Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, University of Waterloo
New director of the NSRN, 2022-2024
“I’m Jeremy. I’m 30. I have a little business here. I do, like web development and stuff, and lots of different work. And I’d also be under the kind of irreligious banner.” Jeremy, born in 1988 and currently living in Vancouver B.C., does not typically mention his irreligious identity when introducing himself and interacting with others in everyday life. Yet, he does so when probed with survey, in-depth interview or focus group questions on the topic. Although for the most part an unseen phenomenon in day-to-day life, when we as researchers start asking, we quickly realize that Jeremy is not alone in his irreligion.
From 2017-2021, our research team undertook a social scientific, historical and philosophical study of religion, spirituality and secularity in British Columbia, Canada as well as in the states of Washington and Oregon in the U.S. The research project aimed to explore many themes in the region known as Cascadia, notably the influence of the Canada-U.S. border in understandings of the region as a whole; the current-day impact of a unique contested history between Indigenous, British, American, and other diverse peoples; and how the natural beauty of the landscapes infuses people’s understandings of their everyday lives.
Additionally, our study explores how one of the most secular regions in North America functions as a society of coexistence between large groups of religious and nonreligious individuals alike. British Columbia in Canada as well as the states of Washington and Oregon in the U.S. have some of the lowest measures of conventional religious behavior, believing and belonging on the continent; measures that have been on the decline for many generations now. For example, those who say they have no religion when asked about their religious affiliation make up an estimated 44% of Washington’s and Oregon’s general adult populations and 49% of British Columbia’s general adult population according to the Pacific Northwest Social Survey we ran in 2017 for the research project. Historically, a frontier mentality focused on mobility and resource extraction, political contestation between Indigenous, British, and American groups, a physical and psychological distance from the rest of the continent, and a desire to be free of the Establishment in all its forms ensured that organized Christianity did not get as strong a foothold in the region in the 19th century as elsewhere in the United States and Canada. In fact, Tina Block and Lynne Marks, authors in this edited volume, argue that what defined northwestern exceptionalism in matters of religion was most notably the irreligious experience of many of its European settler residents. The Pacific Northwest was to a certain extent born secular, characterized by lower rates of regular church attendance among its population that date back to the 19th century. Religion never became as socially entrenched during the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries among a majority of its population as it did in more eastern, central and southern parts of the continent. Additionally, the large waves of East Asian immigration to the region, among whom saying one had no religion was much more common, contributed to making non-religion even more socially acceptable on the whole.
Our study aimed to examine what religion, spirituality and secularity looks like in a context where being nonreligious is so common. The new edited volume, Religion at the Edge: Nature, Spirituality, and Secularity in the Pacific Northwest, published with British Columbia University Press in 2022, is the culmination of this research.
Reverential Naturalism, instead of Religion
Whereas love of religion was absent among many of our study’s participants in the Pacific Northwest, love of nature came up frequently in the interviews and focus groups we conducted. Stephanie from Seattle explains the reasons for her love of the outdoors:
Reduction in distraction is a huge part of being in nature for me. But I guess it also represents an opportunity to strip down to a more basic form of myself and let my mind wander, or focus on what is in front of me. Whereas in the average, everyday existence, you know, there’s advertisements here, and people talking here, and bus going down the street there, and it’s like all I can do to focus on what I’m trying to get done. But practicing more of just being is definitely a big value that I get out of being in nature.
Samuel from one of our study’s Victoria B.C. focus groups goes further and describes his experiences in the outdoors as spiritual:
[…] I’ve had spiritual feelings while out surfing, or just being on beaches. […] I feel like being kind of immersed in nature in that way, physically being in the ocean, being present there, like, witnessing all of these natural powers, whether or not it’s animals or waves coming at you or whatever, and just like seeing the landscape from out there has a very kind of awe-inspiring effect on you. To me, when I think about describing it, it feels profound, it feels spiritual, it feels significant.
Within the context of these interviews and focus groups in the Pacific Northwest, the natural world and spiritual experiences within it are often contrasted with experiences of conventional religious groups. Susanna Morrill puts it best on pp. 236-237 of the edited volume in her chapter titled ‘Everything Old Is New Again: Reverential Naturalism in Cascadian Poetry’:
For these interviewees who found some aspect of their spirituality in nature, nature created an experiential moment, one that is not defined by institutional structures, either architectural or theological. Interviewees identified their experiences in nature as being spiritual in a way that placed these experiences in opposition to more traditional expressions of religion. Indeed, […] they seemed to find spiritual truth in nature because it is not constrained by institutional experiences and expectations. These experiences in nature seem to be quite individual and, on the surface, unmarked by communal, social, or cultural dimensions and, again, this seems, for those interviewed, to undergird the authenticity of their encounters.
Paul Bramadat coins the new term reverential naturalism in his chapter in the context of the Pacific Northwest region of North America. Reverential naturalism for Bramadat:
[…] favours an orientation that is both accepting of scientific approaches to nature and inclined to perceive and imagine the natural world in ways that are redolent (from the Latin olere, “to smell”) of mysticism, panentheism, animism, pantheism, and inclusive forms of theism. Reverential naturalism may be considered a metanarrative – with concomitant attitudes, assumptions, habits, and practices with respect to a breathtaking natural world – that animated the individual stories and perspectives of almost all the people we met during our research (p. 24).
Part of this concept covers some individuals’ specific spiritual experiences with nature; or in other words the sublime or ecstatic dimension of nature for humans:
[…] experienced as beautiful (in the conventional sense of being harmonious, well-balanced, pleasing, picturesque, attractive) but also mystical and terrifying […] the land and sea are framed as extremely vulnerable and imbued with an indefatigable capacity to humble, nurture, and inspire humans (p. 30; p. 33).
Bramadat sees spiritual experiences of interconnectedness with nature throughout mainstream culture and among a large proportion of the population – albeit at times in implicit ways. Yet, reverential naturalism as a concept also goes beyond this. It refers to a regional metanarrative that:
[…] permeates what we might call the dominant cultural rhetoric of the region […] an overarching meaning-conveying narrative according to which deference to and, for many, veneration of nature is framed as a distinctive, even definitive, feature of what it means to live well [in the Pacific Northwest] (pp. 24-25).
In a region characterized by the exceptional beauty of the Cascade mountains, Pacific Coast, and wild boreal and temperate rainforests, and by relatively easy access to many regional and national public parks as well as other natural spaces, a dominant cultural narrative and source of common identity has emerged in the Pacific Northwest in which nature and outdoor activities are seen as the primary source of human rejuvenation, balance, happiness, physical and mental wellbeing, as well as individual journeys.
This metanarrative of reverential naturalism is distinct from, although in some ways also inspired by, Indigenous spiritualities in the region. Indigenous spiritualities refer more specifically to the much longer history and contemporary realities of traditional ways of life among First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples traversed by spirit beings, personal and community healing, ceremony, the teaching of Elders, the Medicine Circle, intimate relationships with nature, and the journey of learning to live in the world put in place by the Creator. Reverential naturalism on the other hand is more of a sublime experience of nature found especially among White middle- to upper-class European-settler urban populations.
Although the social scientific concept of reverential naturalism is fairly new, the phenomena and discourses to which the term refers in the Pacific Northwest are not. Susanna Morrill also shows in her chapter that it has a history in the region, with many similar references to the sublime and awe-inspiring dimensions of nature found throughout European settler poetry and diaries from the 19th century as well as throughout family history interviews in the region. Morrill also points out that reverential naturalism was actually formed in the 19th century to the detriment of local Indigenous populations, with the White economic elite invested in keeping economic, social, and cultural power in the hands of Euro-Americans and Canadians who were arriving in the Pacific Northwest to enjoy and exploit its natural resources and land taken from Indigenous peoples. Some of these practices of cultural genocide and land theft continue to this day, with some of those seeking their own reverential naturalism dreams ignoring and invading remaining Indigenous lands and culture. This said, many within the reverential naturalism frame also take inspiration from Indigenous spiritualities. Sunny, a resident of Vancouver Island in her late 30s from a British family background, says: “I think teachings around the interconnected nature of everything as one, which are really core teachings in a lot of Indigenous contexts, is one that really just makes a whole lot of sense to me, it really does.”
Despite its history in the region that dates back to the 19th century, this metanarrative of reverential naturalism seems to be especially prevalent now in contemporary Pacific Northwest society. There is an economic dimension feeding the metanarrative of reverential naturalism in the region. Historically, railroad companies in the late 19th century promoted the exceptional natural resources of the region to potential Euro-American and Canadian settlers as key to profit-making and recreation. More recently, outdoor equipment, cottage development, eco-tourism and other such companies in the Pacific Northwest are some of the big promoters of the idealized images of happy, beautiful, physically fit (and usually White) people having their ‘authentic’ experiences within a stunning natural (and usually devoid of other human beings) landscape – with all the latest gear or course (for those who can afford it); images that can be found plastered on these companies’ store windows, websites, ad campaigns and social media. They act as an important source of socialization for individuals into the common identity of reverential naturalism in the region, along with other sources of socialization into this identity such as family traditions tied to nature experiences.
The current prevalence of the reverential naturalism metanarrative in the Pacific Northwest also seems to be tied to the relative weak presence of conventional religion in the area. Without one or a few dominant religious traditions to write the regional metanarrative, this has opened up the space for reverential naturalism tied to the incredible natural beauty of the regional landscapes to define personal and regional identities instead among religious, spiritual and nonreligious individuals alike.
Religion at the Edge: Nature, Spirituality, and Secularity in the Pacific Northwest explores this concept of reverential naturalism further as well as many more fascinating findings about North America’s most secular region and society.
Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo (Canada). She completed her DPhil in sociology at the University of Oxford in 2015. Her research interests include quantitative methods, sociology of religion, immigration and ethnicity and political sociology.
Dr. Wilkins-Laflamme currently has 16 articles published in top Canadian and international peer-reviewed journals in the fields of sociology of religion, religious studies and political science, including the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Canadian Review of Political Science, Sociology of Religion, Canadian Review of Sociology, Studies in Religion, and the British Journal of Sociology. She is co-author of the 2020 book None of the Above: Nonreligious Identity in the U.S. and Canada, with New York University Press.