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Why some religious 'nones' still take their kids to church

POSTED: November 17, 2015 10:19 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Parenthood forces religiously unaffiliated adults to reflect on their religious choices, according to a new book.

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Christel Manning has been on a spiritual journey in recent years.

She attended a Unitarian Universalist church, but it didn't speak to her heart. Then she ordered some books about Buddhism to read at home.

Manning, a professor of religious studies at Sacred Heart University, didn't do these things out of a sense of spiritual unrest. She did them because she had a daughter.

"I felt compelled to really think about (my religion) and sort out" what I believed, she said.

Manning is a self-described religious "none," a category of people who don't affiliate with a particular faith that comprises nearly 23 percent of the U.S. population, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Instead of joining a particular religious group, nones choose to cobble together a unique set of spiritual practices or reject religion altogether.

As Manning's experience with her daughter illustrates, parenthood presents a challenge to none parents, who often worry about the consequences of keeping their children away from faith communities. In her new book, Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children, Manning explores the various ways members of this group sort through their spiritual conundrum, which includes attending church as a family.

"Parents must consider whether to raise their children with the value system they have now," or allow them to make their own choices, she said.

And if they decide on the second option, parents have to accept that their children might follow a more faithful path than them, according to other sociological experts.

Nones as parents

Manning felt called to write her new book on both a personal and professional level.

As a scholar of religion, she suspected something sociologically interesting would happen when religiously unaffiliated Americans had kids. She's also a none parent who lived through the type of spiritual quandary her book details.

"When I started this project 10 years ago, (my daughter) was 3 years old. She was asking lots of questions related to religion, and I had to think about what" I was going to pass on to her, Manning said.

For decades, sociologists have been exploring how parenting changes a person's religious outlook, finding that people tend to become more involved in faith communities when they have kids of their own. In this context, Manning's sudden realization about her views on faith sounds familiar.

However, Manning believes that what's happening among today's none parents is different, because there is less societal pressure surrounding religious practice.

"Millennials are more comfortable remaining (religiously) uncommitted," she said.

Pew's recent survey on the spiritual habits of U.S. adults showed that the nones are growing less religious over time. In 2014, 65 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans said religion was not very or not at all important in their lives, compared to 57 percent seven years earlier. And only 61 percent of nones said they believed in God or a universal spirit, a 9 percentage point drop since 2007.

Raising religious kids

If it's not societal pressure, then what drives none parents to bring their kids to church? An identity crisis, according to Manning.

"Getting married and becoming a parent brings people who have dropped out of a religion face-to-face with their choice. They ask, 'Where am I on this?'" she said. Self-reflection might lead some to acknowledge that they're truly an atheist. But others emerge more aware of the positive influence faith had on their life.

Childhood religious practice has been linked to a variety of benefits, such as helping young people form a value system, said James Shepperd, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida.

Value systems, or worldviews, provide people with answers to some of life's most challenging questions, such as the purpose of human life and what happens after death, he said. They're informed by where people grow up and other life experiences, including exposure to faith communities.

"The nice thing about being religious is that it provides ready-made worldviews," Shepperd noted. And his research has found that strong worldviews help people resist self-destructive behaviors such as drug abuse.

Participating in religious activities also gives children an outlet for their natural spirituality, said Lisa Miller, author of "The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Livelong Thriving," a New York Times best-seller in 2015.

"Spirituality is, in part, innate and it can be cultivated by parents, family members and other people in the community," she said. Her research has shown that being spiritually enriched improves young people's mental well-being, giving their lives meaning and purpose.

Additionally, religious involvement can be socially fulfilling for a child because faith communities often have youth groups that meet weekly and go on annual trips, Shepperd said. He described how one of his academic colleagues had been cajoled into returning to church because one of his kids wanted "a group to do stuff with."

Studies also show that faith communities provide a strong social support system, providing young people with more adult mentors to turn to if they have problems at school or at home.

Although Manning stopped being active in her family's nondenominational Christian community as a teenager, she recalls rituals like prayer and the people she met at church with fondness. When she became a mom, she worried it wasn't fair to deprive her daughter of those experiences.

"I didn't have the excuse of being ignorant about religion," she said, noting that her decision to introduce her daughter to a variety of faiths was an emotional one, rather than being inspired by her scholarly work.

Potential for conflict

None parents who believe it's important to expose their children to religion can go about it in a variety of ways, Manning said, noting that she tried many of the strategies herself.

Families might return to the faith community one or both parents grew up in, providing kids with a strong spiritual grounding. Or they might buy books and invent rituals at home. Additionally, parents could outsource their children's religious education, dropping them off at a Sunday school or Hebrew class.

What links all of these approaches is parents' desires to give their kids a choice, Manning noted.

"The surge in the none population is about individualism. It's about people saying, 'I want to define for myself what my spirituality is,'" she said. When members of this group become parents, "they want their children to be able to choose for themselves, too."

In conversations with the dozens of parents she interviewed for her book, Manning found that religiously unaffiliated parents are sometimes baffled when their kids thrive in faith communities. But they have to accept that giving kids a choice means they might make an unexpected one.

"Some parents really struggle with that," she said.

Differences in religious commitment between generations can be even more problematic for children, Shepperd said.

"Anytime you have a conflict of values between close people there could be a rift," whether the inconsistency involves politics, religion or eating habits, he said.

When people behave in a way that contradicts their core beliefs, they experience cognitive dissonance, or unpleasant mental distress. A similar phenomenon can occur when our loved ones reject our religious worldview, Shepperd noted.

"(Children) might conclude that they have to change their beliefs, change your beliefs or just decide not to talk about it, like with politics at the dinner table," he said.

Respect and integrity

Although both Miller and Manning acknowledged how difficult it can be for nones to raise religious children, they said open and honest communication can go a long way toward averting conflict.

Parents can describe their own religious doubt without crushing a child's blossoming spirituality, Miller said, noting that these discussions prepare children for the bumps in the road they might face over time.

"Transparency about your own spiritual life helps a child know that a spiritual life will have times of deepening of faith," as well as times of lessening, she said.

Manning also highlighted the value of transparency, explaining that as kids grow up it becomes harder and harder to disguise your true beliefs from them.

"Kids pick up on it really quickly when you're being fake," she said.

"Whether you're a person of faith or an atheist, it's a place you've come to through experience and reflection," Manning added. "It's who you are. You want to be honest with your child about who you are."

While writing her new book, Manning formally interviewed nearly 50 parents and had casual conversations with dozens more. She learned the value of respect and integrity, noting that these traits serve none parents well in their effort to give children a choice about their religious beliefs.

"Integrity involves coming to accept where you are now (with your faith)" and sharing this worldview with your child, she added. "Respect is also important, because you shouldn't put down the worldviews of other (more religious) people. Those other people could be grandma or the neighbor down the street."

Over time, Manning's formal efforts to spiritually nurture her daughter fizzled out. She wasn't happy with the community Sunday school program they tried, and it didn't feel right to set a time each week to sit and chat about faith.

So Manning settled on a less rigid approach, pushing herself to discuss religion whenever it comes up naturally in conversations.

"There are many opportunities to talk about religion with your child, even if you aren't religious yourself. You could be preparing for a trip to visit friends or relatives who attend church or read about an event in the news" that involves faith, she said.

"It's a great thing to talk about our beliefs when the opportunity comes up," she added, noting that adults, in addition to their kids, grow in the process.
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