To visit Stanley Park, the Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson wrote over a century ago in Legends of Vancouver, was to enter an “atmosphere of holiness.” Just as “viewing a stately cathedral” improved us, so “none of us can stand amid that majestic forest group without experiencing some elevating thoughts, some refinement of our coarser nature.” In equating and perhaps conflating the spiritual effects on humans of trees and cathedrals, Johnson sketched a piety with a long future in Vancouver, where Blundstone boots sit next to Buddha statuettes on many a patio.
For the sociologist Paul Bramadat, the concept of reverential naturalism — a “way of physically being, or being physical, in a particular geography”— best evokes the distinctive relationship between institutional religion, spirituality, and nature in Canada’s Pacific Northwest. In the 2021 census, 52 percent of British Columbians said that they were of no religion. Yet rather than viewing the province as merely the “None Zone” of Canada, Bramadat understands it as part of Cascadia: a region encompassing the coastal areas of British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington and defined by its shared ecology, topography, and culture.
Cascadia is not just a geographical designation; it is a “storied place,” the majesty of whose mountains, forests, and oceans predisposes its inhabitants to find spiritual significance in nature. Bramadat therefore proposes that reverential naturalism offers a “coherent metanarrative” for sorting out the varied ways in which the region’s 16 million people reflect on their place in the world. The term “is as yet so inchoate or subliminal that it is not easy to articulate.” It does not entail mystical beliefs, and it is quite compatible with a scientific world view. It is not an outright substitute for religion, because even church folk tend to locate heightened meaning in encounters with the natural world.
With Religion at the Edge: Nature, Spirituality, and Secularity in the Pacific Northwest, Bramadat and his collaborators have given us a clutch of rich essays on the world views of Cascadia, drawing on a rigorous statistical survey by Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme and panel interviews in its urban cores. Taken together, they can assess whether reverential naturalism is a useful as well as an attractive concept. The book certainly introduces us to many who believe in the benefits of spending time in the great outdoors. Most British Columbians surveyed went out into nature at least once a month, and just over half of those who did so at least once a year described their experiences as “spiritual.” We meet millennial surfers who speak of the “awe-inspiring effect” of Tofino waves and rabbis who compose “woo-woo” sermons inspired by walks in the woods.
Some contributors even suggest that the landscape is akin to a rival deity, quoting informants like the Seattle Protestant who complains of ardent hikers that “the trees are their religion and their God. . . . Gore-Tex is a religion.” Yet the Church of Patagonia exists mainly in the imagination of beleaguered faith leaders. Reverential naturalism may nicely describe a style of belief (or its absence), but it does not explain why Canadian Cascadians have long led the nation in reported levels of non-religion. Bramadat cites scholars who have argued that the “lovelier” the North American landscape, the greater the alienation from institutional creeds. But even if there was a metric by which Pacific beaches and mountains were objectively more sublime than vistas encountered elsewhere, a correlation between natural grandeur and non-religion would not establish causation.
Many of Bramadat’s essayists suggest history is more important than geography for explaining the formation of Cascadia’s austere spiritual topography. By the early twentieth century, bishops and missionaries commonly denounced Northwesterners as reluctant churchgoers. Although such complaints could be found across the anglophone world, this region undoubtedly was an ecclesiastical shatter zone. The European and East Coast immigrants who flocked to work in its individualistic frontier economy drifted away from the naves and altars that dominated their old social worlds. As later arrivals from different cultures moved into this unchurched, spiritually libertarian space, they often questioned the faith with which they arrived.
No wonder one Portland pastor believes the “biggest cultural idol that we have to fight is individualism,” not the numinous Mount Rainier. A Seattle rabbi thinks the people around him hunger for “meaning” but are unwilling to “make the sacrifices” to join communities. Secularization in the Pacific Northwest owes more to the region’s marked social atomization than to its natural beauty: it is in this sense a forerunner of changes coming to North America as a whole, rather than a spiritual place apart. A sensitivity to the widespread commitment phobia also helps Bramadat’s authors to explain the divergent fortunes of residents who do remain committed to the ritual observance of faith. Buddhists, for instance, feel more welcome than Sikhs or Muslims, likely because their faith fits better with prevailing expectations of privatized, invisible spirituality.
The deepest problem with the reverential naturalism thesis is that it ascribes a shaping power over faith to Cascadia, which may not in the end be a useful unit of religious or cultural analysis. For one thing, the love of nature turns out to be unevenly distributed. Wealthy inhabitants of urban centres along the coastal slope are far more likely to have the leisure for Subaru pilgrimages to the wild. As one Sikh interviewee puts it, the spiritual significance of the outdoors might be obvious in Vancouver but outré in Surrey, its blue-collar satellite city.
There are also vital national differences. Evangelical Protestants are more combative in “Cascadia South” because of culture wars that do not yet rage in Canada, while religious groups north of the forty-ninth parallel share in their country’s sincere, if often essentializing and ritualized, efforts to respect First Nations cosmologies of place. Such spiritual reconciliation has barely begun in Seattle or Portland. It would seem that our encounters with Pauline Johnson’s venerable trees are no less fractured by national boundaries and political divisions than are our attitudes to stately cathedrals.