Oregon is right at the top of the least religious states in the country—about 25 percent of people here don't identify with any specific religion. That statistic motivated 31-year-old Lewis & Clark Religious Studies associate professor and author of the forthcoming book Religion and Hip Hop, Dr. Monica Miller, to hit the streets with a clipboard and survey Portlanders about how they experience religion and spirituality. Having interviewed 300 people under 30 so far in bars, parks, and coffee shops, Miller and her team have found that while young people don't go to church often, many see a humanistic spirituality as part of their daily lives and politics.
MERCURY: Why should I care about whether or not young people go to church?
MONICA MILLER: That's exactly the question: Do we need to be concerned with church decline?
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.
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. 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.
The minute you approach young 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?"
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 disorienting 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 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.
I've done this work in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York, and I think it's also important to note the racial and ethnic distinction—because with black youth, you get a totally different picture. Black youth, even with that sharp decline in religious identity, still participate in religious institutions at high rates.
I realize that if I were doing this survey with a group that didn't have a majority of white youth, it would look very different.