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?
And on her terms, it did. Without thinking about it, in college I left church, shied away from calling myself a Christian, and adopted a more-secular understanding of the world. Jesus was no longer in the air that I breathed.
I lived that way for a couple of decades. But then my husband and I had kids.
My children have been inside a church only once in their lives. It was for a family wedding a couple of summers ago, and they were so irritable—the pews were too hard, there was nothing to do, the church was too hot—that I feared we’d be asked to leave. Horror stories of the unchurched child are everywhere, actually. A New York Times article not long ago detailed the etiquette classes now sweeping synagogues because teens were coming to bar and bat mitzvahs not knowing how to behave. A friend who tried taking her children to Catholic mass had to leave after 25 minutes because the kids were complaining that the incense was burning their eyes. “So we went to Dunkin’ Donuts,” she said, “and everyone was happier.”
Two years ago, when my mother was visiting from Arkansas, she saw our two oldest kids pummeling each other on the couch. “You two need to practice the Golden Rule,” she said.
They stopped fighting and looked at her quizzically.
“What’s that?” my son asked.
She raised her eyebrows in my direction, as if to say, You can get them to after-school Chinese classes, but you’ve never taught them the Golden Rule?
We ended up laughing about this, my mother and I, but there was no denying that I’d failed to convey to my kids one of the most elemental teachings of Christianity—a teaching that in fact is fundamental to most world religions.
How did I become the one who dropped that ball?
Dale McGowan, the author of Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion (2007), says one of the biggest downsides to not giving kids a religious upbringing is that they are then deprived of the religious literacy necessary to move comfortably in society. “Ninety percent of the world expresses itself or sees itself in religious terms, to one degree or another,” he told me over the phone. “If you don’t at least have an understanding of it, you’re going to be perpetually baffled, and that’s a very disempowering position to be in.”
I thought of how confused my kids sound every time they broach the subject of religion. A couple of years ago on Thanksgiving, at the house of my husband’s Israeli cousins, we were going around the table saying what we were grateful for when our eight-year-old son stunned us all by saying, “I’m grateful for Jesus, for giving us all the wonderful things in life.” My husband and I shared a nervous glance, one of the Israeli cousins spilled the gravy, and my atheist brother-in-law did a double take. We adults joked about the episode later, but I was secretly upset: My son seemed to be getting his religious instruction from kids at school, rather than us. I knew if we didn’t give our kids a structured way to satisfy their curiosity, their attempts to make sense of religion would keep springing up like grass through sidewalk cracks. We could either help them or let them struggle alone.
But where to begin? To guide my kids, I realized, I would have to figure out what I myself believed.
I decided to see what I could learn about my religious self by taking the Belief-O-Matic quiz offered on the website Beliefnet, which consists of a series of questions meant to determine which religion most aligns with your beliefs. After answering the questions—it takes about five minutes—and hitting enter, I got an email listing my closest matches.
It turns out I’m a secular humanist. Not only that, I’m 100 percent secular humanist—a pureblood. I felt a strange rush. Having been raised in a tangle of Christian strains, I’ve never felt like a part of any set group or tribe before.
But what are secular humanists, really, and how do they raise their kids? To find out, I called Phil Zuckerman, a professor of secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and the author of Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion (2011). I told him I was a newly aware secular humanist and wanted to know what that means for how I should act as a parent.
Zuckerman began by saying that secular parents find themselves in an unusual bind. “When you’re a religious parent, raising your child in the fold is a wonderful, joyful duty,” he said. “It’s fulfilling, and you feel good about yourself.” But most people who’ve walked away from religion did so because they felt religion had been imposed on them, that they’d been brainwashed. “Then they become parents,” Zuckerman said, “and they don’t want to do to their kids what their parents did to them—i.e., foist a worldview on their children that they don’t come to themselves.” This, he continued, creates a paradox that’s unique to Nones: “You’re like, ‘I don’t want to push my secularity on them, because then I’m being just as hypocritical. I don’t want to impose my atheism or my agnosticism or my humanism on my kids.’”