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

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.”