“Why Hold a Child Hostage to My Doubts?” 

The confusing, complicated desire of parents with no religion to raise their kids with faith.

Mother and child in church.

When a child is watching your every move, being a “None” is no longer just a lack of religion but an identity that has consequences for another human being.

Photo by Thinkstock

I’m the kind of Christian that many adults warned me about as a child: I’ve been a church member for most of my adult life, but I have at times gone years without regular attendance, my theology is squishy, and I don’t really pray, to name just a few qualities that put me on the breezy outer edge of Christianity’s big tent. I think of myself as “religious but not spiritual”: The rituals of faith—the songs, the stories, the bread and wine—are meaningful to me, but I can’t say much for certain beyond that. When I read the verse in Revelation where God says “because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” I think, Yep, that’s me!

Although I was raised evangelical, somehow the gruel-thin texture of my adult faith has never troubled me. Or at least not until this summer, when my infant daughter careened into my life—including my spiritual life, such as it is. I knew I wanted to raise her “in the church.” I want her to know the stories and songs that I love and to have a similar moral and cultural grounding that my husband and I were raised with. But I don’t want her to be afraid of a hell I don’t believe in, and I don’t want to lie about what I believe. So what should that look like, exactly?

This is one of the questions animating the new book Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children. Out later this month, it looks at how contemporary “Nones”—people who report that they have no religious affiliation whatsoever—handle the question of moral and spiritual formation with their children. Drawing on lengthy interviews with dozens of parents and bolstered by survey data, Christel Manning finds a surprisingly wide variety of approaches among parents who profess no faith of their own. It seems that while an increasing number of people are comfortable self-identifying as “No religion,” many still have a hard time using the same label for their children.

Manning, a professor of religious studies at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, is a self-described None, having drifted away from church-going as a teenager. But as a younger child, she had loved rituals like nightly prayers and lighting Advent candles. When she had her own daughter, Manning wondered if she should expose her to these traditions in some form. “It was all so beautiful and comforting and safe,” she writes. “Why hold a child hostage to my doubts?”

As Manning puts the dilemma:

What if the religion you rejected was a rich and wonderful part of your own childhood that made you feel protected and safe? Should you attempt somehow to recreate that feeling, along with transmitting your secular perspective, so that your children can make their own decision? But how can you do that with integrity if you no longer believe what you were taught?

The seemingly inexorable rise of the Nones is one of the biggest American religion stories of this millennium. “No religion” is now the fastest-growing religious group in America, with 23 percent of the country identifying themselves that way. According to new research released earlier this month by Pew, that growing group of Nones is also becoming increasingly secular: that is, they’re more and more likely to not just identify as “not religious” but to say they don’t believe in God and they never pray. For one of the most faith-filled countries in the Western world, this is a remarkable shift.

Like all religious affiliations, however, None is still a malleable label. There are the devout, acolytes of atheist belligerents like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. There are those who simply see no reason to cultivate a spiritual or religious life. And then there are those who know they don’t believe but who feel drawn back into the rituals of their childhood faith when they have children of their own.

This last group is apparently large but also mystifying: Why pretend to believe if you don’t, and why inculcate your children into a tradition you rejected? Manning cites sociological research from the 20th century suggesting people have long drifted away from religion in young adulthood and then hopped back into the fold when they become parents. But she is skeptical that this “life cycle theory” can fully explain what’s going on with contemporary Nones. For one, there are far fewer social pressures than there used to be nudging them back into religious practice. Rather, she argues, parenthood forces Nones to confront their “worldview identity,” perhaps for their first time.

Parents obviously shape their children’s spiritual lives. But Manning observes that children shape their parents’, too. Kids ask questions about death, identity, and other subjects that most of us haven’t grappled with seriously since we were teenagers. And if our miniature philosophers are oblivious to the moral foundations that shaped us, that can be a wake-up call for a drifting None. When a child is watching your every move, being a None is no longer just a lack of religion but an identity that has consequences for another human being. One of Manning’s interviewees described children as a “mirror that reflects back what you actually believe rather than what you think you believe.” 

At this early stage of the None revolution, most adult Nones were raised with some kind of religion. And the research on raising kids with and without faith is mixed. Some studies have shown religious kids are better behaved and psychologically healthier; others have found that secular kids are uniquely empathetic and less prone to peer pressure. As Slate’s Rachel E. Gross reported just last week, a new study of 1,000 kids in six countries found that those raised in religious households—most of them Christian or Muslim—were more selfish than their nonreligious peers. The authors of the study wrote that their results “call into question whether religion is vital for moral development.”

Well, maybe. But no one I know makes religious decisions primarily by sorting through academic research. Manning talks to plenty of Nones who feel perfectly at peace with their decision to raise their kids outside of religious communities. But others sound almost wistful about the religious road not taken. One father who raised his children in an “alternative (humanist) community” was dismayed by their lack of grounding: “I feel it’s good to reject traditional religion but you still want to be spiritual, you don’t want to be one-dimensional,” he told Manning. “I do feel, gee, I have left them without any sort of spiritual resources.”

For Nones (and None-adjacents like me) who had positive experiences with religion growing up, winding their way back to church, synagogue, or mosque for the sake of the kids has an even more obvious appeal. The trouble with children, of course, is that they want to know what’s real and what’s just a story. I dread the day when my daughter asks me if the stories in the Bible are true. My real answer is that some of them are and some of them sort of are and some of them aren’t and that even the ones that aren’t at all are still important because they are our stories. That should work for a 3-year-old, right?

In the meantime, I tote my little girl with me to church every Sunday. I hold her in my arms and sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” the Gloria Patri, and the Doxology. She hears the Lord’s Prayer every week, and before I know it she’ll be reciting it herself. I deeply hope it means something to her someday. But I know it might turn out to mean nothing at all.