At 10, she’s growing up in a time when close to one quarter of Americans don’t affiliate with a particular religion. Sometimes they dabble in more than one faith; sometimes they refrain altogether.
“Nones,” so-called because they choose “none of the above” when asked to define their faith, make up a growing segment of the American public. Ozment, a journalist who lives in Hyde Park with her husband and three children, explores the shift in her new book, “Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age” (Harper Wave).
“I look mostly at the good aspects of religion,” Ozment told me. “Where it brings people together, how it encourages people to do more volunteer work, how it gives people a sense of belonging and creates these wonderful rituals. If we’ve left religion behind, how can we get some of that stuff without it?”
Ozment was raised Presbyterian in a fairly devout home. Her husband, Michael, was raised Jewish. Both had drifted from religion by the time their children were born, and she found herself questioning whether they needed to fill that spiritual void with something larger than themselves.
One night her son, 8 at the time, asked, “What are we?” and Ozment blurted out, “We’re nothing.”
“My inability to find the words to describe us reflected the fact that my husband and I had never created a cohesive narrative for the life we had chosen to live,” she writes. “A narrative that would tie us to a like-minded group via a clear moral framework, meaningful rituals and a deep sense of belonging.”
She spent several years researching and writing “Grace Without God,” visiting, among others, Catholic church services, a Buddhist retreat and Unitarian gatherings, and interviewing religious leaders, academics and community leaders.
“I was trying to answer a single question,” she writes. “Could my family and I find valid alternatives to all the good that religion gives?”
The book offers a fascinating answer — or, more accurately, a series of answers.
“Especially in America, we tend to play with our identities, and we have some freedom to change religions,” Ozment told me. “One thing I found a lot was people picking and choosing little pieces of religions and maybe some new age stuff: You might use mala beads and do yoga, but also do Passover with your family and also like to go hear Christmas music. We’re curating spiritualities and choosing the things that are most meaningful to us and resonate the most. That’s really liberating.”
But that freedom is not without its drawbacks.
“The problem is it keeps us from really joining a community,” Ozment said. “I try to be really open-minded in my book and not say this is all good. This is a really complicated thing that’s happening, and we should take it very seriously.
“Once you’re locked into a religious structure, people are reminding you always how to live and giving you rituals and giving you these celebrations throughout the year that tell you to atone,” she continued. “Once you walk away from that, you’ve got to create those reminders for yourself, and that’s a struggle.”
At the same time, she feels optimism when she watches her children openly embrace friends of all faiths.
“We have friends who are everything: Mormon, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic,” she said, “None of that matters, because we share our values. I love that my kids are growing up with that diversity, that openness, that we can all believe our own thing, as long as we’re not hurting anybody.”
The book feels both timely and timeless, as we see religion woven in and out of so many of the world’s conflicts — and many of us turn to religion for comfort in the face of those same conflicts. Above all, it reads like a clarion call to live more deliberately.
“Christians believe that it is God who grants us grace, but I believe we create it for ourselves, through persistence, awareness, and clear-eyed reflection,” Ozment writes. “Grace 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.”
(Contact Heidi Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)
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