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Religion, Spirituality, Secularity, and Society in the Pacific Northwest

Photo credit: Mike Morash

One of the distinctive features of the Pacific Northwest of North America (the “Cascadia bio-region”) is its approach to the institutions, ideas, and practices associated with religion and spirituality. A unique environment for religious communities was created through the historical challenges of settlement, economic development (in forestry and mining, for example), political contestation (between Indigenous, British, and American groups), and the physical and psychological distance from the rest of the continent.

Although religious monopolies and oligarchies have existed in a number of places in North America, the Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic, and United Churches of the 19th and 20th centuries never achieved as strong a foothold in the region as elsewhere in Canada and the U.S. This helps explain why Cascadians say they have “no religion” at much higher rates than people in other parts of North America.

In addition, Cascadia is home to a dynamic array of religious, post-religious, and spiritual movements, which people are arguably freer to adopt and adapt than ever before (and possibly than anywhere else). Indeed, the region is arguably the site of extraordinary natural beauty that has animated what I call a reverential naturalism among many residents.

Some see the account I have provided above as the death knell for religion in the area, but these forms of irreligious, spiritual, and post-religious identity do in fact coexist with conventional liberal and deeply conservative religious perspectives. To put it briefly: it’s complicated.

This year, our team at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society (CSRS) at the University of Victoria begins a four-year study, supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Our team of faculty and graduate students from various disciplines and universities will address three outstanding questions:

1) What are the similarities and differences between the forms of religion and spirituality one finds in the Canadian and U.S. components of Cascadia?
2) How inclusive is Cascadia for those from minority or conservative religious backgrounds?
3) What are the public and social implications of the religious, spiritual, and cultural changes we observe in the region?

Of course, Indigenous communities have lived here for millennia and have well-established political, legal, aesthetic, cultural, spiritual, and moral traditions that have survived centuries of mistreatment and misrecognition from the dominant settler societies on both sides of the border. In this project and others we will initiate, we hope to work with colleagues to address the creative tensions one sees in the Indigenous religious landscape among, syncretic, revivalist, and assimilationist orientations toward Christian and traditional spiritualities.

In Cascadia we are able to pursue unresolved debates about the nature, scale, and implications of secularization and the new ways in which individuals and communities in the region are re-imagining religion, spirituality, and society. I am joined in this project by colleagues from Cascadia and beyond. Together we will provide our academic peers, students, the CSRS community, and the broader public with a new account of the complex interactions between religious and social forces in Cascadia.