Losing Our Religion

A seismic shift is under way. The fastest-growing religious affiliation in the country is now…no affiliation at all. Many adults are simply leaving religion behind. But as they become parents they’re confronting an uneasy question: What about the kids?

non-religious parenting

Genevieve is now trying to find a Catholic church for her two daughters, because her oldest is approaching the age of confirmation, and she doesn’t want her to miss the window. She interviewed the education director of one Catholic church and learned that the priest visits the children’s group throughout the year to dole out penance for wrongdoing. She cringed. “I’m sorry,” she confided to me, “but I don’t want Rose going through the week scared to death about God watching her and judging her, and thinking that she’s going to go to a fiery dungeon for hitting her sister. That’s where I began doubting the whole thing.”

Another example is my husband, who suffered through every Hebrew class he ever took. He has no interest in trading his weekend basketball game for time in a synagogue, but he sometimes wishes our kids were preparing for bar or bat mitzvahs. Then again, he turned out pretty well. Could it be that Hebrew school played a part? Manning said a lot of conflicted parents end up “outsourcing” religious education, dropping the kids off for lessons but rarely entering the church or temple themselves.

And then there is the fourth category: the people who are indifferent. “They wouldn’t say, ‘I’m atheist, I don’t believe in God, and religion is bad for people,’” Manning told me. “They weren’t unchurched believers, and they weren’t spiritual. They just didn’t care. Religion had no meaning for them at all.”

She was describing almost every parent I knew. But how did we arrive at this point? And why are there now so many of us?


To find out, I turned to Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist made famous by his book Bowling Alone (2000), in which he mourns the loss of community in America. We met at Darwin’s Café, near Harvard Square, for bagels and coffee. After ordering a double espresso, he tossed his wide-brimmed hat on the seat next to me and asked about my upbringing. When I mentioned that I graduated from college in 1990, he grew excited. “You’re exactly the generation where this began,” he said. He told me the number of Nones in the country had long hovered between 5 and 7 percent—until the beginning of the 1990s, that is. “If you look at the chart,” he said, “it looks like a hockey stick. It was flat, flat, flat, at around 6 percent, and then it starts sharply rising.”

Two decades later, we’re at 19 percent and growing: Some 35 percent of twenty-somethings now identify themselves as Nones. “It’s impossible to exaggerate what a historical change that is,” Putnam said.

Religiosity has declined dramatically in Europe, too, but that’s a very different story. “Secularization in Europe,” Putnam said, “has been going on—drip, drip, drip—for 150 years. The detachment from religion there is going on at one percent every decade. Here it’s one percent every year. So it has the potential for completely transforming American society. It has the potential for just eliminating religion.”

But surely my husband’s weekend basketball habit and my Sunday-morning yoga class aren’t entirely to blame for all of this. What caused me, and so many others, to leave religion behind?

I asked Putnam about this, and he suggested that it’s a response to the religious right. “The boomers,” he said, “compared to their parents, were less religious—and remain less religious. That happened during the ’60s. It was part of their liberation in gender terms, racial terms, sexual terms, and religious terms.” But a backlash against the ’60s counterculture gave rise to evangelical Christianity, which eventually produced the religious right. And in reaction to that, the next generation—kids like me who were coming of age around 1990—began leaving organized religion.

My own history is a testament to this kind of change. My mother was brought up in small-town Arkansas, where she and her siblings had wild, mostly unsupervised childhoods. But as a teenager, she also hosted weekly Bible study at her house, attended church every Sunday, and said grace before meals. By the time I came along, in the late ’60s, she was living in Connecticut with my father and two older brothers, the counterculture had taken hold, and on Sundays she was more likely to tend her garden or make macramé wall hangings than pack us off to church.

My parents divorced when I was seven, and my father moved from our ranch-style house in the suburbs to a New Haven apartment and remarried. Visiting him on weekends, I was introduced to my stepmother’s Episcopal church on the Green. I loved the organ music, the communion wafers, and the stained-glass windows. But what I loved most about the experience had nothing to do with God. It was that the church, unlike my family, never seemed to change.

When I was in seventh grade, my mother decided to move back to Arkansas, and took me with her (my brothers were already grown and out of the house). Once there, we joined a Presbyterian church, so that we could be part of a community. She sent me to an all-girls Catholic school, too, because she thought I’d get a good education there. I wasn’t all that religious then, but there were times when the simple acts of getting dressed for church, reciting the prayers I’d memorized, and going on religious retreats with my classmates made me feel happily grounded.

When the time came for college, I applied to Harvard, and got in. This didn’t sit well with my mother’s family, who were already aware that their Yankee cousins hadn’t been raised with much religion. When my aunt heard about my getting into Harvard, she told my mother, “That’s going to ruin her.”


  • Marie

    Great article on what so many of us go through.

    Love that the religious woman was non-judgemental. That is one of the things that, for me, it is all about – acceptance and embracing others and love where you find it.

    I did find that some your experiences / representations of traditional religions were not congruent with mine. I’m finding more acceptance and flexibility, at least in the Cambridge and nearby churches I’ve attended.

    I also was hit by the quote, “religion is just a part of our lives.” Given our general culture (which, apparently, is growing more in that direction), we seem to treat the spiritual part of ourselves separately from the rest of our lives. It isn’t just spirituality – exercise is another that we treat this same way.

    Anyway, I’m rambling but there were lots of good parts to this that got me thinking. Thanks.

  • Natalie Sera

    I was raised Jewish, and retain a feeling of connection with the Jewish community, but I’d probably fit the secular humanist box better, too. For me, the main issue is, do I believe in God? And the answer is that although there may be many things in the universe that I neither know about nor understand, I cannot honestly say I believe in God.

    With that understanding, what do I take away from your article? The first is that by studying Judaism in a mature way, I have learned that I do very strongly agree with Reform Jewish morals and ethics, and that the only reason I can see for continuing to live on this planet is to make it better. In Hebrew, it’s called Tikkun Olam, the Repair of the World. So I continue to identify as a Jew, albeit an agnostic Jew.

    As far as community, it’s all over the place. Any group of people can become your confidants, and your go-to people when you’re having trouble. For me, it’s my dance and music groups. Any group that is dedicated to more than JUST the practice of an activity can become that group. For kids, it can be the football team, or the band, or the drama club or the debate club. They will find their community; I have no doubt about it.

    Meanwhile, I do think you are doing the right thing by your kids. Ethics and morals are NOT tied to religion or belief in God — they’re tied to our fundamental human ability to empathize with each other, and our need to act as a part of society. You can very easily answer the questions of your kids by being honest. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed about it. “No, sweetie, I don’t believe in Jesus, and I don’t believe in God, either. Some people do, and it gives them comfort, but I get my comfort from knowing I’m doing the right thing, and from the love of my family and friends.”

    So, Harvard professor to the contrary, you DON’T need religion, you just need the commitment to raise your children in a spiritually honest way. Good luck! :-)

  • Amanda

    Lovely article. We are experiencing the same growing pains in our own family. I heading to Beliefnet right now to see ‘what’ we are. Being a None is getting old! Thanks for this well-written and helpful article!

  • Cameron Willadsen

    I just want to say thank you so much for articles like these. Even in an area of the country that isn’t particularly uncomfortable being an atheist in. I still feel there is a strong public sentiment against atheists. So being able to read these articles and find out how various “Nones”, atheist or not, are living their lives is a breathe of fresh air.

  • Jens Hegg

    Thanks for the article. These articles seem to be springing up everywhere this week. I enjoyed it, from the perspective of a ‘none’, but like so many other articles on this subject saw a deep and barely exposed vein of distrust for athiests that I find interesting.

    The line about how an atheist might respond to a child asking about religion was telling. No athiest I know would ever respond that way to a child. I respond exactly as you describe yourself responding. Athiest does not mean ‘angry’, it means not believing in a god…it means to be a ‘none’ exactly how you have described.

    I find it interesting that the same distrust of secularism expressed by your family when you went to Harvard is still hanging on amongst ‘nones’ who can’t bear to say having no religion makes them athiest or agnostic. We, as a culture, place athiesm alongside devil worship in our a minds without realizing that the denigrating ideas of athiests come from our upbringing in churches. I see these veins of anti-athiest sentiment and am always amazed that they are as strong among those without religion as they are among the religious. Are we that afraid of admitting what we show with our actions on Sunday morning?

  • Noah Monsey

    Thank you for the excellent article.
    As someone who is in the exact same position with two young kids and no religious beliefs it is nice to see other people with similar lack of belief. I actually wanted to expose my children to as many different mythologies as possible and then let them decide what they believed. I do believe that I will finally bring my children to a Humanist meeting.

  • Dave in NM

    Nice article. I’ve seen a lot of this sort of thing, because I’ve identified as a Humanist (http://www.americanhumanist.org/) for many years now. I realized early in teenage that I didn’t believe in God, and my parents were understanding enough to let me stop going to church (my family were very active Presbyterians). I’ve been very candid about my beliefs (and non-beliefs) straight along, and, like other unchurched parents, wanted my kids to know as many belief systems as possible and choose when they were ready. But they always pooh-poohed the idea of waiting – to them, despite my attempts at presenting ideas neutrally, the idea of gods is ludicrous. They’re quite comfortable telling their friends they don’t believe in God. And with the occasional – though rarer than expected – condemnation from some young Evangelical, their peers have reacted about as they would to left-handedness, or maybe being from Back East: a difference, but a negligible one. I’m the author’s age, and that would never have happened in the world I grew up in. I guess the US is changing, with young people – as usual – leading the way. From what I’ve seen, the future looks promising indeed.

    • Gemgirl

      Yes, it is changing…generally it IS for the better…and thank Goodness for those pesky young folk. They show us the way!

  • starskeptic

    Excellent article on an important topic. My first impression relates to that ‘golden rule’ moment – how can these secular parents have avoided that for so long? At some point in one’s life you have to decide what you believe and what you are going to pass along to your children as a foundation. It seems that, in this case – at least up to a point, religion (or the lack thereof) was used as an excuse not to teach anything.

  • Bryan Elliott

    I’m not sure I’ll ever understand this. If you aren’t convinced by religious claims, why would you lie to your children or allow others to, far as you can tell, lie to your children?

  • Chris Squire

    The Belief-o-Matic quiz is at: http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Quizzes/BeliefOMatic.aspx

    My result:

    ‘You have Secular Humanism beliefs (100%). Your score for the other religions was:
    88 Unitarian Universalism
    88 Atheism
    68 Liberal Quakerism
    64 Liberal Christian Protestantism
    56 Theravada Buddhism
    51 Taoism
    50 Reformed Judaism
    36 New Age
    36 Neo-Paganism
    34 Mahayana Buddhism
    32 New Thought
    32 Church of Christ, Scientist
    29 Scientology
    29 Bahá’í Faith
    27 Sikhism
    24 Orthodox Quakerism
    22 Jainism
    18 Conservative Christian Protestant
    16 Islam
    12 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
    9 Seventh-day Adventists
    6 Roman Catholicism
    6 Orthodox Judaism
    6 Eastern Orthodox Christianity
    0 Jehovah’s Witnesses
    0 Hinduism’

  • Wilber

    It’s really amazing the amount of “comment” deletion going on here? Clearly, Bostonmag wants people to see, ONLY, anti-Truth, satanic comments that are sure to spark a revival in the unbelievers heart.
    I’ll add you and your editorial staff the long list of people GUILTY of causing people to miss out on what Jesus Christ offers.
    Although I’m sure you had no trouble finding your “Genevieve” – (probably one of your columnists) the truth is still truth. Parents who hate their children as much as this person claims to, to the point where they claim they don’t even want their own children to at least be “slightly” humbled by any of their disgusting behaviors, and seek to be better people, explains why, our society is now so disgusting.
    So yes, thanks for the article, I only hope every one with or without kids, understands your primary goal is simply assisting the democrat party in ridding the nation of Jesus Christ. And as far as that goes, you’re right up there with the pros.

    • MathProf1223

      I’m a religious Democrat. Your assumption that religious people are Republicans and that those who favor freedom of religion for all are Democrats is just factually wrong. People trying to find their way in a society where a few (not a majority of) religious people are cruel and judgmental need to be helped in love, not attacked. The Jesus you mention said “judge not, that ye be not judged” and “love one another.”

    • Gemgirl

      This comment: AKA…the reason why the ‘Nones’ have nearly reached 30%. I do not even want to be in a room with nor have my children “exposed” to this type of person. Of course, not all religious folk speak like this commenter and many are wonderful…even exceptional people. But there are enough people who ARE like this commenter to turn the stomachs of those of us who are “on the fence” about God and church. This author does not HATE her children and someone who gets that out of her lovely essay has a world of hate inside them….and ignorance….and phobia. I am sorry that some people are this uneducated and mean but I do not need to “expose” my kids to them to save their souls or even to just make them better people. My daughter is an intelligent, loving, thoughtful young person. She will do just fine by giving her our love, our love of reading and learning, and friends who judge less and nurture more.

  • Michael E. Malulani K. Odegaard

    As much as I was charmed by Katherine’s quaint observations, I was also reminded about how insensitive much of contemporary writing has been toward religion to the point of stereotyping groups in the minds of their readers. For example, the church that started the writer on her essay, the Greek Orthodox church Katherine has lived across the street from for the last 10 years. Frankly, I would be very surprised to find out that its parishioners were all of Greek ethnicity, and I hope that Katherine will visit and actually get to know some of the people she has written about. As a Native Hawaiian seminarian at the only Greek Orthodox seminary in North America (which is located just a couple of miles south of Katherine), I have found that not only is the Greek Orthodox faith extremely multi-ethnic, but that the indigenous values embodied in the teachings and rituals this most ancient of Christian churches to be universal enough to inspire anyone who yearns to realize their true identity as well as to cultivate their own fidelity to place. To this extent, I would like to extend Katherine an invitation to visit Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline to see if what I say isnʻt true.

    • StEwPiD_MoNkEy

      So what? I married a greek and belonged to the TGOC. Most churches can be diverse. That has no bearing on the nonsense preached. IMO.

  • Amy

    We had to face this issue when our children became school age. My spouse was a military officer way back then and we decided to homeschool as we would have a lot of rapid moves when they were in elementary school years. When you homeschool in states like Kansas and the Carolinas you need to know exactly where you stand on religion. Do you believe in creation or evolution? Literal or figurative translation of the Bible? Full body baptism or sprinkling of water? I’m not joking when I say that these questions create schisms in homeschool groups. Their idea of being an “inclusive” group was being tolerant of Catholics, although I heard from some parents that being tolerant did include regular attempts to save them from Paganism. Don’t laugh, but as a Catholic raised New England girl I didn’t realize the jury was still out on evolution. Suddenly I found myself at homeschool curriculum fairs staring down tables labeled “evolution-free” lesson plans. I had a lot to uncoil in my own doubting mind. Living on military bases your neighbors are often members of Bible churches, another category I was not familiar with, but a large percentage of our military enlists from southern and mid-western states that are conservative Christian. I chose to search out truly inclusive groups, when possible, where I might find Buddhists, Christians, Nones (a term new to me today), gay couples, Pagans etc…My kids and I studied many religions as we studied history and English; as a human phenomenon that had many constructs around the world. Although we don’t believe I thought it was important for them to have a working knowledge of world religions. They’re all in college now and I think it was time well spent. I always told them that if one of the religions we studied connected with them they should follow that interest to its destination. We visited different holy buildings and attended religious discussion groups. When my daughter took the SAT World History exam she said there was a question on Jainism and wondered if a student from a public school would have known the answer from classes or from independent study. Maybe we are Secular Humanists, we do believe it’s our responsibility to make the world a better place and Pay It Forward whenever possible.

    • MathProf1223

      Valuable post, because it gives real experiences reflecting things going on in the society at large with which many people are not familiar.

  • Brad

    Here’s a “big picture” view. It’s only been an historical blink of an eye since a person who does not buy the existence of a given culture’s deities could say as much in public without dire risk of being tortured, burned to death, or at minimum being made an outcast or pariah. Even today this is so in much of the Muslim world. And how do doubters and non-believers fare in small-town America, or, say, in Hasidic or JW or Mormon families? (Read Under the Banner of Heaven, for example.)
    Accordingly, the very ability of non-believers or “nones” of any stripe to organize into groups of any sort, not to mention strongly supportive and service oriented communities, is an even more recent phenomenon. Mr. Epstein has the right idea, and he will be the first of many!
    Meanwhile, my experience indicates that thoughtful “nones” will continue, on balance, to raise their children to become healthy, happy, ethical, and productive adults without the handicap of anachronistic superstition.

  • http://gwalker134@yahoo.com Gordon

    My wife & I are non-religious, but raised Baptist.Many years ago, when our oldest son was 5, we sent him to church summer camp, so he could be exposed. The first day my wifw picked him up she asked him, ” So what did you think ?”
    He said:
    ” Mom, they say God sent his Son down here to die four sins,but he came back to life after 3 days and if we believe that we will live in Heaven forever, but if we don’t we”ll burn in hell forever.”
    ” Yes, they do.”
    ( VERY earnestly) ” But they have no proof.”
    Not bad for a 5 year-old.

    • Klem

      Dont be a dick.

  • Heidi

    I was raised atheist and I was taught to be a kind, compassionate, independent person, because it’s the right thing to do, not because if I don’t, I might go to hell.

  • April Winder

    This hit right at the heart of a dilemma I haven’t been able to pin point for some time now. It brought me to tears to hear the words, “You’re human, you’re not nothing!” Thank you so much for your inspiring words and letting me know that I am not alone in my thoughts, worries and fears.

  • Brad

    Your points are interesting and well-taken. However, from the point of view of an atheist like myself, I think it might be a wee bit over-the-top to complain about insensitivity toward the religious, given the power and influence that religion has in our nation and across much of the world.

    We non-believers have had our views and our characters distorted and assaulted from time immemorial. Even here in Ms. Ozment’s article, she quotes without comment an authority figure who asserts that people “claim” to be atheists, as though not believing in gods is not really possible and people who “claim” this are disingenuous. And the “authority” goes on to assert that these suspect atheists say, “I don’t believe in anything.” While that remark no doubt is meant to refer only to a lack of beliefs in supernatural deities, it will surely be interpreted by some readers as supporting an old and baseless slur that to be an atheist is to be a nihilist.
    But, hey, I’m just happy Ms. Ozment wrote the otherwise very fine article.