COLUMBIA — Caroline Sullivan lost a tooth when she was 6. It wasn’t her first, and it wouldn't be her last, but more than 20 years later, the tooth has become a symbol of an unorthodox parenting style.
Editor's note: Now in its third year of reporting on sensitive issues, Project 573 devoted its attention during 2012-13 to the growing group of people who check "none" when asked to designate a religion.
In 2008, Pew Research Center added “none of the above” to its questions about faith. Since then, there has been a 5 percent increase in the number of people who affiliate with no particular religion or call themselves atheist or agnostic.
This report, "Who are the American Nones?" published fully online as Project 573 "None of the Above," PRINT: Use bit.ly/Project573looks at their profiles, preferences, philosophies and lifestyles.
Project 573 is made up of seniors at the Missouri School of Journalism who studied print and digital news, radio/TV journalism, magazine, photojournalism, convergence journalism and strategic communication.
Ellie Ragland was already awake before her daughter came barreling down the stairs.
“She didn’t come!” Caroline said, nearly out of breath.
“The tooth fairy!” Caroline anxiously explained. What had happened?
“It's not your fault,” Ragland told her daughter.
She quickly explained: “The fairy assigned to come get your tooth was very old and lost her glasses. So last night, she couldn’t find our address.”
Caroline was still dismayed but intrigued.
"I bet tonight they’re going to send a younger fairy with twice as much money to make up for what happened.”
Much to the girl's delight, the next morning she woke up with $2 under her pillow.
When Ragland, now 67, looks back on this story, she sees more than just tooth-obsessed pixies and a monetary transaction. She sees a story about faith and coping with loss, two major tenets of all religions.
“It is critically important to have organized religion because people have to have a structure in their lives,” said Ragland, an English professor at MU.
“Life is so based on suffering and horror and trauma. People have to believe there is something more to life, something that can give you a reason for being other than pains and sorrows.”
But she is not religious. By definition, she's an atheist, a word that annoys her. She finds atheism to be an adversarial word that presumes a God to begin with.
She prefers “non-believer” because how could she be against a God that doesn’t exist?
Faith, fear and suffering
As a philosopher, Ragland views religion as a dual-action tool serving as humanity’s greatest defense against fear and suffering and as a harbinger of hope and inspiration.
What the tooth fairy represented for her then 6-year-old daughter is a microcosm of the role religion plays for the present-day faithful. The tooth fairy provided Caroline with happiness and hopefulness. And when she felt abandoned, another story was provided to comfort her.
Ragland believes religion acts in a similar way, and she isn’t alone.
The Rev. Stephen Jones of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City calls religion “a crutch,” saying humans have a natural need to rely on something supreme or omniscient to provide purpose for their lives and to assist them in times of need.
"Religion, in many ways, is a crutch because we're all broken. People are broken and need assistance ... We all need a crutch to lean upon when we encounter the profound sadness of the reality of our broken existence," Jones said.
Ragland agrees and knows her beliefs make her sound Marxist, but when confronted with that label, she rejects it too.
“I deeply do not believe in God,” she said. “But I deeply believe in religion.”
Religion in her life
In 1985, the Rev. Terry Ragland, Ellie's father, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was an advanced form that had already begun to spread.
But that wasn't a major concern for the Protestant minister – at least, not the primary one. What he wanted to know was whether it would hinder his ability to preach.
In the 10 years her father battled cancer, Ragland said spirituality and faith in God were her father's primary sources of strength and the reasons he survived years beyond what his doctors initially predicted.
Often when she visited her father in the hospital, he was watching faith-healing televangelist Oral Roberts for inspiration. Until two weeks before his death, he read from the Book of Job every morning.
She recalls he never once doubted God would get him through life's latest challenge. He used to tell her, “God, Gene (his son) and those doctors will get me out of this.”
Ragland's relentless smile fades when she talks about her father's death, but his faith comforts her. Dad, she says, was blessed to be the perfect blend of someone who loved life and craved more of it and someone who was on good terms with his maker.
His lifelong commitment to the Christian ideals of charity and stewardship inspired in her a strong belief in the value of religion. So when the time came to decide if she, a devout non-believer, was going to raise her own child with a faith, it was no question at all.
Caroline Alexandra Sullivan, Ragland's only child, was born in 1981 and baptized a Christian by her grandfather three years later. By eighth grade, Caroline was confirmed a Catholic, and she, now 32, has remained faithful ever since.
Her mother could not be more proud, but she can't help but be a bit envious. She is a reluctant non-believer.
“I've seen how powerful having religion can be, and I wish I was like that, but I'm not.”
The power of religion
It's not for lack of trying. When Caroline was converting to Catholicism, Ragland attended all of her classes and was so moved by her daughter's experience, she resolved to become a Catholic too.
“I fell in love with Catholic mothers and nuns,” she said. “I wanted what they had.”
She spent a year in training herself. She made it all way to the day of confirmation, but just before she walked up to the priest to be blessed and initiated, a nun asked her a fundamental question to which she gave the wrong answer.
“Do you believe?” the nun asked.
“In what?” Ragland replied.
“Well no, of course not. But I believe in you guys.”
"I'm sorry," the nun told her. "You can't go. You can't become a Catholic."
Ragland cried that day. The rejection stung. She feels her lack of religion is a disconnect between her and Caroline, and in June 2011, it became evident.
As a leading scholar in her field, Ragland regularly traveled to lecture or attend conferences during Caroline's childhood. While she was away, the child's grandparents cared for her. During those years, Caroline and her grandmother became very close.
After her grandmother's death nearly two years ago, Caroline was left without one of her best friends. She became suicidal.
"I just wanted to die and go to heaven with her," she said.
Ragland does not understand this notion. She believes that when you die, you're dead. There is no heaven. You can keep people alive in your heart by talking about them and thinking about them.
The best she could do for her daughter was to warn her of the peril of suicide within Catholicism. As a Catholic, Ragland said, "If you commit suicide, you won't get to see Grandma. You'll go to hell, and you'll never be with her."
Eventually, she took her daughter to a priest for grief counseling. Much to Ragland's relief, the clergyman's hopeful words and direction have helped alleviate some of her daughter's pain.
Non-believing but pro-religion
Despite the comfort religion provides her daughter, Ragland's beliefs remain the same.
“I don't believe in God, or religiousness or faith ... I don't believe in the afterlife. I don't believe in any of those myths, but you won’t find a person who is more pro-religion than me.”
She is an admirer of world religions. The English teacher in her respects the Jewish faith for its ability to analyze and interpret text.
The minister's daughter, who initially attended college to become a missionary, reveres Muslims for their belief in the power of prayer.
And the more she learns about Hinduism from her son-in-law, the more the “liberal hippie” in her loves its openness toward and tolerance of other religions.
Ragland said she does detest those who stand against religion: "Anytime I hear Bill Maher start to put down adamant believers, I say, in my heart, ‘strike him dead, God.’”
She cannot understand why people would tear at a fabric that is so integral to humanity’s understanding and coping with the world.
She said it infuriates her to hear about non-believing parents who raise their children without religion. She wonders how they expect their children to confront the question of the meaning of life.
“Things happen in life that you can't explain to a child,” she said.
She encourages parents to lie to their children about their own beliefs.
“It’s their responsibility to lie to their children. Why wouldn't we want children to believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny? We want them to believe there is something special in being good."
Just like the tooth fairy.