What does is future hold for secularism in the West?
The irreligious “nones,” the “spiritual, but not religious,”—while much of North America is just beginning to grapple with these emerging demographic categories, there is one region on the continent that has been contending with pervasive secularism for decades, if not centuries.
Perched on the pioneering edge of western civilization, the Pacific Northwest (also know as “Cascadia”) has, historically speaking, never been a “Christian culture.” Since its settlement, regional pastors have always had to wrestle its fiercely independent residents into church and, more often than not, the pastors came out broken and bloodied.
Want to know the future of North American secularism? This dispatch from the Pacific Northwest could very well read as a postcard sent from the continent’s future. While the image of broken and bloodied pastors is surely not an encouraging one, this postcard will, I promise, carry with it a message of hopeful possibility for the future of the Christian faith in a “secular age.”
Including the province of British Columbia and the states of Washington and Oregon, the region of “Cascadia” has long been labelled by journalists as the “most secular” region in North America. Be it “pagan Portlandia,” “Sacrilegious Seattle,” or “Vulgar Vancouver,” their journalistic alliteration paints the region with an equally broad and godless brush.
Christians living in the region have largely accepted this journalistic portrait of the region as a bastion of all things “secular.” They despair that their home has hardened itself over with an impenetrable secular shield.
But is the secularity of Cascadia truly invincible?
Any list of modern secular values would have to include commitments to radical individualism, scientific rationalism, and a largely industrial posture towards the natural world. Below we will explore how, within the so-called Zion of secularism, modern confidence in these secular values is not only beginning to waver, it is starting to crack.
Cascadia: A Case Study In The Secular?
While intersected by a national border, the prominent urban centres of Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland are separated by only a few hundred miles. The interurban ex- change of goods, services, ideas, peoples, and culture between these cities is sub- stantial. Residents of Seattle and Vancouver frequently discover that they have more in common with each other than they have with their compatriots in cities further inland like Calgary and Denver.
So what, exactly, are the cultural markers of this “secular” region? In the interest of brevity I will limit myself to exploring three.
A first regional marker is the culture’s deep and abiding commitment to individualism. Cascadians are truly the offspring of the “go-it-alone,” “do-it-yourself ” pioneers, loggers, and fur traders who settled the region. This pioneering individualism has translated into considerable entrepreneurial creativity and technological in- novation. Ventures like Microsoft, Telus, Tektronix, Boeing, Amazon, Nike, Mountain Equipment Co-op, and more are all a direct result of the region’s fiercely independent and entrepreneurial spirit.
While the individualism of the Pacific Northwest has spawned a great deal of economic, artistic, and technological innovation, such independence is not without its downsides. Families, civic organizations, and religious communities all suffer from the abiding desire for personal autonomy. Washington and Oregon have some of the highest rates of divorce in the United States. Volunteering in local service and civic organizations is also comparatively low.
The fierce independence of Cascadians also explains why they have a deeply ambivalent and even anxious relationship toward institutions—be they governmental, corporate, or religious. Large and distant institutions strike the freethinking individualists of Cascadia as overly static, constrictive, and inhuman. There is a fear that large institutions will ultimately limit one’s individual freedom, creativity, identity, and power.
A second marker of Cascadian culture is the prominent role the outdoors plays in nearly every aspect of their lives. The region’s imagination has always been deeply impacted by the mountains, trees, and ocean swells that dominate the Cascadian horizon. The simple scale of the region’s geography cannot be ignored. Its dramatic vistas have historically inspired residents with simultaneous feelings of fear and wonder, anxiety and adventure.
Cascadian participation in the outdoors— be it recreational (hiking, climbing, hunting, kayaking), industrial (mining, logging, fishing, and farming), or spiritual (Christian camps, nature worship, indigenous nature rituals, outdoor séances)— has shaped and formed Cascadian thought and behaviour in numerous ways.
A third and final feature of life in the Pacific Northwest is its deep and growing pluralism. Whether religious, ethnic, political, racial, economic, or sexual, it is clear that difference and otherness is an increasingly prominent feature in region life—particularly in its urban centres. A globalizing region in constant and dynamic contact with the larger Pacific Rim, Cascadian identity is fluid and slippery. As a result, the region lacks a thick set of common system of values, norms, or identity. The mere fact that more than 50% of Cascadians were not born in the region means that many have yet to learn how to “behave like Cascadians,” rendering “acceptable behaviour” a contested notion.
While much more could be said about this region, these three aspects of fierce individualism, intimacy with nature, and deep pluralism constitute central aspects of the Cascadian experience.
Cracks In The Zion Of Secularism
Let’s return now to the common journalistic view of this region as an impregnable fortress of “secularism.” Is it true? Are its commitments to the modern doctrines of radical individualism, scientific rationalism, and the industrial manipulation of nature truly secure?
The journalists, it appears, may have spoken too soon. We can already see multiple cracks forming.
In the following section I want to explore a variety of transcendent cracks that are beginning to form in Cascadia’s immanent frame. Hipsters, hikers, and heathens—all are haunted by a sense of “something more.”
As an important side note, the following “cracks” forming in secularism are, by and large, not the result of pressure from “religious” communities. Instead, these cracks are largely the result of internal instability within secularism itself. It appears that secular Cascadians themselves are questioning the modern values of individual- ism, rationalism, and the industrial objectification of nature on their own.
Emile Durkheim famously predicted that after secularism had killed the gods of “traditional religion,” it would inevitably fashion a new “modern” god. Durkheim prophesied that the West would ultimately deify “the individual” and construct what he called “the cult of the individual.” Soon enough the will, desires, and reason of the individual would be declared sovereign. All questions of morality, authority, and industry would be governed by the individual.
The Pacific Northwest is, in many ways, a confirmation of Durkheim’s prophecy.
Residents of Cascadia have long believed themselves to be individualists par excellence. They largely fancy themselves to be liberated personalities, freethinking in their politics, sexuality, technology, religion, and artistic creativity.
Nonetheless, the pervasive individualism of the Pacific Northwest appears everywhere haunted. Haunted by a desire for belonging, a most loathsome longing to bind the autonomous self to something or someone.
Politically speaking, they tend to distrust large political parties and institutions whose power centres tend to be in the East. I am not joking when I tell you that a secessionist political party exists here called the “Cascadian Independence Party.” Economically speaking, they tend to distrust large corporations as well. Eschewing institutions they choose to engage in smaller and more “organic” movements of political and economic action.
The fluid nature of these movements has historically made their economic and political activism extremely creative and dynamic—it has also rendered their movements unstable, disorganized, and rela- tively ineffective. Think, for example, of the colourful and yet ultimately fruitless and destructive protests waged against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999.
Many Cascadians are beginning to recognize that their dichotomous love for freethinking “movements” and utter loathing for the institutional machinery of eco- nomic and political institutions lacks foresight. Ultimately their grassroots ideals must give way to more organized economic and political institutions with clear goals, responsibilities, and structures.
And what of their individualism in matters of religion and spirituality?
Throughout North America much has been made of the meteoric rise of the religious “nones” and the “spiritual, but not religious” phenomenon. Cascadia is the epicentre of this emerging demographic of “free-thinking” spiritualists and unaffiliated believers. Dogmatic atheists are thin on the ground in Cascadia.
The region’s “secular spiritualists” are convinced that there is “something more” to life. What makes them noteworthy is that they do not seek this “something more” within the texts, liturgies, and institutions of “traditional religion.” As Mark Shibley, a regional sociologist notes, “the sacred has escaped the vessels that once contained it … the sacred is seeping into surrounding cultural tissue. Things outside churchbased religion have become holy in the Northwest.”
Alternative spiritualties have played an increasingly significant role in the life of Cascadia since the 1960s. Walking down the thoroughfares of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, one can witness a diverse marketplace of spiritualties including varieties of New Age, neo-paganism, Gaia worship, channeling, metaphysics, holistic health, earth-based spiritualties, Nordic spiritualties, Wicca, meditation centres, astrologers, and westernized forms of Buddhism and yoga.
While it is important to note the significant diversity of these spiritualties, an instructive consensus binds the majority of them together—the primary sacredness of the self. In one way or another they embody Shirley MacLaine’s famous declaration, “I am God. I am God. I am God.” As a result, the first priority for many of these spiritualties is the accessing and the realizing one’s “authentic self.” The search for Cascadian “gods” is primarily one of introspection.
A central feature for many within this demographic is the “do-it-yourself,” “make-it-yourself ” nature of their spirituality. They alone are the sovereign shoppers in the spiritual marketplace. They alone are the arbiters of their collected beliefs, practices, and morality. Just as they prefer to make their own software, airplanes, music, organic food, and political movements, Cas- cadians also prefer to make their own religion.
But is this “cult of the individual” beginning to crack?
Here I will limit myself to three brief comments. First, needing to “authentically” create and sustain one’s own religious system day after day can quickly become an exhausting burden. Dr. Patricia O’Connell Killen, a sociologist of Cascadian religion, wonders openly how sustainable this do-it-yourself spirituality truly is. In Cascadia, she explains, an individual’s beliefs, behaviour and sense of belonging “can be a life long project.” Enduring commitment to belief systems in the region requires “explicit, regularly re-affirmed choice.” Believers must continually “put energy into re-enforcing their belief and practice.” Individuals, she explains, “must keep choosing.”
Douglass Todd, a Vancouver journalist of regional religion, sums it up well when he observes, “Cascadians spend a lot of time wondering exactly who they are.”
To be a free spiritual individual, a religious pioneer, a shopper in the marketplace of emerging spiritualties can feel empowering at first. But, over time, the radical freedom can begin to feel like a burden, the experimentation can become wearisome.
Second, alternative spiritualties pride themselves on being “alternative” and “groundbreaking.” They are against the norm, those who stray from the heard of religious “sheep.” A growing challenge for alternative spiritualties in Cascadia is that they are quickly becoming the dominant spiritual population. No longer alternative, they have gone mainstream.
Killen notes that a demographic composite of this so-called “counter-culture” of religious “nones” in the Pacific Northwest is, rather disappointingly,
A well-educated, white, middle-class, male baby-boomer living in a metropolitan area with a wife and no young children … “he” is not a grungy Generation-X refugee … In this sense, not to identify with established religion is an ordinary rather than counter cultural practice in the Northwest.
As alternative spiritualties become the norm, the thrill of being an individual swimming against the current decreases.
If one’s faith must be eternally “new” and “groundbreaking,” one must be continually innovating, converting, and reformulating one’s beliefs. For, Killen notes, “In Cascadia, people make religion real to themselves by creating something new. When the project is no longer new, many people move on to something else.”
Third and finally, while these alternative spiritualties claim a free focus on the individual self, they quickly (inevitably?) become communal in nature. Sovereign individuals are brought together in Yoga classes, Séances, meditations retreats, guru gatherings, green spirituality centres to attempt to realize their true selves in community. This leads to a paradoxical reality, Killen notes, in which “people seek community… and yet feel ambivalent about the constraints that community entails.”
Sometimes this ambivalence leads individuals to retreat back into solitude. Other times, it can drive them into communities demanding “intense commitment and ownership.” It is no accident, therefore, that Cascadia is home to a wide array of radical cults, communes, collectives, and sects. These groups demand a significant sacrifice of individual freedom for the paradoxical realization of the self.
Reflecting on these cracks, it appears that the secular “cult of the individual” is not as stable and secure as modernity predicted. Cascadia’s confidence in the sovereign and autonomous “self ” appears to be wavering.
Reason To Believe?
Much like radical individualism, modern secular confidence in “neutral” scientific rationality is also beginning to crack up. An abiding dream of modern, since its inception, has been to overcome religious and cultural diversity and dissent through a scientific rationality that transcends and unites all divisions.
According to the “subtraction theories” of modern secularism, civilized citizens should, over time, progressively shed their superstitious attachments to diverse cultures and spiritualties and ultimately co- alesce around a single rational and scientific consensus. Like a modern Zion, rationalism would gather the diverse global spiritualties and cultures into its secular bosom and usher in a uniformly modern “end to history.”
There is, however, a problem: pluralism persists.
The region of Cascadia is deeply, increasingly, and stubbornly divided— politically, ethnically, culturally, sexually, religiously, and spiritually. Deep difference presses in on all sides and secularity’s eschatological hope for “rational” unity appears to be nothing more than a chimera.
The religious and spiritual lives of Cascadians are moving towards, not away from, increasing diversity. The world religions of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism show little sign of melting into a pot of rational consensus. Even modernity’s own “cult of the individual” has split apart into a plurality of disparate “cults of the individual.”
The proliferation of “secular spiritualties” throughout Cascadia signify an internal instability within the “secular consensus” itself. So-called seculars are failing to hold a united front of strict materialism and rationalism. So-called secularists are displaying an increasing propensity toward experiences with mystery, spirituality, and the suspension of reason. Throughout Cascadia, so-called secularists are participating in meditation centres, yoga practices, visiting astrologers, they are even experimenting (like drug-fascinated teenagers) with the ancient prayers and liturgies of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity.
Furthermore, it is increasingly common for so-called secular Cascadians to publically question aspects of the “scientific consensus,” particularly when it comes to modern approaches to medicine, vaccinations, diet, farming practices, and modern forms of economic exchange.
The region’s confidence in a secular consensus is shaken to say the least.
Cascadia’s enduring pluralism has left many secularists anxiously wondering, “What will hold us together?” One Canadian observer, Andrew Grenville, asks “I wonder if there would be any Cascadian social glue that can hold together a third-generation logger and a Hong Kong jet-set international?”
Technology And Nature
The third and final conviction of modern secularism has to do with humanity’s relationship with nature. The posture of the modern west toward nature has been to treat it primarily as an inanimate material object subject to industrial harvest and technological manipulation for the development and progress of the human race.
Early pioneers and traders originally came to the region of Cascadia armed with the conviction that nature constituted a material resource to be mined and an unruly challenge to technologically overcome. The early industries of fur-trapping, fishing, forestry, and mining stand as perfect examples of the early modern focus on resource extraction. The commodification of nature as manifest destiny. Early forms of technological manipulation in Cascadia can be seen in the damming of the rivers, the draining of the wetlands, the building of bridges, railroads, freeways, and the construction of vast suburban sprawl stretching from Vancouver to Portland. Fast-forwarding to contemporary society, Cascadia’s software engineers are often seen as our culture’s prophets and priests. They herald a bright future in which the innovations in computer technology can overcome nearly every imaginable human challenge, limitation, or inconvenience.
This modern conviction that nature is primarily a foreign object to be overcome, harvested, controlled, and manipulated into a tool is, however, beginning to waver. Cascadians are increasingly haunted by a deep sense that their natural environment is worth more, means more, and is intended for more than their own economic and technological glory. Not a separate object to be used, it is a part of who they are.
One can find a proliferation of evidence that Cascadians are searching for language and resources to cultivate a deeper sense of awe, respect, and intimacy with their natural surroundings. This search leads them to all sorts of nature-centred belief systems, be they pantheistic, New Age, or Native American in origin.
The search also leads to the propagation of all sorts of nature-centred behaviours including recreational activities, natural re- treats, ecotourism, micro-scale organic farming, recycling, and other environmentally sustainable rituals and practices. These rituals can quickly transform themselves into complex moral systems in which one ought to live simply, recycle, garden, hike, and buy local out of an increasingly scrupulous moral obligation. By “setting up ritual structures” like these, ecologist Dolores LaChappelle explains, we can begin to “feel nature moving deep within us.” A local sociologist Mark Shibley observes,
Much contemporary environmentalism in the Northwest is a religious system, not simply because it is dogmatic and moralistic but rather because its rituals and core beliefs distinguish between things sacred (wilderness) and things profane (all else, including people).
The modern vision of nature as nothing more than an object to manipulate is no longer recognized as sufficient in Cascadia. As Andrew Grenville writes, “The mountains of Cascadia mock our hubris, and the oceans continually remind us of the depths of infinity.” The secular residents are searching for a language to capture the deep sense of connection, awe, wonder, humility, and respect their mountains and forests inspire. Secularism lacks that language.
Mike Carr, an ecologist from Vancouver, captures this sentiment nicely when he argues that if Cascadia is going “to be viable and sustainable,” it “needs a new story.”
Lessons From Cascadia
What does the cultural landscape of this region have to teach us about our “secular” future? What have we learned about the security and stability of secularism immanent frame?
First, secularism in Cascadia is clearly haunted, challenged, and under pressure from multiple directions. Cascadia’s confidence in secular dogmas of radical individualism, scientific rationalism, and the industrial objectification of nature has clearly been shaken.
Second, this haunting and this pressure is largely internal and self-imposed. It is the result of secularism’s recognition of its own instability and insufficiency. Traditional religions play almost no significant role in the “haunting” of Cascadian seculars.
Third, the question remains, can traditional faiths like Christianity begin to creatively and graciously engage these secular experiences of doubt and insufficiency, loneliness and fragmentation, wonder and mystery?
In response to growing regional uncertainty in the modern dogmas of individualism, rationalism, and the objectification of nature, can Christianity model an alternative way of life? Can it tell and even embody a new story?
Within these three areas of secular haunting, can the Christian community model an alternative mode of individual freedom and flourishing within community? In an increasingly diverse society, can Christians engage across cultural and religious differences with humility and hope, conviction and civility? Can they, in other words, resist the modern temptation to colonize all diversity into a uniform consensus? Finally, can Christians articulate and model a relationship with the natural environment that speaks to the growing sense that the wilderness should be approached with wonder, respect, humility, and a deep recognition of our abiding interdependence?
For too long, Christianity in Cascadia has approached the region’s “secularity” as an impregnable foe. For too long,
Christianity’s response has been that of glib criticism, arrogant battle, or fearful flight. We should be in a place to imagine a more hopeful, creative, and generative response.