenon of the ‘none zone,’” the term frequently given to this region because so much of its populace claims no affiliation with organized religion.
Following Killen will be Robert Putnam (Jan. 17) of Harvard University, who has written American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us. Some will recognize Putnam as the author of the groundbreaking 1995 book Bowling Alone. Peter Steinfels will deliver the last lecture, “Catholicism and Politics: Secularization and Secularism” on May 8. Currently a professor at Fordham University, Steinfels previously was a columnist with The New York Times and was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
|The 2011 Catholic Heritage Lecture Series will welcome (l. to r.) Patricia O'Connell Killen, Robert Putnam and Peter Steinfels.
In its second year, the lecture series, as Father Ely sees it, is a way to bring the Catholic intellectual tradition into dialogue with the issues of the day. “Sometimes people are not aware of how pervasive the ideas (of the Catholic intellectual tradition) are in contemporary life. The purpose of the lectures is to reclaim the vitality and dynamism that comes out of the intersection of our religious tradition and culture, and to see how religion is, in fact, a leavening force in our culture.” You can learn more at www.seattleu.edu/missionministry/chl.
In preparation for Killen’s visit to campus, Rob Deltete, professor of philosophy, has contributed the following review of her book on the “none zone,” which she co-edited with Mark Silk.
Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone, Patricia O’Connell Killen and Mark Silk, eds. (Rowman & Littlefield, Charlotte, N.C., 2004).
By any standard determination, the Pacific Northwest (PNW) is not a religiously oriented region of the United States. When asked their religious identification, more people answer “none” in the PNW than in any other region of the US (twice as many as in New England and the South, and almost twice as many as in the Mormon belt of the Southwest.).
This doesn’t mean that the region’s religious institutions have no influence or that Northwesterners who don’t attend a place of worship have no spiritual commitments. But with no dominant denomination (depending on the source you consult, the largest, Catholics, make up between 11 and 17 percent of the population, and no other denomination has any more than 5 percent), evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, adherents of Pacific Rim religious traditions, indigenous groups, spiritual environmentalists and secularists of various sorts must vie for allegiance or sometimes cooperate with each other to achieve their own goals. Consequently, one cannot understand this complex region without understanding the diverse and fluid religious commitments of its inhabitants; and an excellent place to begin is with Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest.
This book is part of a Religion by Region Series, undertaken by the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Connecticut, which aims to show how religion shapes, and is shaped by, regional culture in America. The series consists of eight volumes devoted to religion and public life in the eight regions into which the general editors and directors of the Center, Mark Silk and Andrew Walsh, have divided the United States: New England, the Middle Atlantic region, the Midwest, the Mountain West, the Pacific Northwest, the Pacific Region, the South, and the Southern Crossroads. All of the volumes were published between 2004 and 2006, with the one devoted to the PNW being the first. A ninth volume, One Nation, Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics (2008), authored by Silk and Walsh, sums up the results of the first eight in order to draw some larger conclusions about the ways in which religion and region combine to affect civic culture and public policy in the U.S. as a whole.
I’ve only read the volume that I’m reviewing, this in preparation for Patricia Killen, our Catholic Heritage lecturer in the fall, so I will not comment further on the others, except to say that if the scholarship exemplified in this one is representative, the series is a remarkable achievement. There may be an “American” religious landscape, but charting it is by no mean a simple matter, since what it means to be “religious” in America is usually local, shaped by the particular history of immigration of the region and the social and economic forces in place, as well as the particular landscape that often fires religious imaginations. It does in the PNW.
If so, this raises the problem of how to describe a region in a way that takes account of intra-regional differences. The editors of this volume divide the residents of the Northwest (here of Alaska, Washington, and Oregon) into four “clusters”: mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews; vocal Christian sectarian “entrepreneurs,” who meld an exclusivist evangelical theology with modern organizational and communication technology; peoples of the Pacific Rim, which include Native Americans and Asian immigrants; and the “secular but spiritual” group that seems to constitute the majority.
After a chapter that introduces the basic orientation of each cluster, the editors have managed to enlist excellent scholars to discuss each one in detail in separate chapters. Dale Soden shows how the relatively small mainline cluster has been crucial in establishing schools, colleges and hospitals and in leading crusades for racial justice and economic equality. This cluster has also been active in marshaling protests against intolerance, war and nuclear armaments (51-77).
James Wellman describes the rise of dynamic evangelical Protestant church leaders who have created mega-churches that are much in the news because of their technological savvy and public-relations acumen. He suggests that their insistence on having an experience of grace, their doctrinal certainties and their strict rules of life have great appeal in an “anything goes” postmodern world (79-105; esp.98). (Robert Putnam, co-author of American Grace and our lecturer in the winter, argues the opposite: the evangelical alignment with right-wing politics has actually turned off more of the potentially religious than turned them on. “If this is what religion is about,” they say, “I don’t want anything to do with it.” Of course, it could be both–for different people.)
Lance Laird argues that the native faiths–both traditional and syncretic–are still vital in the region, and that various Asian temples function much as the “settlement” houses of an earlier century: venues that help keep both language and ancient faiths alive for Pacific Rim immigrants (107-137).
Mark Shibley’s discussion of the substantial “secular but spiritual” segment of the PNW is, I think, path breaking and very thought-provoking. He maintains that relatively few people in this group are atheists or even agnostics. Instead, he thinks that the vast majority have taken up a search for the sacred in their own terms, outside of–sometimes very far outside of–any traditional notion of religion. For me (a Catholic) this was the most interesting chapter in the book, since my students often tell me that while they are not religious, they are spiritual.
But what does that mean? Most have a hard time saying anything very coherent, except that they have no interest in institutional religion–sometimes because they had bad childhood experiences, but often because they welcome the freedom that the PNW provides to pursue their own course. Indeed, Shibley says that for the spiritual but non-religious in the PNW a direct, personal experience of the sacred has more to do with being spiritual than any mediated, institutionalized and formally ritualized experience (139; also 142). I want to say a bit more about this important distinction in a moment, but first some other clarifications are needed.
Killen and Silk claim that a majority (about two thirds) of the folks in the Northwest are “unchurched” (9). Meaning what? “In the Pacific Northwest most people do not participate in a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, and never have” (169). This would suggest that the unchurched are the religiously unaffiliated, and that would account for the 62.8 percent figure that figures prominently in several places (22, 29, 141).
But the situation is more complex. First, in one place (22) the “uncounted” are included among the “unaffiliated.” More importantly, the editors/authors admit that there are a lot of unaffiliates who admit to a kind of religious identity, as in “Well, I was baptized a Catholic, but I don’t belong to a parish and seldom attend mass,” or “I was raised a Baptist, but I haven’t attended services in years” (17). These folks are not “adherents” (29), but nevertheless still see themselves as the product (even if tentatively and sometimes reluctantly) of a religious tradition. This may explain what otherwise seems strange in the tables given in the book. So, e.g., while one table (141) lists the unaffiliated as 62.8 percent, another immediately below it lists the percentage of the population claiming “no religious identity” as 25 percent. And another (22-23) has people self-identifying as Catholics 6 percent higher than the 2000 census figure, and the Glenmary survey of the same year, plus other guesstimates (21). In general, i.e., across the board, self-identification is not the same as official recognition (see 54, 85).
Who, then, are the “Nones” in the editors’ subtitle? Properly speaking, I suggest, they are folks who in response to the question “What is your religious tradition, if any?” answer “None” (17). And if I’ve interpreted the tables correctly, this means that only about 25 percent of Northwesterners are Nones–people who acknowledge no traditional religious identity and have no standard contemporary religious affiliation (140-141).
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