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

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?”

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  • Marie

    Katherine,
    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.

  • Brad

    Michael,
    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.