Since 1990, more and more Americans have been leaving their churches and synagogues, and today nearly one-fourth of Americans claim to have no religious affiliation at all. In the thirty and under crowd, it’s a full one-third who categorizes themselves as nonreligious. In her new book, Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, Katherine Ozment examines this cultural shift away from organized religion and investigates alternatives for finding community and spirituality in the secular world.
I was really excited to read Grace Without God because, like Ozment herself, I consider myself spiritual but not religious. Ozment says that before she and her husband had children, she thought they’d “raise them in a colorful blend of religious pluralism – a little Zen Buddhism here, a visit to a Quaker meeting there, a smattering of secularized Christian and Jewish holidays throughout the year from which they would learn the basics of their heritage.”
That’s pretty much what my husband and I have been saying for the past few years, too. We figure we’ll have “spiritual time” with our kids each Sunday in which we’ll read a Bible story or a Greek myth or some other spiritually-minded text, talk about how to be a good person, then do a little meditation.
But, as Ozment explains, “vague plans are hard to enact.” When their kids were born, she and her husband forgot about their ambitious plans: “We held no bris or baptisms. We neglected to sign up for Hebrew school or seek a friendly nondenominational parish. We skipped most religious rituals all together.”
And then, five years ago, her eight-year-old son was watching as the parishioners of the Greek Orthodox Church across the street performed a Good Friday ritual, and he asked, “what are we?”
“We’re nothing,” she said. This answer sent Ozment into something of a crisis. In that moment she “felt at a loss to describe who we were, what we believed, and where we fit.” She decided to go on an exhaustive search to figure out the answer.
Ozement’s book is both a diligently-researched and highly-personal account of how she went about trying to make sense of religion, spirituality, and belief – both for herself and for her children.
The first half of the book examines why people are leaving religion and the voids this can leave. Religion gives people a community and a sense of belonging. Religion gives people a value system and an opportunity to volunteer their time or receive support in times of need. People who have left religion often report missing the rituals and traditions that made them feel part of something larger than themselves. And lack of religion may be affecting the values of young people. According to Ozment’s research “two-thirds of children today think it’s more important to pursue their own personal happiness than to be good people.”
And when we try to create secular communities, rituals, and value systems, it can be difficult to do without the history and tradition that the major religions are rooted in. “Without religious belief,” Ozment writes, “we have to redefine what is sacred and then commit ourselves to nurturing and maintaining it.” I felt the book got redundant about this point. Over and over again Ozment emphasized how religion provides us important things, and how it can be really hard to develop a sense of community and spirituality without it.
That’s why I was happy to get into the second half of the book in which Ozment stops agonizing over the problem and begins offering solutions. She describes alternatives to mainstream religion such as secular humanism, atheist groups, and secular rituals. I enjoyed learning about a Buddhist coming-of-age ceremony, the gift circle at the Ethical Culture Society, and nonreligious funerals. It was interesting to read about all the options out there for people who are looking for something to replace religion.
Reading Grace Without God made me re-think the vague plans my husband and I had made about “spiritual time” with our children. Maybe, before we have kids, we need to get clearer in our beliefs and values and figure out the best ways to provide our children with community, ritual, and opportunities for spiritual growth.
Perhaps that’s why my favorite two parts of the book came at the end. There is a large section of resources at the back of the book with questions to ponder, books to read, and websites to peruse.
And I loved the Epilogue, which is Ozment’s letter to her children. In it she sums up what she has learned in her years of research, and her advice to them is both poignant and practical. “Grace,” she says, “comes from knowing that to be alive and conscious in this world is a rare gift. If we are open to it, we can see that there is grace all around us, with or without God.”