Douglas Todd: Secularism surges in Cascadia, for good and ill

Interesting study cited:

It was not long ago the logo for British Columbia was “The Best Place on Earth,” emblazoned across an idyllic image of mountain peaks.

The “Best Place” slogan outdid even “Beautiful British Columbia” and “Super, Natural British Columbia” for boasting, for linking the evergreen-covered West Coast to a sense of sacred specialness.

Now a highly researched book delves into just how much residents of B.C., Washington, Oregon — a bio-region known as Cascadia — lean toward “reverential naturalism,” in large part because they live in what could also be called “the most secular place on Earth” (or at least in North America.)

Religion at the Edge: Nature, Spirituality and Secularity in the Pacific Northwest (UBC Press) explains that Cascadia is at the forefront of cultural shifts across the continent. The book details how non-religion is more embedded here than anywhere else in North America — and how that powerful secularism comes with sharp political inclinations, to the liberal-left.

The scholarly papers in Religion at the Edge probe the kind of theories that an eclectic team of Canadian and U.S. writers dug into in the book I edited in 2008, titled Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest (Ronsdale Press). The upshot is secularism has grown even more intense in Cascadia in the past decade, especially in B.C.

A public-opinion survey done for Religion at the Edge shows half of B.C. residents (49 per cent) now have no religious affiliation, while 44 per cent of the people in Washington and Oregon make the same claim. That contrasts with other polls showing, across North America, only about one in five say they have “no religion.”

Religion at the Edge is edited by professor Paul Bramadat, director of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Victoria (who muses about “The Best Place on Earth” marketing); Pacific Lutheran University religion professor emerita Patricia O’Connell Killen (who contributed to Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia) and University of Waterloo sociologist Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme.

The book’s focus groups show how Cascadia’s non-religious come in many guises — from those who are increasingly hostile to church, mosque and synagogue, to those who still harbour some private spiritual sentiments toward things like yoga and nature reverence.

Religion at the Edge spells out the political implications of a population that is half secular. The non-religious, for instance, are more likely to support access to abortion, same-sex marriage and fervently protecting the natural realm.

However, there can be a darker side to intense secularism, including loneliness, excessive libertarianism and a tendency to “homophily,” which is a technical word for being attracted only to those who are similar to oneself.

Why are Cascadians so non-religious?

I was struck by the insight that the white working-classes of the Pacific Northwest have since the 19th century been passing on: a tradition of irreligiosity, as described by Tina Block of Thompson Rivers University and the University of Victoria’s Lynn Marks.

That captures my upbringing, in which my resolutely atheist Metro Vancouver family taught that religion was for kooks. I like to think I’ve outgrown that world view, with more understanding of philosophy, religion and spirituality.

Even though immigrants are generally more religious than North America’s native born, Trinity College, Hartford, professor Mark Silk (who also contributed to Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia) makes the important point the Pacific Northwest is more secular because certain ethnic subgroups have different attitudes to faith.

Black people are much more religious than the overall U.S. population. But Silk points out that, compared to the rest of the continent, there are far fewer Black people in Cascadia, especially in B.C. (only one per cent).

B.C., compared to the rest of North America, also has far more people of Asian origin (28 per cent versus 15 per cent across Canada and 2.8 per cent in the U.S.). And Pew Research polls show Asian people, particularly East Asians, are more likely to reject formal religion.

When it comes to politics, Wilkins-Laflamme’s confirms Cascadians who are non-religious are far less inclined to support the Canadian Conservative Party or the American Republican party. That helps explain why the Liberals and NDP tend to do well in B.C. and Democrats mostly hold sway in Washington and Oregon, especially in cities.

Along with a fervent libertarianism that sees little use for traditions or institutions, residents of Cascadia have been leading supporters of assisted suicide and many, because they find sacredness in the natural world, have turned into fiery activists against climate change.

Despite Cascadians’ many similarities across the Canada-U.S. border, one stark difference lies in Canadian and American attitudes to Indigenous affairs. First Nations and Metis issues have been near-ubiquitous in Canada for two decades, including in many churches, while in Washington and Oregon interest continues to be negligible.

Key findings of Religion on the Edge are summarized in five points by Bramadat and O’Connell Killen, who observe that in Cascadia:

• A “powerful story” is emerging “that frames the region not just as the best but as the most secular place on Earth”

• Certain forms of Christianity have been “relegated to the periphery”

• Some kinds of spirituality (Indigenous, Buddhist, Hindu) are romanticized

• Practitioners of yoga, evangelicalism and mindfulness are evolving creatively

• There is a “pervasive, distinctive and reverential approach to the natural world”

A lot of this may sound good to many North Americans, particularly those on the liberal-left.

But as the book points out, visitors to the “Best Place on Earth” have been known to remark, “It’s hard to see the sky in the summer because of all the smug.” And Cascadians’ openness to the spiritual, but not religious, could harden into a flat secularism “without any reference to the metaphysical.”

The contributors also found many residents of Cascadia, especially the increasingly non-religious young, feel burdened by consumer culture, high degrees of loneliness, tenuous social bonds, weak institutions, a reluctance to commit and a restless state of “searching.”

Even Cascadians’ emphasis on the sacred wonders of nature may come with ethical blind spots. As some authors ask, “Can the population care as much for people as it cares for orcas, trees and pets?”

Finally, while a highly secular, low-cohesion culture has rapidly become the status quo in the Pacific Northwest, contributors to Religion on the Edge suggest convincingly (as did the writers in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia) that we are a bellwether for what will happen to the rest of the continent.

Source: Douglas Todd: Secularism surges in Cascadia, for good and ill

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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