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Naomi Schaefer Riley

Happy Being a None

The sanctity of personal worldview choice.

The problem with using the term "None" to describe people who say they do not have a religious affiliation is that it "defines people in terms of what they do not have, implying that they are somehow lacking, when in fact what they have just may not fit the researcher's category." So writes Christel Mannning in her mildly interesting but cloyingly defensive and often biased new book, Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children.

Manning, a professor of religious studies at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, became interested in who the Nones are and what they do with their kids because of her own experience. Ten years ago, her then-three-year-old daughter asked about Santa Claus. While Manning and her husband were not religious, they had been celebrating some cultural version of Christmas, and when her daughter started to probe more, Manning was unprepared. "Over the years, I experimented with Buddhist meditation and feminist goddess rituals and eventually acquired a doctorate in religious studies." But it was her daughter's questions that "led me to ask myself, what do I believe in and how do I transmit those beliefs to my child?"

Perhaps Manning is right when she asserts, based on her interviews, that having a child prompts many parents to clarify their own beliefs, but one might expect that somewhere along the line of getting a doctorate the question would have struck her. Still, however she arrived at the question, here we are. And the first thing to do is figure out what exactly it means to be a None. Manning is correct that it is too broad a category for many investigations. So she divides the Nones into four groups: the unchurched believers, the spiritual seekers, the philosophical secularists, and the indifferents. These categories give readers a sense of just how many different things people can mean when they say they are Nones. An evangelical who hasn't found a church that seems like a good fit, someone who is investigating multiple faiths, a staunch atheist, someone who doesn't much care one way or another: all of these could check the same box.

Not surprisingly, these different groups take very different approaches to raising kids. Among those who are unchurched believers, for instance, Manning found that upon having children, many simply returned to church. "For those who had been too busy for church, recommitment was simply a matter of reaffiliation. For those who left because of personal crisis, recommitment often meant switching to another denomination."

While returning to religion is the "conventional strategy," many Nones take other paths. (Manning's research is not based on any kind of representative survey so it is hard to come up with numbers to give context to her findings.) Some, notably the philosophical secularists, try alternative communities like the Humanist Children's Programs run by the American Humanist Society or the Golden Rule Sunday School run by the Ethical Humanist Society. Some Nones choose to outsource their children's religious education, simply sending them to preschool or other religious education while themselves remaining unaffiliated. And still others try the whole thing at home, teaching kids about world religions, introducing them to a little bit of meditation here and some holiday celebrations there.

These observations are not particularly surprising, but many of the Nones Manning interviews seem to have a level of anxiety about how to raise their kids in this context that religious parents do not. Especially in areas where religion is more dominant, Nones seem to feel that they must erect a kind of bulwark lest their kids get caught up in the religious fervor.

But Manning worries that Nones are still getting the short end of the stick. The "life cycle theory" of religion, which says that people come back to faith when they are older (and presumably wiser), is problematic, she suggests. "What does this imply about those of us who remain Nones as we get older, especially after we have children? Does it mean that having no religion is a luxury that goes with being unattached? Or that None parents who do not affiliate are stuck at an adolescent stage of development?"

Worse yet, Manning argues, the idea that people return to religion when they have children "reifies the cultural prejudice that religion is normative and therefore good." She takes on authors like Christian Smith, whose large-scale longitudinal National Study of Youth and Religion has found positive outcomes for kids who are involved in religious communities (they are less likely to smoke and use drugs, for instance, less likely to be depressed, and more likely to stay in school). She suggests that most of these outcomes are really the result of correlation, not causation.

While Smith and his colleagues acknowledge that some of these effects can be replicated by nonreligious institutions, they say religious ones do a better job. Manning is skeptical. Perhaps there is no reason why a Humanist after-school program or an Objectivist summer camp or a regular meeting of an Ethical Culture community couldn't provide the same emotional and communal benefits of a religious institution. But at this point, it would be pretty hard to draw any conclusions, since the number of people involved in such programs is tiny compared to the population as a whole. Moreover, it is only a fraction of Nones who are engaged in those kind of communal enterprises. Plenty more are engaged in some kind of individualized spiritual seeking or are simply indifferent to the whole project.

To weigh against the benefits that Smith and others have found, Manning suggests we consider the problems of raising children in religious institutions. For instance, the danger that a priest will sexually abuse them. "Religion has been shown to encourage physical abuse by providing a moral framework that often legitimates corporal punishment. She reports that "religion-based child abuse is not uncommon." Uncommon is not exactly a quantifiable adjective, and Manning acknowledges that these problems may be restricted mostly to "fundamentalist" sects, but she says "this does not let moderate or liberal religious parents off the hook. Even when children are not beaten, studies show that religion may foster emotional abuse by promoting ideas that cause emotional torment." Like the idea that God is watching over you. (Manning says early on that "being a None [herself] made it easier to be neutral and objective in teaching and researching all religions." But that is true only in the sense that she is equally antagonistic toward all religions.)

Perhaps the most interesting insight in this book comes from Manning's characterization of what Nones are looking for in their own lives and the way they bring up their children. "What ties this variety of worldviews together is commitment to the sanctity of personal worldview choice." Which sounds like the kind of thing religious people would say about Nones to insult them.

But Manning is unabashed. What Nones care about more than anything is that their children have a choice, that nothing is imposed upon them. So what do you tell children in order to ensure that they have the most choice? It's not clear. If you choose some kind of humanist education, would they ever choose faith? If you give them religion, would they feel free to choose other ones? If you give them a taste of many religions, would they ever feel like they could truly experience a faith community?

More choice (whether in cereal brands or houses of worship) does not necessarily produce more happiness, as Manning herself acknowledges. For religious leaders and religious parents, whose goal is not necessarily the happiness of adherents, this is not a problem. In a sense, someone else has made the choice for you. But if your highest good is personal autonomy, the paradox of choice presents a serious problem.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a weekly columnist for the New York Post and a former Wall Street Journal editor and writer whose work focuses on higher education, religion, philanthropy, and culture. She is the author most recently of Got Religion? How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back (Templeton Press) and Opportunity and Hope: Transforming Children's Lives through Scholarships (Rowman & Littlefield).

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