All those pretty churches. So many of them white clapboard buildings with tall steeples and stained glass windows. The kind of thing that makes you think Mainers are a hardy, God-fearing, churchgoing lot.
Well, you know what they say about assumptions.
Now that I've lived here nearly eight years, I can't say I was all that surprised by the Pew Research Center's recent study that declared that northern New England is the least religious part of the country, with Maine itself ranking at or near the bottom in the categories of: belief in God, weekly worship attendance, importance of religion in our lives, and pausing to pray at least once a day.
I've been to services at a lot of different churches, both in my own search for a church and in relation to my work, and with the tiny attendance I've seen sometimes — often just older folks who are probably on fixed incomes — I wonder how they keep the heat and lights on. Hell, one need only look at the rate at which Catholic churches in this state are consolidating parishes and closing down locations to see the signs.
That bothers me a little, but not for the seemingly obvious reasons (since I've already tipped my hand that I'm Christian). I'm in a searching stage in my faith, but I still hold to the core beliefs. At the same time, I wonder if living in a state where folks, especially in my age range (Gen-X), rarely bother with church has some bearing on my changing definition of faith.
But that isn't what's bothering me.
What bothers me is homogeneity. I would not want to live where I only dealt with Bible-thumping, fire-and-brimstone Christians. But I also don't want to be in a place where Christianity is largely cast aside.
There are times I want to be able to have a heart-to-heart talk with someone who believes in the same "good book" that I do. But I also value the diverse opinions and worldviews that I get from non-Christian friends, be they pagans, wiccans, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Muslims, or whatever else (and I've got all those in ready supply).
The notion that northern New England is increasingly turning aside from religious practice makes me wonder if people are turning away from belief entirely. While some would hail a totally secular world, I don't like the idea. I like the range of beliefs. I like the resonance of themes across a multitude of faith structures. I like the variety.
Just as there is a disturbing tendency to see faith intrude on civic life and legislative actions in Bible-heavy states at times, for example, I wonder if an overwhelmingly secular population might not bring its own set of negatives to the table.
At the same time, I think there is a great deal of spiritual diversity that organized studies most likely fail to capture. After all, Pew also did a study recently concluding that many more Americans are mixing their spiritual beliefs. I suspect there is a great deal of that that happening in this region of the US. In my time in Maine, I have noticed a great increase in yoga studios, psychics, and New Age practitioners. I suspect that while folks may be shying away from those lovely clapboard churches, they may also be looking at new ways to embrace their spirituality and find a kind of faith that is meaningful to them.
So I see hope that there is still a place for spiritual diversity, even as I wonder if we are drifting too far toward a secular world.
I guess I'll just have to keep faith that we'll find that balance in the end.
Shay Stewart-Bouley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.