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.”
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?