Clearly, Smith meant that religion, whatever else one might say about it, is an obviously and undeniably important element of the human condition. Clearly, it looms large in human culture and history. Given this, how can anyone be uninterested in it, even if one supposes that they “have no religion?” How can anyone not care much about what religion is, what it does, what it means and what it might become or should be if its evident ubiquity is evidence that some part of it is necessary or serves an important purpose? It is neither responsible nor intellectually honest to suppose that religion – especially given its amorphous and ambiguous nature – can simply be eliminated with no ill effects. Of course, at the NTCOF we make the point that it is vital to distinguish “religion” from superstition and supernaturalism.I'm not saying that religion is a good thing. I'm saying that it's a great thing. It can make you better or it can make you much worse. But it means that you take the question of how to live seriously.
The majority of our November service was then presented by our special guest speaker, Professor Christel J. Manning. She was introduced by Professor J. Gordon Melton, Distinguished Professor of American Religious History with the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Both are sociologists of religion, Dr. Manning having been, while in at the University of California in Santa Barbara, a student and collaborator of Dr. Melton. Dr. Melton introduced Dr. Manning as someone who, it was evident during her postgraduate training, was focused on becoming a serious scholar of the sociology of religion. And she has clearly succeeded in doing just that.
Dr. Manning has been since 1995 Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT. Her most recent book is Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children. She is also an atheist. She spoke on the elusive subject of “the nones,” those who, in polls, indicate that they have no religious affiliation or whose religion is “nothing in particular.” She went through the polling data showing a very significant increase in the “nones,” not all of whom are atheists or, at least, admit to being atheists. This has been particularly notable among younger people but is evident in all age groups. She also talked about how these “nones” raise their children, some teaching their kids that deities and the supernaturalism are imaginary while others try to “let them decide for themselves” and even “outsource” their children's religious education to believing churches.
Another fascinating aspect of the rise of the “nones” has been an early realization among scholars and pollsters that the traditional religious categories are getting less and less useful. What may be more helpful is to actually study and understand the character and importance of religion in people's lives regardless of the specific supernaturalism, if any, that is embraced. In this way of surveying the American religious landscape, NTCOF and its members can be understood, she said, as “philosophical seculars.”
More about this general subject, including the Pew organization's initial effort to formulate a new way of categorizing Americans' religious views, is included in the November 2018 NTCOF bulletin here.