Catholic Lecture Series begins with talk on unchurched Northwest

(story continued)

Still, this is striking, since the PNW as a region nonetheless leads the nation in “noneness.” (Residents of Oregon, Washington and Alaska rank first, third and fifth in the national ARIS religious self-identification survey.) 

Why is that? There is probably no single answer to this question, but Shilbey’s essay helps readers understand how complex it is. Shilbey divides the “secular but spiritual” in the Northwest into three groups. The first consists of “New Age” folks who are in search of non-traditional routes to self-discovery and self-renewal that are individual and very personal.  These can involve inter alia the use of crystals for healing, psychic consultations, neo-pagan rituals and spiritual channeling (144, 146). “New Age” spirituality is about personal transformation, about healing one’s self. The hope, indeed the expectation, is that social transformation will follow (this would be the “New Age), but it will come only if individuals are spiritually reborn (147), which has nothing to do with traditionally organized religion. 

Shilbey characterizes a second group of secular but spiritual people as “apocalyptic, anti-government millenarians” (150-155). These are, first and foremost, folks who are adamantly opposed to governmental intervention in individual lives (restrictions on personal liberty, including gun control, taxes to help the poor, etc.) Many come across as classical political libertarians, but some go far beyond what even radical libertarians would ever say in their overt racism and forecasts of doom and gloom. Representatives of the Aryan Nations, “Patriots” of various sorts, the Northwest Militia, Christian Identity and Posse Comitatus are conspicuous examples of this diverse and often scary bunch. The PNW is a region of independents, but it’s also a region of crackpots. 

A third group of the PNW secular but spiritual is the broad and pervasive group of environmental advocates who promote conservation/preservation and ecological responsibility (155-166). Many in this group do so on pretty much Utilitarian grounds of self-interest; but a lot of them regard nature as sacred and as an object, not just of admiration, but of worship. Indeed Shilbey writes that “Along with a non-Christian spirituality of self-transformation, nature religion has emerged as the dominant religion in [the PNW] for encounters with the sacred” (155). What this suggests is that to equate “secular” in “secular but spiritual” with “non-religious” is a mistake. For most of the people that Shilbey describes, it would be better to say that they are “alternatively religious,” although this of course raises the thorny question of what it means to be religious and how that is related to spirituality. Certainly, most of the people in his first and third groups (“New Age” and “alternatively religious”) are in search of spiritual revelation, growth, and often transformation outside the confines of organized religion. 

It’s harder to know what to say about his second group (“apocalyptic, anti-government millenarians”). Many profess to be Christians–in fact, the only authentic Christians (see, for example, the scary Christian Identity view of history, 167n9). Others are non-religious, but are they “spiritual,” even in an alternative, non-traditional way? Was Timothy McVeigh, an apocalyptic, anti-government millennarian, a spiritual guy? 

Because no traditional religious denomination holds anything close to a majority in the PNW, the various faith traditions have tried to influence local, state and national politics by forging shifting alliances. The most galvanizing issues (with a lot of unlikely allies) may be the environment. After decades of inaction, the Catholic Church, in a pastoral letter written by Northwest bishops in 2001, finally endorsed (in a limited way) the environmental movement (51, 160), and there are theologically conservative evangelical environmentalists (160-161). 

But there are also “End Times” Christian evangelicals who have aligned themselves with the so-called “wise use” movement, founded by Ron Arnold of Bellevue (unfortunately not discussed by Shilbey). It would be unfair to say that defenders of “wise use” advocate raping and pillaging the environment, even if they have perverted the original meaning of the term; but they do have a humans-first attitude. As far as I can tell, they don’t have any specifically religious agenda, but they have managed to recruit a lot of apocalyptic evangelical Christians who think that we have already entered the “End Times,” that the Rapture is on the horizon, and that working to preserve the environment is therefore meaningless, a waste of time. 

I’m not a student of religion in the PNW–of its history or demographics–and so won’t try to predict how factional alliances might pan out. Whether the PNW, with its large number of “nones,” is a prototype for the national future or a blank slate ripe for religious entrepreneurs remains to be seen; but I do think it fair to say that the “nones” here will profoundly influence our religious future. In any case, the fascinating collection of essays in this book deserves to be read by anyone who hopes to understand the changing role that religion plays in creating the complex world in which we live. 

RobDeltete_SmallRob Deltete is a professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences.  

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