Why don’t people in the NW go to church?

bhsher / Flickr

By Katherine Banwell

For years, the Northwest has had the dubious distinction of being one of the most non-religious regions in the land. In fact, it's often referred to as the "unchurched belt" in contrast to the "bible belt" in the South.

On a recent visit to a North Seattle church, there was only a small group of worshipers, filling about a third of the pews. That's not unusual in Seattle or the Pacific Northwest.

So why, we wondered, don’t people in this neck of the woods go to church?


Leaving church behind

Since the first pioneers crossed the Rockies in the mid-1800s, the region has been highly secular. By the time our ancestors reached the West coast, they weren't all that interested in finding a house of worship.  

"Very few people came to the Northwest to replicate what they had elsewhere and often the Northwest is experienced as a place where you could be free of social constraints," said Patricia Killen, a religious scholar who's written extensively about religion in our neck of the woods.

Simply, when people move, they disconnect from social organizations.

However, she said, just because the "unchurched" don't participate in organized religion doesn't mean they don't engage in spiritual activities. The majority of the un-religious also believe in some kind of transcendent force or power or god.


Does nature fill the soul?

cleverdame107 / FlickrSeattle's Green Lake is one of those places where you can find a lot of people on a Sunday morning – walking around the lake and soaking up the natural beauty.

Kristen Storey is one of those nature lovers. She was raised Catholic but grew away from the church in her late teens.

"A lot of what doesn't work for me is the nitty gritty singing and reciting prayers. I'd rather go for a walk and admire nature."

Another person who stopped to talk was Kara Lee. She used to go to church a lot ... every Sunday and on Wednesdays. But now?

"Being in Seattle it's so hard to get into the organized religion thing because a lot of it is a load of bunk, you know."

That reaction to "bunk" also helped make the YouTube rap-poem "Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus" go viral. It was produced by Jeff Bethke from Puyallup.


There May Be Churches but ...

If there are so many people choosing not to attend religious services, how is it that churches seem to be popping up all over Puget Sound neighborhoods? From the mega churches east of Seattle to the hipster Mars Hill Church with 11 sites up and down the I-5 corridor, there seems to be plenty of butts in pews.

"Churches are low-cost start ups. It doesn't take much capital to preach. But they start and they go under,” explained Killen.

Despite what appears to be a resurgence of religious institutions, she said, the long standing historic faith communities – Catholicism and Protestantism – have always had a difficult time keeping parishioners.

That struggle hasn't changed, but experts say that most "unchurched" are not atheists – our belief, they say, is in our collective hearts.

Perhaps the "unchurched" can best be described as skeptics and pretty darn happy skeptics at that.