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?
Zuckerman said this dilemma can be as uncomfortable for kids as it is for parents. “When a secular kid comes home and says, ‘Mommy and Daddy, I heard somebody talking about God, what are our beliefs?’ an atheist parent might say, ‘That’s bullshit,’ but most secular parents want to say things like, ‘Suzy, some people believe in God, some don’t.’ And, of course, kids go right to, ‘But what do you believe?’” That gets tough for the parents. “It’s like, ‘Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure. I personally don’t believe, but it’s okay that Nana does.’”
That sounded like just about every conversation about religion I’d ever had with my children. I asked Zuckerman what we None parents are supposed to do. “You need to tell them,” he responded, “that you’re a secular humanist, and tell them what that means. You need to say, ‘We believe in making the world a better place, we believe in evidence over faith, we believe in reason as a way to address problems, we believe in helping others because that makes the world better for everybody. This is what we believe.’” Zuckerman was growing passionate as he spoke, like a preacher building to the end of a fiery sermon. “You’re human,” he practically shouted into the phone. “You’re not nothing.”
The next question was obvious. If I’m a secular humanist, then where do I find my community? Where do secular humanists go to church, or whatever it is that they do?
If anybody could tell me, I figured, it would be Greg Epstein, Harvard’s second-ever humanist chaplain (the university has 35 other chaplains, of various faiths) and the author of Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe (2009). On a fall day, as newly arrived students bustled through the Yard, I found him in a quiet conference room in the basement of Memorial Church, dressed in jeans and Converse high-tops. With the organist above us rehearsing for Sunday services, Epstein told me he was hoping to attract incoming students to a number of social events that the Harvard Humanists would, as usual, be hosting during the academic year. But this year he was also trying something new, the Humanist Learning Lab, a secular Sunday school to teach younger children the heritage and principles of secular humanism.
I explained my dilemma: that I had both a peculiar longing for, and an abiding wariness of, belonging to some kind of religious community. Epstein seemed to understand. He told me that he hopes to establish a nationwide secular community modeled on the movement in Norway, where 72 percent of the country is secular, and the official humanist association comprises almost 2 percent of the country’s population, a greater percentage than anywhere else in the world. That association, he said, has been especially effective at creating rituals for major life events and replicating the close community ties that religious institutions have traditionally built and nurtured so powerfully.
“A lot of times you have pretty nonreligious people who sort of hold their nose and get involved in religion because they want community so much that they’re willing to look the other way about the parts they don’t believe in,” Epstein said. Instead, he continued, “Let’s have a community that smart, aware, scientifically minded people can be proud to share, among multiple generations across lines of culture and heritage, who can go out and make a difference in the neighborhood.”
This seemed like a noble idea to me, so I signed up with Epstein’s group to bring my kids to park-cleaning day in Cambridge later that month, and to package food for homeless children in November. But could a secular community like the Harvard Humanists really meet the needs of None families like mine? At Darwin’s, I put the question to Robert Putnam, who recently published American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010), a book about the nature of religious community.
Putnam was skeptical. Maybe, he suggested doubtfully, an environmental group or an organization like Epstein’s could serve that same purpose, but even if it could, it would probably take centuries for it to serve the societal function that today’s well-established organized religions serve. And the special problem for Nones, he added, is their collective aversion to joining anything at all—a generational characteristic he describes in Bowling Alone.
But what if I felt a need to fight that aversion? “If I were in your shoes,” he responded, “which is what you’ve slightly invited me to be, I would be looking for a religious community, and I would be looking for one where I and my spouse felt comfortable ourselves.” How would I know when we’d found it? He proposed that I ask myself a simple question: Is this a group of people I’m likely to hang out with?
I couldn’t tell if it was strange or predictable that I was a None parent turning to a Harvard political science professor for spiritual guidance. But I decided to follow his advice regardless—if for no other reason than he felt like one of my people.
The religious group that ranked number two on my Belief-O-Matic quiz, with a 93 percent match, was the Unitarian Universalists. The UU church, as it’s called, professes a non-creedal religion that contains elements of secular humanism but gives anyone who wants it an extra dollop of God on the side. I have a friend with two teenage boys who raves about the instruction they’ve received at their UU church, First Parish in Arlington, and she told me it provides just the sort of community I seemed to be looking for. So I arranged to talk with members of the teen youth group at their Sunday-evening meeting, to see what they could tell me about the benefits of their church.
I met 13 youth-group leaders in a basement lined with old couches and strewn with empty pizza boxes. When I asked what they thought my still-young children would miss out on if we never joined any religious group, they told me that they couldn’t imagine their lives without this community, and that First Parish gives them a place to be themselves and believe what they want. One girl, wearing a blue sweatshirt and blond ponytail, said, “This church creates a structure for us to grow up in.” Then another girl, right across from me, spoke up. “Why,” she asked, “haven’t you given your kids religion?”