The 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Center showed that the U.S. public, as a whole, is growing less religious, resulting in headlines such as “Fewer Americans Believe in God” and “‘Nones on the Rise.” In a new book Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents are Raising their Children (NYU Press, Nov.), Christel Manning goes beyond the headlines to provide a qualitative counterweight to the data about “Nones”—people who have no religious affiliation. She sought to answer the question, “How do None parents deal with the question of religion in the upbringing of their children?”
For Manning, professor of religious studies at Sacred Heart University, the quest and the conundrum were not only professional lines of inquiry, but personal. “My experience is part of the story,” she said, noting that her daughter had gone from age three to 13 during the course of her research and writing of the book. “As I’m gathering data, analyzing and writing, I was also reflecting on all this as it pertains to my own kid,” said Manning. “And that experience surely influences the conclusions that I draw.”
What she discovered was greater complexity than what is presented about Nones in the news. The problem, she said, is that the term "None" “focuses on what people don’t have and don’t believe rather than on what meaning they are finding and how they do fulfill their lives.”
Manning learned that parents are making their own choices, connecting/disconnecting from religious institutions in their own fashion, and dealing with the in-depth issues of how to raise their children as Nones in multiple ways. “Parents like myself want to know what other people are doing; this book looks at Nones all over the U.S, [and shows] what they are doing, the choices they are making, how they are dealing with conflicts with religious extended family, and what options are available to them,” she said.
For instance, where are None parents taking their kids for community or religious education? Manning said that many None families who want a spiritual community sometimes choose to affiliate with Unitarian Universalists and other open and tolerant institutions. “You can believe whatever you want to believe and they provide an organized religious education program for children to learn and to choose for themselves,” she said. "My sense is that people who are not religious are attracted to that because nothing is imposed.”
Manning identified four types of non-religious parents: Unchurched believers, Spiritual Seekers, Philosophical Secularists, and the Indifferent. As for the surge in the None population, it’s “more about people asserting their right to choose their own worldview than it is about secularism, per se,” she said.
Despite mainstream assumptions that might posit that religion is good for kids, Manning said her research points out that “raising your kids with or without religion can have benefits and downsides." But in the end, “it depends on what your value system is."