We know religion as a concept best left out of dinner conversation, but it is undoubtedly a central cog in American culture for both believers and nonparticipants.
When you become an adult, you can vote, you can smoke and you can kill God. Or keep him around. The choice is yours.
The sweet freedom of adult independence can be liberating, but this shift in life is when individuals begin to question their values and upbringing for the first time. Every curveball that life throws forces us to re-evaluate what we hold to be true, and for those who have grown up in some sort of religious upbringing, this can alter significantly once personal experiences override.
Some choose to cling to religion as their hope and truth while others find something else to hold onto for this satisfaction. What is it then about religion that causes some to stay and some to flee?
Is there something about religion that makes it worth sticking to? Rudy Hartmann, director of the Salt Company—a young adult ministry in Des Moines—shares his experience with Christianity and explains why he has chosen to follow it throughout the years.
“I grew up as a nominal Christian, being that I was only a Christian by name and I grew up in the church, not in Christ,” Hartmann says.
Growing up, religion was more about being praised for what he knew and the things he did right rather than the beauty of the gospel itself. It wasn’t until the age of 18 where he had a genuine interaction with Christianity and his perspective took a 180 degree turn.
“My friend invited me to church with him one day, and I met this guy who straight up shared the gospel with me in a new way that truly opened my eyes to understanding my own guilt and my own sin. I was being confronted with my own brokenness in an unfathomed, new and different way,” Hartmann says.
After growing up in a religion that didn’t seem to have any greater purpose for his life than to simply have good morals, it was clear that Rudy’s sense of Christianity changed once he found that his life could flourish from it.
“It’s not me trying to change myself to be enough for God, it’s God saying I’ve done all the work on your behalf. That shattered what I thought religion once was, and then I just got really curious to know more,” Hartmann says.
Rudy is 25 years old and for seven years, he has been pursuing Christianity in every aspect of his life—but that’s not to say he hasn’t had his doubts. Just like every human being, he’s had to justify his beliefs in spite of the unfortunate circumstances that life inevitably throws.
“The beauty of the Gospel has a tendency to outweigh everything that could be distasteful,” he says.
The doubts and frustrations Rudy may encounter will never exceed the truth and overall hope that he’s found in his religion.
As a leader of a young adult ministry, Rudy has had many conversations with people who are struggling with their faith and would rather choose not to believe. He says that individuals can become so disenchanted with their religious beliefs that it doesn’t seem to hold any substance in their life anymore, thus giving them a reason to leave their religious background.
“It’s heartbreaking. I remember times when I was around the age of 23 where I just wept with people who were so firm in their doubt and said ‘I want to believe but I can’t,’” he says. “Their experience with the church was that there was something wrong with them, but there’s something wrong with all of us.”
For those who’ve grown up in religion for most of their lives, once independence hits and societal values don’t necessarily mesh with religious ones, it can often get placed on the back burner because the substance of it gets lost.
“Often in my conversation with people who have walked away from the church, to them the Gospel was so much more to them about what they were doing for God rather than what God had done for them,” he says. “They started with this brokenness that then defined their identity, from that identity is how they defined God and what he’s done, and then that led to this state where they said nothing could change their brokenness.”
When viewed as a list of tasks that need to be accomplished in order to be in good standing with God or any other spiritual being, people begin to move away from religion and towards new beliefs. Without a personal relationship, it can become so diluted to the point that people lose its meaning.
Megan Marsh, a 21-year-old female from Cedar Rapids, IA, explains her relationship to Christianity.
Growing up, her family was a part of the Lutheran church, but after noticing at a young age that she was not completely satisfied with this denomination, Megan made a personal decision to switch to Catholicism in hopes of expanding her beliefs.
“I grew up Lutheran for most of my childhood and then I converted to Catholicism when I was 12. My faith was always very independent. It didn’t rely on my parents making me go to church which was really empowering,” she says.
For Marsh, having depth to her faith instead of just claiming to follow a religion is extremely important to her. When she found herself leaving the Lutheran church, it was mostly because she wanted something more from it that the Catholic church offered.
“The teachings of the Catholic church are the direct response of Jesus’s life and I find to have the most clarity in that because the rituals and practices are not watered down by all the off branching that started with Martin Luther leaving the church,” she says. “It’s not always supposed to be a ‘feel-good’ experience because you don’t grow from that.”
Megan’s faith is not tied to her family’s religious beliefs and the more she’s made the effort to dive deeper into the teachings of the Catholic church, the more her faith has grown. “The more you dig into the Bible the more truth you will find and everything will just start to make sense as to what our purpose is and why we are here,” Marsh says.
She recognizes that while religion in itself is not perfectly designed, the one who created it is, and that truth can be discovered by anyone who decides to dive into the Bible.
Rudy and Megan show that religion isn’t something that they necessarily follow because they’ve been raised in it their entire lives, it’s more of a beacon of hope and overall happiness that they have found when everything else seems to let them down.
Why Not Religion?
On the flipside, looking at the personal experiences within a particular religion is extremely important in understanding why young individuals choose to abandon their religious beliefs.
Noah Bamonte-Grebis, a 20-year-old male from Northfield, MN, explains that his faith has altered significantly since adolescence.
Growing up, Noah’s family was a part of the Church of Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon church.
“We were really involved and went twice a week—once on Sunday and again on Wednesday. My mom and dad held various positions in the church which made us pretty involved,” Bamonte-Grebis says.
His family’s involvement in the Mormon church had a positive impact on his adolescent life as it connected him to developing important life skills such as public speaking and being a part of boy scouts.
However, just like any other experience in life, there is a defining moment that shifts our perspectives and forces us to question what we hold to be true in our lives.
“When my father passed away when I was 13, I had a lot of anger that I couldn’t put towards something. I had already started to question my faith at that point, and I decided that I needed to do some soul searching,” Bamonte-Grebis says.
After exploring other religions in order to find some sort of connection to The Book of Mormon, The Bible or any other religious text, nothing left Noah completely satisfied despite the fascinating stories inside each. Since then, he’s decided not to identify with any particular religion.
“I would consider myself what’s called an apatheist. It’s like an atheist but instead of rejecting gods and deities, it’s a way of saying that these things don’t influence me even if they are there,” Bamonte-Grebis says.
It would be ignorant to say that religion is a static system of beliefs that is never changing, but when people like Noah are hit head-on with life, it can often be a hurtful thing to embrace because it doesn’t always do a great job of explaining life’s mysteries.
Savanna Smith, a 20-year-old female from Stoughton, WI, shares a similar experience. Growing up Catholic, Savanna attended Mass and learned about the Catholic practices all throughout elementary school. Since then, it has become less of a routine.
“I would still describe my family as casual-Catholics. We didn’t pray before meals, or it wasn’t a big deal if we missed Mass. I attended public school rather than the religious K-6 school provided by our church,” Smith says.
High school approached and as the years went on, Savanna chose to no longer identify with a religion because she did not fully support the teachings of the church.
“Mostly I don’t follow religion due to the lack of evidence supporting claims made by the Bible or by religious leaders…I don’t think it is required to be religious to be a good person or have good morals. I can develop those things from my own experiences and knowledge,” she says.
The contrast from the teachings of the Bible to societal values creates this barrier between individuals that causes them to see Christianity as a way we are “supposed” to act rather than how we can use it to flourish.
“For some, the Bible as a child may be like almost any story book. It teaches life lessons and can direct children to general ideas of what is right or wrong,” she says. “With a lack of physical evidence, religion begins to be questioned, and there might be some doubt. For some, myself included, once the doubt begins, it is easy to stray from religion and believe less.”
Savanna’s personal experiences have played an active role in choosing to identify as an atheist because the Catholic church does not reflect the beliefs that she holds close to her heart. One belief in particular is her passion for politics.
“Overall, with the politics involved in the church, I am driven away by the hypocrisy in much of the logic, as well as physical evidence being ignored. If the church is supposed to be accepting and welcoming of everyone, then why are LGBTQ+ people taught to “cope,” as if they have an illness?” she says. “The church wants them to be members but doesn’t accept them completely. It seems to me the church wants to put on an act to get new members, but without actually accepting these members.”
While Savanna doesn’t consider herself religious, she still enjoys learning about religion from other perspectives. Smith attends St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI, and explains that the religious affiliation of the school has encouraged her to examine religion from a different angle.
“My experience with people on campus has been significantly more positive than it was back at home during my religion class upbringing. I enjoy being able to think as an individual and critically analyze and question what is being taught to me, not just being expected to blindly believe in everything,” Smith says.
Force feeding religion to children, teens, or adults does not encourage them to step out into the world and experience it for themselves. People simply don’t want to be forced to believe or do things, they want to see it for themselves in order to believe it wholeheartedly.
As she has gotten older, something that has kept Savanna from identifying with a religion is tied into a very life-altering experience that religion could not explain.
“Four weeks into my freshman year of college, which was over two years ago now, I lost my mom to cancer,” Smith says. “I was angry and had wondered why God would take my mom away of all people…If this was all part of God’s plan, like some say it is, I didn’t understand it. How could a loving God take away someone who did such good? This period was my turning point.”
Savanna acknowledges the fact that while religion can be a source of hope to some, in her period of loss and grieving it didn’t bring her the answers she desired. Religion is an extremely vast topic with variations across the board, and when life hits head on, individuals either find justification in their religion for life’s unnecessary evils or choose to find something else as a source of hope.
Religion as a Culture
Sometimes, it’s less about the belief and more about the traditions. For non-Westernized countries, Hinduism or Buddhism is a big aspect of the culture, but not always a religion where individuals have a personal relationship to it.
Sid Avasthy, a 19-year-old male from Gilberts, IL, identifies as Hindu, but looks to it as more of a cultural value than a religious one.
“I grew up in the Hindu faith, but it was never really pushed on me. My dad is super religious, but my mom, brother and I not so much. We really own observed the major holidays growing up, but as I’ve gotten older they’ve kinda let me do my own thing,” Avasthy says.
Growing up in America as Hindu has been a much different experience than it would be to grow up in India. Hinduism plays a significant role in the overall culture of India through the caste-system and the commonality of arranged marriages. In other countries, religion is more about embracing the culture than the religion itself.
“Both of my parents grew up in India, and to start off my mom was much more religious, now she isn’t as religious while my dad grew up not super religious but is now pretty faithful,” Avasthy says.
His parents had an arranged marriage before moving to America in the early 2000s, something that is a huge aspect of Indian culture.
Avasthy doesn’t consider himself extremely religious, but he clings to some of the core values that are ingrained into Hindu culture.
“I kinda just follow the core values of Hinduism. I’m a heavy believer in karma being that I do unto others as I would want others to do unto me,” Avasthy says.
Some of the main ideas of Hinduism he has chosen to follow, but as he has gotten older it is not something that has been strictly kept mainly because it’s never been a pressure for him to follow it scrupulously.
Isaac Franks, an 18-year-old male from Bettendorf, IA, also explains that his religion isn’t something he has chosen to follow very strictly since growing up. Growing up in a conservative Jewish household since around the age of three, Isaac keeps some of the values of Judaism but isn’t super strict about following it.
“We would go to synagogue growing up and when I hit third-grade, things got a little more serious. I went to Hebrew school learning how to read Hebrew up until 7th grade, and after my bar mitzvah, there was no religious pressure placed on me other than to get confirmed to the synagogue” Franks says.
Isaac has never felt a need or desire to stray away from his Jewish beliefs because it was never pressed on him too heavily, and he explains that it’s always been something that he’s wanted to keep following.
“For me, it’s a play on religious values and my personal beliefs. It’s not just one or the other,” says Franks.
Religions that have a lot of cultural meaning tied into it become a way of life for individuals rather than something that they’re supposed to believe and a certain structure of how they’re supposed to act. When religion is heavily pushed on individuals from childhood and isn’t left to the individual to decide if they want to pursue it, it can easily start to lose its power.
Tying it Together
No matter the religion, when it is force fed to children throughout adolescence and isn’t left up to them to decide if they want to pursue it, it can easily lose its substance. Our experiences dictate the path we want to take in life, and whether they’re hurtful or encouraging, these events in life are critical periods that direct us towards the values and beliefs we hold to be true. As we choose our path in life, those values grow and change. Whether someone is struggling with it, moving away from it, or being exposed to it for the first time, religion is a constant journey.