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
BY RICHARD SCHEININ
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
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
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
Northern California ``is un-excelled in its lack of religious observance,''
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
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.
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
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
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
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
``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.''