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?
Nobody had ever posed that question to me so baldly before. I sputtered back an explanation: my mixed-up childhood, without one set group to call my church or my tribe; my inability to attach; never finding the right fit. But even as the words were coming out of my mouth, I was aware that I didn’t have a clear answer.
Later, I asked Marcie Griffith, the youth-program coordinator, what she sees as the main benefit of this church for teens. She shared the story of a girl who had found out right before coming to youth group one night that her parents were getting divorced. She’d sat through the whole meeting looking upset and hadn’t shared anything, but when she lit her candle, as they each do at the end of every meeting, she told everyone her parents were divorcing. At the end of the candle-lighting ceremony, Griffiths said, the whole group circled around her in a spontaneous, spiral-shaped hug and then, without anyone speaking, they unspiraled. “I remember standing there thinking, This is why I do this work,” she said.
I drove home on that dark autumn night imagining my own kids struggling through adolescence, and having a community of like-minded peers to share their troubles with. Church seemed to offer those kids something nothing else could.
But for my kids to find their spiritual home there, I’d have to want to go myself. So one Sunday in November I woke up early and drove back to First Parish alone. During the service I found myself, by turns, bored, hungry, uplifted, tired, and moved. In the end, I saw the attraction of the tight community, the inspirational music, and the stirring candle-lighting ritual, but by the time the next weekend rolled around, I’d already lost steam. I knew I’d rather read the Sunday paper on the couch with my kids than get everyone off to church.
One recent Sunday morning, I finally made my peace with that. My husband had the brilliant idea to send our kids—ages ten, six, and two and a half—out to rake leaves in the two-car parking space behind our house. I was worried about the youngest one, so I stood at the kitchen sink washing dishes and spying on them. Though they’d spent the early part of the morning bickering with one another and messing up the house, as I watched they somehow came together to rake and bag a couple of maple trees’ worth of leaves, a job I’d been wanting done for weeks.
As I watched them working playfully, I saw an old woman coming down the sidewalk toward our house. She had her hair pinned into a neat bun and the collar of her long coat pulled tight at her throat. Wearing tights, sensible shoes, and no makeup, she looked like one of the Greek church matrons I see every June selling baklava and gyros at the weekend-long festival across the street. She was clearly on her way to church.
I watched her coming with a familiar pang of guilt and regret. What would she see in my children? Would she consider them—still in their pajamas and sweatpants, their hair unkempt, on a Sunday morning—damned to Hell? Would they sadden her because they weren’t dressed and ready for Sunday school? Would she think that they—and our whole family—were nothing?
I didn’t even know if she’d notice them, because she was walking with her head down. But then, just as she was moving past the back lot, she lifted her eyes slightly. Before her was the chaotic tableau of my unbaptized, unchurched, non-Bible-reading, never-spoke-a-word-of-Hebrew kids, laid out in all their Sunday-morning glory. Her footsteps slowed as she paused to take it all in. I braced for traces of judgment in her expression.
And then I saw it: The corners of her lips lifted, brightening her wrinkled face. It lasted a single second, and it changed everything. That hard part of me that had felt such guilt and worry about not raising my kids the right way, and my anxious compulsion to find something better, softened. I felt instead pride at what we had managed to give them—a solid work ethic, the ability to get along and love one another, their haranguing me for dollar bills to give the homeless people we pass every day, their daily expressions of joy and amazement and curiosity about the world they inhabit.
I saw that just because my husband and I had experienced religious upbringings when we were young didn’t mean our children had to experience them too. Maybe we could give them something else. After 10 years of watching the members of the Greek church come together for weddings, funerals, baptisms, and festivals with a lump in my throat for what we didn’t have, I saw that woman seeing us and realized all that we do have.
I still don’t know if my family will ever join a religious (or secular) group, but at last I know that we are in fact something—and that most days, that something is pretty good.
Editor’s Note, September 2, 2016: After writing this feature for the January 2013 issue of Boston magazine, writer Katherine Ozment spent time exploring the topic further for her new book, Grace Without God. Ahead of a reading at Harvard Book Store on September 9, she shared with us a few things she learned.