Monday, December 2, 2002
Alternative religions really do thrive in Marin
Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
Survey finds faiths, practices far more diverse than U.S. as a whole
The Good Book is old hat in Marin County, where the teachings of
Gautama Buddha and a host of New Age spiritualists are beginning to eclipse
the Bible as the most prevalent guidebook for a better life.
A recently released survey by San Francisco's Institute of Jewish and
Community Research shows that a far higher percentage of people in Marin
County than in the rest of the country embrace alternative religions or no
religion at all.
The findings, gathered from random telephone interviews of 604 people in
April and May of 2000, do not mean the famously wealthy and liberal suburban
county is full of barefoot pagans wearing robes and worshiping in the woods.
But the study suggests the county would not be a bad place to start looking if
one were trying to find people of that spiritual bent.
"There are all these conjectures about Marin and the Bay Area being a
different kind of place socially, politically, ideologically, and that's
certainly borne out in this study," said Gary Tobin, who, with Patricia Y.C.E.
Lin, conducted the study for the institute. "People in Marin are much more
open and share different definitions of belief, of a higher power, of God and
nature. I think it lends credence to the notion that openness and change are
the norms in this community."
The Institute of Jewish and Community Research is a nationally respected
research organization that conducts scientific studies on American religion,
often, but not always, in the context of its relationship to Judaism.
The survey, which has a 5 percent margin of error, shows that in virtually
every category, people in Marin outpace the rest of the nation in their lack
of enthusiasm for traditional Western religions.
There are more people -- 23 percent -- who put "other" as their religious
preference than there are Jews or Catholics in Marin. The "others" are just
behind Protestants -- 27 percent -- as the most popular religion in the county.
Of those surveyed, 15 percent said they had no religious preference,
compared with 6 percent with no preference in a nationwide Gallup poll.
Only 38 percent of Marin residents attend religious services once a month
or more, compared with 60 percent in the national Gallup poll. Only 49 percent
pray before meals, compared with 86 percent in the rest of the nation. And 57
percent believe in God, compared with 86 percent in the entire United States.
More people in Marin -- 80 percent to 62 percent -- believe that "other
religions" provide equally good paths to God, and 96 percent believe a person
can be good without believing in God, compared with 74 percent elsewhere, the
Tobin warned that the statistics are based on self-reported beliefs and
behaviors, which may not be completely accurate in gauging real-life habits,
like, for instance, praying before meals.
"People tend to over-report what they consider to be positive behaviors,"
said Tobin, who characterized the study as the most comprehensive ever done of
religion in Marin. "Probably fewer people in both places actually pray before
meals. What is important is that people around the country are far more likely
to pray before meals than people in Marin."
Even so, Marin residents consider themselves just as spiritual as the rest
of the nation, the study showed.
Of those Marin residents who put "other" as their religion, 26 percent
practiced Buddhism alone or in combination with some other belief, such as
Celtic or New Age spiritualism. Hindus, Muslims, Taoists, Baha'is,
Rastafarians, adherents of the Goddess religion, pagans, those who worship
"love," and supporters of the metaphysical make up the rest.
The study concludes that many people in Marin are "spiritual seekers" who
were influenced in some way by the 1960s.
"People in Marin, even though they may not affiliate with a spiritual
congregation, do have a spiritual consciousness," said Kevin Tripp, executive
director of the Marin Interfaith Council, which represents 42 congregations
and spiritual communities embracing seven different faiths. "For a lot of
people in Marin, spiritual practices are very important, even though they may
not relate to traditional faiths. I think that's wonderful."
Not that any of this is a surprise. It may, nevertheless, be ammunition for
those who blame Marin County for creating John Walker Lindh, who left San
Anselmo and joined the Taliban in Afghanistan. In July, the 21-year-old
convert to Islam agreed to serve 20 years in federal prison on two charges
relating to aiding the Taliban.
Some pundits and right-wing commentators saw a direct connection between
Lindh's mother introducing him to American Indian and Buddhist spiritual
practices and his eventual association with militant Islamic fighters.
"The criticisms are correct because, you see, this area gave birth to the
American Taliban -- it was a place where it could be born," said the Rev. Lou
Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, a fundamentalist
Christian organization based in Anaheim, in response to the study. "The Bay
Area, especially the north Bay Area, have never been friendly to Christianity
and the traditional approach to God."
Even some local Christians are piling on.
"It goes almost without saying that there is a lack of faith here," said
Fred Carlsen, vice president of the Marin office of Gideons International,
which supplies Bibles. "I do object to some of the wild ideas that go on under
the guise of religious faith. Marin actually has some satanists here."
Tobin, the president of the Jewish institute, which has conducted many
studies of religion and ethnicity in America, said such criticism is not only
intolerant, but unsupported by the facts.
"The notion that exploring religious options and having a variety of
options leads somehow to someone becoming a traitor and fighting against his
country is a dangerous idea," Tobin said. "It's an example of the extreme fear
of the unknown. It has absolutely nothing to do with the landscape of
religious tolerance in Marin."
Tobin said, however, that he understands why Christian leaders would be
concerned, given that Jews in Marin are seemingly just as likely as other
people to embrace alternative spiritual beliefs or no religion at all.
Jews make up 13 percent of Marin's population, compared with 2 to 2.5
percent in the rest of the nation, yet Tobin said they are less religious than
their counterparts elsewhere. Only 40 percent of Jewish people in Marin were
members of a congregation, a lower percentage than Protestants and Catholics.
"Jews are low on nearly all the measures of prayer, reading Scripture and
so on," Tobin said. "I think that is partially because many of them identify
themselves as an ethnic group, not a religious group."
Ultimately, Tobin said, the situation in Marin is a microcosm of what is
probably the prevailing attitude throughout the Bay Area and a reflection of a
nationwide -- albeit less pronounced -- trend rejecting organized religion.
"A lot of the trends that are starting in Marin and the Bay Area are ones
that will affect the nation as a whole," Tobin said. "If anything, it is a
call to religions that they need to find alternative ways to engage people."
E-mail Peter Fimrite at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©Copyright 2002, San Fransisco Chronicle (CA, USA)