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?
Photos by Bruce Peterson
We live in a townhouse in Cambridge, across the street from a Greek Orthodox church. This past spring, just as I was about to go to bed, I heard a strange noise outside my window—the sound of hundreds of shuffling feet. “Mom!” my nine-year-old son called to me. “Come look.”
It was a church procession. We stood at the window and watched as members of the congregation—elderly, middle-aged, twentysomethings, tweens, young children—walked solemnly down the street, which was closed off to accommodate their passage toward the church. A priest in a long robe led them, followed by several men carrying an ornately decorated kind of chariot. The procession stopped directly in front of our house. Little boys pulled at too-tight ties, girls swayed in holiday skirts, husbands and wives pressed close to each other.
“What are they doing?” my son asked.
“It’s some kind of ritual,” I said, dimly realizing it must be their Good Friday.
“Why don’t we do that?”
“Because we’re not Greek Orthodox.”
“What are we?”
I thought of the candy and plastic trinkets I buy for him and his two sisters for Easter every year, of the baskets I place in their rooms as they sleep—and I realized that these things, along with my strained attempts at an indoor Easter-egg hunt in the afternoon (we don’t have a yard), are all that my children know about what is arguably the most sacred holiday in all of Christianity, the religion in which I was raised.
Outside our window, the priest read a long passage aloud, and the crowd sang something in response. After a few more prayers, the congregation made its way down the block and into the church.
Turning from the window, my son repeated his question: “So, what are we?”
I looked at him and felt my face flush.
Like most upper-middle-class parents, my husband and I have worked out a strategy for every aspect of our children’s lives, from cord-blood banking and on-demand breastfeeding to extracurricular math classes and strict limits on screen time. Religion is the big exception. It’s something he (raised Jewish) and I (raised Protestant) keep meaning to address, yet year after year we manage to avoid it. Most days I can shrug this off. Who has the time? I think. And does it even matter? But as ambivalent as I am about organized religion, I recognize there is something to it. Participation in a religious community has been correlated with everything from self-esteem and overall hopefulness to the avoidance of substance abuse and teen pregnancy. So I worry: Am I depriving my children of an experience that will help shape their identities in a positive way and anchor them throughout their lives?
It turns out my husband and I are not alone. People like us even have a name. When national surveys ask, “With which religion are you affiliated?” and then list several possible answers, we’re the ones who check the box that reads, “None of the above.” Because of that, sociologists call us Nones. We Nones are atheists, agnostics, unchurched believers, “spiritual” types, lapsed Jews and Catholics, and people who just don’t care. Religiosity often has a natural kind of life cycle, in which people move away from religion in their teens and twenties, and then come back around when they marry and have kids. That’s not our story. We Nones move away but never come back.
And our numbers are growing. Twenty percent of American adults now say that they believe in nothing in particular. Forty-six million adults identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated, and 88 percent of them say they have no interest in joining a religious institution. This is a seismic cultural shift with the potential to profoundly reshape our society—not to mention our families.
To find out more about None parents like me, I called Christel Manning, a professor of religious studies at Sacred Heart University, in Fairfield, Connecticut. Confused about how to raise her own young daughter, Manning set out to study secular parents around the U.S. and was surprised to find that the Nones are a more diverse group than you might think. “At one end of the spectrum,” she told me, “are individuals who claim to be atheists and say, ‘I don’t believe in anything.’ And then there are individuals you might call seeker types, who say, ‘I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual. I believe in a higher power and I do yoga.’”
Manning said the third category, unchurched believers, have traditional religious views but don’t like religious organization. She told me that Nones raised Catholic or Jewish often feel a need to preserve their family heritage even if they don’t buy the theology or like the traditional practices. That’s what happened to my friend Genevieve, who grew up attending a Catholic church (which has since been turned into condos) near her house in Cambridge. As a child she shared a special bond with her grandmother, one that involved food and church. “She taught me that religion was just part of our lives,” Genevieve said one morning after we’d dropped our kids off at school. “If I was going through a hard time, she’d take me to the church in the North End, say a novena, and then we would go have something to eat. It was so nice.”
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.”
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.’”
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?”
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.
A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED
Want the benefits of belonging to a religious group but not the religion itself? Here are a few ways to start.
Try one of the many secular and “religious lite” options that are sprouting up across the country with a new emphasis on families. Start with an online search in your area for: liberal Quakers, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists, humanistic Jews, and secular humanists.
Consider a visit to the Brighton-based Cradles to Crayons, which redistributes lightly used clothes and toys to kids in need across Massachusetts. The group will set your family up for two hours of child-friendly volunteering your kids won’t soon forget.
You don’t have to be part of a religious group to create a meaningful ceremony. Greg Epstein, Harvard’s humanist chaplain, combines elements of different traditions to create personalized wedding, funeral, baby-naming, and confirmation ceremonies. “It gives parents a chance to think,” he says. “‘What kind of parent do I want to be? What values do I want to teach my kids?’”
Removing religion from your life doesn’t mean giving up on spirituality. For a wake-up call, visit the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, which offers “Little Buddhas” meditation classes for families with children ages three to nine.
Even without belonging to a religious institution, you can impart moral values to your kids. For the little ones, picture books are a good place to begin. Try Love Your Neighbor, by Arthur Dobrin, and The Golden Rule, by Ilene Cooper.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/12/losing-our-religion-non-religious-parenting/