Losing Our Religion

How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children

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Christel J. Manning
Secular Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , November
     2015.
     256 pages.
     $27.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781479883202.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Christel Manning’s Losing Our Religion examines the worldviews of self-identified religiously-unaffiliated parents as well as the strategies they use to raise their children regarding religion, spirituality, secularity, and indifference. Manning argues that while unaffiliated parents exhibit a wide variety of beliefs and practices, they are united in their commitment to personal “worldview choice”: that is, the right to choose for oneself what to believe and practice (5, 49). It is this freedom of choice that unaffiliated parents seek to pass on to their children. Situating her work in the growing literature on religious “Nones” in the United States, Manning demonstrates effectively how qualitative and nuanced research is essential to understanding this fast-growing part of the population.

While public opinion polls, social scientific surveys, and the media track the “Nones,” Manning criticizes this term by showing how it “reifies the dominant cultural understanding of what religion is and should be” (e.g., institutional, exclusive) and implies that all “Nones” are the same (24). Instead, Manning documents diversity in “None worldviews” through a four-part typology: Unchurched Believer, Seeker Spirituality, Philosophical Secularist, and Indifferent. Unchurched Believers identified as religious and/or spiritual, affirmed traditional theist beliefs, and/or engaged in traditional religious practices. Spiritual Seekers “identified with a pluralist label (e.g., Buddhist Jew)” or declined any label (since “all religions are true”), identified as “spiritual but not religious,” rejected theism while affirming a higher power, and/or engaged in pluralistic spiritual practices (39). Philosophical Secularists identified with a label that rejects religion (e.g., atheist) and “understand our existence to be shaped by nature, society, or other material forces that we can rationally and empirically explain” (41). Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Manning’s argument is her development of the Indifferent category: those who “do not so much reject religion as ignore it” and who are “generally unable or unwilling to articulate a worldview other than ‘none’” (44). They “may be the only group that deserves to be categorized as None,” Manning adds (44).

Manning explores how time and place change what it means to be a “None.” She argues that “starting a family compels Nones to confront the issue of worldview identity …as they interact with others in that family: the child, a co-parent, and extended family members” (58). For some parents, having children brought them back to the religions of their childhoods; for others, it solidified a nonreligious identity. Place is also important. “None” parents in highly religious areas perceived themselves as outsiders, prompting worries that their children might not fit in among peers or that their children might convert to a fundamentalist church. “None” parents in more secular areas experienced a local public culture where religion is a private matter. Manning rightly contends that “variations in religious diversity, the relative strength of religious institutions, and the extent of privatization of religion all combine to make Nones feel either more or less welcome in their communities” (96).

Surprisingly, Manning shows that even though most children raised by “Nones” also turn out unaffiliated, most parents in her study did not intentionally raise their children that way (106). Manning identifies five strategies parents employ to transmit worldviews to their children: (1) returning to church, putting children into formal religious education programs, and incorporating religion into the home (a practice most common among Unchurched Believers); (2) finding an alternative worldview-based organization that welcomes nonreligious people, such as the American Humanist Association or Unitarian Universalists (popular amongst Philosophical Secularists and Spiritual Seekers); (3) providing worldview transmission in the home, outside of institutions; (4) outsourcing worldview education to formal religious programs or relatives; and (5) taking no action to transmit any particular worldview, religious or secular, to their children (common among Indifferents). While acknowledging that her sample size is too small to generalize about which of these strategies is most popular among “None” parents overall, Manning convincingly establishes that “there is more variety in how Nones raise their children than existing research would imply” (136).

“Worldview choice” undergirds how all of the parents Manning met raised their children. Yet she also indicates how “None” parents restrict their children’s choices, such as by presenting only select worldviews to them or framing some worldviews in more positive terms than others. She interrogates this “choice narrative” by showing how individualism and consumerism can lead to greater freedom but also to narcissism, decline of community, and personal stress (144). Manning’s penultimate chapter explores the risks and benefits of raising children without religion, outlining and then critiquing psychological literature which claims that children are naturally spiritual, as well as scholarship claiming that children raised in organized religions experience more positive life outcomes. Ultimately, Manning demonstrates that religion has both positive and negative impacts on children.

Manning’s book is one of the first sustained treatments of the everyday lives and lifecycle concerns of nonreligious Americans. Based on over two years of qualitative research, including forty-eight interviews across five states, in addition to her own experience as a self-identified “None” parent, Manning offers an empathetic yet critical analysis of “None” parents. She also poignantly describes her own insider identity, as she shifted between the typologies and strategies described above.

The chief scholarly contributions of this book include its helpful typology of “Nones” and its discussion of how personal choice animates their identities and parenting. These insights should inform future scholarship on nonreligious populations. Readers might also compare Manning’s work with chapters about religiously-unaffiliated parenting in two other recent books: Vern Bengtson’s Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations (Oxford 2013, ch 8) and Elizabeth Drescher’s Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford 2016, ch 7). My only quibble is that while Manning carefully critiques the term “None” in her first chapter, she continues to rely on it throughout the book, thus blunting the power of her criticism. Nevertheless, this book should be required reading for anyone interested in the changing contours of American religious and nonreligious life.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dusty Hoesly is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in Religions in North America and the social scientific study of religion.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christel Manning is Professor of Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University (CT). She is the author of God Gave Us the Right and co-editor of Sex & Religion.

Comments

Joseph Blankholm

Thanks for a great review. As you observe, I'm curious how she gives in to using an affiliation-centered term like "none" while pursuing what seems to be a worldview- (belief-) and to a degre behavior-based taxonomy in her four types. And I'm also intrigued by how she handles the "indifferent." This one's going on the must-read list.

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