By the numbers
Millennials (ages 18 to 34) identified as religiously unaffiliated in late 2013.
8% did so in 2003.
Millennials favor same-sex marriage.
People ages 68 and older who do.
Millennials say religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.
31% of Millennials left religious institutions due to negative teachings about or treatment of gays and lesbians.
Source: Surveys by Public Religion Research Institute and Pew Research Center
Elizabeth Wadsworth grew up in a family deeply rooted in their Christian faith. By middle school she eagerly joined volunteer activities, small groups and prayer groups at her local Anglican parish.
Then, at a youth group one evening around eighth grade, the issue of being gay came up in casual conversation.
"I told them I like gay people, and I didn't think it was our right to judge their decisions or tell them how to live," Wadsworth recalls. "In fact, I told them I thought it was hypocritical of us as Christians to not love and accept everyone as our brothers and sisters."
The group's angry response left her feelings hurt and her faith shaken.
"The leaders and my fellow small group members told me I was wrong and what gays were doing was specifically against what God wanted," she says.
Wadsworth stopped wanting to attend church. Now a college student, she rarely goes at all.
Young adults have long veered from their childhood religious establishments during college and their early professional years. But they typically returned.
Recent surveys, however, show fewer and fewer Americans in general today identify with specific religious groups. And the exodus is most acute among young adults, a major new study shows.
During the past decade, the proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans more than doubled: 22 percent now identify as unaffiliated compared with 8 percent in 2003, according to the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute's survey.
Among so-called millennials, ages 18 to 34, one in four says they aren't affiliated with a religious institution. Compare that with about 13 percent of baby boomers in the 1970s.
The new survey also reveals a major cause of the shift.
Millennials who left their childhood faith institutions are much more likely than older Americans to report that negative teachings about and treatment of gays and lesbians was an important factor in their decision. Nearly one in three says the issue was either a very important or somewhat important factor in leaving.
However, in Charleston's strongly traditional Christian circles, some see the shift more in young people leaving church denominations in search of unaffiliated churches with more contemporary worship styles rather than anything having to do with issues related to gays and lesbians.
Wadsworth is among those who do cite the attitudes toward gay and lesbian as a central reason for leaving.
"I cannot take seriously an organization that fails to recognize its own hypocrisy and continues to belittle other humans because of their personal decisions," she says.
Ready to question
When Katie Hladky began teaching college religious studies a decade ago, discussions about homosexuality in faith generated considerable pushback from Christian students.
"The past decade has changed rapidly," Hladky says. "Today, it's almost a non-issue."
She says the vast majority of her College of Charleston students today support gay rights even though most were raised in traditional churches.
The new Public Religion Research Institute survey found that nearly 70 percent of millennials favor same-sex marriage. Slightly more says religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental about these issues.
The debate is affecting many young adults' faith because it is so intertwined with scripture, Hladky says. Once they take a scholarly look at passages referencing homosexuality, it opens Pandora's box of other questions.
Hladky, who teaches a historical view of religious texts and not an evangelical one, often hears: "What else do I believe in there that, if I look closely, maybe is not as clear as I thought before?"
Even in the mostly conservative Christian Lowcountry, she sees more young adults than ever switching to liberal churches. And when she discusses the Unitarian Church, her students are far more interested than 10 years ago.
"They are more comfortable with a lack of rigidity in religion. It's a reaction against fundamentalism," Hladky says.
Gospel of inequality
On the flip side, the new survey found nearly two-thirds of millennials who disaffiliated say that negative religious teachings about gay and lesbian people were either not too important or not at all important.
That leaves much room for debate about why they're leaving. For some, gay rights are one of many issues.
Take Mallie Strickland, a Florence native raised in a family and school that taught dinosaurs never existed and the Earth is 2,000 years old.
"I was a Christian because I thought that's what I was supposed to be," she recalls.
But when she studied the faith critically, she became increasingly disturbed by what she viewed as oppressive laws anchored in biblical teachings.
"Much legislation rooted in Christianity has had detrimental effects on people throughout the centuries, from the Crusades to the native peoples of the Americas, women, Africans and then African-Americans, the LGBT community, Asian-Americans. The list could go on," says Strickland, who works at a Mount Pleasant country club and studies at the College of Charleston.
She hasn't been to church in six years.
Or, take Jason Gregory, who grew up Catholic and became serious about his faith after high school when he wanted to become a better person. Surely faith was the path to that goal.
"It was ultimately my desire to become more religious that led to my becoming less religious," he says. "The more I read the Bible, the Old Testament in particular, the more it troubled me. I couldn't reconcile the misogyny, vindictiveness, xenophobia and general lack of compassion for life with an all-loving and powerful god."
As he studied, he wondered: How many Christians have read all of the scriptures they profess to follow? And he struggled with what he deemed "morally bankrupt" passages about the treatment of slaves and women.
He looked to the Koran, to Buddhism and Taoism, and to New Age spirituality. Then he read "Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person's Answer to Christian Fundamentalism."
He's still not sure why he picked it up. But the text, along with others, "breathed life into me and provided me with answers to my questions about this world that were empirically supported and logically sound."
Now 34, he's been an atheist for several years. A young father married to a former Muslim, he joined the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry board.
"It turned out my quest to become a 'better person' was not because of religion but in spite of it, and my passion for justice and helping others has only strengthened as the years go by," Gregory says.
Old gospel, new style
However, in Charleston's strong traditional Christian circles, the big shift in young adults' faith seems to have little to do with views about gays and lesbians.
Instead, the move is away from adhering to the specific denominations they grew up in, says Citadel Chaplain Joel Harris, a Southern Baptist and retired lieutenant colonel who serves as director of religious activities.
Cadets increasingly favor nondenominational churches and campus religious activities, but overall they are as spiritual as ever, Harris says.
"It's a mirror of what is happening societally," says Harris, who saw the same trend as a military chaplain. "There is a cultural shift away from identifying with religious groups."
Cadets, most of whom come from evangelical backgrounds, still largely attend evangelical churches that take a traditional view of scripture. But exposure to the Internet and social media, among other factors, has broadened their Christianity beyond denominational walls.
Yet, students Harris talks to still want the core of a traditional Christian gospel. Larger contingents of cadets attend churches such as St. Andrew's, Seacoast and East Cooper Baptist, all evangelical but less liturgy-heavy churches with contemporary worship styles.
"They are looking for something spiritual at the center of their lives," Harris says. "But there is a shift away from traditional worship forms."
Among young adults taking this view is Caleb Melton, a College of Charleston freshman who grew up in a small, mostly traditional Christian church that owned the school he attended in North Charleston.
As he got older, he wanted a contemporary service with more young people and sermons that were more relevant to his life.
He landed at the nondenominational NewSpring, a statewide evangelical church that holds local services at the North Charleston Convention Center.
"The values, teachings and gospel message as a whole have remained constant between the two different churches I've been to," Melton says. "But the way they're presented and applied to someone in my stage of life, at this time in history, is completely different, new and attractive."
For other young adults, the shift away from religious institutions simply reflects their hectic schedules.
Citadel Cadet Sarah Katchen, the school's regimental religious officer, often sees freshmen dutifully attending religious services. But as time passes, and responsibilities build, they tend to fall off from attending.
"We do so much and are driven to do so many things, clubs, taking more hours," she says. "It's easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle."
However, not attending services doesn't mean students are any less spiritual today. To the contrary, Katchen says.
Katchen, who is Jewish, attends Friday night services, often at different local synagogues. She'll also join friends at their Christian services. And vice versa.
"We're all college kids, all trying out different things," Katchen says. "We want to see what's out there."
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.
Elizabeth Wadsworth, a religious studies junior at the College of Charleston, spends her Sunday mornings at Brown’s Court Bakery studying instead of attending church.×
Jason Gregory (left) and his wife, Munazza Anis (right), met internationally known atheist Richard Dawkins during a recent visit to the College of Charleston.×
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