As the demographics of the U.S. shift away from organized religion, it brings up a lot of questions about how much religion you should have in your life when you’re not all that religious yourself. If you’re a “None” who doesn’t believe in some Higher Power, does it make sense to go to church, even on the major holidays? How should you introduce the topic of religion to your kids?
Atheists have been discussing these questions for a long time, but those answers don’t apply to everyone who isn’t affiliated with a traditional faith.
Those topics are what Christel Manning, a professor at Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University, addresses in her new book Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children (NYU Press, 2015).
In the excerpt below, Manning talks about what prompted her to write the book in the first place:
The idea for this book began ten years ago. It was December, and I had just picked up my then three-year-old daughter, Sheila, from preschool. “Look, look, Christmas lights,” she piped up from the back seat of the car, “Mommy, look there’s Santa.”
“Yes, dear,” I replied, “Santa comes every year.” “Why does Santa come?”
“To make people happy.”
“Why does he want to make people happy?” “Because it’s Christmas.”
I paused. I was not sure what to tell my daughter. Christmas celebrates the day that Jesus Christ was born? But then she would ask, who was Jesus and why be happy about his birth? Why indeed?
My husband and I celebrate Christmas every year. We get a tree, exchange gifts, go visit family and eat holiday foods. But none of our celebration is about religion. I no longer believe in God, much less a personal deity who incarnates in human form, and neither does he. Both of us were raised Christian but left the church as teenagers and have not returned since, except for friends’ weddings, baptisms, and funerals. While my husband expresses indifference to anything spiritual, I became a seeker of sorts. Over the years, I experimented with Buddhist meditation and feminist goddess rituals and eventually acquired a doctorate in religious studies. That degree has given me a fulfilling career, but it had not prepared me for my daughter’s question about Christmas.
Her questions led to me to ask myself, what do I believe in, and how do I transmit those beliefs to my child? Despite the vagueness of my own spirituality, I began to think that maybe now was the time to introduce religion into Sheila’s life. After all, faith had been an important part of my own childhood. I thought of the rich tradition I grew up with in Southern Germany in the 1960s and 1970s: listening to stories of the Bible, building a crèche with my sisters, lighting Advent candles, singing carols while my grandmother played the piano, our nightly prayers asking God to protect Mama, Daddy, and everyone else. It was all so beautiful and comforting and safe. I wanted Sheila to have what I had. Even if I had rejected it later in my life, why hold a child hostage to my own doubts? Although I could not pretend to convey the faith my mother had, maybe I could have my daughter baptized and enroll her in Sunday school, as my sister did with her children. But when I ran the idea by my husband he was adamant: “I don’t want Sheila indoctrinated in all that. Besides it would be hypocritical.” He had a point.
I kept thinking about the question, and initially I felt very alone. Although we had secular friends, none of them had children at home. And our religious friends who did have children were raising them either Catholic or Jewish. I did not know anybody else like me. So, as parents often do, I tried reaching out to other moms and dads whom I suspected might be nonreligious. People in Connecticut tend to keep their views on religion to themselves, but when asked directly many were eager to share their experience, and I discovered there were several other parents who shared my concerns. Still, I wondered how representative these parents were of broader trends. After all, we live in New Haven, a college town filled with educated liberals who tend to be more secular than the rest of the population. So, as academics often do, I did some research. An initial review of the relevant work in the social sciences confirmed my growing realization that my struggle is not unusual. Although the majority of Americans are affiliated with organized religion and seek to transmit that tradition to their children, parents with no religion comprise a significant and growing segment of the population.
Recent nationwide surveys show that one-fifth of Americans now list their religious affiliation as “None” or their religious preference as “nothing in particular” — up from only 7 percent twenty years ago. Scholars seeking to compare these individuals to those who do claim a religion, have dubbed them the “Nones,” a term that I will explain in the following chapters. In many parts of the country, the number of Nones rivals that of major religious denominations. Significantly, Nones comprise one-third of adults under thirty, those poised to be parents of the next generation. The decisions they make about religion in their families will help shape the future of organized religion in America.
Who are these Nones? Fortunately for my investigation, their sudden growth has increased scholarly interest in the nonreligious. We now know more about the demographic characteristics of the unaffiliated. For instance, although they are more likely to be young and male and live in certain parts of the country, they increasingly resemble the average American in terms of education, income, and race. We also know more about the Nones’ religious characteristics, although what those characteristics are depends on who you talk to. While there is considerable debate over how secular the Nones are, they are clearly not monolithic. Their ranks include more atheists and agnostics than those of the general population as well as a wide diversity of religious and spiritual worldviews. Recent studies have closely examined various segments of the unaffiliated population such as unchurched Christians, young people, and atheists. But the segment I was interested in, parents, had received little attention. This book is intended to fill that gap.
Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children is available beginning today in bookstores and online.
Excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher.