Blessed Are the Nones: Book Review

The most common, and the fastest-growing, type of interfaith marriage in the US is a marriage between a Christian and a “religious none.” (The “nones” are a catch-all for anyone who doesn’t check one religion box–whether an atheist, an agnostic, spiritual but not religious, or someone with many religious heritages). Whenever I give a talk on interfaith families, I always get questions from families navigating differences between religious and non-religious beliefs. Now, a lively, original, and moving new memoir describes just such a marriage for the first time, from the inside. Blessed Are the Nones: Mixed-Faith Marriage and My Search for Spiritual Community, is a deeply Christian book in many ways, but it touches on many of the emotional and practical hurdles faced by interfaith families of all types.

Stina Kielsmeier-Cook and her husband Josh, the son of a missionary, met at an evangelical Christian college, married, and spent time living off the land together in a Christian farming community. But a few years into their marriage, Josh announces that he has stopped believing in God. This book charts Stina’s journey through adjusting to this new asymmetry in their relationship to Christianity. Seeking spiritual support and community, she engages with an order of Catholic nuns in their neighborhood in downtown Minneapolis, in an attempt to learn what it is like to be “spiritually single.” But the nuns reject this term, and instead help Stina to feel connected to multiple communities, and to feel less alone by the end of the book.

The memoir follows a chronology through the seasons and the liturgical calendar of that first year after Josh leaves Christianity. Their two small children serve as minor characters, illustrating the universally messy reality and comic relief of parenting. But the focus of this memoir is Stina’s struggles: to reimagine life without a Christian partner, to face her own doubts on religion and marriage, to find community, and to forge new relationships and religious growth with the nuns. Josh, rather than being the antagonist, is depicted as a mensch, often coming to the rescue to pick up Stina and the kids at church, and patient and considerate with his wife as she works to process his revelation. By the end of the book, she has traveled through shock and fear and grief at Josh’s loss of religion, to an eventual sense of trust and peace and acceptance.

Stina is a seeker, ecumenical by nature, willing to learn from others, but with a perspective deeply rooted in the Protestant world. She describes her experiences as part of Presbyterian, evangelical, Mennonite, Episcopalian, and Baptist communities, and her enrichment through discovering Catholic liturgies, saints, and monastic life. For interfaith families who are not Christian, the language of believers versus nonbelievers, of being unequally yoked, of heaven and hell and salvation–may not resonate. By definition, this book will be most relevant for practicing Christians who have spouses who have left Christianity. And there are many.

Nevertheless, the book describes challenges that are common for interfaith couples, whether they are Christian and Jewish, or Pagan and atheist. What does it feel like to sit alone (or alone with children) in a place of worship, feeling that everyone else is sitting with a spouse? What does it feel like to feel exhausted by the burden of trying to transmit your religious heritage to children without a partner’s participation? What does it feel like to realize your children may not go to your beloved childhood religious school or camp?

I admire the author’s determination to capture this pivotal year while the experience was still fresh. As such, it will be most useful to other couples at the start of an interfaith relationship. On the other hand, those who have been in interfaith relationships for many years or decades may need to search their memories to recall some of the feelings described. The desire for a spouse to convert (or in this case, re-convert), expressed frequently in this book, may not be as familiar to those from non-proselytizing religions. And it is a feeling that has been faced and firmly put aside in many mature interfaith relationships. The strict binary of “faith” or “no faith,” (again, a traditionally Christian-centric way of considering the concept of religious identity), often shifts in longtime interfaith relationships into a more complicated conversation. And many of us eventually shift away from the undue influence of societal insistence that interfaith families are problematic, to an appreciation for the benefits and richness that interfaith families can bring.

So I hope that Stina will report back some years from now on her fascinating journey with a sequel to this spiritual memoir. We have precious few books written from inside interfaith families, and even fewer by writers aspiring to literary non-fiction. In the meantime, I will be adding this book to my list of resources for interfaith families. It pairs nicely with Duane McGowan’s more journalistic book In Faith and in Doubt, written from the point of view of an atheist married to a Christian, describing many such families. I am grateful to Stina Kielsmeyer-Cook for adding to the growing roster of authors from interfaith families who are chronicling our myriad experiences, and creating a new category in the world of books.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

The Nones (Including Interfaith Kids) Are Alright: A Book Review

The Nones Are Alright

Interfaith families celebrating two or more religions are not actually “religious nones.” I sometimes describe my people as religious maximalists instead of religious minimalists. We may be atheists, or agnostics, or mystics, but we are determined to honor all of our religious heritages. Some of us spend double the time and effort on religious study and practice, rather than no time at all.

And yet, those of us with what theologian Duane Bidwell calls “multiple religious bonds” sometimes get swept into the catch-all category of “religious nones.” This happens because surveys do not let us check more than one box, and because researchers don’t really know how to deal with what they see as the theological dissonance of the way we practice and identify. So we get thrown into the “none” bin, with a tremendous variety of other fascinating, religiously complex, fluid and flexible people.

Writer Kaya Oakes paints detailed portraits of some of the people whirling about in this contemporary religious and spiritual kaleidoscope, in her slim yet revealing new book, The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between (Orbis Books, 2015). Oakes is the author of previous books including a spiritual memoir, and teaches writing at Berkeley: I have long admired her work in the literary online magazine Killing the Buddha. Rather than a dry academic study, she gives us clear and lively prose and even poetic phrases like this one: “…faith is a tidal motion, an ebb and a surge, a push and a pull.”

But the backbone of this book is journalism, which in this case means important qualitative research in an emerging field. Oakes interviews a series of (mainly) millennials who might find themselves in the “religious nones” category for a whole host of reasons. They grew up atheist, or grew disgusted with religious doctrine and became atheist. They continue to practice religion on their own terms while being agnostics, or go to divinity school while doubting the existence of God, or adopt Buddhist meditation alongside other traditions as part of “liminal” religious practice, or remain “believers” but disaffiliate from religious institutions because they cannot live under the doctrines oppressing women and queer people. Oakes describes how many of her subjects are involved in community service and social justice work despite their disaffiliations, and writes, “Lost in the hand-wringing over the rise of nonbelievers are these kind of stories.”

The book is clearly rooted in the author’s own complex, nuanced Catholic perspective–Orbis is the Maryknoll press. For those from other religions, the American Christian orientation is evident in the emphasis on “faith” or “belief.” (For Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and many indigenous peoples, practice and culture often have more weight than litmus tests of belief). And the second half of The Nones Are Alright focuses specifically on interviews with people who have left the Catholic Church, have perhaps rejoined it (“boomerangs”), and then sometimes left again.

But this is also one of the first books to emphasize the important contribution of interfaith families to the complexity of religion in America right now. Oakes cites Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, and writes that future children are “increasingly likely to grow up ‘both/and’.” For instance, her portrait of “Carolyn” reveals how the daughter of a Lutheran mother and Jewish father worked for a mainline Protestant organization, studied in Israel but was alienated by the anti-intermarriage rhetoric there, briefly considered conversion to Judaism, and continues to seek out both Christian and Jewish experiences. She tells Oakes, “This whole idea about you don’t have to fit into a box has been useful and a relief.”

In all, the author gives us a tremendously useful disambiguation of the rich diversity of people caught up in the broad sweep of the nones. Millennials and those who come up behind them are in the midst of organizing their own religious structures and spiritual lives, and designing the new academic field of interfaith studies. In this context, the depth of each new portrait in this book will help to further our understanding of who is disaffiliating from religious institutions, why they are doing so, what the role of interfaith families will be, and how many of us are finding and creating meaning, support, and community outside the boxes in the 21st century.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Let Us Check More Than One Religion Box

Interfaith Sweater by Susan Katz Miller

Imagine for a moment that you are a teenager, arriving at college for your first year, and that you come from an interfaith family. Perhaps you were raised in one religion, but now, you feel drawn to explore the other religion in your family background. Or perhaps you were raised with both religions, and plan to stay connected to both. Or perhaps you were raised with neither religion, but now plan to explore both family religions, or all religions.

Now, imagine you are handed a survey and asked to choose one religion, and only one religion, as your identity. Your only other choices are to choose “none,” or “other religion,” or to skip the question altogether.

I went through this thought experiment as I read “The American Freshman,” an annual report released earlier this month, based on a survey of more than 150,000 college freshmen in the annual CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program) survey, produced by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA.

The survey only allows students to pick one religion as their “religious preference.” I suggest that as a result of this restriction, the researchers are missing an opportunity to better understand the changing landscape of American religious identity. As summarized recently by Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, that landscape includes the following: one in five Americans is religiously unaffiliated, a quarter of the unaffiliated still see themselves as religious, one in six Americans follow the teachings or practices of more than one religion, and about one quarter have a spouse or partner of another religious background.

This year’s American Freshman survey found that nearly 28% of the students chose “none” as their religious preference, up from some 15% in 1971. And yet, more than 16% of these “religious nones” in 2014 rated their own spirituality as “above average” or in the highest ten percent. I asked Kevin Eagan, the director of HERI, for additional information on the students who came from interfaith families. In 1973, about 22% of students reported having parents with two different religions or denominations (or having one parent with no religion). By 2014, almost 30% had such “religiously discordant” parents.

When I asked whether the researchers had considered allowing students to check more than one religious preference, Eagan replied in an email:
“Unlike race/ethnicity, we have not heard feedback from students or institutions that respondents have felt boxed in by restricting them to just one preference for religion.” I can only reply that both my college-student daughter and my college-bound son do feel boxed in, as do I. And based on the college students I surveyed and interviewed for Being Both, my book on interfaith families, I suspect we’re not the only ones.

I also asked Eagan what he thought of the idea that students from interfaith families would check “none” if they could not check more than one box. “I would think that students who wanted to check multiple religions would either skip the question entirely (i.e., be coded as missing data) or choose the option of ‘other religion’ rather than choose ‘none’,” Eagan wrote me.

As someone who claims an identity formed by both my Jewish and my Christian heritage, I would not choose “other religion,” a category that seems designed for Sikhs or Jains or Pagans. Interfaith is not a religion: it is an identity based on the synergy and symbiosis of two distinct family religions. Often, those of us honoring both family religions are accused of trying to form a new religion. In order to avoid feeding this kind of concern, I would make a point of not checking the “other religion” box. My 18-year-old son says, “At least checking ‘other’ sends the message that they need to expand their options.” But does it send that message?

The choice to just skip the question creates the unfortunate result that people with complex religious identities from interfaith families will not be counted or included in the study results on religious identity. And we are tired of not counting. I agree that some students might just skip this question since there would be no way to express their true religious preferences within the parameters of the survey. My argument is that by allowing them to check more than one box, researchers would be able to gather data to better understand the religious identity of these students.

Why would students who feel connected to more than one religion choose “none”? Those of us who are interfaith children grow up hearing “you can’t be both” and “if you try to do both, you’re really nothing,” and being told that clergy, or religious texts, do not accept the existence of interfaith families. A survey that does not allow students to check two or more religion boxes, but does allow them to check “none,” effectively steers respondents from interfaith families to the “none” box. And yet, this is clearly an uncomfortable box for interfaith children who celebrate more than one religion. My 18-year-old son explains, ” ‘None’ strips you of your religion. They’re saying that because you don’t fit into one of our categories, you can’t have any religion.”

There’s a simple solution to all of this. Allow students to check more than one box. Allow them to check both Buddhist and Jewish. Allow them to check, whether or not you agree that it is a valid choice, Jewish and Catholic. The results will be more complex, perhaps harder to summarize. And more true.

 

This essay was first published on Huffington Post.

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

 

Breakthrough! Interfaith Families, Interfaith Engagement

Dali Museum, Figueres, Spain, photo by Susan Katz Miller

For years now, I have been advocating for interfaith families to be included in interfaith activism and conversation. Since 9/11, an inspiring interfaith movement has been growing, including interfaith activism on campuses. And just in the past couple of years, atheists and agnostics and secular humanists have been welcomed by many of these interfaith organizations, in recognition of the growth of these communities, and the idea that you do not have to have a faith to want to join the interfaith movement. All of this is good—very, very good.

But for those of us from interfaith families, the new focus on interfaith activism has raised two tricky (and intertwined) issues. The first challenge is linguistic. Interfaith families have always used the word “interfaith” to describe who we are. The pioneering intermarriage of my parents occurred in 1960. And since at least the 1980s, some of us have been raising interfaith children with both religions, and some of those children use “interfaith” as an identity label. So the word “interfaith” is being used both at a macro level to describe engagement between people of different faiths, and on a micro level to describe, well, engagement and marriage and identity in interfaith families. I don’t know if we should have or could have had different terminology to distinguish these two phenomena, but we don’t.

The second issue is that official interfaith conversations between representatives of different religious institutions have not always welcomed interfaith families and those with interfaith or dual-faith or multifaith identity. We represent a blurring of boundaries, and that ambiguity can sometimes make people uncomfortable.  And yet, people from interfaith families have skills to contribute to interfaith conversations and programs. We practice the art of communicating across religious divides, day and night, throughout our marriages, or throughout our lifetimes if we are born into interfaith families.

This week, I felt like I witnessed a breakthrough. I was invited by interfaith activist Sana Saeed to co-sponsor a twitter chat, alongside a group of interfaith organizers, leading up to a DC Young Adult Faith Leaders Summit tomorrow, organized by Faith in Action DC.  (Note: You can follow the Summit on twitter at #DCFaith). I started to buzz with excitement when I saw that the Summit will include people who “belong to traditional religious institutions, have multiple affiliations, no affiliations, or are somewhere in-between.” In other words, the summit is inclusive, on a whole new level.

In the twitter chat, I dove in and asked two questions: What can people from interfaith families, or who claim more than one religion, bring to interfaith activism and conversation? And, what are the challenges of including people with dual-faith or multiple-faith identities in interfaith conversation?

It was thrilling to read the responses from people who work full-time on interfaith engagement. Usra Ghazi of the Interfaith Youth Core tweeted that “interfaith families are like religiously diverse communities: great places for interfaith literacy.” Bud Heckman of Religions for Peace USA agreed that people from interfaith families bring their “lived daily experience” to the conversation, “But also assumptions/positions that are threatening to ‘single faith’ others. Benefit & barrier.”

And so, on to those challenges. Ghazi tweeted that interfaith conversations “tend to put people in a box. You can’t do that with ‘seekers’ and multi-faith identities.” InterfaithYouthCore responded that people with dual-faith or multifaith identities challenge “the norm that certain faiths are exclusive of others.” Faith in Action DC confided that, while organizing tomorrow’s Summit, they had the “challenge of placing multifaith participants. Which group are they in? So we created “Multi” category! #simple!” I am not sure everyone will find it that simple. But this chat felt like the beginning of a beautiful, and radically inclusive, conversation.

(Note: Some twitter abbreviations have been expanded in this post, to ensure greater comprehension by those over 30)

“Mixed Religion” on the United Kingdom Census

Multicolored Threads

This post ran on my Huffington Post blog.

This week, we learned of 23,000 people in England and Wales classified as having “Mixed Religion.” This news comes from the United Kingdom’s Office on National Statistics, which just released new numbers on religious identity from the 2011 government census. Most of the news reports have focused on the finding that from 2001 to 2011, the percentage of Christians in England and Wales fell from 72 percent to 59 percent. Meanwhile, the number claiming no religion almost doubled to 25 percent, paralleling the rise of the “religious nones” in the U.S. The numbers of Muslims grew most quickly, to almost 5 percent, and the percentage of Hindus, Sikhs and Pagans all increased as well.

But as someone who was born into an interfaith family and raised my children with two religions, my eye was drawn to the new evidence of people claiming more than one religion in their lives. Who are these “Mixed Religion” folks? How many of them are born Christians or Jews who find Paganism or Buddhism equally compelling? How many of them are in long-term relationships and find themselves practicing their spouse or partner’s religion as well as their own? And how many of them are adults raised with more than one religion in interfaith families?

Here in the United States, the government’s Bureau of the Census collected information on identity from religious organizations from 1906 to 1936, but then stopped. As a matter of separation of church and state, I understand that we do not want to ask about religious identity on the Census. The question about religion was added to the U.K. Census in 2001. Answering the religion question on the Census is optional, but only about 7 percent declined to answer.

For statistics on religious identity in America, the best source may be the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. In the 2009 report “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths,” Pew researchers found that, even beyond weddings and funerals, almost a quarter of Americans sometimes attend services of a faith other than “their own.” But the Pew researchers did not directly address the idea of “Mixed Religion” as a primary identity.

I chose to raise my children with an education in both Judaism and Christianity, in a community dedicated to supporting interfaith families. Many of the young adult graduates of these interfaith education programs, which exist in several cities now, would claim “interfaith” or “Mixed Religion” or “Jewish/Christian,” as a religious identity in a census, given the chance. And so would some of their parents, who may have spent their entire adulthoods celebrating two religions together, as a couple.

The discovery of a cohort of “Mixed Religion” adherents in the U.K. serves as a reminder that the demographic reality of religious double-belonging among adults can no longer be ignored. Most religious institutions continue to urge interfaith couples to pick one religion for children, to beware of confusion, to stop blurring boundaries. The reaction to dual-faith adherence is too often panic and disapproval, and the attempt to close borders. But for the individual, especially an individual like me who was born into a family with more than one religious heritage, crossing borders can be exhilarating and bring great joy. Our celebration of both faiths goes beyond Hanukkah and Christmas, beyond all the history of tragic conflict and religious violence, to a place where love prevails over dogma. In this spirit, and in the season of light in darkness, I send greetings across the Atlantic to those who celebrate Christmas and Yule, Hanukkah and Diwali, all of the above, or none of the above.

Interfaith Marriage and the Rise of the Religious “Nones”

Clouds, sun, ocean

The proportion of religiously-unaffiliated Americans has grown rapidly to almost 20 percent of the population, according to a report entitled “Nones” on the Rise,” released this week by the Pew Research Center. And yet, a follow-up survey by Pew and the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly found that the majority of the country’s 46 million religiously-unaffiliated adults believe in God or a universal spirit, and many are religious or spiritual in some way. Those of us who are in interfaith families did not find this seemingly-paradoxical portrait the least bit surprising.

The new study did not address the role intermarriage may play in the rise of those who are religiously unaffiliated, or how the rise of the religiously unaffiliated may play into the growth of the “raising children with both” movement. But for me, as someone in a three-generation interfaith family, several connections seem worthy of exploration:

  1. Those who intermarry face barriers to religious affiliation. Interfaith families who want to educate their children in two religions often cannot affiliate with religious institutions. Many religious institutions discourage or even forbid families from belonging to more than one religious community, or enrolling their children in more than one religious education program. These families may turn for support and religious education to independent interfaith communities such as the ones in New York, Chicago, and Washington DC. Or they end up religiously homeschooling their children in both religions. Either way, they may become part of the “religious but not religiously affiliated” demographic documented in the study.
  2. Those who are not religiously affiliated may face fewer obstacles in intermarrying. Without a religious institution or clergy member to tell them they cannot or should not do so, they are free to marry for love. As the Pew study points out, these religiously-unaffiliated people may still see themselves as spiritual, or religious, or both.  And they may feel culturally and historically connected to one or more religions.  They may want to continue to practice a religion, experience spirituality, celebrate cultural connections. And they may even want to pass all of this religious heritage on to their children. But they do not necessarily need, or want, affiliation with religious institutions.
  3. The new study points out that “none” is not a very accurate or objective term for people who may have rich religious and spiritual lives but who do not happen to belong to a church or synagogue. The Pew report authors state that they prefer the term “religiously unaffiliated,” but that the term “none” has been so widely used now, both in the press and in research, that they chose to use the term in the title of the report. I am both the child of interfaith parents and the partner in an interfaith marriage. Like many interfaith children, and many intermarried people, I am religiously unaffiliated, yet resent the term “none.” I belong to neither church nor temple, yet spend hours each week in religious and spiritual engagement with two religions, in the context of an independent interfaith families community. I am deeply, not minimally, engaged with theology, religious practice, and spirituality. I am not a “none.”
  4. I am grateful to Pew for drilling down into data on the “nones” and discovering some of the rich complexity of religiously-unaffiliated spiritual life. In an interesting parallel, many of the early studies on interfaith families conflated “doing nothing” with “doing both.” Just because a family does not affiliate with a church or a temple does not mean they are doing nothing. On the other hand, families may claim to be doing both, or attempt to do both, but cannot always follow through successfully without the support of clergy, family, or like-minded interfaith families. It will be important in future studies to examine the full range of practices, beliefs and experiences of unaffiliated interfaith families.
  5. The Pew study attempts to tease out some of the reasons for the growth in the religiously-unaffiliated. Some of the people in this category doubt the existence of God, some believe that religious institutions are too concerned with rules, money, power and politics. On the other hand, the study found that the majority of the religiously-unaffiliated do appreciate how religious institutions strengthen community bonds and provide community service to the poor. For those who want community without dogma, Unitarian-Universalist (UU) congregations provide one option (an option that has provided a home to many interfaith families). In light of the rise of the religously-affiliated, I was not surprised to read this week of the recent concomitant growth in UU communities. Another option, of course, both for Jewish and Christian interfaith families and for anyone interested in religious education and spiritual practice without institution or creed, is the growing interfaith families community network represented by this blog.

I hope that this new study inspires further research on all of us outside of official religious institutions, and on the relationship between the increasing religious fluidity and hybridity of our world, the rise of interfaith families, and the role of religious institutions.