Americans, especially young people, are leaving religion in record numbers. There are now more Nones than there are Catholics in the U.S. population, and one third of those under 30 say they have no religion. Unlike the baby boomers who dropped out of church in their youth but returned to raise their families, millennials seem comfortable remaining uncommitted. Why are so many people leaving their religion? What do they believe instead? And what are they passing on to their children? I spent the last decade trying to find out.
I’m a sociologist of religion, but what really started this project was my own experience as a parent who had to come to terms with her non-religiosity. When my daughter Sheila was three years old—that age when kids will ask why, why, why about everything—she started asking questions about religion. . . Why does Santa come? To make people happy. Why does he want to make people happy? Because it’s Christmas. But why does he want to make people happy on Christmas? –I had to stop and think: If I say that’s the day when Jesus was born, then the next question will be, who is Jesus? And how do I answer that one? I’d left Christianity years ago, so it felt hypocritical to tell her something I didn’t believe. But then again, Christianity had been such a rich and wonderful part of my own childhood, and part of me felt guilty to not provide what my mother had given to me. So I started talking to other non-religious parents—and eventually parents all over the country– and realized I was not alone in my predicament. Here is some of what I learned.First, the recent growth of the Nones seems to be less about secularism than it is about Americans, especially the younger generation, asserting their right to choose their own worldview rather than having an organization define it for them. The term None comes from survey research. When polling companies like Gallup or Pew ask people, what is your religion, they ask respondents to select from a long list of denominations like Catholic, or Baptist, or Buddhist, or Reform Jew. If the respondent says “none,” or “nothing in particular,” or “I don’t have a religion,” they are counted as a None. When the media picked up on the term, it became part of popular vocabulary. But calling someone a None is somewhat misleading because it focuses entirely on what we don’t have, rather than what we do. When you actually talk to Nones, you find they span a wide spectrum of people including ranging from deeply religious to very secular.
Many Nones are actually Unchurched Believers. They believe in god, pray, and may even read the Bible, but they don’t associate with organized religion because they want to define for themselves what it means to be a Christian or a Jew. Other Nones are Spiritual Seekers: people who don’t want to commit to a particular religion. They usually combine pieces of several different spiritual traditions, like Judaism and Buddhism and Navaho religion to create their own personal spirituality. And a significant proportion of Nones are Philosophical Secularists. They reject religion and replace it with a secular philosophy like Atheism or Humanism or Free Thought. A smaller (and currently poorly understood) proportion of Nones are just plain Indifferent. They don’t reject religion, they just kind of ignore it. So when you ask them the questions sociologists use to measure religiosity, they cannot or will not answer. Do you believe in god? I don’t know, it’s not something I really think about. Do you attend church? No, why would I? I’m too busy with other things. They are not hostile to religion but rather it’s irrelevant to their lives. If the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, this last group (some of whom still identify as having a religion) may be the real harbinger of secularism in America.
What ties these diverse worldviews together is a deep commitment to spiritual choice—a belief in the moral equivalence of religious and secular worldviews, and in the individual’s right to choose one, or a combination, that best suits him or her. It is that choice Nones seek to pass on to their children. This is the second thing I learned: Nones will not necessarily raise their children to be non-religious. In contrast to churched parents who typically transmit their own religion to their children, None parents insist they want their children to choose for themselves. Even the most secular parents I interviewed wanted their kids to learn something about religion—to help their kids understand other people, or because religion may be part of a cultural heritage they want the children to know about. And a surprising number of parents will actually follow their children’s lead, providing religious education to a child who seemed spiritually inclined while allowing a disinterested child to grow up secular.
If you want your kids to choose, you have to give them options, and None parents go about this in different ways. Some try to provide education about religion or secular philosophies themselves, through books and games and rituals they create. But this can be a challenge especially if both parents are working, so it makes sense for parents to seek help from others. Some families affiliate with an alternative community that welcomes seculars such as the American Humanist Association or the Unitarian Universalists or the Sunday Assembly. Some of these have developed excellent programs for children that teach them about both religious and secular worldviews. But such programs are not always available, especially in non-urban locations. Some people do what I call “outsourcing” where they send the kids to religious education classes at a local church or synagogue, while the parent themselves does not affiliate. Parents often feel a little guilty about that option, but it may be no different from sending your kid to music lessons if you are not musically inclined. If at least one parent is religious, families often go back to church or synagogue and enroll their kids in Sunday school. The challenge here is that they eventually need to share their divergent worldviews with their child (e.g., dad is an atheist, mom is Catholic), but this can also be a great opportunity to teach kids about making their own choices.
Let me end with some reflections about the consequences of choice. Choice is widely accepted as good, by both religious and non-religious people, because it’s associated with individual freedom, a core American value. But one downside of letting kids choose is that they can make poor choices. None parents worry about this—perhaps not surprisingly in a culture where religion has long been viewed as good for children. Yet the evidence is actually very mixed. For example, many studies show that a high level of involvement with organized religion correlates with positive outcomes for youth (less experimentation with sex, drugs and alcohol, lower juvenile crime rates, etc.). But we don’t know if it’s religion that benefits kids, or just being part of an organized community with other caring adults that regularly interact with your kid. As the secular movement continues to organize and institutionalize, it is building more of the kinds of communities that support families in similar ways as religion has. Existing studies of religion’s benefits also don’t adequately sample secular families. They typically compare people who are highly engaged with organized religion with those who are less engaged, ignoring people who have replaced religion with something better, such as faith in humanity, nature, or oneself. In the few studies that attend to this, children have very positive outcomes, sometimes better than their religious peers (e.g., they are more resistant to peer pressure and more sensitive to cultural differences). From what we know now, it appears that both religious and secular upbringing can have benefits and risks for children. Growing up with religion may cause a teenager to refrain from drinking alcohol and wait longer before having sex, but the secular teen may be less conformist and more tolerant of others. Which is a better outcome is going to depend on your value system.
The other potential downside of letting children choose is that they will be unable to do so. None parents rarely worried about this, though perhaps they should. There is some pretty compelling research showing that our supposed freedom to choose our worldview is often illusory. Beliefs are adopted as a result of socialization processes that tend to frame some worldviews positively and others less so. Thus no None parent I encountered viewed fundamentalist Christianity or orthodox Judaism as a legitimate choice for their child. Other studies show that having many choices can be stressful, causing individuals to select whatever is most familiar. Thus we shouldn’t be surprised if the children of Nones often end up with a worldview that resembles their parents’—regardless of what other options they were exposed to. I would likely be dismayed if Sheila someday becomes a born again Christian. Yet doing so would be a sign that she is truly choosing for herself.
Originally published on Powells City of Books.
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