When I was growing up, most of the kids in my neighborhood were from Italian-Catholic families. They had long, musical last names and skin that tanned easily in the summer. Little crucifixes hung on the walls in their houses. And every Sunday morning their families piled into their station wagons and drove off to attend Mass. On Sunday mornings, my two older brothers and I stayed home. We’d drag our comforters from our bedrooms into the living room and camp out in our pajamas all morning, watching Scooby Doo and playing cards. Later I’d go outside with my mother to help her weed the garden or tend the tomato plants. We were Christian—a mix of Presbyterian and Methodist, to be exact—but not the churchgoing kind.

Though I couldn’t have articulated it then, I envied my Catholic friends their strong ties to religion and ethnic heritage. Their families had something mine didn’t: a place to go on Sundays, a set of beliefs and practices, and a tether to their roots that seemed stronger and more lasting than my own. They were something, and that something gave structure and meaning to their Sundays, perhaps their entire lives.

I had no idea where my own family had come from any farther back than my grandparents’ small town in Arkansas. My father once pronounced, apropos of nothing, that we were of Turkish origin, Oz being a common Turkish prefix. I was thrilled for the few months before he recanted, saying his research indicated that we sprang from Germany instead, which was a little less exciting. Meanwhile, my mother’s side of the family clung to the belief that we were descended from a dark-eyed Cherokee princess, an idea I brought out at cocktail parties in my twenties to easy “oohs” and “aahs.” (That was until I met an actual Cherokee leader for a research paper I was writing in graduate school, and he told me that such false claims were so common among whites that they were widely ridiculed among Native Americans.)

I was left to embrace the bland and clunky Protestant, a word my father used to describe us when I asked why we didn’t go to Mass and after-school religion classes like so many of the other kids in our neighborhood. When my parents divorced, my mother and I joined a Presbyterian church. I didn’t believe the church teachings, and warbling through the hymns was an exercise in awkwardness for an already awkward teen. But I dutifully memorized the Nicene Creed and studied the Bible and was confirmed in a white dress on a bright spring day. I loved having a label and telling people what I was. It meant that I was something after all.

But as the years went on, that something thinned. For some reason, organized religion never really took with me. By the time I entered my thirties, married a secular Jew, and had children, I’d stopped calling myself Christian, Protestant, or Presbyterian—really anything at all. For a long time I forgot how much I longed for a label to describe who I was, what I valued, and where I fit. Then one night, when my son was nine, we were watching a religious procession across the street, and I explained that the people holding candles and singing songs were Greek Orthodox, and that this was their tradition. When he asked, “What are we?” I racked my brain for an answer before blurting out, “Nothing.”

I felt terrible about it, like I had let him down. He was longing for an answer—for a name—and I couldn’t give him one. Didn’t my son need a clear label for himself, as I had once wanted a name for myself? Without religion, I wasn’t sure where to find the same strong sense of identity.

Perhaps it’s not too embarrassing in this day and age to say that I first turned to the Internet for answers. I found a website called Belief. net and took the Belief-O-Matic quiz, which promised to tell me what I was. Within minutes of answering the series of questions about my beliefs and values, I received an email with my answer. I was a Secular Humanist, 100 percent. It was a strange feeling. I’d heard the words before but didn’t really know what they meant. And yet I was 100 percent of this thing I didn’t understand. How could that be? Had it been lurking beneath my skin all these years, just waiting for me to discover it? Why hadn’t I found it before?

For the next three years I wrote a book exploring secular humanism, a philosophy that values human life here and now, science, reason, and protecting the earth. I visited secular humanist communities, partook in secular rituals, and learned its rich history. I also studied other nonreligious or quasi-religious groups: Ethical Culture, Humanistic Judaism, Unitarian Universalism, and a range of more individualized pursuits among the atheist, agnostic, and spiritual-but-not-religious set that makes up a growing proportion of the country. As I set off to visit the community meetings of these various groups, I felt the way I always imagined my Italian-Catholic friends felt when they piled into their station wagons and headed to Mass: like I had somewhere to be, a people to join hands with, a way to express who I was and what I valued outside the confines of my own family and home.

I soon realized that I wasn’t alone. Millions of Americans were wrestling with the loss of religious identity and a desire to form new language and labels to encompass the complexity of who they are. I realized, too, that my striving to find the right label for myself was really a wish to belong to some larger, lasting whole. But I’d been going about it all wrong. My attempts to adopt an identity—Turkish, Presbyterian, Cherokee princess descendant, or the many others I tried and discarded through the years—were a backward approach. What I needed to consider first was what I believed and valued—not try to glom onto the values and beliefs of others. The reason the Belief-O-Matic quiz worked was that it started with my own answers to the questions, not someone else’s answers.

imageMy attempts to adopt an identity—Turkish, Presbyterian, Cherokee princess descendant . . . was a backward approach. What I needed to consider first was what I believed and valued—not try to glom onto the values and beliefs of others.image

What I found in the humanist communities I visited was a kind of radical acceptance I hadn’t experienced before. Those people, I realized, were my people because I could be myself. I learned through exploring the rich landscape of secular humanism that we don’t have to satisfy ourselves with identities that don’t fit, and there is no one group that can answer every question you have or pang that you feel. Maybe, as more and more people leave religion, and the walls that have long separated us start to fall, we’ll find that a more fluid sense of identity is not necessarily a bad thing.

imageWhat I found in the humanist communities I visited was a kind of radical acceptance I hadn’t experienced before.image

A year and a half ago, my family and I moved from Boston to Chicago. My husband and I worried that our kids, ages four, nine, and twelve, would struggle to fit in in our new city. And, in the beginning, there were middle-of-the-night wakings, dramatic door-slammings, and tears (so many tears!). But then something wonderful began to happen. Each of our children, in his or her own way, started to find that sense of belonging. And my husband and I also started to find the pieces and the people that make up a home.

We are lucky. We live in a neighborhood that fits us. Our part of the city is dominated by a university but also by a distinctive culture that values what we value: diversity, education, reason, charity. And so we found belonging in that: a neighborhood that valued our secular humanism. And our kids feel that sense of belonging even as they continue to unfold into their own people, with identities all their own.

At first, our younger daughter approached her preschool classroom tentatively, with arms wrapped tightly around my legs and tears pooling in the corners of her eyes. But then there was a classroom tortoise and a kind teacher and girls who loved Disney princesses as much as she did. Soon she was shoving me out the door when I dropped her off at school, and friends were taping pictures of hearts and rainbows on her cubby door.

Our older daughter finds a sense of belonging in midair. In the first week after we arrived, I took her to a gymnastics tryout at the place we hoped would be her new gym. I watched her walk tentatively across the expanse of blue carpet toward a coach she’d never met. She touched his elbow from behind, and when he turned she raised her hand in a shy half wave and mumbled her name. A year and a half later, she cheers the loudest at team meets, laughs with the girls around their lockers after practice, and says she would sleep at the gym if she could. Recently she told me that she has three religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Gymnastics.

Our son, who wondered what we were, shows us every day. Recently I was sitting in the bleachers watching his seventh-grade basketball team play its last game of the season, and I was struck by how comfortable he looked on the court, a feeling hard won through years of practices and games. When he dribbles, he does this dramatic shoulder roll that makes him look like he’s trying to drive the ball through the floorboards of the court. He loves to fake to the left then drive right. And his defense is tenacious.

imageOur older daughter finds a sense of belonging in midair.image

The team won by a single point at the buzzer that night, and the boys leaped into the air and embraced midcourt, crushing each other to the floor as they whooped and yelled. Without thinking, I jumped up and raised my arms in the air, shouting myself nearly hoarse. And why wouldn’t I? My son had built something inside himself that he could take to any court, anywhere and feel like he belonged. If he ever felt homesick, this was one way to quell it. If he needed community, he could start with this.

They say you have to lose the self to feel ecstatic transcendence. But you have to find yourself first. Saint Paul converted to Christianity when he fell off his donkey on the road to Damascus. It seemed to me that a cold, hard, metal gym bench was at least as humble a starting point. Years ago, when my son had asked me what we were, I shouldn’t have searched outside our window for an answer or even gone on the Internet to find out. I should have turned to him and said, “You tell me.”

KATHERINE OZMENT’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Fitness. She is the author of Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age (HarperWave, 2016).


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