Calls for censorship of novels for children and young adults typically arise from religiously affiliated quarters; Harry Potter has been banned because of fears of witchcraft, and His Dark Materials has been banned because Philip Pullman is an outspoken atheist.
Talk of religion makes me twitchy for all those reasons, and because I am feminist, liberal, pro-L.G.B.T.Q. Religion can make me enraged, dismayed, disgusted.
And yet, it is a part of me. Maybe one of the best parts.
I see it in the big questions (the bigger the better) that percolate in my brain, that drive my curiosity into a thrilling frenzy, and in the playful, at times comedic, cultural trappings of my Italian-Portuguese immigrant family. I was the kid — and still am the adult — who wanted to know why we are here, if there is a God, what it means to live a good life.
In my yearning to widen my knowledge of religious experience and ideas, I studied saints, mystics, philosophers, writers on a search for spiritual enlightenment. The Catholic tradition of my youth can be reprehensible, blind, maddening, even criminal, and it also can be rich, complex, beautiful and justice-oriented.
Religion and spiritual questions are forces — powerful ones — in the lives of so many Y.A. readers. While there’s been an increase in young people who profess no religious affiliation (about 30 percent claim the “none” label, with L.G.B.T.Q. young adults twice as likely to identify this way), many more respond positively when asked if they consider themselves “spiritual” to some degree. Several studies, including the longitudinal National Study of Youth and Religion, and one of my own from 2008 that involved college students, have clocked American young adult interest in broad ideas about spirituality and God at about 80 percent.
As a frequent speaker on college campuses, I can confirm that while young adults may be more skeptical about traditional religion, their hunger for a more inclusive, nontraditional spirituality is a constant. I find that even atheists tend to perk up when discussing the possibilities and freedoms a more open, forgiving spirituality might bring to their lives.
Yet few Y.A. protagonists identify with a particular faith tradition, or claim spirituality as something of interest. Even fewer pray occasionally, or attend services with their families, or wonder about God, or struggle with doubt and faith alongside the rest of the things they do — play sports, go to school, fall in love, have sex, come out. One study from 2013 found that nearly 90 percent of protagonists in award-winning and best-selling Y.A. titles claim no religious or spiritual identity whatsoever. That does not align with the real lives of American teenagers.