If someone with a clipboard walks up to you in a bar and asks you to take a survey about your religion, don't worry. They're not a canvasser. They're likely a researcher working with Lewis and Clark sociologist Monica Miller, who's doing an extensive study about the way young people experience and think about religion in Portland (the Portland Tribune summed up her research as looking into whether churches can "survive in the land of vegans"—because meat is godly, I suppose).
The 31-year-old Professor Miller, author of the forthcoming book Religion and Hip Hop, is looking to get behind the statistics of the Northwest as one of the least-religious regions in the country. About 25 percent of people in Oregon don't identify with any religion, but Miller says previous studies have missed what young people actually think about God and spirituality because they use old-school technology (surveys via land lines) and narrow religious language that turns people off. So far, Miller and her team have interviewed over 300 Portlanders at bars, tattoo shops, and street corners, and she says while young people don't go to church often, many see their spirituality as part of their daily lives and politics.
MERCURY: Why should I care about whether or not young people go to church? How does low church attendance impact the city?
MONICA MILLER: That's exactly the question: Do we need to be concerned with church decline? That question is motivated by a spirit of market maintenance. People in the Northwest have been painted as being spiritual but not religious, but really a lot of young people are saying they don't even consider themselves spiritual. For them, meaning happens where social, culture, and political issues lie. These are the things that hold a deep significance for them. They're very focused on the importance of community. Art. Music. People saying, "I believe in feeding the hungry, I believe in sharing." That takes the place of what we would consider religion.
But when you're surveying young people about religion, they don't like the language around religion. The minute you approach people with a survey about religion, they're immediately turned off, because that grammar doesn't hold meaning for them. Researchers will ask young people "Do you believe in God?" but they won't ask young people, "What is your idea of God?"
If religion or spirituality or meaning-making are being practiced outside of the "proper" places for these behaviors to take place, that's irrelevant. It was never just happening in institutions.
So young people here are not so much "religious," but they find meaning in things that happen outside the institutions of religion.
Yes, for them, it's not place based. It doesn't only happen at concerts or in churches. It's part of their everyday world. Like when I interview people at Powell's, and they'll say reading is spiritual, they find this place of meditation through reading, but they won't say Powell's is a spiritual place.
How have Portlanders been describing their beliefs to you so far?
We ask people, "What do you revere or hold sacred?" So far, a lot of the young people say the following things: nature, human interaction, love, respect, wilderness, meditation, the moon, community, "don't know, still searching," and "I don't believe in the word sacred because we construct that idea." They could be hiking, sitting in the park, and find that sacred. It's a disorientation for us because we're used to saying, "What places are religious for you?" But they don't have to go anywhere. It's more like a post-modern individualized spirituality.
Why do you think there are so few traditionally religious people in Portland and Oregon?
I think that historically, the Northwest hasn't had a history of ever beeing a churchy place.
I feel like the progressive openness we have about cultural issues here in Portland lends itself to critical thinking. In Portland, you can walk around with horns on your head or pink hair, people aren't going to look at you twice. On the East Coast, we have higher levels of diversity, but also higher levels of conformity.
We also have places with high levels of violence and income inequality and wherever you find those two variables, you find higher levels of religion. Portland has low rates of both. If you come from a well-to-do family and were encouraged to be a thinker, you had access to books, then, yeah, you're probably going to one of these young people who's thinking astutely about religion. That kind of thinking is fostered socially.
I've done this work in Chicago and Philadelphia and New York and I think it's also important to note the racial and ethnic distriction, because with black youth, you get a totally different picture. Black youth, even with that sharp decline in religious identity, black youth still do two things. One: Compared to their white and Hispanic counterparts, black youth still participate in religious institutions at high rates. 2) Black youth are still seen as highly religious. They espouse higher levels of religiosity.
I realize that if I were doing this survey not with a majority of white youth, it would look very different.