San Jose Mercury News
Saturday, 31 March 2001

Patterns of Belief

Survey of spititual affiliations shows San Francisco and Silicon Valley are the most diverse, and secular, areas in the country


Mercury News

More people in Silicon Valley are Roman Catholic than Protestant. More Hindu than Buddhist. More Buddhist than Jewish. More Jewish than Muslim. So says a new Harvard-designed survey of 40 communities around the nation, which provides some of the first solid demographic information about religious affiliations in the valley and Bay Area.

But as the survey confirms the religious diversity of this area that's home to so many immigrants and seekers, it also shows this flip side: The people of Silicon Valley are far less likely than most Americans to belong to a place of worship, to volunteer in a place of worship, to find a sense of community there -- or even to trust the people they meet there. They attend religious services with less regularity than Americans pretty much anywhere else -- except in San Francisco, where religious connections are even more tenuous. 

So says the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, the national project whose results were released earlier this month.

``There is simply no question but that the Silicon Valley's inhabitants are less religious than most people throughout the nation,'' says Larry Iannaccone, a Santa Clara University economics professor who specializes in the study of religious behavior and institutions. ``If some mad social scientists were put in a laboratory and asked to create the quintessentially secular metropolitan area in the United States, they couldn't do better than Silicon Valley.''

Trend among Christians: away from mainline denominations

For years, religious observers have complained about the absence of reliable information concerning religious identity and attitudes here. The Social Capital survey is a ``huge step forward and a real gold mine for social scientists,'' Iannaccone says. ``This is the first time we've been able to get beyond our hunches in the Bay Area and it's quite exciting. We really didn't have a clue.''

The survey indicates that national religious trends do play out in the region: Among Protestants, for example, it indicates that Christian conservatives are becoming about as prevalent as moderate and liberal believers. ``It's evening up,'' says the Rev. Dick Roe, interim executive director of the Council of Churches of Santa Clara County. ``The evangelical churches are adding people to their rolls and the more traditional mainline churches are losing folks.''

But the religious playing field on which this and other trends unfold is smaller here: Seventeen percent of Silicon Valley residents say they have ``no religion'' at all, the report says. Nationally, 12 percent make that statement.

It's not clear that the overall lack of traditional religious commitment is hurting anybody: 94 percent of Silicon Valley residents report being happy or very happy; 85 percent describe their neighborhood as an excellent or good place to live; and 73 percent say that they can have an impact on making their community a better place to live.

Yet the survey generally shows the valley -- so famous for its networking -- to be a place where people socialize outside work less than in other places and are less inclined to visit relatives, join a civic group, or speak out at a public meeting. And when it comes to religion, perhaps the oldest and most institutionalized form of networking on the planet, valley residents largely avoid the best-known cultural markers for traditional religious behavior.

Researchers find that religious involvement and commitment is greatest among people who are longtime residents of an area, in their mid-30s and older, and middle class. Religious folks also tend to be married, to have children and to hold politically and socially conservative values. In the valley, and even more so in San Francisco, the population includes high percentages of people who are transient, young, wealthy, unmarried, without children and politically liberal. As a result, according to the new study, the Bay Area scores very low on all conventional measurements of religious involvement and commitment.

Northern California most secular

Designed by Harvard University public policy professor Robert Putnam, the study was based on polls of about 30,000 people nationwide, including 500 in San Francisco and 1,500 in the valley, defined as covering Santa Clara and San Mateo counties and southern Alameda County. Here are a few of its findings:
  • Forty-eight percent of those polled in Silicon Valley agree strongly that ``religion is very important in my life,'' compared with 35 percent in San Francisco -- and 64 percent nationally. 
  • Twenty-seven percent in Silicon Valley say they attend religious services once a week or more, compared with 17 percent in San Francisco -- and 41 percent nationally. 
  • Forty-two percent in Silicon Valley say they are members of a church, synagogue or other religious or spiritual community, compared with 29 percent in San Francisco -- and 65 percent nationally.
Northern California ``is un-excelled in its lack of religious observance,'' Putnam says.

Historians of religion in the United States have long observed that as one crosses the Rockies and heads toward the Pacific Coast, religious observance diminishes. This decline in religious interest is often said to have roots in the rebellious individualism and anti-institutional bent of the waves of pioneers, immigrants and workers who have made their way here.

At least anecdotally, the relative lack of religiosity is self-perpetuating: When people move here from more religious parts of the country, their religious commitment tends to diminish. Perhaps that's because it's so hard to find strong religious communities in what seems to be an overwhelmingly secular environment.

The Harvard-designed survey represents a step forward in academic efforts to find more than anecdotal explanations for religious phenomena. It was co-sponsored locally by the Peninsula Community Foundation and Community Foundation Silicon Valley. Santa Clara University's Center for Science, Technology, and Society evaluated the data.

Nationally, the survey breaks down religious affiliations and attitudes every which way, then assigns a single, overarching ``faith-based'' measurement to each of the 40 communities covered by the research. San Francisco's faith-based score is the nation's lowest: 70. Boston scores 81. Silicon Valley is near the bottom at 83. Then there's Seattle at 85 and Los Angeles at 99. Scoring above the national average of 100 are such places as Baton Rouge, La., at 124, and rural southeast South Dakota, which tips the religious scales at 128.

Bay Area high in diversity 

There's one religious dimension in which the Bay Area scores high: religious diversity.

Whereas the national population breaks down to be about 1 percent Jewish, according to the survey, Silicon Valley is 2 percent Jewish and San Francisco is 4 percent Jewish. Whereas only 3 percent of people in the nation identify themselves as belonging to a religion other than Christianity or Judaism, 10 percent of valley residents do, and so do 11 percent of San Franciscans. In other words, of the 7 million people now living in the Bay Area -- and the Social Capital survey doesn't even cover the entire region -- at least 700,000 are Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and members of other religions.

Protestants comprise a relatively small segment of the local population: only 22 percent of Silicon Valley's residents, compared with 47 percent of the nation's. The survey shows that non-denominational Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists and other theological conservatives account for nearly half of the valley's Protestants, while Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran and other traditional, mainline churches shepherd the rest.

But Protestants are overshadowed numerically by Roman Catholics who represent 33 percent of the valley's residents, compared with 26 percent of the nation's.

Why? Immigration patterns have reduced the percentage of ``non-Hispanic whites,'' the group that historically accounts for the lion's share of U.S. Protestants.

``Our area is high on Hispanics, who tend to be Catholic,'' says Iannaccone. ``And our area is extremely high on Asians, who often practice Asian religions -- no surprise -- and quite a few of whom are not religious at all. Over time,'' he predicts, ``a lot of Asians will move into the Protestant column, but that's a slow process.''

Overall, Iannaccone finds the paucity of religious connection in the valley to be somewhat alarming. Yet ``we need to be cautious in how we interpret the data,'' he says.

``What we're engaged in in Silicon Valley is a lot of communication, but it's not regularized and it's not institutionalized as it tends to be in the religious world. Still, I don't think we lack for people to talk to; this is probably the chattiest place on Earth,'' he says. 

``We are not a place full of social isolates. We seem to have a very optimistic and positive view of diversity and I would quibble with the conclusion that we are lacking altogether in social capital. I think we are lacking in certain types of connection. That's what this is about.''