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The “Nonreligious” in the American Northwest

Frank L. Pasquale

“S ecular” and its cognates signify a range of phenomena, including

a) the “mere” absence of any direct reference to transcendental or super­

natural ideas or phenomena (as in the “purely” economic or political or
b) recession or minimization of the visibility or role of “religion” in society as
an institution or a general social force, or restriction of its formal influence
or role in the administration of government
c) personal indifference to or neglect of matters transcendental, super­natural,
or metaphysical
d) affirmative or hostile rejection of transcendental, supernatural, or meta­
physical ideas, phenomena, or religious institutions
e) lack of personal identification or affiliation with “religious” traditions
or institutions (regardless of personal metaphysical stance)
f ) subordination of metaphysical to other considerations in selected contexts
or in general.
In survey research, “seculars” has been a variable category encompassing
distinguishable types of individuals (“c” through “f ”). There is an ever-increasing
amount of data emerging from survey work on “seculars” and Nones (those
who profess no explicit religious identity or affiliation). There has been less
direct or detailed attention to the subset of Nones that might be characterized as
“quintessential seculars”—the substantially or affirmatively non-transcendental/
not-religious, or “Nots.” These are people who:

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• eschew theistic, transcendental, or supernatural ideas or worldviews,

• do not identify with traditions or institutions that embrace such
• may be indifferent to “ultimate” or metaphysical questions and concerns,
or hold affirmatively non-transcendental worldviews, and
• substantially avoid public or private behavior associated with transcen­
dental ideas (prayer, worship, incantation or conjuring, interaction with
spiritual entities, etc.).
I have begun to take a closer look at Nots in the American Northwest.
This would seem to be a natural laboratory for this purpose, since it is the least
religious region in the United States based on such measures as percentage of the
population that is “unchurched,” professes no religious preference or identity,
identifies as “nonreligious” or “secular,” and reports limited behavior or beliefs
associated with religion or transcendentalism.
This work was stimulated, in part, by the volume edited by Patricia
O’Connell Killen and Mark Silk on Religion and Public Life in the Pacific
Northwest.1 Although the comparatively “secular” character of this region is
acknowledged in the volume’s subtitle—The None Zone—resident Nots make
nary an appearance in these pages. Indeed, it is suggested that all but a neg­ligible
number of Nones are, in one way or another, “religious” or “spiritual.” This
prompted a closer look through
• in-depth interviews with both affiliated and unaffiliated Nots (n=49 to
• membership surveys of irreligious organizations in the region (the first
of 15 planned surveys completed and analyzed; secular humanist; n=105
of 150 listed members)
• participant observation at the surveyed organization (one of the larger
nonreligious organizations in the region)
• meeting attendance, newsletter monitoring, and collection of organi­
zational histories at other regional groups.
The following are some preliminary observations.

Estimated Numbers
Most survey research does not break out the Pacific Northwest from the much
larger Western region. Available data are far from definitive, but suggest a sub­
stantial presence of Nots in the Northwest. Although regional samples are small,
4. The Nonreligious in the American Northwest 43

the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 3 data indicated that 2.8
percent of respondents in Oregon and Washington strongly disagreed that
“God exists,” and another 3.8 percent disagreed somewhat. This compares with
2.4 and 2.2 percent of the national sample. Similarly, 14.5 percent considered
themselves “secular” and 9.4 percent more “somewhat secular,” compared with
10 percent and 6.2 percent in the national sample. Based on a population of 9.7
million (per 2004 Bureau of the Census estimates), this suggests some 640,000
individuals in these states who strongly or somewhat disagree that God exists,
and 1.4 million who consider themselves “secular” (whatever this may mean).
Data on Nones who are Atheist or Agnostic from the ARIS and General
Social Survey (GSS)4 yield similar numbers. The ARIS data showed that 21
percent of Oregonians and 25 percent of Washingtonians were Nones (pro­
fessing no explicit religious affiliation or identity). Data from the GSS showed
that 31.2 percent of Nones were “not spiritual.”5 In several surveys, 13.8 percent
of Nones did not believe in God (Atheist) and 18.7 percent did not know and
don’t think there is anyway to find out (Agnostic). Applying these numbers to
the regional population data,6 some 700,000 Oregonians and Washingtonians
are likely Atheist or Agnostic Nones and a similar number are “not spiritual.”
In the most direct study of religious beliefs and behavior in the region—
unfortunately more than 20 years old (1985)—The (Portland) Oregonian
commissioned a telephone survey of 600 Oregon residents. Selected results are
presented in Figure 4-1:

Figure 4-1
Religiosity Among Oregon Residents, 1985

Belief in “God or a Universal Spirit?”

(No indication of “don’t know” as an offered or volunteered option) Neither 4%

Belief in “life after death” No 18 %

Don’t know 12 %

Belief in “heaven as reward for those who led good lives” No 27 %

Don’t know 11 %

Religious faith is the most important influence in my life Completely untrue 5 %

Mostly untrue 18 %
Do you pray? Not at all 9%

Response rates would likely be somewhat different today. National data

from the GSS show that those professing no religious preference increased from
44 Secularism & Secularity

7.1 percent in 1985 to 14.4 percent in 2004, much as the ARIS found between
1990 and 2001. Those giving atheistic or agnostic responses concerning belief in
God have also increased from 5.3 percent in 1988 to 7 percent in 2002.
In general, these data suggest that at least 500,000 residents of Oregon
and Washington are substantially or affirmatively not religious with respect to
beliefs, identity, affiliation, and behavior.

How Nots and Nones Describe Themselves

There is a widespread tendency to refer to the substantially or affirmatively
nonreligious as Atheist(s) or Atheist(s) and Agnostic(s). In interviews, how­ever,
many express concern about popular associations with Atheist, or uncertainty
about its precise meaning, and avoid it for these reasons. Some use “humanist”
as a euphemistic substitute for Atheist or Agnostic. Some use atheist(ic) in
describing their way of thinking, but not as an identity label. For some, it is
simply considered an inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading characterization of
their worldviews. Many avoid Agnostic as ambiguous or a sign of ambivalence.
The descriptive terms used by Nots, and their combinations, vary
considerably. The serviceable acronym, SUNINSHARFAN, helps to keep
the principal terms in mind: Skeptic, Unbeliever, Nonbeliever, Irreligious,
Nonreligious, Secular, Humanist, Agnostic, Rationalist, Freethinker, Atheist,
and (philosophical) Naturalist or Non-transcendentalist.7
Complexity of usage is suggested by secular humanist survey respondents
(n=105), who were asked to choose any of eight terms they would or do use to
describe their ways of thinking, as shown in Figure 4-2.
While self-described religiosity is consistently low, choices of descriptive
terms vary considerably, as do the specific combinations among respondents.

Affiliated and Unaffiliated Nots

Most Nots are unaffiliated with organizations pertinent to their metaphysical
worldviews. Using 4 percent as a conservative baseline estimate, at least 10 million
Americans are substantially or affirmatively not religious. At best, affiliates of
the principal irreligious organizations number in the low hundreds of
thousands.8 Similarly, compared with an estimated 500,000 Oregon and
Washington Nots, at best, members of irreligious organizations number in the
low thousands.9
4. The Nonreligious in the American Northwest 45

Figure 4-2
Self-Descriptions Among Humanist Group Members
Descriptors respondents Percentage of respondents Mean self-description as “religious”
apply to themselves who chose the term (0=not at all; 8= very)
Humanist(ic) 89 .97
Atheist(ic) 55 .81
Scientific 54 .95
Secular(ist) 53 .89
Skeptical 42 .86
Naturalistic 36 .84
Agnostic 32 1.03
Anti-religious 26 .78

Affiliated Nots
There is a representative array of relevant groups and organizations in the
Northwest, although memberships are small (in the tens or hundreds for each):
• Corvallis Secular Society (Oregon)
• Humanist Association of Salem (Oregon)
• Humanists of Greater Portland (Oregon)
• Humanists of The Rogue Valley (Oregon)
• Kol Shalom, Community for Humanistic Judaism (Portland)
• Oregonians for Rationality
• United States Atheists (Portland)
• Ethical Culture Society of Puget Sound (Seattle, Washington)
• Humanist Society of South Puget Sound (Washington)
• Humanists of North Puget Sound (Washington)
• Humanists of Washington (Seattle)
• Secular Jewish Circle of Puget Sound (Washington)
• The Society for Sensible Explanations (Washington)
• Inland Northwest Freethought Society (Spokane, Washington)
• similar groups on some college and university campuses in the region
• “humanist” subgroups in selected Unitarian Universalist fellowships.
46 Secularism & Secularity

A distinction between “soft” and “hard” forms of secularism has been

suggested by Peter Steinfels10 and Barry Kosmin.11 These terms are sometimes
used by Nots. There is general recognition that groups fall along a continuum,
from “soft” to “hard,” with respect to worldviews, degree of irreligiosity or anti-
religiosity, congregational culture or its absence, criticism, and so on. As such,
these groups address a range of interests, styles, sensibilities, and preoccupations,
as shown in Figure 4-3.
Each position on the continuum presents particular issues. “Humanists” in
Unitarian fellowships generally shun “God-talk,” supernaturalism, or substantive
transcendentalism. A shift in Unitarian Universalism toward increased “God-
talk” and “spirituality” has prompted some to move to (secular) humanist or other
groups. Among Humanistic Jews, an emphasis on “congregational” participation
in Judaic ritual (sans supernaturalism) prompts recurring debate—both locally
and nationally—about whether, and in what ways, “HJ” is or is not “religion.”
The degree to which participants do or do not wish to speak of “spirituality”
becomes a point of contention in some of the “soft” groups. At the other end
of the spectrum, philosophical stances and sensibilities may be more definitive,
but at a price. The place and character of criticism (of religious, supernatural,
or paranormal beliefs and related behavior) prompts debate and tension in
some atheistic and skeptical groups. Some self-identified Atheists consequently
distinguish between “positive” and “negative” forms.
There is general regard among members of these groups as nonreligious
comrades-in-arms. There is shared concern about misrepresentation or mis­
understanding of nonreligious people, erosion of church-state separation, public
and political influence of conservative religion, and aspects of American domestic
and international policy. But there are also notes of irreligious sectarianism.
In a meeting of secular humanists, one audience member proclaims, “We
have our fundamentalists, too. They’re called Atheists.” In an Atheist meeting
across town, derisive asides make reference to “a lack of spine” or “going soft on
religion” among “the humanists.”
These groups struggle for public recognition and legitimacy. Most hold regular
meetings, maintain Web sites, and produce newsletters and other publications.
Many sponsor lecture series. Some produce media programs (e.g., for community
access cable television). Some sponsor psychological and counseling services for the
irreligious (“Humanist Counseling Services” in Portland, Oregon, and SMART
[Self-Management And Recovery Training] support groups for non-religious
individuals struggling with alcoholism or other addictions—an alternative to 12-
Step programs. Regional symposia and conferences that bring together members
of many of these organizations have been held.
4. The Nonreligious in the American Northwest 47

Figure 4-3
Group Characterizations from “Soft” to “Hard”

“Soft” “Hard”

UU humanists Atheism
Humanistic Judaism Skepticism/rationalism12
Ethical Culture CSH/CFI-style secular humanism13
AHA-style “H”umanism14

A Secular Humanist Group

Data from the first of several planned surveys of organizational memberships in
the region are fairly representative. Most would agree that this group lies in the
center of the “hard-soft” continuum.
• There is a strong age skew: mean and median age is 65, with a range of
28 to 91.
• There are more males (65) than females (40).
• The cultural/ethnic/racial profile is overwhelmingly “white,” European-
American, with 14 percent of Jewish heritage.
• The group is well-educated, with 85 percent holding undergraduate or
graduate degrees.
Most respondents report religious backgrounds, with
• only 4 percent of mothers and 10 percent of fathers described as “no
• 9 percent describing their upbringing as “not at all religious,” and
• 70 percent reporting some form of early religious instruction.
Of those who received religious instruction, for 57 percent this was
Christian/Protestant, for 32 percent it was Roman Catholic, and for 11 percent
it was Jewish/Judaic.
Although most decided they were not religious early in childhood or
adolescence, a substantial number did so later in life: 38 percent before the age
of 18; 18 percent during the college years; 30 percent between 21 and 40, and 7
percent between 41 and 75. Interview data suggest that some shifting late in life
may be attributable, in part, to increased discomfort with a resurgence of public
48 Secularism & Secularity

religiosity and conservative religion in the U. S. in recent years.15

The most frequently cited reasons for membership or participation in an
irreligious organization were that this provides:
• a source of information and intellectual stimulation,
• a place for nonreligious people to meet and socialize, and
• a place where nonreligious people can feel at ease.
There is far greater ambivalence concerning public education and advocacy
of humanist philosophy or collaborative community and human service work (as
an organization). Groups vary in this regard. For example, Atheist groups may be
unreservedly involved in activism concerning church-state separation. Consonant
with a long-standing emphasis on social responsibility and tikkun olam (repairing
the world), Humanistic Judaic groups may have active social action committees
that lead the general memberships in addressing local, national, or global issues.
The overwhelming majority of respondents consider themselves “not at all
religious” (mean=.94 on a 0-8 scale). To one degree or another, nearly 90 per­cent
consider religion “a harmful force in human affairs” and 70 percent are angry
about “the role, dominance, or effects of religion in the world.” Even so, less
than one-third apply the term “anti-religious” to themselves.
Other research consistently shows a relationship between low (or no)
religiosity and social or political “liberalism.” This is true here. The secular
humanist survey respondents, for example, overwhelmingly describe themselves
as “liberal,” with 75 percent identifying themselves as Democrats, 25 percent
as “independent,” and no Republicans. The most frequently cited concerns
are consistent with this: environmental issues, the Bush administration and
U.S. policy, war and conflict, overpopulation, human/civil rights, and religion
(conservatism, fundamentalism, extremism, political influence, and erosion
of church-state separation). Content of meeting discussions and newsletters
indicates much the same in other regional groups.

Unaffiliated Nots: Salons, Social Networks, and Cause-Specific Collaboration

Among unaffiliated Nots, less formal patterns of affiliation and social partici­
pation are evident. “Salons” refer to scheduled gatherings of people with shared
interests or perspectives (for example, book discussion and topical lecture-and-
discussion groups). Substantial numbers of avowedly “nonreligious” or “secular”
individuals in the region may be found, for example, in “Great Books,” church-
state separation, “Death with Dignity,” global development, environmental, and
other cause- and interest-specific groups.
4. The Nonreligious in the American Northwest 49

The Internet has become a medium for stimulating and maintaining

networks, “virtual communities,” and face-to-face groups of Nots. On-line
Atheist, humanist, or skeptical “meet-ups” and chat-rooms may give rise to friend­
ship networks, social clubs, and discussion or advocacy groups. In Seattle, Atheist
“meet-ups” have coalesced into groups that organize social, sporting, cultural,
and civic activities. In Portland, there is a weekly pub-gathering and network
of active and retired journalists, writers, scholars, development and government
workers, and other interested individuals. Its initiator and coordinator, a retired
academic, characterizes the “membership” as “secular.”16 Groups of regular,
frequent, and occasional participants—drawn from an email list of more than
300—appear each week at the same corner of a local pub (recently refurbished
by the proprietor to meet the group’s needs). Essays and brief topical exchanges—
typically concerning national and global politics and economics—are shared
among participants in a growing international email network. A recent essay, for
example, spoke of the value of collaborating with the liberal religious on issues
of common cause.
Even less formal, but more prevalent, are networks of friends and
acquaintances who share nonreligious worldviews. Nots are generally aware of
one another in their social circles and communities, even if they do not associate
specifically on this basis.
Consistent with their worldviews, Nots generally view human problems
and their solutions in social, cultural, political, economic, technological, or
scientific terms. Rather than address such issues en masse on the basis of their
irreligious identities, this is more often done as concerned citizens in issue-
specific collaborative groups or organizations. A secular humanist affiliate
interviewee observed:
I have thought own frustration that we, as an organization,
do not do more to make ourselves more visible and offer more to the
community [as a group]. But, as I looked at who joins...and what
we do as a group, I finally came to the conclusion that an organized
group of do-gooders is not what [we are] about. We have a member
who volunteers her time at Outside-In, counseling youth in matters
of sexuality; we have a member who organizes and gets [a gender-
rights] group off the ground; we have a member who is a legislator...
attempting to positively influence our state laws; we have a member
who is a psychologist who heads a volunteer alternative program to
Alcoholics Anonymous; we have a couple who spends their vacation at
[a voter education and registration group]; we have a member who puts
50 Secularism & Secularity

in...time and energy in a cable TV show to provide an opportunity for

those who are out there doing the work to be heard. I could go on and
on. I realized that [this organization] is where we all come together to
be renewed, and to find encouragement and strength to continue what
we do individually, every day.

Societal Skepticism
Metaphysical skepticism is, of course, a defining theme among Nots. An
equally pervasive theme in interviews might be called “societal skepticism.” The
destructive potential of human beings in groups and institutions, and how to
overcome this, is a pervasive preoccupation. Theirs is often a conscious and critical
posture toward uncritical group or institutional participation or immersion. This
is equally true among both affiliated and unaffiliated Nots, but while the former
direct this attitude more toward the religious, the latter often direct it toward
both religious and irreligious (or other ideologically based) groups. Interviewees
make frequent reference to “brainwashing,” “demagoguery,” “mind control,”
“the psychology of groups,” “tribalism,” “herd behavior,” “totalitarianism,” and
so on. “Religion” (or metaphysical thinking in general) is viewed as one of the
more powerful forces in human affairs that fosters uncritical group participation
or immersion. Some are monolithic in this view of “religion;” others discriminate
among distinguishable forms, some of which are held to foster “blind” group
immersion more than others.
Societal skepticism is often obscured by reference to individualism or low
sociability or social need. Among some, societal skepticism may well be an
ideological rationalization for limited sociability, but this is by no means true of
all. Most interviewees and survey respondents describe active family and social
lives, as well as organizational involvement.17 In response to a query about the
most important sources of meaning in life, secular humanist survey respondents
most often cited family, friends, and general social relations. Even among the
most socially and organizationally active Nots, however, one finds notes of
societal skepticism. One interviewee, a community leader and self-described life-
long Atheist with an impressive record of formal organizational roles and one of
the most extensive friendship and acquaintance circles in his city, stated that:
[Despite all my involvements] it may be that my nature is such that
I’m not somebody who is a true believer in anything that I join....I
may just have a skeptical turn of mind that goes back to an early age.
I can be enthusiastic, but not committed to do something on the basis
of a doctrine.
4. The Nonreligious in the American Northwest 51

Reasons for Nonaffiliation

What limits organizational affiliation among Nots on the basis of their
irreligiosity? One answer is that they personally see no need to; another answer
is that many are averse to this in principle. Societal skepticism is a factor. While
many affiliated Nots direct their skepticism outward, most acutely toward
anything they deem to be “religion,” the unaffiliated often direct this to groups
organized on the basis of religion or irreligion. An unaffiliated interviewee, for
example, described her father and his colleagues (in both humanist and Atheist
groups) as “too dogmatic,” and as such, “no different from the very religious
groups they criticize.” Other non-affiliates who are familiar with such groups
point to an ironic and uncomfortable unanimity of political and ideological
views among members. As one interviewee, an 86-year-old self-described Atheist
(female), said of Atheists gathering in organized groups:
I think it defeats its own purpose. Once you get into a group, then
you want everyone to think the same way, and then one thing comes
[to another]. I mean, we started with twelve apostles and look what’s
happened....I just can’t imagine being part of a group and saying,
“We’re all Atheists. Aren’t we swell.” You see, that’s the next thing that
happens. We’re smarter than the rest of these guys. And if only they
thought like us, there wouldn’t be all these wars, and all this trouble.
See what happens!?
Limited interest in matters metaphysical or philosophical may also
discourage affiliation on this basis. Interviewees frequently say that the interviews
are personally rewarding since they prompt more systematic reflection than is
typical. Even among the affiliated, there is evidence that despite an ideological
or philosophical basis for affiliation, direct focus on philosophical self-reflection
has limited appeal. For example, in one humanist group, weekly lectures focus
on “four broad areas relevant to Humanism: human well-being, science and
reason, secularism, and humanities, culture, and morality.” The philosophy of
humanism is not explicitly listed and, indeed, whenever member opinions have
been solicited in recent years, this topic garners the least amount of interest.
Greater interest lies with politics, economics, science, topical news issues, and
global affairs rather than humanist philosophy: what are human challenges and
what can be done about them. A habitual question put to lecturers is “What can
we do about it?”
Ambivalence about, or aversion to, public promotion of labeled philo­
sophies or “proselytizing” is also involved. Many interviewees stress a “live and
let live” attitude regarding matters metaphysical. The notion of participating in
52 Secularism & Secularity

an organization whose objective, in part, is to promulgate a specific metaphysical

stance flies in the face of a prevalent feeling that this simply should not matter
in human affairs as much as it seems to. Many prefer to downplay metaphysics
and religiosity or irreligiosity altogether, and relegate all of this to quiet personal
In this connection, there is ambivalence in some quarters about children’s
philosophical education. On the one hand, many express an interest in expanding
the ranks of the “rational” (i.e., nonreligious) over time. On the other, there is
resistance to explicit irreligious “inculcation” or “brainwashing.” All but a few
are apostates: they have emerged (or “escaped”) from religious backgrounds.
Many vow not to repeat the mistake of “blind culture transmission” with their
own, or others’, children.
There is great store placed on “free choice” in matters metaphysical. When
asked about the importance of a children’s program the response pattern among
humanist survey respondents was notably ambivalent (with a mean of 3.3 and a
median of 3.0 on a 5-point scale, from “not at all” to “very important”). Some
of this is attributable to the fact that most members are past their child-rearing
years. But it is also the case that opinion is divided concerning whether or how
(much) to explicitly promote nonreligious worldviews, and there is general
aversion to “proselytizing” in a “religious” manner.18 Some interviewees profess
ignorance of the metaphysical views of their grown children, suggesting that this
is as it should be.

“Spirituality” and “Religiosity” Among Northwest Nones

and Nots
In Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone,19 it is suggested
that neither the unaffiliated religious nor the “nones proper” in the region “is
without religion.”
Even among the ‘Nones’ only a small minority identify as atheist or
agnostic. In fact, the vast majority of ‘Nones’ claim beliefs and attitudes
more like than unlike those of persons inside churches, synagogues,
temples, and mosques.20
The sociologist Mark Shibley suggests that
[w]hile many Northwesterners are institutionally unencumbered, there
is no reason to believe they are a-spiritual. Most people in the region
who claim no religious preference...are, it can be argued, secular but
spiritual. They encounter the sacred and cultivate spiritual lives outside
mainstream religious institutions.21
4. The Nonreligious in the American Northwest 53

Figure 4-4
“Spirituality” and “Religiosity” Among Humanist Group Members

Descriptors respondents Mean self-description Mean self-description as

apply to themselves as “spiritual” “religious”
(0=not at all; 8=very much) (0=not at all; 8=very much)
Naturalistic (n=38) 2.46 .84
Agnostic (n=33) 2.09 1.03
Scientific (n=58) 2.05 .95
Humanist(ic) (n=89) 2.03 .97
Secular(ist) (n=56) 1.97 .89
Atheist(ic) (n=58) 1.60 .81
Anti-religious (n=27) 1.56 .78
Skeptical (n=44) 1.43 .86

“Spirituality” is defined as “an individual’s personal experience with

sacred things (e.g., God, a divine being, a transcendent reality) and the beliefs
and practices that express that experience.” As evidence, Shibley describes
“three clusters of alternative spirituality” that are “prevalent in the Pacific
Northwest”—New Age spiritualities (e.g., paganism), apocalyptic millennialism
(e.g., survivalists and white supremacists), and the environmental movement
(characterized as “nature religion”).
While survey data consistently show that a majority of those professing
no religious preference exhibit some religious ideas and/or behavior, substantial
minorities do not. As noted earlier, GSS data suggest that roughly one-third
do not believe in, or do not think it is possible to know about, the existence of
God. An equal number rejects “spiritual” as a self-description. There is no reason
to conclude that this is substantially different in the Northwest. On available
measures of nonreligiosity, Northwest residents generally equal or exceed national
There is good reason, as suggested here, to suspect that substantial numbers
of Nots in the region do not use the terms Atheist or Agnostic to describe
themselves or their ways of thinking. Further, some may use “spiritual/ity,” but
in explicitly non-transcendental or “nonreligious” senses.
Taking another look at self-descriptions among secular humanist survey
respondents (n=105), “spirituality” ratings were higher than “religiosity,” but
still quite low, as shown in Figure 4-4.
54 Secularism & Secularity

Nonetheless, some respondents seemed willing to use “spiritual/ity” in

restricted ways. In written comments, six said they did not understand what
this means. Among 40 who supplied substantive comments or definitions, 35
explicitly avoided or rejected theistic, supernatural, or transcendental content.22
The pervasive meaning was that of appreciation for existence or emotional
connection with people, humanity, all living things, or nature. Superficially, it
might be said that many of these people are “spiritual.” But what does this mean?
Their use of the term surely does not reflect the transcendental intent or worldview
of an Evangelical Christian or Wiccan. Representative comments were:
• “ awe of natural processes, not spiritual in a religious sense”
• “...awe and wonder, but I don’t believe there is a conscious spirit or
• “Just a vague feeling of being connected to humanity and nature”
• “Making connections with others is ‘spirituality’”
• “Interest in astronomy” or “ a variety of social issues”
• “Music and nature can move me in a way I can only describe as
• “Music and emotion”
• “Spirit means ‘breath.’ I enjoy breathing.”
Unaffiliated interviewees who make reference to “spiritual/ity” are
equally careful to parse their meanings so that there is no suggestion of super­
This raises broader questions about the meaning and accuracy of terms
used both by social scientists and the people we study. In both popular and
scientific discourse “spirituality” and “spiritual but not religious” typically
signify unchurched or “alternative” religiosity in some (often undefined but
clearly suggested) transcendental sense. If and when Nots refer to “spiritual/ity,”
however, this is likely without reference to supernaturalism, trancendentalism,
or religiosity in ideological, identity, behavioral, or affiliative terms. This would
seem to reflect a limitation of language. English does not provide clear and
simple means to convey a cognitive or emotional sense of “connectedness” or
appreciation for existence sans transcendentalism or its suggestion.

Unpackaging Customary Categories

The more closely one looks at people’s metaphysical worldviews (and related
behavior), the more customary categories seem inadequate. To comprehend, of
course, it is necessary to simplify and categorize. This said, our understanding
4. The Nonreligious in the American Northwest 55

of such matters may be unreasonably constrained by simple dichotomies and

a tendency to “claim” individuals for one side or the other: the “secular” or
the “sacred,” “nonreligious” or “religious,” “atheist” or “theist,” “nonspiritual”
or “spiritual.” As has been observed many times before, “religious” and “secular”
or “nonreligious” represent a continuum (or multiple continua) rather, or more,
than discrete categories.
Some of my interviewees defy simple categorization. One is vehemently
“atheist” and “anti-religious” (with regard to supernatural or “irrational” ideas),
but participates in Buddhist group meditation (as a form of cognitive-behavioral
therapy with no acceptance of transcendental ideas). Another, trained as a
research scientist, is “skeptical” or “agnostic” about metaphysical questions that
cannot be subjected to empirical discovery. But he also employs Buddhist/Hindu
concepts (e.g., samsara and karma) “metaphorically” (i.e., without accepting
their ontological reality) to frame his ethical philosophy and approach to life.
Another describes herself as nonreligious and skeptical about transcendental
ideas, but she occasionally joins in eclectic “pagan-like” rituals created by relatives
and friends for the enjoyment, social bonding, and colorful celebration of life
they offer. While substantially naturalistic or non-transcendental in orientation,
and so, hardly “religious” or “spiritual” in substantive terms, neither are such
individuals thoroughgoing “nots.” They might be considered “soft” rather than
“hard secularists.”
Forms of human existential and metaphysical wondering, and related
behavior, exhibit a rich mosaic that well-worn dichotomies fail to capture.
There is a great deal going on behind and within customary survey or self-
identification categories.
Study of the “secular” and “secularism” seems to be a broad point of
departure for understanding worldviews, ways of living, and social phenomena
that have limited or no reference to supernatural or (ontologically) trans­cen­
dental ideas. Greater understanding requires that we carefully unpackage the
contents and describe them in ways that fairly reflect their character, complexity,
and diversity.

1. Killen, Patricia O’Connell and Mark Silk, eds., Religion & Public Life in the Pacific
Northwest: The None Zone. (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2004).
2. Sample characteristics: 24 male, 25 female; age range: 16-87; mean age = 62.4 years;
25 unaffiliated “nots.”
56 Secularism & Secularity

3. American Religious Identification Survey 2001, <

4. General Social Survey Codebook, 1998. The National Opinion Research Center at
the University of Chicago. May 1, 2006 <>.
5. The GSS only provides data for the “Pacific” region, which includes California.
6. There are, of course, challenges in applying national data to regional estimates.
However, available data on measures indicating substantial absence or rejection of
religious ideas or behavior in Oregon and Washington generally equal or exceed
those from national samples.
7. This is by no means exhaustive. Less frequently heard terms include “empirical/em­
piricist,” “objectivist,” “materialist,” or “monist.” “Bright(s)” is of recent coinage
and is promoted by some in an effort to change public perceptions of “nots” much
as “gay(s)” has done for “homosexuals.”
8. Based on an estimate of 178,000 members of U. S. atheist, humanist, and
freethought organizations in Williamson, William B., “Is the U.S.A. a Christian
nation: Pluralism in the U.S.,” Free Inquiry (Spring 1993), 8(3): 32-34, and circula­
tion figures for principal publications or membership estimates (2004-2006) for
the American Ethical Union, American Atheists, American Humanist Association,
Council for Secular Humanism, Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the
Paranormal, Freedom from Religion Foundation, Society for Humanistic Judaism,
and The Skeptic Society.
9. Detailed estimation is hampered by many factors, such as variation in membership
categories, questionable membership claims or reluctance to disclose membership
information, and lack of documentation on individuals with memberships in mul­
tiple organizations.
10. Steinfels, Peter, “Hard and soft secularism,” Religion in the News (Winter 2006 sup­
plement), 8(3): 8, 11. Hartford, CT: Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society
and Culture and The Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in
Public Life, Trinity College.
11. Kosmin, Barry A., “Hard and soft secularists and hard and soft secularism: An intel­
lectual and research challenge.” Paper presented at the meetings of the Society for
the Scientific Study of Religion, Portland, Oregon, October 21, 2006.
12. Members of skeptical associations (e.g., The Skeptic Society or the Committee for
Scientific Investigations of Claims of the Paranormal) present a complex picture.
There are “soft” or “selective” types whose skepticism is focused specifically on ideas
or phenomena that may be subjected to scientific inquiry and may be questioned
or dismissed with available evidence. These, however, may embrace metaphysical
ideas that lie beyond scientific inquiry. By contrast, “hard” or “thoroughgoing”
types direct their skepticism broadly at both purported paranormal and meta­­phys­
ical phenomena. Michael Shermer found in a survey of Skeptic Society members
that 35 percent thought the existence of God likely or possible; 67 percent thought
this unlikely or impossible. Shermer, Michael. How we believe: The search for God in
an age of science. (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 2000). Reference here
is to thoroughgoing skeptics or rationalists.
4. The Nonreligious in the American Northwest 57

13. American Humanist Association.

14. Council for Secular Humanism, under the umbrella of the Centers for Inquiry.
15. As suggested by Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. “Why more Americans have
no religious preference: Politics and generations,” American Sociological Review, 67
(2002): 165-190.
16. Although discussion content and Internet exchanges suggest that many or most
participants are “nots,” there is a noticeable reluctance to discuss personal philo­
sophical, metaphysical, or (ir)religious stances. While the irreligiosity of some is
readily apparent in discussion, such matters are generally, as one participant said,
“off-table topics.” Here, “secular” reflects a subordination more than rejection of
matters metaphysical.
17. A check of GSS cumulative data suggests different rather than substantially less
social and organizational involvement among those giving a-theistic and agnostic
responses compared with believers in God. For example:

Don’t Don’t Some Some- Believe Know

believe know power times with God
doubts exists

Average memberships 1.66 1.72 1.87 1.50 1.85 1.79

% of category with
membership in:
Professional societies 24.6 29.4 22.9 16.7 17.9 13.5
Sports clubs 20.0 20.5 23.8 23.3 24.7 16.2
Literary or art groups 15.4 11.8 17.5 8.3 6.9 9.9
Youth groups 10.8 7.1 7.1 10.0 10.4 10.4
School service groups 7.1 15.1 11.2 9.2 14.2 15.0
Political groups 4.6 10.2 4.6 7.5 4.1 2.9
Service groups 4.6 9.5 15.9 7.6 11.9 10.6

18. There are some notable differences concerning children’s education among nonre­
ligious organizations. Great store is placed on children’s guidance in Humanistic
Judaic groups. Paralleling their ritual emphasis, this focuses on Judaic heritage and
ethical guidance sans supernaturalism. Other regional humanist groups vary: one
has emphasized humanistic children’s education in the past, but this has faded as the
founders’ children have aged; others have not pursued such programs due to disin­
terest or divided opinion. The rise of humanist and atheist summer camps in the
U.S. has rekindled interest in educational programs among members of local
groups. There seems to be general agreement among most nonreligious groups
on the value of educating for ethics and critical thinking, but I know of no formal
programs in the region.
19. Killen and Silk.
58 Secularism & Secularity

20. Ibid., 17.

21. Shibley, Mark. “Secular but spiritual in the Pacific Northwest.” Religion & Public
Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone. Patricia O’Connell Killen and Mark
Silk Eds. (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2004), 140-141.
22. The five whose comments suggested transcendental meanings present complex re­
sponse patterns:

Comment Religiosity Spirituality Self-descriptions

Scale: 0 = not at all; 8 = very much

“Pantheistic” 1 3 Humanist,

“Only in a kind of 2 4 Agnostic,

pantheistic way” Humanist,

“I pray when I’m troubled” 3 2 Agnostic,


“Reality is in essence spiritual” 4 4 Atheist,


“I believe there is a (no response) 5 Atheist,

collective spirit” Humanist,