Jana Burt said she was a longtime Christian, in a broader sense, when two Mormon missionaries struck up a conversation with her on campus last spring.
“I was walking home from class and two of them asked me if I had a second to talk, and I did,” she said. “The rest is history.”
The communications studies senior said she converted to Mormonism that summer.
Last Monday, national survey results said nearly half of American adults are leaving the religion of their upbringing – some converting faiths, like Burt, and some dropping religion altogether.
One in four Americans age 18 to 29 isn’t affiliated with a particular religion, according to a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study.
The notion that young adults are moving away from their childhood values isn’t necessarily surprising, and the reasons for change can be varied and historical.
Sociology professor Penny Edgell, who studies contemporary American religion and culture, said switching faiths has been common since the 1960s and 1970s.
“There is more of a distance toward traditional mainstream religious institutions,” she said, in part because of public perception that institutions have become too politicized, polarized or out of touch with modern life.
Edgell recently helped conduct a study showing there’s more public distrust of atheists than other minority groups.
While the University itself doesn’t track religious data, a 2007 survey of University freshmen reported 77 percent had attended a religious service in the past year, down nearly 3 percent since 2003.
Fifty-seven religion-based student groups are currently registered at the University. Of them, approximately 40 are Christian groups.
Katie Harris, a communications junior, said she feels University students aren’t put off by religious disparities.
“I think people are more concerned with connections rather than differences,” she said.
Harris, who was raised Catholic, converted to Mormonism late in high school because she felt the Church of Latter Day Saints had more continuity from place to place.
If you go to an LDS church in Harlem, it’ll be the same as one in France, she said, adding that the stability made her more comfortable.
Edgell said events like Sept. 11 and Middle East conflicts have increased awareness of religious diversity.
People might get frustrated when mainstream religious institutions don’t take a stance on issues, she said, but mixing religion and politics can get tricky.
Politicians like Vice President Dick Cheney sometimes imply America is a Christian nation, she said. But even some political conservatives get tired of seeing religion used to further political causes.
Harris said she thinks education and travel have contributed to a more open-minded nature.
“Yes, people are changing faiths,” she said. “But I think it has to do mostly with families being open about it.”
Edgell said there’s also been an increase over the last 15 years with the number of people who identify with being “spiritual” rather than “religious.”
Journalism junior Meghan Pierson said she used to go to a Lutheran church with her family every Sunday until she was confirmed in middle school.
She said she stopped going regularly because it wasn’t strengthening her faith, adding that although she doesn’t think about religion often, she still considers herself spiritual.
“It signals a kind of moral seriousness, without necessarily signaling an allegiance to an institution that seems like your parents’ institution,” Edgell said.
And for some students, leaving “your parents’ institution” isn’t always permanent.
Dennis Gerold, a biochemistry and chemistry senior, said he’s Lutheran – a faith his family raised him with.
He said he walked away from religion for the first three years of college, prompted by a relationship with someone who wasn’t Lutheran, which his parents disapproved of.
During personal struggles, he said he returned to his faith.
“I needed something that I knew, something that would be consistent,” Gerold said.
The diversity of world religions will continue to be increasingly reflected in American society, Edgell said, and college is a time in one’s life where being unsure is OK.
“It is seen as appropriate to be experimenting and to be searching,” she said. “That breeds a lot of tolerance.”