Does San Francisco believe in God? You’d be surprised

New study shows spiritual diversity is on the rise, especially in the Bay Area

By Don Lattin

Special to The Examiner

Nearly forty years ago, when we resurrected the religion beat at the old San Francisco Examiner, one of the trends I documented was the rise of an eclectic spiritual movement called the “Nones.” Not “nuns” with a “u,” but “Nones,” as in “none of the above.”

These were folks who’d fallen away from organized religion but never really stopped believing in God or some more amorphous Higher Power. Some took to calling themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

Like many national trends, this one started on the West Coast and spread East. Over the next few decades, the Nones became the fastest growing religious demographic in the United States.

At the same time, conservative, traditionalist and reactionary forces were assuming control of the two largest religious organizations in the U.S. — the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. It was the 1980s and the rise of the “Reagan Revolution.”

This alliance of right-wing politicians, Catholic bishops and evangelical pastors cultivated a backlash against the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement and other social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. They used the fight against abortion, gay rights and government itself as wedge issues to fuel a populist, nationalistic political movement that culminated in the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump.

So, as the nation emerges from the COVID pandemic, where do people of faith go from here?

According to a new survey of the American religious landscape, both the Nones and the Christian Right may have peaked.

Meanwhile, we might be seeing a reversal in the long decline of moderate, liberal and progressive congregations, those belonging to such “mainline Protestant” denominations as the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the United Church of Christ.

And, while “white Christians” remain the largest religious/ethnic group, spiritual diversity is on the rise, especially in places like the Bay Area.

The sweeping new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) analyzed interviews with more than a half-million Americans between 2013 and 2019, along with information on 3,142 counties across the United States.

Among the findings:

  • The Bay Area is a Buddhist mecca — for both Asian-Americans and white converts to this ancient spiritual tradition. Three of the nation’s top ten Buddhist counties are in the Bay Area — San Francisco (#3), Alameda (#6) and San Mateo (#7).
  • Hindus are happening here. Three Bay Area counties are in the national top ten — Santa Clara (#2), Alameda (#5), and San Mateo (#6).
  • Silicon Valley is one of the nation’s most spiritually eclectic places. Santa Clara County checks in as the fifth most religiously diverse county in the United States.

As a longtime scribe on the God beat, I was a bit surprised that no Bay Area county made the top ten when it came to the Nones, also known as the “Unaffiliated.” That’s an amorphous category that includes atheists, agnostics, spiritual seekers and other free-thinking believers.

Nationally, the new numbers show that the Nones now make up 23 percent of the U.S. population, down from a peak of 25.5 percent in 2018.

In San Francisco, the Unaffiliated represent 42 percent of residents. That’s almost double the national average and puts Baghdad-by-the-Bay in 26th place in the “None of the Above” county sweepstakes.

Natalie Jackson, the director of research at PRRI, told me it’s too soon to tell if the Nones have truly peaked in the United States.

“It is safe to say their growth has stalled over the past couple of years,” she said. “As we see over the coming year how the pandemic reshapes society, it will be interesting to see if there is an impact on this trend.”

The survey finding that grabbed national headlines last week was that white mainline Protestants may now outnumber white evangelicals, a reversal of earlier trends. This led to speculation that some moderate evangelicals have become so fed up with the Christian Right’s embrace of Trump that they no longer use the term “evangelical” to describe their religious affiliation.

All this may or may not be true. Mark Twain notoriously noted that there are “lies, damn lies and statistics,” and this is especially the case when it comes to measuring people’s religious affiliation, membership and attendance.

People who tell pollsters that they are “Presbyterian” or “Protestant” may not have darkened the door of church in decades. People, especially in the past, lied when asked how often they went to church. And national membership statistics released by the mainline Protestant denominations themselves show steep declines. More recent surveys show that people are also leaving conservative evangelical congregations.

Gallup reports that from 1999 to 2020 the number of American reporting membership in a church, synagogue or mosque dropped from 70 percent to 47 percent. Other surveys, in 2018 and 2019, showed that the percentage of American adults who see themselves as Christian dropped by twelve percent in one decade, down to sixty-five percent of the adult population.

That’s stunning, but not surprising.

For several decades, the Roman Catholic Church has been rocked by its child and teen sex-abuse scandal. Mainline Protestants have been battling among themselves over the morality of abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, many conservative evangelical leaders have climbed into bed with the culture warriors of the G.O.P.

No wonder people are giving up on church, which is as polarized as the rest of society.

Then, on top of all this, the COVID pandemic forced churches of all stripes to shutter their sanctuaries for more than a year. Many are just starting to reopen.

Christianity has a branding problem. The old labels like Baptist, Lutheran or Episcopalian have lost their appeal, and the churches themselves realize this. Thousands of congregations have rebranded. What was once known as “First Baptist Church” may now call itself “Sunrise Worship Center.”

According to the pollsters, the number of self-described “atheists” remains low in the United States, rising from about two to four percent.

Most of the nation’s Nones still believe in God. They may pray, meditate or engage in some other spiritual practice. They might study yoga, read the Bible or find fellowship in the so-called “small group movement”

For better or worse, millions of Americans are growing their own religion.

Don Lattin worked as the full-time religion writer at The San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle from 1982 to 2006. He’s the author of seven books, including Shopping for Faith and Running from Religion. Learn more at www.donlattin.com.

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