Study: One-third of young Americans aren't religious

But that doesn't mean they're not searching. Stories from Generation Agnostic

By Katie McDonough
January 15, 2013 7:12PM (UTC)
main article image
(Kzenon via Shutterstock)

A recent study reveals that one-fifth of Americans are religiously unaffiliated -- higher than at any time in recent U.S. history. But for those younger than 30 that number is even higher. A third of young Americans say they don't belong to any religion.

Americans drifting away from religion is big news, but the story behind that number is more complicated than you would think. Only 6 percent of Americans define themselves as atheists, while more than 14 percent consider themselves agnostic -- unaffiliated but open to suggestions.


In an interview set to air today, NPR's Morning Edition talked to young people about what religion and faith look like in the age of the Millennial. What they found might surprise you.

Good without God

A growing number of young people might not be believers, but many still feel rooted in the values, tradition and community provided by the religion they were raised with.


Like Miriam Nissly, who doesn't need God to enjoy going to synagogue. "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."

Liz Reeves, also raised Jewish, added:

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.

Question everything


Many of those interviewed balked at orthodoxy, saying that a religion with too many "easy" answers was a major turn off.

Or so says Melissa Adelman, who was 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 was raised a Seventh Day Adventist, but a series of family tragedies left him questioning the beliefs he was raised with:

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.

Searching for purpose

Millennial-types are skeptical, but that doesn't mean many aren't searching for something bigger than themselves. Or so says Kyle Simpson, who was raised Christian and continues to struggle with losing his faith.


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.


Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

MORE FROM Katie McDonoughFOLLOW kmcdonovgh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Agnostic Atheism Belief Faith God Religion