Comparative religion program brings potent research close to home

Panel discusses irreligiosity in the Pacific Northwest

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The UW’s comparative religion program hosted an event to discuss the vital role, or lack thereof, that Christianities play in the Pacific Northwest on Tuesday, May 28. Headed by UW professor and chair of the comparative religion program James Wellman, Gonzaga professor Patricia Killen, and University of Victoria professor Lynne Marks, the panel brought together experts from various specialties in religious academia to delve into the past, present, and future of Christianities in our home region.

“I want to understand transformations of religion in the Pacific Northwest,” Jaclyn Bautista, a comparative religion student, said while awaiting the discussion. “I have strong ties to the region because it’s the only area where I’ve lived.”

The geographical location of the Pacific Northwest provided an interesting lens; dramatically less religious than the rest of the United States, the region is referred to as the “None Zone.” By delving into religious trends experienced in Washington, the event was personal to each participant, even as it centered around the panelists’ research topics.

“The utterly private nature of belief in the Pacific Northwest surprised me,” Dr. Killen said. “It fascinates me that people don’t talk about religion [here].”

Yet, the panelists’ main focus was not only the secular transition, but also the unique religious experiences encompassed by the region. With the use of oral histories, focus groups, and data collection, the professors noted the many intersectionalities of Christianity.

“Women used to be more religious than men due to gender ideology and status,” Dr. Marks said. “Today, women are just as likely to be irreligious as men.”

From this point of view, the secularization of the Pacific Northwest highlighted improvements in gender equality. The incorporation of gender broadened the implications of transitions within Christianities. But, professor Wellman argued that the decline of the church is not a completely positive transformation.

“I think there is something lost when churches are lost,” Dr. Wellman said. “The church provides aspects of community and social justice.”

As increasingly more individuals in the United States identify as spiritual, but not religious, the demographic of spirituality among people offers insight to irreligion. More specific to the identity of the Pacific Northwest was the link that panelists analyzed between spirituality and nature.

“People who are economically better off are more likely to experience their time in nature as something spiritual,” Dr. Killen said.

With a socioeconomic perspective, the panelists critiqued the layers beneath spirituality in nature. While it is a common belief that hiking and spending time outdoors is central to life in the Pacific Northwest, this view often fails to acknowledge the privileges of expensive gear and transportation that come with outdoor recreation. By reflecting on time spent in nature, which affects spirituality and identity, the panel highlighted the economic spectrum of religious transformations.

As religion has many intersections –– including far more than those highlighted in the discussion –– many trends can be attributed to a wide variety of social, cultural, political, and economic factors. However, as a whole, the professors spoke to the core use and purpose of Christianities in the region today.

“Theological concepts and ideas are not central to religious life in the Pacific Northwest,” Dr. Killen said. “People instead want religion to give them a sense of community, a place to belong and call home.”

The event offered a scholarly conversation over Christianity in the largely secular enclave of the Pacific Northwest in the United States. Yet, though the demographics and involvement in Christianity shift, religious practices in the Pacific Northwest are far from peripheral.

“There is always a market [for religion],” Dr. Wellman said. “In good times and bad.”

Reach contributing writer Caitlin Quirk Twitter: @CaitlinCQuirk

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