Losing Our Religion
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.”