How to Live a Meaningful Life Without Religion
Five things I learned from three years on the trail of godless America.
In January 2013, I published an article in Boston magazine called “Losing Our Religion” about raising kids without religion. The story started out small, as a personal question I wanted to answer for myself and my family: What did we lose when we left the spiritual flock we were raised in? Did our kids need God to be good? Just as I started to dig into the story, the Pew Research Center released startling figures: Nearly 20 percent of Americans no longer affiliated themselves with organized religion, the largest proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans ever recorded.
Called “Nones” because they check the box that reads “None of the Above” when asked their religion, the group is made up of atheists, agnostics, the spiritual but not religious, lapsed Catholics and Jews, and people who just don’t care. Now, four years after those surprising figures were released, the numbers are higher still—nearly 25 percent of the country today, including 35 percent of Millennials, are Nones.
After my article came out, I was invited to give a few talks in the Boston area, and at one of them a new father raised his hand and said he understood the trend away from religion, but he didn’t understand where he and his family could find shelter from consumer pressures, the work-a-day world, and the 24-hour news cycle. Though I had explored a few secular alternatives to religion in my article, I couldn’t fully answer his question. I needed to know more, which is how my book, Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging, was born. Three years, hundreds of interviews, and untold hours of travel around the country later, here are some of the most valuable insights I gained about how to live a meaningful life without religion:
1. You don’t have to believe in God to raise good kids.
Religiosity per se is no indicator of a child’s moral development. Research shows that what influences children’s morality more than anything else is their parents’ sensitivity to the feelings of others and to injustice. Even one-year-old children of such parents demonstrated a greater sense of right and wrong in laboratory-based tests. Our children are watching our every move, which means parents have more power to replace bygone Sunday sermons with our own secular values than we may realize.
2. Experiencing awe makes us kinder.
The experience of awe comes when we feel small in the face of some larger system—the grandeur of nature, a stunning work of art, the cycle of life. When we’re overcome by awe, time seems to slow down, which allows feelings of empathy and charity to increase. Notice what happens when you spend time in nature as a family. Profound experiences of awe, long described in religious terms, are human experiences available to us all.
3. Rituals give meaning.
Rituals bind us together, help us mark time, and call on us to be our best selves. Just because we leave religion doesn’t mean we have to leave rituals. One family I met holds a regular Sunday morning meditation, discussion, and sharing ritual to strengthen family bonds and reinforce a strong moral compass defined by values such as fairness and justice. A nature-based coming of age program out West called on teenagers to reflect on the unique gifts they each would give the world. For some, solstice parties supplant midnight Mass, and baby welcoming ceremonies stand in for baptisms.
4. We all need to belong.
Belonging matters, perhaps more than most of us realize. Scientists have shown that a sense of belonging—or lack thereof—registers in our bodies on a molecular level, affecting our physical and mental health. And our well-being, sense of meaning, and overall life satisfaction are influenced not by how many connections we have but how deep those connections are. For those who miss the fellowship once found in the pews, secular humanist communities, Sunday Assemblies, and atheist meetups are sprouting up across the country. In Boston, the Humanist Hub even has a new secular Sunday school for kids of all ages.
5. Volunteering gives us a sense of purpose.
Studies show that the religious are more charitable than the nonreligious, and not just when it comes to their own religious organizations. Those groups are on to something: Volunteering even just one day a month gives people a greater sense of purpose and helps them feel more connected. Many nonreligious people I met find meaning by participating in meal-packing events, park cleanups, and blood drives. In our individualistic culture, our kids need training wheels to learn the importance of giving, so find a family-friendly event and bring them with you.
Three years after I started my book, my only regret is that I didn’t learn the name of the father who asked that important question. If I could meet him today, I would tell him what the statistics can’t capture: that millions of nonreligious Americans are creating meaningful rituals, finding a greater sense of purpose, and coming together in their communities. The Nones, it turns out, are all right.
Katherine Ozment will discuss her new book at Harvard Book Store on Friday, September 9, at 7 p.m., harvard.com.