Just Call Us 'ORENONE': 'No Religion' Is Most Common Response in Church Membership Surveys
Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard
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."
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:
A "nature religion" embraced by people such as James who find their spirituality amid snow-capped mountains and ocean surf.
A New Age spirituality manifested in everything from channeling to crystals to astrology.
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. …