Losing Our Religion, Christel Manning. New York: New York University Press, 2015.
Summary: Qualitative sociological research on the religious category of “nones” exploring the different types of “nones”, the influences of time and place, and the parenting choices around religion “nones” face in raising their children.
Some observers would argue that the category of “nones” as in “none of the above” in a list of religious categories is the fastest growing group on the religious scene. This work extends the growing body of work on this group in two important ways. One is to more finely define the different types of “nones” that fall under this category. The other, and motivating interest in this research, was to explore how “none” deal with the question of religion and religious identity with their children.
The author, who describes herself as one who was a Spiritual Seeker at the beginning of this study but a Philosophical Secularist by its conclusion, confronted the question of how parents who are “nones” raise their children. To explore this question, she began by exploring the demographics of the “nones”and what they believe. Most significant in these first two chapters is a fourfold classification that brings added clarity to the different kinds of people who fall under this category: Unchurched Believers, who identify with one faith but avoid any institutional connection; Spiritual Seekers, who believe in some form of higher being or spiritual reality, often cobbling together various beliefs into their own personalized worldview; Philosophical Secularists, who subscribe to a material view of life and often are highly motivated by ethical considerations; and Indifferents, for whom religious or ultimate questions are irrelevant to the lives they live.
Time and place are significant factors in “none” experience. Many who were brought up in a religious tradition abandon this during college years for a variety of reasons. The critical question is how these decisions are reconsidered when people marry and begin to have children. Do they return to the religious institutions they grew up in, identify with new communities, or make a more deliberate choice to not raise their children in any of these traditions. Some of this is determined by the kind of “none” one is. In some cases this transition forces a clarification of where one stands, as it did for the author of this study. Likewise, some parts of the country, particularly New England and the Northwest are friendlier to those who are “nones” The South is a more difficult place, as are parts of the Midwest.
In her exploration of the parental choices of “nones,” the issue of choice emerges as quite important to understanding the decisions these parents make about raising their children. Just as they have defined for themselves their worldview, often departing from that of their parents, many also believe it wrong to define these choices for their children. While some, particularly the Unchurched Believers return to institutional expressions of their faith, for many, they choose exposure to multiple religions as well as philosophical secularism and allowing children to choose their own path. She also addresses the question of the often touted benefits of raising children religiously, demonstrated signally in the work of sociologist Christian Smith. She argues that the comparisons are often between more and less religious youth and do not considered those brought up in principled secularist backgrounds.
At this point she reveals her anti-religious bias. Generally, I appreciated her openness about her own point of view rather than a pretended neutrality. But here, it seems she sets up the worst examples of religion, and particularly Christianity, against the most commendable examples of secularism and atheism. Anyone can play that game. I could argue that Christians built hospitals, cathedrals and universities, while atheist Marxists built Gulags, colorless tenements, and brutally genocidal cultural revolutions. I think this mars otherwise fine work and indulges in the anti-religious caricatures common among academic elites. But I get that some people really experience these things and don’t want to believe in such a god or practice such a religion. I would not and do not either!
What is valuable in the work is something I’ve long contended, that we should assume at least the same level of thoughtfulness in those of different religious persuasions than ours. This is equally so with “nones” and this extends to the thoughtfulness of their parenting choices. I do wonder if “nones” just as much as the affiliated religious subtly encourage, or at least model the choices they have made, even while upholding choice. I wonder how “nones” would feel if their children embrace a strong religious affiliation, such as fundamental forms of Islam or Christianity or Orthodox Judaism. Time will tell whether, in fact, the religiously affiliated and “none” parents in fact have more in common than they might admit. That could make for interesting conversation!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”