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How religious Nones are parenting

I don't often get the chance to say this, but the new book I picked up at the library yesterday would have absolutely been required reading in one of my religion classes. It's completely relevant, contemporary, studies a real research need, and is well-written and academically talented. I'm talking, of course, about Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children from Sacred Heart University's Professor Christel Manning.

It occupies a sweet spot, in my opinion, where the sociology meets the road. It's approachable as both a manual for exploring the topic generally (you could easily use it as an intro) but also the specifics of theoretical approaches to religion that are driving culture shifts and denominational changes. I can imagine the classroom conversations in my head!

The parenting aspect is the center of attention but really only a lens to see the topic of Nones as a whole. First we have to define Religious Nones and decide how to find them, demographically, and then the ways they parent become almost an afterthought. The real action is in looking at the diversity involved...Nones are as diverse as parents as they are as people.

We commonly think of people who are unaffiliated with a church or faith as "secular," but that isn't quite true. Some are. Some aren't. They're not all Democrats--though few are Republicans--and are mostly politically independent, statistically. There are Nones in the Deep South even though one is more likely to find them in other regions of the US. Manning does an excellent job of explaining why the rise of the Nones doesn't necessarily mean more atheists or secularists. We tend to think of, say, "hard" and "soft" atheism, but you could just as easily classify according to whether someone cares or doesn't care that they don't believe.

Nones can also be found who are orthodox believers of some faith but find local churches aren't orthodox enough for their tastes. At the other end of the spectrum, there are non-believers who go to church each week for cultural reasons. In fact, I'd love to read the research on some of the Europeans who self-identify as Christians despite not believing in God...religion is a cultural construct as well as a personal belief system.

The best metaphor I came up with while reading was that Nones are religiously independent in the same way someone may choose to root for the Cubs or the White Sox. A few people choose to cheer for both. Some people may choose to read a book or ride a bike rather than play baseball. Growing distrust of institutions and a desire for choice...the same things motivating many of our other cultural changes...are the biggest factors driving the Nones population. The entire point is that they don't want to align and want to be free agents. (The student of religious existentialism notes that this is, essentially, an existential choice.)

Age has long been a major predictor of being a None...young people are more likely to question and be unaffiliated. Which has led to speculation that when these Nones settle down and raise children it will force them to re-evaluate...and possibly choose to affiliate? Perhaps. More likely, it forces parents to come to terms with their own beliefs and negotiate a complicated community and family path to execute those beliefs in the world.

That's the section of the book I'm currently in...the difficulties in accommodating religious relatives, split feelings between couples over whether to enroll children in religious school or how to explain the beliefs of others to the children. I've noticed that with my own kids is that it's easier to explain Hanukkah when we're not Jewish, for instance. Explaining your own Christmas tree in the context of unaffiliated American cultural Christianity is different. Our own cultural puzzle of secularism, pluralism, conservative and liberal Christianity, etc. is all too much for a preschooler. How do we, as parents, talk about religious beliefs while leaving them open to interpretation? What's the end goal? Is it to NOT pass on beliefs forcibly? To try to pass open-mindedness and tolerance of all beliefs? Channing notes that even parents who are trying not to pass any worldview to their kids are certainly passing something.

Some Nones find middle ground via event-based faith. They get a baby baptized or have a Jewish wedding despite no intention or deep feeling about the faith. Other Nones take a very pluralism-focused approach to religious education. One family explores Muslim prayer mats and different prayers, perhaps learning about the seder even when non-Jewish. This is similar to the approach taken in my kids' schools: "here is what some people do to celebrate." Manning discusses the rise of humanist societies and the late-to-the-game need to develop children's religious programming that is seeker/None/unaffiliated friendly.

Overall, I like the even-handed way that Manning presents research. It is what it is and we're not quite sure yet where it's headed. This is an unfolding subject on the cutting edge, so to speak. There are benefits and drawbacks. Church affiliation drives unaffiliation. Unaffiliation drives parenting. But parenting drives kids to ask questions and behave in ways that make parents reassess beliefs. It's a cultural cycle being driven by multiple things. All of which Manning covers well.