Maine now has fewer religious adherents than any other state, according to the 2010 census by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.
In the 30 years since the first such report in 1980, the percentage of us who belong to churches, synagogues and other religious bodies has declined from 41 percent to 27.6 percent in Maine (with similar declines in Vermont and New Hampshire), while holding relatively stable at about 50 percent nationally. Yet Maine is similar to the rest of the nation in seeing a steady shift of memberships from Catholic and mainline Protestant bodies to nondenominational and Mormon churches.
This news, and the excellent recent article about it by Judy Harrison ( “Got faith? Maine the least-religious state in the nation,” BDN, May 18), has caused soul-searching in some local religious leaders and renewed zeal for conversion efforts in others.
The president of the declining Bangor Theological Seminary observes that, “the religious landscape of North America has radically changed.” Meanwhile, Terry Phillips, the president of the emerging Grace Evangelical Theological Seminary, enthuses that Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists view the states of Northern New England as “wide-open mission fields.”
Historically speaking, both the anxious and the opportunists may be wrong. For having large numbers of unaffiliated people has been Maine’s pattern for two centuries now. Back in 1815, Congregationalists considered Maine to be such a spiritually bereft territory that they set out to save people from “this deplorable state” of irreligion by establishing the Bangor Theological Seminary to provide more locally trained ministers.
But at the same time the more nimble Baptists were rolling in, and then came the Methodists, and by the time the dust settled after the Great Awakenings, the Evangelicals of that age outnumbered the Congregationalists almost three to one.
Yet as time wore on, both the Baptists and Methodists here adopted the Mainer’s suspicion of anything too passionate and have largely settled down to become the cultural churches they are today. Now they in turn are being challenged by the growth of the upstart independent churches and newer religious movements.
To be sure, when serious proselytizing efforts are set into motion they do yield results and lead to changes in the religious landscape. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example, has enjoyed a 10-percent per decade average growth rate since its inception and now numbers more than six million members nationally, with still only about 10,000 in Maine.
Anyone who has opened a front door to be greeted by two fresh-faced missionaries knows why the Saints are growing: they believe in their message and they work hard to sell it. Nevermind that most of these doorstep visits do not yield immediate results: they serve the primary purpose of solidifying the religious identities of the young missioners themselves.
In fact, the steady growth of Mormonism in the U.S. has less to do with conversions than with the relatively high birth rates and the retention of religious identity by those who were raised in the faith. But even the LDS Church reports that only about 40 percent of their members attend church regularly. As they go mainstream they are repeating well-known American patterns of religious belonging. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The students in my college class on world religions echo the patterns across Maine: a very few of them are ardently committed to their particular religions, but most, like me, are lapsed members or never-attenders. The true believers come to class knowing a little about their own faith but nothing much about any others, and they typically struggle to think about their faith critically.
By contrast, the nonadherents usually hold remarkably ordinary religious ideas that they have imbibed from a monotheistically oriented culture. But they are deathly suspicious of all “organized” religion, as they call it, and are shocked by the apparent certainty of the true believers.
However, these nonadherents are intrigued by and attracted to the increasing religious diversity they see around them. Much of the class involves field trips to local churches, mosques, synagogues, pagan temples and meditation centers. By talking with a variety of religious leaders the students start to get an inkling of what their more religious classmates already enjoy: a regular community of others with whom they sing, pray, share life’s deeper concerns, and from whom they get moral encouragement.
And not all adherents are alike. Many of the world’s great religions (Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, for example, along with many subgroups of Christianity and Islam) emphasize experience or ritual or moral practice far more than they emphasize beliefs.
As we Mainers continue to go it alone or pick and choose our private convictions from the salad bar of competing spiritualties, what we may miss unawares is the week-to-week opportunity for practice, and the nudge out of the cocoon of our private lives that religious adherence can bring.
In any case, Maine’s low adherence rates are, along with a few countries in Western Europe, statistical outliers to the ongoing prominence of religion in most human lives. It remains to be seen whether a culture in which a large majority are nonadherent ushers in an era of mutual understanding or simply forgets the collected human wisdom of the great traditions.
Cliff Guthrie, associate professor of religion and humanities at Husson University, is a lapsed ordained pastor and a past member of the Bangor Theological Seminary faculty.