Conversation with Professor Tina Block on the Secular Northwest

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You have done research into the secularism or irreligion in the Northwest, including the province of British Columbia and the state of Washington. You wrote on this in The Secular Northwest. What was the primary research question and finding?

Professor Tina Block: I was interested in exploring not only why the Pacific Northwest was and is more secular, but how people were secular, and what that meant in their day-to-day lives. Focusing on the 1950s through the 1970s, I conducted archival and statistical research, along with a number of oral interviews with people who lived in the region, to learn more about the nature and meaning of secularity in the region. I found that residents of Washington State and British Columbia were, in the postwar era, far more likely than those in other regions to reject, dismiss, or ignore religion, particularly in its organized forms. I suggest that this secular culture was created largely by ordinary people in the spaces of everyday life, and that it was experienced differently according to gender, class, and other categories of identity.

Jacobsen: Northwest people have been rejecting organized religion to lose religious affiliation, but have continued to adhere to informal spiritual beliefs. Why have people lost their organized religion here?

Block: People in the Pacific Northwest have been more likely than those in other regions to stay away from religious institutions and to identify as of “no religion.” The reasons for this are complex, and rooted deep in history. Some prominent explanations include: the highly mobile character of the region which, in certain cases, weakened religious ties; and demographic factors (such as, for instance, the gender imbalance of the late 19th century – there were fewer women and families in the Northwest than elsewhere). In my book I point to the significance of cultural constructions of place – the Pacific Northwest has been less religious, in part, because it has been understood and imagined that way. Over time, secularity has come to be seen as part of the Northwest identity, entwined with regional ideals of hardiness and independence.

Jacobsen: Why have Northwest people continued to adhere to spiritual beliefs?

Block: It is important to note that ‘spiritual beliefs’ and ‘spirituality’ are broad concepts that are defined in very different ways by different people. For some, spirituality includes belief in a god or gods or the supernatural; for others, spirituality has very little to do with the other-worldly. The spirituality of Northwesterners was and is broad-ranging – in the postwar decades, many sought spirituality in nature, and understood religious institutions to be separable from, and irrelevant to, their own engagement with the sacred. In my book I found that many who were outside of religious institutions did indeed consider themselves spiritual – but there was also a small but significant minority of individuals who rejected organized religion and were, quite simply, disinterested in, or indifferent to, religious belief.

Jacobsen: Do these two – organized religion and informal spiritual beliefs – tap into a similar, or even the same, human need? If so, what is that need?As as

Block: As an historian who focuses on irreligion and unbelief, it’s difficult for me to do other than speculate as to the relationship of religious institutions and beliefs to human needs. It seems likely that the fellowship and community offered by churches and other religious institutions has been a significant draw for many. My current research, which focuses on atheists and unbelievers in Canada between 1950 and 1980, suggests that many atheists/unbelievers have also sought out the fellowship of like-minded individuals in various ways (including through Secular Humanist organizations).

Jacobsen: What are the near futures of organized religion, irreligiosity, and spiritualism in the Northwest?

Block: The Pacific Northwest is more secular today than it was in the immediate postwar era; the proportion of the population claiming “no religion” continues to grow. At the same time, the Northwest is less distinct in this regard than it used to be – the “no religion” population has grown substantially across Canada and the U.S., which has narrowed the gap, at least somewhat, between the Northwest and other regions. Although it is difficult to predict the future, the decline of organized religious involvement in the region shows few signs of slowing down. I would anticipate that the proportion of the population identifying as spiritual but non-religious (or outside of religious institutions) will continue to grow. My research also points to a long history of religious disinterest and indifference in the region; if past trends persist, it seems likely that the Northwest will continue to be at the forefront of broader secularizing currents, and of the growing acceptance of non-religious ways of understanding and engaging the world.

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