How Millennials Are Making Sense of Religion

Cheyanne Hewitt, 29, grew up in the Mormon religion and was taught to believe that “families are forever” — if you follow strictly prescribed Mormon doctrine.

“I’d been taught my whole life that God would help you with any problem, as long as you were obedient and prayed with sincere intent,” Hewitt said.

When she began to question her sexuality, she wondered why her incessant prayers weren’t being met with any answers.

After dealing with shame, depression and thoughts of suicide, Hewitt finally asked herself, “What if I’m not the problem? What if it’s the doctrine that’s wrong?”

Today, she’s “basically an atheist, (but) I don’t really like describing myself as an atheist,” she said. “Just non-religious. Scientifically-minded. Humanist.”

A 2014 Barna study reported that 59 percent of millennials who grew up in a church have dropped out. Still more are questioning their religious beliefs, or changing their approach to religion and spirituality. Why is rejecting traditional religion more common than ever?

Why we leave religion behind

Leaving religion isn’t new. People of all ages, in every decade, have left for a myriad of reasons: trauma, abuse, uncertainty, fear, marriage. Some are forced to leave because of personal choices, or a lifestyle that doesn’t agree with religious teachings.

Illustration of many different faces in a crowd. Religion pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
Religion has changed so many lives, for better or worse. It is complicated and personal and can carry a lot of weight. Or none at all.

But why are so many more millennials leaving compared to previous generations?

Erika Martinez, a clinical psychologist who works with young adult clients, said that many of them have left a religion because their personal beliefs didn’t match, they felt judged or shamed, or they wanted to think for themselves on social issues.

Plus, “millennials are really the first generation to experience mass information sharing,” Hewitt said.

She’s right. Millennials are more data-driven than previous generations, and are more willing to share the information they find. From gay conversion therapy and the purity movement to sex scandals and fraud, the darkest corners of organized religion have had light shined on them.

Called into question

For many, these facts are hard to ignore.

Elizabeth Broadbent, a wife and mother of three, was raised by a Catholic school teacher, attended Catholic school, and was deeply involved in campus ministry. Her husband converted to Catholicism. They gave their three children names from the bible. They attended weekly mass, sometimes daily mass.

Then one day, just this past year, she read an article on child abuse in the Catholic church. She had read others before, but sitting in a car with her youngest son in the backseat, her whole perspective changed. Within minutes, her long-held beliefs started to crumble.

“I can’t be a part of this anymore,” she said to her husband.

Non-believers and believers alike are questioning the church, even if they have no intentions of leaving.

“We still have churches who refuse to hire women or gay pastors,” said Angela Denker, 33, who is a Lutheran pastor in Minneapolis and serves a liberal denomination. “The Church has messed up ideas about gender roles… I (constantly have) to prove my identity and role as a pastor.”

But she remains in her role because she wants to serve others.

“I stay because I believe in the God I see reflected in the Bible,” Denker said. “I stay to tell that story, to help people, especially women and people who have been marginalized, to (help them understand) they are loved, and worthy simply for who they are.”

The Catholic Feminist Podcast founder Claire Swinarski said she works to end rape culture and help women become mothers. Confronted with Catholic doctrine she didn’t agree with, she “started the conversation instead of leaving the church.”

“There are teachings that I struggle to understand, but I believe our Catholic teachings have been carefully crafted by the Holy Spirit and I remain faithful to them nonetheless,” she said.

Finding a different path

Amanda Ponzio-Mouttaki, 33, had no intention of leaving Christianity. But when she met the man who would become her husband, a Muslim, she started to ask questions about her faith.

After researching Islam and talking to other Muslims, she realized the religion made sense for her. She converted. Now, she and her husband are teaching their children multiple forms of religion, including Islam and Christianity.

Beth McDonough, 31, a freelance writer and owner of the nontraditional family blog The Babbling Blonde, “never questioned a single aspect of Christianity (until) I fell in love with a woman,” she said.

She left behind evangelical Christianity. She now attends a Unitarian Universalist church on occasion, and pulls her beliefs from different religions.

“Instead of seeing god in chosen man, I see god as an energy that’s all around and within us,” she said.

Room for all of us

Religious, non-religious, spiritual? How do you define yourself? It’s a question many young adults struggle with. Religion has changed so many lives, for better or worse. It is complicated and personal and can carry a lot of weight. Or none at all.

“One of the things I’ve realized about my Judaism, in particular, is that so much of the practice is tied up in my heritage,” said Ashley Goldstein of Tel Aviv, Israel. “I keep Shabbat, I regularly attend services, and I’m involved in a both a local Jewish community as well as a spiritual community.”

On the other hand, Erica H., who didn’t want her last name used, left behind evangelical Christianity because it went against everything she believed in.

She took a journey of self-discovery, learned about the world around her and decided that being non-religious and non-spiritual was “the most beautiful and peaceful feeling” she had experienced.

Former Catholic Broadbent has no intention of returning to religion, either. Today, she considers herself agnostic.

“I honestly feel I’m a better, more tolerant person because (I left Christianity),” Broadbent said. “I don’t have the scriptures on me. Somebody isn’t telling me what to do. I can make my own choices. I’m much less judgmental, and I give a lot more.”

Sarah Sheppard

Sarah Sheppard is a freelance writer, editor and writing instructor. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and is working on her first novel. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter or contact her at sarahsheppardwriter.com.