History, politics, people of Oly WA

“The air … seemed too rare for prayer” The long history of non-religious folks in Cascadia. We’ve always been godless sorts up here

It is sometimes implied that what makes Cascadia so darn Cascadian is a product of post Big Sort social impacts. Despite @ancientportland, you can often assume that the most blue and green parts of what makes us us are post World War II developments. But, certainly post 1960s.

Before that, Cascadia was a land of tree cutting, aluminum smelting Republicans bent on damming every river that could give a gigawatt, right?

Well, like the Cascadia Calm (ahem aka Seattle Freeze), how Cascadians approach religion has a much longer history, much longer than you’d assume.

In short, compared to other parts of the country, we don’t go to church that much. Not that we aren’t spiritual, we just as a region don’t go into churches. And, we haven’t for a very long time.

We’ve been the least churched part of the country since at least 1951, the date of the oldest survey data I could find. Both Oregon and Washington topped the list of least churched that year, with 27 and 30 percent respectively claiming membership in a church.

And, the non-pew sitting Cascadia goes further back than that even. In 1915, several church leaders put out their views on religion in the region(h/t Patricia O’Connell Killen).

Floyd Daggett:

The great problem, to my mind, in the Pacific Northwest is lack of religious life. Many causes contribute to this. The newness of the country, its people coming here from all parts of the world, strangers to each other, without the family and home connections; the population is cosmopolitan, with nearly every nationality represented, with a large proportion of Southern Europeans and Orientals, who have no religious life nor Sunday observance.

E.J. Klemme:

The people that builded this empire were compelled to push ahead or be pushed aside. They accepted the challenge and began crowding those in front with the same energy that they were being crowded by those behind. They knew no limit and recognized no master. Science was their handmaiden, and to succeed was the goal of their ambition.

This condition forced them to leave the Golden Rule beyond the Rockies, and they proceeded to do others before others could do them. In the East they were faithful church members; now they are not even church tenders. The ascent of the Great Divide seemed too steep for church letters. The air of the Northwest seemed too rare for prayer.

And, finally M.M. Higley. This fellow, instead of blaming the mountains and the air, might be hitting on something:

Another stumbling-block to a great many is the multiplicity of churches and creeds.

So, we know that the complaint of the unchurched Cascadia goes pretty far back. It would seem realistic that if it was true in 1915 and 1951 that it was also true in 1854 and won’t likely change for the near future.

I have a pretty good reason (better than blaming the hills) why Cascadia doesn’t go to church, but I’ll save it for next time. What’s your theory?


  1. Martin Langeland

    the multiplicity of churches and creeds:
    It does seem hard to claim sole possession of the Lord's Ear ™ amidst such a bafflement of contenders all making the same claim.
    In the 19th century newspapers were in a similar pickle. Too many opinions bandied about forced a fella to think for himself. Fortunately the 20th century brought vertical, horizontal, diagonal, and polka dotted integration so that at last Fux news could tell us the Truth.
    Then came the internet … but that is another story.

  2. Scott Haley

    I heard a man on the radio say that "the loose change rolls West." A lot of the people who went to the Frontier to build a new life were misfits, including many Atheists. He said that of the US states, Washington had the second-highest percentage of Atheists, and that #1 was Alaska.

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