November 10, 2002

New study tracks spirituality and religion in Marin

Marin Independent Journal

Marin residents are less likely to go to church than their counterparts nationwide, but are far from spiritually disenfranchised, according to a study by a San Francisco-based religious think tank.

The study, "Religious and Spiritual Change in America: the Experience of Marin County, California" was conducted by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research's Gary Tobin and Patricia Y.C.E. Lin.

"I think it's a great laboratory at looking at the ways religious identity and belief and practice are changing in the country," Tobin said of choosing Marin to profile.
But some in the religious community questioned the study, saying the sample size was too small to truly reflect residents' values or beliefs.

The study found that 62 percent of the respondents practice Western religions, although the frequency with which they practiced was lower than the national average.

Of that 62 percent, 22 percent said they never attended services, compared to 10 percent nationally. Thirty-eight percent, lower than the national figure of 60 percent, said they attended church at least once a month, and 24 percent attended at least once a week, lower than the national average of 35 percent. Study authors cautioned that people tend to over-report their service attendance.

According to the study, 51 percent switched from their childhood religion and now practice a different religion or no religion at all.

Also among the findings was a high rate of dissatisfaction with the available religious school education for children. Forty-six percent of Marin parents, compared to 11 percent of parents nationwide, are not providing their children with religious training, the study concluded.

According to the report, congregational membership, regular service attendance, and traditional beliefs in God and heaven, for example, are lower in the county than the nation. Respondents cited lack of interest, dislike of organized religion and no time as reasons why they did not join congregations.

But the study's lead author said findings that indicated that "the majority of Marin residents still identify with traditional Western religious institutions" was significant to note.

"It's important to capture the flip side of the story, that most people do identify with Western religion, most people do believe in God," Tobin said. "It's a duel story of tradition and change. It's not as if Marin County is completely different than the rest of the nation. The trends are pointing in a different direction, but still it looks and behaves in certain ways as the country as a whole ... The notion that Marin has abandoned tradition, that everybody is disaffiliated or that everybody is practicing non-Western religion is not true."

The report has critics. The Rev. Doug Huneke, pastor of Westminister Presbyterian Church in Tiburon and founding trustee of the Marin Community Foundation, the group that paid for the study, was asked to serve as an independent reviewer of the report. He said questionable methodology led to misleading findings.

"I didn't think the sample was big enough," he said. "It was a random telephone kind of thing. When you have a small sample and a random selection like that you don't get reliable information with which to draw your conclusions. It (the findings) is not true to my experience, it's not true to the Protestant community for sure. The study has such sweeping statements and conclusions -- how do you take it seriously?"

The survey, conducted in April and May 2000, consisted of 15-minute telephone sessions resulting in 604 completed interviews.

Huneke said not only is the data two years old, crucial sampling information, such as where the random calls went and what areas of town people who participated in the survey lived in, is important information left out of the study.

"He's got .2 percent of 270,000 residents in Marin interviewed by random sample," he said. "You don't know who you are getting and what you are getting. It was very limited. It wasn't good science if he can't provide that data to the foundation."

San Rafael's Congregation Rodef Sholom Rabbi Michael Barenbaum said he believes Marin is a mixed bag.

"A lot of people come here to sort of tune out, to get away from what they consider the restraints of their families and communities," he said. "They moved here in the '60s and '70s and are attracted to Eastern religions. At the same time, our congregation is very healthy and vibrant and growing. I don't see it demonstrated among people I know."

According to the study, 38 percent of Marin residents practice non-Western or no specific religions, the most popular being American Buddhism, according to the study. Fifty-three percent, compared to 30 percent of the nation, said they are "spiritual but not religious." According to the study, 28 percent said they believed in a higher power instead of God specifically, compared to only 8 percent nationally.

People in Marin practicing non-Western religions were more likely than those in other religious groups to say that they "very strongly" identified with and were very satisfied with their religion, the study indicated.

The Rev. Fu Schroeder, head of practice at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, said it comes as no surprise to her that Marin residents embrace Eastern faiths.

"I don't think it's surprising to me that people would not be affiliated with traditional faith," she said. "They're smart folks, they've had a lot of experiences and they have run out of experiments. Everybody did all that stuff (in the '60s and '70s) and now what? There are still some questions here - there's an intellectual component (to Buddhism)."

Barenbaum rejected the study's finding that people are less religious than they are spiritual.

"I think that's hogwash," he said. "I think there are a lot of people who gravitate toward religion."

For Further Information, Contact IJCR

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