ONTD Political

More Young People Are Moving Away From Religion, But Why?

7:57 pm - 01/18/2013

One-fifth of Americans are religiously unaffiliated — higher than at any time in recent U.S. history — and those younger than 30 especially seem to be drifting from organized religion. A third of young Americans say they don't belong to any religion.

NPR's David Greene wanted to understand why, so he gathered a roundtable of young people at a synagogue in Washington, D.C. The 6th & I Historic Synagogue seemed like the right venue: It's both a holy and secular place that has everything from religious services to rock concerts. Greene speaks with six people — three young women and three young men — all struggling with the role of faith and religion in their lives.

Miriam Nissly, 29, was raised Jewish and considers herself Jewish with an "agnostic bent." She loves going to synagogue.

"I realize maybe there's a disconnect there — why are you doing it if you don't necessarily have a belief in God? But I think there's a cultural aspect, there's a spiritual aspect, I suppose. I find the practice of sitting and being quiet and being alone with your thoughts to be helpful, but I don't think I need to answer that question [about God] in order to participate in the traditions I was brought up with."

Yusuf Ahmad, 33, raised Muslim, is now an atheist. His doubts set in as a child with sacred stories he just didn't believe.


"Today if some guy told you that 'I need to sacrifice my son because God told me to do it,' he'd be locked up in a crazy institution.""Like the story of Abraham — his God tells him to sacrifice his son. Then he takes his son to sacrifice him, and he turns into a goat. I remember growing up, in like fifth [or] sixth grade I'd hear these stories and be like, 'That's crazy! Why would this guy do this? Just because he heard a voice in his head, he went to sacrifice his son and it turned into a goat?' There's no way that this happened. I wasn't buying it.

Kyle Simpson, 27, raised Christian. He has a tattoo on the inside of his wrist that says "Salvation from the cross" in Latin.

"It's a little troublesome now when people ask me. I tell them and they go, 'Oh, you're a Christian,' and I try to skirt the issue now. They go, 'What does that mean?' and it's like, "It's Latin for 'I made a mistake when I was 18.'

"When I first got the tattoo I remember thinking, 'Oh, this will be great because when I'm having troubles in my faith I will be able to look at it, and I can't run away from it.' And that is exactly what is happening.

"I don't [believe in God] but I really want to. That's the problem with questions like these is you don't have anything that clearly states, 'Yes, this is fact,' so I'm constantly struggling. But looking right at the facts — evolution and science — they're saying, no there is none. But what about love? What about the ideas of forgiveness? I like to believe they are true and they are meaningful.

"I think having a God would create a meaning for our lives, like we're working toward a purpose — and it's all worthwhile because at the end of the day we will maybe move on to another life where everything is beautiful. I love that idea."


"Starting in middle school we got the lessons about why premarital sex was not OK, why active homosexuality was not OK, and growing up in American culture, kids automatically pushed back on those things, and so we had some of those conversations in school with our theology teachers. The thing for me — a large part of the reason I moved away from Catholicism was because without accepting a lot of these core beliefs, I just didn't think that I could still be part of that community.Melissa Adelman, 30, raised Catholic

"I remember a theology test in eighth grade where there was a question about homosexuality, and the right answer was that if you are homosexual, then that is not a sin because that's how God made you, but acting upon it would be a sin. That's what I put down as the answer, but I vividly remember thinking to myself that that was not the right answer."

Rigoberto Perez, 30, raised as Seventh-day Adventist

"It was a fairly important part of our lives. It was something we did every Saturday morning. We celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday. It was pretty hard growing up in a lot of ways. We didn't have a lot of money, the household wasn't very stable a lot of the time, so when something bad would happen, say a prayer, go to church. When my mom got cancer the first time, it was something that was useful at the time for me as a coping mechanism.

"While I was younger, my father drank a lot. There was abuse in the home. My brother committed suicide in 2001. So at some point you start to say, 'Why does all this stuff happen to people?' And if I pray and nothing good happens, is that supposed to be I'm being tried? I find that almost kind of cruel in some ways. It's like burning ants with a magnifying glass. Eventually that gets just too hard to believe anymore."

Lizz Reeves, 23, raised by a Jewish mother and a Christian father. She lost a brother to cancer.

"I wanted so badly to believe in God and in heaven, and that's where he was going. I wanted to have some sort of purpose and meaning associated with his passing. And ultimately the more time I spent thinking about it, I realized the purpose and meaning of his life had nothing to do with heaven, but it had to do with how I could make choices in my life that give his life meaning. And that had a lot more weight with me than any kind of faith in anything else."

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thesunflwr 19th-Jan-2013 06:25 pm (UTC)
Another factor is that it's so expensive to be a member of some religious organizations. I was raised Jewish in an interfaith family and then drifted from the religion for a while before wanting re-explore it. Showed up at High Holy Day services at my old synagogue and was told tickets were $500. For two holidays.

A few years later, I looked into several synagogues in my area and was not surprised to see how completely out of reach membership costs were. Oh, and there was no one my age at the services I went to. (So much for Grandma's desperate hope that I'd meet the man of my dreams there!) Mostly seniors and families, and everything felt very unwelcoming and exclusive.
swanwitch 20th-Jan-2013 08:40 am (UTC)
I grew up in a protestant atmosphere. So, please excuse my ignorance.

Can you please explain membership costs? Is this common?
thesunflwr 20th-Jan-2013 02:54 pm (UTC)
My experience: Basically, the congregation charges people every year, or in installments, to belong (doesn't include Hebrew school tuition, bar/bat mitzvah lessons or anything extra). Sometimes there are different membership levels depending on age or family status, but even the lowest level was in the thousands in my area. My childhood congregation used to be more reasonably priced when it met in a "borrowed" church ages ago. Then they started to build their own campus and quickly became unaffordable.

Then hundreds more for tickets to the most important services. Non-members can also buy these tickets a la carte, at a higher price than for members. For services that aren't ticketed (i.e., not Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur), I guess someone could just go and worship and not be a paying member, but I would feel awkward after a few times. At one place I attended just once, it felt like the membership people were chasing me down.</p>

I've also explored a couple Unitarian Universalist groups in the area, and it seems that they do seek annual pledges, but it was more of a "pay what you can" structure.

Curious what everyone else's experiences with religion and finances are. Is it an issue for other young people (and non-wealthy people of any age, of course) that's driving more away from religion?

swanwitch 20th-Jan-2013 09:00 pm (UTC)
Did some research and I found that according to some sources, this cost is mostly effecting the young Jewish community. There are some streaming synagogue that can be free to almost nothing in costs.

But, from a gentile point of you it is a sticker shock. I went to a small church that had members living in small mansions, and members that lived in run down trailers. We had one crazy lady who started a closet for members t borrow nicer clothes for the day. We paid for the church through donations, mostly in envelopes given before or after services, and a collection plate going around. Members were considered pretty regular at donating, and the place always seemed to pay the bills and more. It is written somewhere in the bible to give one tenth of Your money to the church, even children. Since I was only involved as a child, so I only know it as a means of piety and learning to manage money.

Dunno. It is a shock to about membership dues to a spiritual faith.
amyura 21st-Jan-2013 05:23 pm (UTC)
We have a pledge week at my (UCC, almost as liberal as UU but belief in Jesus is a part of the religion) church, but it's confidential and a "pledge what you can" to help cover the operating costs of the church-- the fulltime minister and music director have to eat, too, after all. Nonmembers and nonpaying members are welcome at all times.
roseofjuly 22nd-Jan-2013 06:39 am (UTC)
UCC is another church I want to explore besides UU.

ETA: Just found out that there is a UCC church literally 3 blocks from my apartment.

Edited at 2013-01-22 06:44 am (UTC)
carmy_w 23rd-Jan-2013 07:47 pm (UTC)
I grew up in and am still a member of a UCC church in a very small, very religious town in Kansas; I wholeheartedly endorse your interest in it!

In the 70s, my church did a movie/seminar series that pretty much changed my whole way of looking at myself and other people, based on the book "I'm OK, You're OK" (don't EVEN ask me who the author is-the name just stuck in my brain!), and dealing with what was then called Transactional Analysis.

It taught me so much about how to talk to everyone, from my parents as I grew up into an adult (and my mother was a six star general when it came to keeping my in my child mode!), to bosses, to boyfriends.

That series of seminars, when I was in my early teens, was the beginning of my adult viewpoint of the world today.
roseofjuly 22nd-Jan-2013 06:39 am (UTC)
For me, yes. Every time I visit a church I feel like they are begging me to part with my money before I even decide whether I like it or not. I hate feeling pressured to give because I like to help people with my money, and I also hate the societal aspect of being seen not giving. Especially at my in-laws' church which is kind of like one of those prosperity gospel churches - if you give a lot of money and pray then God will reward you with good things in life! I feel like if God does exist and he wanted offerings, he'd much rather me use my offering to feed someone or buy a coat for someone who needs one than keep the lights of some megachurch on.

And I have no problem giving if it's to support the modest aspirations of a small-to-medium group of folks who want to come together to grow spiritually, worship through giving and contemplate spirituality, but you don't need a big pretentious convention center to do that. I know that at my in-laws' church they're constantly taking "mission trips" to various other states and once or twice even went to Africa on a mission and I don't think that the pastors and their staff paid all out of pocket for that at all. And they're actually better than a lot of churches - both have their own jobs (the senior pastor is a police officer and the junior pastor is a theology professor). New Birth Missionary Baptist Church is 10 minutes down the road from my parents' home, and the pastor there has his own private jet and rides to service in a limousine every Sunday. Gee, did Jesus roll up in a golden chariot?

So for me it's finances, too, but also what the finances represent and where the church is spending its money.
halfshellvenus 23rd-Jan-2013 08:26 pm (UTC)
I hadn't realized that until an LJ friend's family hig financial difficulties, and could not go to most big synagogue events without purchasing tickets/paying dues/etc.

I just don't really understand this. I understand donations to keep the temple/church afloat and pay for the rabbi/pastor and whatnot, but charging people to access the community of God... it doesn't seem right.

And doesn't really help a minority religion, either. :(

How is a single person with a limited income supposed to be able to afford that?
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