What is the state of religion in Vermont? How do Vermonters characterize their beliefs?
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That’s the latest question posed to VPR’s people-powered journalism project, Brave Little State. It was asked by Sue Leroux of Mendon.
Sue’s question is something we haven’t covered much on the show, and maybe you haven’t spent much time thinking about it.
“It was just the idea that religion didn’t hit you in the face here,” Sue says. “I just don’t feel like your religious beliefs are very important to people. Like, where I used to come from, that was like the second question they’d ask, is, 'What religion are you?’”
Sue grew up in the Midwest, in a Lutheran family. Her devotion faded as she got older, but she still considers herself spiritual.
And Sue sees a spirit of community in Vermont that reminds her of church — but she says it doesn’t seem like people here actually go to church.
“One of the things I understand more about Vermonters is: They’ll give you the shirt off their back, but they may never really want to have a conversation with you,” Sue says.
So that’s what I'm here to do: get Vermont to open up about something pretty personal. In this episode, a look at a complicated picture of religious beliefs and philosophical considerations, and this question: Is Vermont really as irreligious as surveys suggest?
Obviously, the current pandemic has put worship services in a state of limbo. Religious gatherings, like ones held by the First Congregational Church in Burlington, are now mostly virtual. But when I talked to Sue, she told me her question about the state of religion in Vermont pre-dated the pandemic.
“This question has nothing to do with COVID,” Sue says.
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Okay, so moving on — I mentioned the First Congregational Church, because that’s where I went as a kid. I haven’t gone in years, but given the personal nature of faith, I wanted to begin my reporting by talking to someone I knew: Adrianne Carr.
Carr was the associate minister at the church when I was growing up. She retired in 2015. When I ask Carr about the last time we saw each other, she laughs: “Let’s see, you were walking into the office — your mother and all the other little ducklings."
My three sisters and I were at church pretty much every week. Our mom directed one of the kids’ choirs and eventually ran some of the youth programming. It always seemed like we were the first people to arrive and the last ones to leave.
First Church, as it’s known, was not particularly dogmatic. Discussions about God and the Bible were more about encouraging us to move through the world with purpose, humility and kindness.
Which is why, despite nearly two decades of church attendance, including completing confirmation and being a junior deacon, I don’t know that much about the Bible. In fact, midway through high school, I decided I was an atheist. I didn’t tell anyone, and took great pleasure in serving communion to the congregation — in my mind, a silent subversion of a sacred tradition.
Now that I’m older, I realize that even if my quiet atheistic rebellion had been known, most people wouldnt’ve have cared. First Church is a member of the United Church of Christ, a Protestant denomination known for openness, social justice and just a more humanistic approach.
“There is something greater than us, or someone, or some spirit, I guess, that is greater than all of us,” Carr tells me during our conversation on her back porch in Burlington. We talked about God and her experience working as a faith leader in Vermont.
Carr says when she and her husband, who was also a minister, first moved to Vermont over two decades ago, the state had a reputation.
“We were warned that Vermont is probably one of the most secular states,” Carr says. “And it is.”
There have been some studies to back that up: A Pew survey from 2014 found only 34% of adults in the state considered themselves “highly religious” — making Vermont one of the least religious states in the country.
Catholicism is the religion most Vermonters identify with. It’s also struggling. The number of Catholics in the state decreased by nearly 21% in the last 30 years, according to Vermont Catholic magazine.
You could look at the Pew study, the shrinking congregations and the selling of churches to real estate developers and conclude that Vermont is just a place for the godless. But it’s more complicated.
Even though organized religion doesn’t appear to be part of the lives of most Vermonters, that doesn’t mean people aren’t in touch with a higher power. They might just be cutting out the middleman.
That same Pew study shows 41% of Vermonters "absolutely" believe in God. And an even higher proportion of people, 47%, said that at least once a week they feel "a sense of spiritual peace and well-being."
In Carr’s experience, this complicated picture of the state is not surprising.
“While I'd say that Vermont is not church-religious, I would say it’s a sense of community, that is part of, to me, what religion is,” Carr says.
This leads us to the second part of Sue’s question: How do Vermonters characterize their beliefs? It’s a question that's all the more complicated — because if most people don’t go to church, what does the practice of faith look like?
I couldn’t call up every Vermonter, but I did reach out to a handful of people to start to fill in a picture of faith in the Green Mountain State. We’re going to wade into some heady, theological topics, so get ready.
One of the first people I talked to was Pastor Larry Wall. He's the head of a Pentacostal congregation in the Northeast Kingdom — the Newport Church of God. He’s been there for 30 years.
“As far as our congregation and what we're doing here, it's good —we're thriving,” he says. “We're growing, we're touching the community.”
Wall came to religion when he was in his 20s. He was married with three daughters, and he was an alcoholic. Eventually his wife couldn’t take it anymore. She told Wall to make a choice.
“I told her, ‘If you don't like it, there's the door,’” he says. “Well, she's from England, so I didn't think she'd take the door.”
But she did — along with their daughters. Wall was alone.
“I'm behind on the mortgage, behind on my truck payments, everything is a mess. I said, 'If you're real, please help me,'” Wall says. “So I had an encounter where I felt God's presence and the courage to go and call for help.”
Wall joined Alcoholics Anonymous and got sober. His wife and daughters eventually came back, and he says he hasn’t had a drink in almost 40 years.
Wall’s faith revolves around his relationship with God as mediated through Jesus Christ.
“So it's a love relationship with a person: Jesus Christ. He's my best friend. He's my hope, he's my healer, he's my everything,” Wall says.
A central part of Wall's faith is Jesus’ death on the cross — which he says is proof of God’s unconditional love of humanity, since God was willing to sacrifice his only son.
“The cross is proof-positive that God loves us, and that the same love that I have received, I am to give to people," he says. “And to give it without condition, and to give it without expecting anything in return.”
Caitlin Morgan, on the other hand, does not believe in God — at least not the Biblical version.
“I have a really strong sense of a wider mystery,” she says. “And a lot of beliefs I think probably would line up with beliefs of people who follow religion.”
Morgan is a Ph.D. student studying food systems at the University of Vermont. She didn’t grow up in a religious household; both her parents were atheists. But she went to church with a neighbor, mostly to socialize.
Morgan says as a kid she was open to the existence of the Christian God, though that god seemed about as real as the ones in Greek mythology. But even as the notion of a capital-G God faded from Morgan’s mind, she felt that there was something out there.
“For better or worse, I've always been maybe overly-reflective and inquisitive,” Morgan says. “So constructing a sense of myself in relation to the wider world, I don’t actually think I could be fully happy without that.”
Morgan was inspired by a theory she found in her work as a social scientist: The idea is that all of the human experience is mediated through our bodies and senses.
“As I've delved into that, it's also informed how I think spiritually, which is, I am a thing created out of matter, the same matter of the landscape that surrounds me, and the same matter of whatever is in the skies,” she says.
Morgan says being in Vermont is an important part of her spiritual practice. She grew up in Peacham, and after living in California for a few years, she came back to her home state.
Morgan doesn't go to a weekly church service, but she does yoga and spends time in nature.
“Listening and feeling and smelling,” she says. “Just trying to completely immerse myself physically in a way that also sort of transcends that because … it's like tapping into everything else that's existing.”
Jessamyn West says if she were giving a two-word answer to Sue Leroux's question, "it would be 'atheist Jew,' because you’re allowed to do that, which is amazing."
Religion wasn’t part of West’s childhood. Her mom was Jewish and dad was Christian, but neither practiced. West says it wasn’t until college that she thought much about her religious identity.
“I went to college with a bunch of Jewish kids who were like, ‘Your mom is Jewish, you're Jewish,’” she says. “And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that makes sense.' And, you know, my grandmother spoke Yiddish — I don't know what I thought was going on, but I just never thought about it.”
West, a community technologist in Randolph, says she doesn't go to temple or do too much in terms of practicing the faith. But she says there’s a cultural and community component to being Jewish that’s important to her, particularly in a place where Judaism is not widespread.
“And there is this sense of traditional Vermontism and, you know, 'those aren't Jews,'" West says.
West makes an effort to be with other Jewish families during holidays, like Passover and Hanukkah.
“And I barely do Hanukkah — like, we light a menorah,” West says. “But having those things together with some people has utility, because you go to Shaw's, the only grocery store in town, and people are like, 'Merry Christmas,' and the Salvation Army person is like, 'ding, ding, ding,' and I’m like, 'Yeah, that’s not really my thing.'"
West says while her approach to religion makes perfect sense to her, it has confused some people in her life — like when she dated a Presbyterian.
“He had a really hard time getting his head around sort of a cultural approach to religion without a higher-power belief,” she says. “He really felt like, ‘But how do you know what's right and wrong?’ And I'm like, 'How do you know what's right and wrong? Like, just somebody else told you?' That is so weird.”
The last person I talked to was Saifa Hussain, an associate chaplain and Muslim advisor at Middlebury College.
She says when she was younger, her idea of religion was more about “the testimony of faith, which is, 'There is no God except the one true God.'”
But she says the development of her religious identity has evolved through the years to be a quieter and more contemplative practice.
“It's just gotten a lot more subtle. ... Like, it can just be goodness, or that which is beautiful,” she says.
Hussain studies of Sufism — a form of Islam centered around the inward search for God. She came to that practice as she was trying to understand her relationship to her faith.
“I think a lot of Muslim Americans go through that journey, because you're just, like, introduced from such a young age of this very cacophonous narrative about your community and yourself,” she says.
Sufism emphasizes one’s direct connection with God. Hussain says that was empowering.
“It really helped me heal this otherization that has happened to me from a young age, being a Pakistani Muslim woman with a hijab,” she says. “But when I started defining myself and really experiencing it, leaning into it, that I am actually part of this expression of love ... then it resolved that otherization."
Hussain says the idea of love in Sufism is the most compelling. Here’s how I’ve tried to wrap my head around it: This love is a force beyond any word we have; it’s a power that we can’t fully conceptualize. It is this ineffable love that is at the bedrock of existence.
“And that is essentially of God, because God is the full manifestation of love,” Hussain says. "It's a path that transcends even religion itself … and it's just very human.”
There are certainly differences between systems of belief, and you don’t have to look far to find examples of how those have led to discrimination and deeply harmful societial divisions. But there are some commonalities: Namely, they’re all ways to make sense of our individual selves in the larger world.
This is a messy subject, and the question at the heart of Sue’s inquiry can’t be fully answered in a 2,500-word story.
But through my reporting, I do think that Hussain's final thought contains at least a partial answer: that our existential questions are a big part of who we are; they’re “very human.”
Grappling with those questions is a good thing, and that too might be the state of religion: We’re all trying to figure out what we’re doing here. Which reminds me of something that Adrianne Carr, my old minister, told me.
She says in her view, God didn’t preordain people to be a certain way: “I didn't make you to be the bad guy and you to be the good guy. I made you to hopefully learn how to all be part of the beauty, and not part of the pain.”
Be part of the beauty, and not part of the pain. I think that’s a reminder, regardless of faith, that we could all use right now.
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Thanks to Sue Leroux for the question.
This episode was produced by Liam Elder-Connors, with editing from Mark Davis and Angela Evancie.
Special thanks to everyone who shared their stories of faith for this episode. And thanks to Laura Elder-Connors for providing pictures of a youthful Liam in church.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed, and we have engineering support from John Billingsley. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.