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Friday, October 16, 2015

"Losing Our Religion" (Christel Manning)

TITLE: Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children (Secular Studies)
AUTHOR: Christel Manning
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: New York University Press, 2015, (256 pages).

What is Christmas all about? Is there anything religious about Santa Claus? Why does Santa want to make people happy?  These questions may be easily answered by a church-goer but when it comes to an unaffiliated parent who is more secular than religious, how can one answer such questions intelligibly to a young child? According to recent polls on church attendance by religious people in North America, the single fastest growing group are those who formerly express belief but no longer practice their religion. Many parents who had the benefit of a religious training no longer attends churches, and as a result, their children do not experience the same religious background as them. How then are modern children being raised? What does it mean to the next generation growing up in a secular, non-religious, and atheistic culture? Do parents do any spiritual education at all? What will they say when their children ask them about God, and spiritual matters? These questions and more are dealt with in this fascinating study about people who have "lost" their religion and are trying to make sense of how they can raise their children in a whole new secular way.

With a study grant from Sacred Heart University, Christel Manning spends extended periods of time interviewing and researching the lifestyles of American "Nones" parents from 23-55 (ie, No religions in particular), who comprise one-third of those under 30 years of age. She discovers that the environment has no clear cut separation of religious and the secular, but worldviews frequently are combinations of the two.

Without assuming readers know that demographic, Manning introduces three examples of "Nones." Twenty-eight year old Charlie grew up in an evangelical family who attends Church regularly. He believes that religion is more of a crutch and feels that it doesn't really make any difference. He no longer goes to Church. Thirty-two year old Rosario was raised Catholic but drifted toward becoming more spiritual rather than religious. Thirty-five year old Samantha was raised "culturally Jewish," married to a Catholic, and is now non-religious. All of them are unchurched, unaffiliated to any religion, and increasingly secular. A large number of them are under thirty, male, and live either in New England or the Pacific Northwest. They are also less likely to be supporting the Republican. The label "Nones" is used because it is inclusive enough for atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, even Christians who are not aligned to any Church.

Manning explores "Nones" a bit more, studying four different kinds before proposing her own framework for understanding who they are. The first is the "Spiritual not Religious" which is high on personal spiritual growth but low in Church or institutionalized religion. The second is "spiritual seekers" who is open about all kinds of spirituality that provides some meaning to their lives. The third comprises a variety of secularism that contains various expressions of cultural influences, philosophical, secularist, and syncretistic beliefs. The fourth is the indifferent. After presenting the "Nones parents," Manning was forced to redefine religion. Instead of religion as "beliefs, belonging, and participation," she looks at how much these "matter" to them. There is a prioritization of individual needs above all things. There is a belief of how science is superior to religion. They want to raise their children not as religious or secularists, but want them to make their own choices for themselves.

Considering herself a "None," she notes that those under 30 prefer their weekends to be free. The young are not as interested in end-of-life concerns as those are relatively much farther away in life. They like to sleep in on Sundays! They find accusations of sins on certain human choices like homosexuality very repulsive. Manning believes that one key reason for the rise of the Nones is the solidifying of a "Nones identity." Other factors include the rising number of singles (no family ties to draw one back to religion); intermarriages; independence from parental identities; avoiding contentious religious discussions; etc.

Covering a huge amount of data and conducting interviews with Nones parents, the author combs the findings and points out several key observations. First, outsiders may see Nones as one big distinct group, but they are actually more diverse than we think. This has implications for trying to understand anyone classified as a None. This is the problem with using an overly inclusive label that is high on generalization but low on specifications. The four frameworks that Manning has listed will help in this understanding. Even then, it should only be seen as a starting point for a conversation with a None. Second, there is the challenge of parenthood and identity. While much data has been gleaned from Nones who grew up in religious homes, it may take a generation or more to study the data from Nones growing up in unchurched, unaffiliated homes. The chapter on benefits and risks of bringing up children without religion is worth the price of the book. It asks a very basic question: "Are we born secular or religious?" Third, Nones see themselves as outsiders. This non-participative and non-committal stance makes it easy for Nones to remain acceptable without having to step on religious toes. Like in politics, it is easier to remain non-committed to any political party and save the hassle of answering questions about our choices. Fourth, the author feels that new and better ways need to be used in studies of this nature. For one, the background of the researcher plays a part in the study and interpretation of data. Manning herself has been brought up in a Church, only to leave the Church later on in life. Her observations and findings may be different from one who has been brought up in a Nones home. This is reflected in the fifth point where the author acknowledges a personal connection between researcher and subject of study. Plus, how is she going to bring up her daughter Sheila?

So What?
I am thankful for this honest study that highlights the predicaments of religious choices and the challenges of parenting. Yet, I find it very disconcerting about the rising numbers of Nones who would feel lost about how to raise their children. As a parent myself, it is hard enough to teach religion to children. The key question is about foundations. Is the "narrative of choice" a sufficient foundation for the child's worldview formation? How does a little child distinguish between right and wrong? If the child grows up in a culture that elevates amoral thinking over others, he/she will grow up insensitive to moral issues. They need a basis in which to determine the rights and wrongs of life. Without a proper foundation, we risk cultivating a new generation that questions the law instead of abiding. Ravi Zacharias tells a story of how a host from Ohio State University showed him "America's first postmodern building" which had "no purpose or meaning." It has stairways that go nowhere. The shapes of rooms render them unusable. The whole design of the building has no particular purpose. The bizarre building had Ravi say: "I have only one question for the architect. Did he do that with the foundation as well? Did he just do it whimsically? Or did he have to follow certain guidelines? Because the infrastructure can look magnificent, but if the foundation doesn't hold, the whole thing will collapse. and there's no city council that I know that will allow you to do it in a whim, without any purpose to sustain what you are putting above it." Buildings have their building codes. National parks have their safety markers. Universities have their examination standards. Even academic papers have to adhere to a particular manual of style. Traffic laws are necessary to maintain order. The world we live in require a certain standard of operation. What more about life? If our children grow up without being taught about order, right/wrong, civic-mindedness, and important disciplines, how will they turn out? I shudder at the thought of Nones trying to bring up their children as if they are adults. Just because the religious institutions have failed in some way do not mean they are complete failures. Reform them instead of rejecting them. There is a place for faith.

The Bible clearly instructs parents to teach the laws and love of God passionately, to raise them up in the truth that when they grow up, they will walk in the right ways without turning to the erroneous left or right. The study on the Nones is an academic one, albeit of deep religious interest. It is also about parenting. While it is nice to provide a narrative of choice for children, I question the wisdom of letting children decide on things that are too difficult for them to understand. If it is unfair to teach religion on children in the first place, on the same logic, it is also unfair to teach non-religion on children. The argument of choice cuts both ways. Do we let children choose to eat anytime they wish? Do we let them choose ice-cream for dinner instead of a proper nutritious meal? Do we let children decide on matters of faith prematurely? Do we expect them to make adult decisions when they are just children? No. It would be grossly irresponsible. Honestly, arguments fired against religion must also be applied to non-religious quarters. In other words, any argument used against others must be applicable to oneself too. Technically, if the author wants to be completely fair and true in her bringing up of her children, she ought to bring up Sheila (just like she was raised); go to Church with Sheila (just like what Manning had done with her parents); and then at her teenager years, let Sheila choose to be a None. From Manning's personal assessment of what it means to be a scholar, I believe Manning is aware of such an inner conflict. So how do we appreciate this book? See it as an invitation to more conversation.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of New York University Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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