All the church-less heathens of San Francisco

May 5, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

Surely you already suspected? Surely if someone were to casually ask you, after they had just spent a few hours in church praying for your yoga pants-loving, $4 toast-eating, brunch line-waiting soul, which city in America has the lowest church attendance overall, your first response would most definitely not be, say, Atlanta.

Maybe Berkeley? Portland? Sure. But on the whole and as you can surely guess, San Francisco is, according to recent data anyway, the least church-going metropolis in the country, with fully 61% of area heathens never attending, not even once, in the past six months, if not more, if ever.

Are you surprised? You are not surprised. But you might want to make note of it as we race up to yet another grueling mud-fest known as a presidential election year.

Church on Sunday, SF-style

Church on Sunday, SF-style

Why? Because every single one of the various fear-mongers on the right will be using just this kind of data – that is, using you – to scare up votes. They will point out how straight white Christians are “under attack,” how the gays are (still) ruining America, independent-minded women (still) can’t handle their own sexuality, science is a massive hoax because only God can control the climate and, thanks to all the self-defined, godless perverts (that’s you) in places like SF, the little that remains of our once-great Christian nation is in tatters, and must be saved at all costs.

Sound familiar? It should. It is, after all, the common conservative refrain, the same cruel, plaintive pule passed down for centuries.

It’s also, of course, a complete lie. As the wonderful Amanda Marcotte so helpfully points out, America is most definitely not, by any measure you can name, a “Christian nation.” Not by a long shot.

For one thing, while it’s true that most Americans might identify as Christian, our values, actions and stances on everything from sexuality, gay marriage and abortion rights vary enormously. And church attendance overall is, on the whole, far lower than most people realize – way down to European levels – and declining fast. We’re getting more secular and spiritually diverse by the minute. God, apparently, prefers Mexico.

It’s not like we haven’t tried. As the data shows, while many/most of us in SF have been “exposed” to church at some point in the past, most of us have chosen to – how to put it gently? Opt out.

Not difficult to see why, really. Something about “Christian values” feeling overly constrictive and hollow to increasing numbers of the next (more savvy, more liberal) generation. Something about the bitter admonitions inherent in “family values” dogmas feeling antiquated and irrelevant. Or maybe it’s how not a single one of the right’s apocalyptic scenarios, from riots to “Left Behind” silliness to socio-economic meltdown – have ever, not even once, come to pass.

Seems about right? Everyone’s heard that few in the younger generation seem to want old, numbing institutions telling them, over and over, that they are broken, or confused, or that their sexual orientation and spiritual explorations are somehow destructive and wrong. Indeed, “Christian values,” at least as the right wields them, have proven, if not a complete failure, at least highly inadequate, frequently insulting and overtly demeaning.

But there’s another aspect to consider: it’s that obvious, long-proven – and yes, inevitably elitist-sounding – inverse relationship between education levels and one’s reliance on blind faith.

Very pretty, and increasingly empty. Not hard to figure out why

Very pretty, and increasingly empty. Not hard to figure out why

Like it or not, the basic rule holds forever true: The more educated, well read and exposed to/humbled by the stunning beauty and impossible diversity of the world you become – and SF is one of the most educated cities in the world – the less conservative, bigoted and fearful you will tend to be.

An oversimplification? Not by much. As that chart also reveals, the most heavily “churched” peoples in America live almost exclusively in the South – the same regions with the lowest education levels and some of the highest rates of everything from obesity to teen pregnancy (all those admonitions about sex and birth control) to gun violence.

Do not misunderstand. San Francisco is no hippie Jesus utopia. We are a mess in a hundred ways, imbalanced, overcrowded, not as diverse or tolerant as we like to think. And we are crammed to the gills with obnoxious entitlement, homeless problems galore, insane cost of living. But despite all our shortcomings, SF remains one of the most desirable places to live, breathe and freely explore your own churchless identity on the planet. Must be all our glorious Sunday brunches.

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Mark Morford

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