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"None Zone"

Written by Rob Deltete
October 12, 2011

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.  

The 2011 Catholic Heritage Lecture Series will welcome (l. to r.) Patricia O'Connell Killen, Robert Putnam and Peter Steinfels.

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. 

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.” 

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). 

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 Shibley’s essay helps readers understand how complex it is. Shibley 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. 

Shibley 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 Shibley 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 Shibley 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 Shibley). 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. 

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