SHOE LEATHER: Reported Stories

Choosing Faith

Young adults take teenage
rebellion to a higher power


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Allegra Vincent has sworn off her mother's calamari and substitutes kosher sausage in the cherished dishes of her childhood that call for pork. When she leaves out the parmesan cheese in her grandmother's recipe for meatballs, she means no disrespect. As homage to her Roman Catholic heritage, she still serves fish every Friday, right after she kindles the Sabbath candles. At age 24, Vincent expects to complete her conversion in time for a proper Orthodox Jewish wedding in the summer of 2011.

The decision to change her faith aligns Vincent with nearly half the American population: 44 percent of all Americans convert at least once, as reported in a recent survey of the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life. Yet Vincent¿s choice to become a Jew distances her from her generation ¿ at least statistically. In a separate survey, the Pew Research Center found that 26 percent of Americans born after 1980 identify as religiously unaffiliated. It's not just religion that lacks young adult participation. The National Study on Youth and Religion found that the latest generation of young people is also less likely than their older counterparts to belong to volunteer organizations, to donate to charity, or to read newspapers. This is not an obedient generation or one that adheres to social norms. To be between the ages of 18 and 29 in the United States today is to be a free agent.

To choose a new religious practice as a young adult is abnormal both statistically and culturally. "Most people just stick with whatever their situation is," explained Christian Smith, a Notre Dame sociologist who is considered a leading authority on young adults and religion. For converts, he said, "there's something going on that gets them to do something unusual." Among the factors he often observes that precede a decision to change faith are a sense of insecurity and the impact of relationships with influential others. He also acknowledged that even in cases where outside influences seem to predominate, young converts of this generation tend to view their decisions as having been made on their own.

Smith's view supports the overall impression created over the past year in interviews with more than a dozen New York City area converts in the under-25 set. Among them are Lucas Corcoran, who found solace in Zen Buddhism after a rocky adolescence; Christen Gee, who was saved at age 12 despite her parents' atheism; and Ashley Okamoto, whose spiritual seeking led her to Baha'i. They are not necessarily rebellious or confused, nor are they all lovestruck or brainwashed. Repeatedly, they expressed the desire for stability, community, love ¿ and even God.

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The man said: "This one at last is bone from my bones, flesh from my flesh! She shall be called woman, for from man was she taken." That is why a man leaves his father and mother and attaches himself to his wife, and the two become one.
– Genesis 2:23-25

As a student at Tulane University, Vincent read Albert Memmi's "Portrait d'un Juif," or "The Portrait of a Jew," in a class about the history of ethnic groups in France. She loved the book; although it's not a religious text, she pegs the beginning of her piqued interest in Judaism to it.

At the same time, she happened to be dating a Jewish guy. That relationship was short-lived, but she soon began dating her now-fiancee. He's Jewish in a cultural sense; his family is from Latvia, part of the former Soviet Union, meaning that he wasn't raised as a practicing Jew. A dual American-Israeli citizen, he had just returned from serving in the Israeli army when Vincent met him. He sometimes went to religious services on Friday nights. After a while, Vincent asked if she could join him. "It was an important part of his life, and it was something I didn't understand," she said. Whether it was Memmi's book or Vincent¿s new boyfriend that heightened her religious curiosity, only she really knows.

After college, her boyfriend moved to New York for work, but Vincent stayed in New Orleans to teach French. Despite her Jewish boyfriend being halfway across the country, she continued to visit the local Chabad, the Jewish community center in her area. "Even if he wasn't going with me to Shabbat services, I wanted to go," she said. Being Jewish, Vincent realized, was something that she might want to pursue. She began meeting regularly with the Chabad rabbi and his wife.

Sometimes, if prospective converts to Judaism are dating Jews, they'll be asked to end that relationship as a way of ensuring that their reasons for pursuing conversion are sound. In Orthodox Judaism, interfaith couples who are living together often must separate — if not permanently, at least during the conversion process — to gain the rabbinical court's approval. When the Chabad rabbi suggested this possibility to Vincent, she balked at the idea of breaking up to convert.

Only after she moved to New York to join her boyfriend did the conversion idea resurface. Once again, she said, it was a book that got her to reconsider, this one by the rabbi emeritus of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Rabbi Marc D. Angel. "Choosing to be Jewish" is a collection of conversion stories. "I felt for the first time like conversion was an actual possibility," she said. The book allayed her concerns about sacrificing her Italian heritage. She chose Rabbi Angel's son as her conversion sponsor and has been studying since late November of 2009.

Vincent and her boyfriend live together in Brooklyn, defying for now the stringent requirements of the Orthodox, and they will move into an apartment closer to the synagogue on the Upper West Side in May. When she is nearly ready to go before a panel of rabbis, the couple will separate briefly; they'll return to living together following their wedding, which will take place after Vincent's conversion is completed.

Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas, finds Vincent's story typical. Marriage is "the primary reason for such a radical leap," he said. "It doesn't take that much to leave something that you didn't really value that much in the first place, and if you fall in love, it's not that much of a leap for your belief system to take on something like Judaism."

Not all young adult religious converts change faith to exchange vows, however. Roughly 30 percent of Jews are married to a non-Jewish partner. Approximately 20 percent of Catholics are married to someone from a different religious background. Even 10 percent of Hindus are in an interfaith marriage, according to the Pew Forum – and Hindus are the least likely population in the country to wed outside of their faith. Even among the 56 percent of Americans who currently identify with the faiths of their childhoods, the Pew Forum found that one in six practiced another religion at some point in their lives. For wedded bliss to be the catalyst behind so much religious exploration seems unlikely.

Still, marriage is "one of the better predicators of substantive religious behavior," Regnerus said. "It brings into life challenges ... you come face-to-face with mortality of self: you're not the center of the universe anymore." Vincent and her boyfriend are already linked in their religiosity, even though their wedding is a year away. "He didn't come from a religious background, so they're really on a joint journey," said Erin Leib Smokler, Vincent¿s day-to-day conversion tutor. "It's so explicit in their case that they, together, will be changing their lives. It's a big commitment," she said.

That commitment is creating tension between Vincent and her family. (Note: In September 2013, she requested that her last name be changed in this piece due to privacy concerns.) "Everyone in my family still thinks I'm doing it for Arthur because we're in this serious relationship and he is Jewish," she said. Though Vincent admits that the timing of her conversion can be attributed to her relationship, she says that her religious choice is autonomous. "I really do feel like I was meant to be Jewish and this is maybe God's way of helping me find that," she said. "It is some kind of God's plan that I met him during this time when I was already thinking about it."

Smith, the Notre Dame sociologist, is also the author of "Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults." He questions the legitimacy behind teenage claims of self-determination. "There's a difference between what emerging adults think is true and what is actually true," he said. "A lot of emerging adults think that they're in charge, that they're the ones who are autonomous ... that's a little bit different from the fact that young adults are shaped by culture and by the media in ways that they may not even be aware."

To Vincent's mother, her daughter's rejection of Catholicism is the work of outside influences — namely, her boyfriend. "She thinks I'm sacrificing something, giving away my identity for his," Vincent said. She didn't attend Christmas mass this year with her family, and has already decided that her future children will not attend Catholic school as she did. Vincent knows that her choices are making her mother feel like a failed Catholic. "My mom always reminds me, 'You've received every single sacrament, including Last Rites, except for marriage,'" Vincent said. When Vincent was eight years old, a priest administered the final blessings before death when she was hospitalized with a neurological disorder, Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

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"Why shouldn't we, who clearly see evil in the destruction of the family, think about turning away from this sin, O Krishna? With the destruction of the family, the eternal family traditions are destroyed, and immorality prevails due to the destruction of family traditions."
– Bhagavad-Gita 1:39-40

Sourabh Chakraborty told a story from the Bhagavad-Gita, a sacred text in Hinduism, of the conflict between five brothers and their family. Before they go into battle against family and friends, one of the brothers, Arjuna, questions why. "Arjuna said, 'I don't feel right about this. My mom's on that side, my dad's on that side, my teachers ... How can I go against them?'"

"It's way back there, the oldest story in the book," Chakraborty said. "There's a divide against the people that you know and you love, and you have to decide." A 20-year-old film student at New York University, Chakraborty is considering faiths beyond the Hindu tradition of his family. But he worries about abandoning his Indian heritage in the process.

Chakraborty grew up in a traditional Hindu home, with a shrine dedicated to multiple gods. "Hinduism" is a broad term for the variety of interconnected religious practices of India, which can be traced back to the land's prehistoric civilizations. One prevalent notion in Indian religious life is theism: God can be expressed in a variety of forms, in addition to each individual's personal devotions.

As a child, Chakraborty asked his father how many different gods there were. Infinite was his father's reply. "If there are infinity gods, that's kind of just like one god," Chakraborty said. It was this train of thought that led him to Judaism. At first, he went on Wikipedia to learn about the Jewish faith, but "I realized that you can't get too far on the Internet," he laughed.

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Chakraborty used to stand outside of The Brotherhood Synagogue in New York's Gramercy Park, unsure of whether he would be allowed inside. This fall, he decided to go to the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU — "to get closer to the big guy," he joked. Now, he is more involved in Jewish life on campus than many Jewish students. Chakraborty participates in the center's Jewish Learning Fellowship and attends Sabbath services and dinner every Friday. He evens sometimes wears a yarmulke, or skullcap, lent to him by a Jewish friend.

As a first-generation American, Chakraborty had to go to considerable lengths to convince his family to let him attend film school. It's not a profession like law or medicine that they know and trust will prepare him for a stable future. "Already, I'm here doing something that makes me happy, but there's still something missing," Chakraborty said. Still, as he considers the Jewish faith, concern about winning his parents' approval looms again. Given his family's reluctance to let him pursue a film career, Chakraborty worries that pursuing Judaism might be a push too far.

"What I do know is that I kind of feel like all religions are the same," he said. "They're all windows to see the same thing and what we're pretty much doing is finding the window that we can see the most clearly out of." He's starting to wonder whether the religious vantage point of his family works best for him.

When we spoke, Chakraborty had not yet told his family about his religious explorations. "I need to know that the ground I'm standing on is solid ... but the reason why you can't really know the ground is solid is because it's more of a feeling," he said. The solid grounding he seeks may continue to elude him.

Nevertheless, he thinks it's important to clarify what he believes — even if that requires going against his family. "Ninety percent of the world is, in some way, like walking empty shells of what they could have been ... I could go for [a religious viewpoint] that I don't really see that clearly out of, and I could live a perfectly normal life, but what's the point?" he said.

Swami Tadatmananda, the resident teacher of the Arsha Boda Center in Somerset, New Jersey, agrees with Chakraborty's approach. "I feel very strongly that someone is better off with the religion they've chosen instead of blindly accepting the religion of their birth. There are some people who spend their entire lives within 20 miles of the place they were born, but that would seem to be highly confining. People who choose to explore seem to have richer lives," he said. The swami, who is 56, speaks with some authority: he was raised Roman Catholic, and began formally studying with a guru in 1981 to become Hindu.

Chakraborty is trying to decipher different belief systems while he is still young. "This is the age where you have to make the choice. I don't wanna be like 40 or 60 and be like, 'Man, I was right at 20,'" Chakraborty said.

His stance, however, is an intriguing one to Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, university chaplain and Hillel rabbi at NYU. "It is very curious to me when people want a change when life is stable," Sarna said. "[They have] either too much stability, or all bourgeois bases covered, so they have the confidence to try."

But more than confidence is often involved, explained Smith of Notre Dame. "You live in the world you're born into and absorb a lot of it, but also push back against parts of it you don't like," he said. "There are very strong intergenerational causal effects that go on. Somewhere in the Old Testament it says the sins of the fathers will go on to their children ... the same sort of thing operates here."

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" ... for I am the Lord your God, a jealous God, punishing children for the sins of their parents to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me."
– Deuteronomy 5:9

Lucas Corcoran had what he calls "tumultuous teenage years." His parents divorced, his grandmother died, and his family moved from their Upper West Side apartment in New York City to her home in Florida. Moving might have provided a fresh start for Corcoran and his family, but he continued to struggle throughout high school. "My mom, although loving, was never very fiscally responsible," he said. When he was 17 years old, his family was evicted from the house and had to stay with friends. He wasn't enjoying school and broke up with his girlfriend. On a visit to New York while he was still in high school, Corcoran went into a store in Greenwich Village called Land Of Buddha, bought a book on beginning meditation, and has been a practitioner of Zen Buddhism ever since.

"Buddhism ... appeared to me at a time when I really needed something to throw myself into," he said. "There's a joke that nobody who's happy comes to Buddhism." Corcoran said he "fell in love immediately with Zen" because it had what what he was seeking: "something out of my head, which is really what I was trying to get out of." Zen doesn't offer answers or solutions to life's perplexities: it's a non-deist practice, focused on realizing truth. Growing up with an atheist father and an Episcopalian mother, Buddhism provided Corcoran with spiritual middle ground.

Smith identifies young people like Corcoran, who grow up in an environment heavier on trauma than religiosity, as prime candidates for conversion. "They kind of come to the end of their rope sooner rather than later, and then they kind of get their act together," Smith said, "and religion can be a huge part of that." They are more than mere religious seekers: they make a spiritual 180 to turn their lives around.

Corcoran, now 23, is a percussion student at City College of New York studying jazz performance. He recalls that when he arrived in the city, he traded in his old cymbals for a new set. "Unlike any other instrument, you can't change the cymbal. It's a particular sound," he said. "Every cymbal sounds different, so a drummer can really find cymbals that reflect what he or she is into." His new ones, he said with a grin, are a little off-beat. "They sound good, but they're not pretty. They're not overly refined ... they've been used, they've got character."

Now the loudest clashes in his life emanate from his drum set. He officially became a Buddhist last summer while on a month-long retreat. He has a good relationship with his father, who lives in New York; the two often go to the opera. And his family supports his decision to be Buddhist: "My dad and my sister take a lot of shots at it in a good-natured way," he said. "One of my family's pastimes is busting each other's chops. [But] I think they respect the solace that I've found."

"My parents were hippies ... I'm really a product of my parents more than a rebellion of them," Corcoran said. He's not wrong. Smith said, "Parents are hugely important. They're not entirely determinative, but what parents teach and model has a huge effect ... nearly every problem that you see in the life of a young person, you can immediately trace back to their parents."

That Corcoran's parents accept his religious choice, especially given his unsteady past, is unusual. Chakraborty is more the norm in the anxiety he expresses about telling his family that he may reject their religious practices. Just as most people find it difficult to accept their personal flaws, many parents of religious converts struggle, or refuse, to tolerate their children's divergent choices.

One young woman who converted to Islam last January still hasn't told her family. She grew up in a strict Church of Christ household in the Midwest, attending church several times a week. She feels sure that her parents will cut her off "emotionally and financially" when she reveals her new Muslim identity to them. (She asked not to be named in this piece in order to prevent her relatives from finding out about her conversion.) With a year of college remaining, she can't afford to be independent just yet, even if that means concealing her newfound beliefs and practices from her parents.

Islam is among the faiths that have had followings for hundreds of years in the United States, despite being well outside the more prominent Protestant-Catholic-Jewish trifecta. Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and other Eastern religious traditions are longstanding contributors to American culture. Zen Buddhism, for example, arrived by way of a Japanese Buddhist scholar who moved to Illinois in 1897. Chinese laborers brought Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian beliefs with them to California even before the Civil War. Such populations are just smaller in size than the larger Christian denominations.

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For major sociological studies of religious practice, being in the minority sometimes means being overlooked. "If it's a small number in the population, it'll be a small number in your sample," Smith explained. For example, more than 40 percent of the country is Protestant, but only an infinitesimal six-tenths of one percent of Americans identify as Muslim. In a random telephone survey of, say, 2,000 people, only about 120 Muslims are likely to be in the sample — too few to provide accurate data about them.

One solution to this statistical reality, Smith said, is to focus on a particular religious group — that is, poll 2,000 Muslims instead of analyzing the nation as a whole. The other remedy is to oversample, or to conduct a survey of 10,000 people in the hopes of capturing information from more Muslims overall. However, oversampling can be extremely costly, and there's no guarantee that a larger sample will include enough of the minority population to be meaningful. Contacting more people could simply result in collecting data on more of the majority. Pew's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of 2007 successfully included minority religions, but to do so researchers had to sample more than 35,500 people.

Data on religious converts is even harder to come by. Allison Pond, a research analyst for the Pew Forum, explained. "It's one thing to have a large enough group of Mormons [to poll]," she said, "but it's another thing to have a large enough group of Mormons who've joined from another faith."

Gaining an understanding of young adult religious converts, therefore, is generally attempted by examining the religiosity of young adults in general. The Millennial generation is developing a reputation for being religiously noncommittal — the theological opposite of converts. The National Study of Youth and Religion identified a notable decrease in religious identification between the teenage years of 13 and 17 and the emerging adult years of 18 to 23. To presume that this decline is occurring faster than in previous generations, however, 'is taking it beyond what we're finding," said Youn Lee, a graduate researcher at the University of North Carolina. Lee is working on the National Study on Youth and Religion. "Generally, we find that there are not necessarily huge, dramatic changes going on in this time period versus ten years ago, twenty years ago," she said.

"There's other research that shows that people during this time period will decline in their religious observance, but that this will pick back up later in life as people get married and start families," Lee said. "It's not the end of the road [for young adults' religiosity], it's very early in the life course."

A study on the spiritual life of college students found that four out of five students have an interest in spirituality; nearly half consider it either "essential" or "very important" to seek opportunities to help them grow more spiritually. Today's young adults may be quantitatively unaffiliated with religion, but that doesn't exclude them from being qualitatively interested in faith. As The Rev. J.C. Austin of the Union Theological Seminary put it, "Most young adults that I encounter don't really care about joining the church. They care about joining community."

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"Again and again they must leave the people they regard as their own and go on elsewhere, and that without ever stopping. Surely this world is unprotected and helpless, and like a wheel it turns round and round."
– Buddhacarita

Kathleen Garces-Foley is a religious studies professor at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. She is one of the project leaders of the Changing Spirituality of Emerging Adults Project, which is being sponsored by the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. She noted the struggle many churches are having in efforts to appeal to young adults. In contrast, "campus ministries have been very successful at getting the college-age student to continue to be involved in the church," she said. Evangelicals emphasize scripture over stricture, and personal conversion and salvation over adherence to community practices. In essence, evangelism skirts the issues many young adults have with religious institutions. Of the estimated 98 million born-again Christians in the United States, for example, the Barna Group found that 64 percent of respondents reported having been "saved" before they turned 18.

Trevor Agatsuma doesn't think "evangelical" is a politically correct term because, to him, it connotes intimidation. He is a staff member for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a self-described evangelical organization. InterVarsity is an international Christian campus group, with a presence at more than 500 colleges and universities. Its purpose is "to establish and advance ... witnessing communities of students and faculty who follow Jesus as Savior and Lord."

Agatsuma works on NYU's campus to actualize that mission statement. "There's this kind of spiritual interplay between God's power and our earthly work," he said. " ... We want to be a witnessing community. We want to be a witness of God's love and power to people who don't know it and haven't experienced it."

"Any coercion, like manipulation, is not something we want to do because God doesn't do that. God lets us make our own choices," he said. The group recently handed out cookies in NYU's Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. This was in response to a recent student suicide in the building's lobby, "to say there's people who care about you." InterVarsity is also working in dormitories and other secular entities on campus to attract students who would be put off by events "strictly labeled" as Christian, Agatsuma explained.

During his freshman year at NYU, Michael Zhang found InterVarsity at a club fair for NYU students and thought from its name that it was sports-related. Zhang grew up in a completely secular home. "[My parents] never talked about religion ... basically, when my dad and I talk, it's about how I'm bad at college, I should work harder, and I'm gonna be a bum." He was raised without any discussion of the supernatural, but it didn't take much convincing for him to join members of the Fellowship for free bubble tea after the fair. "This is pretty cool," he remembered thinking. "I get food, nothing else to do anyway."

Zhang, now a junior majoring in economics, was invited to join the Fellowship's "large group," which includes musical worship, prayer, discussion, and — bingo — food. He kept going back. Soon, Zhang was assigned a "big sib" within the group, an older student to act as a mentor, who was friendly and eager to get to know him.

For college students like Zhang, Smith said, friends can be a huge influence on personal faith. Though fractious family relationships can steer a young adult towards religious conversion, the positive relationships established during college can also lead to the decision.

Rabbi Yonah Hain, Hillel campus rabbi at Columbia University, agreed. "You're exposed to people who are great, fantastic, like-minded people, who may have very different faith backgrounds, and very often people just aren't exposed to a diverse group of people before college," he said. "It makes you just naturally, tacitly question some of your assumptions."

For Zhang, at NYU, the influence of his newfound friends at InterVarsity caused him to reconsider his disbelief. His "big sib" gave him a Bible, causing his perspective to shift away from atheism. "I thought people got together and wrote it, like a conspiracy… [But then] I read it and thought, 'This is ridiculously huge. People can't just make this up," Zhang said. His involvement with InterVarsity continued: he went on a weekend retreat, where he decided that God might exist; he then joined their "small group" for exploring faith. "I just keep learning more and more, and eventually, I realized that it's true ... I believe everything, right? I think that Jesus died for me and I should accept Him into my life," he said. Zhang now identifies as a Christian, and he credits his InterVarsity friends for his transformation.

However, Zhang's father is not in favor of his son's newly Christian outlook because it has altered his priorities. He no longer views making money as his ultimate goal. In fact, the only way Zhang feels that he might earn his father's approval would be to make more money than his dad — but, Zhang said, "I don't want to earn his respect because he's just unreasonable." Zhang has managed to establish himself within his new community, playing guitar during worship at church and at InterVarsity gatherings. He seems happy, despite the family tensions. "Sometimes we should honor our parents," he said. "It's a hard balance, pleasing your parents and doing what God wants you to do."

Rabbi Hain of Columbia said, "Remember, high school students live at home, so they're surrounded by their family. But [at college] you're living on campus, you're living with your peers." He continued, "Whatever role ... the family was playing, in a certain sense, you could claim that the peers now assume that role." Zhang's father teaches at NYU, so he still lives with his family, but his embrace of evangelism has created a rift. For instance, Zhang hasn't tried "witnessing" to his family yet.

Like Zhang, Christen Gee adopted Christianity because of friendships that she made in an evangelical community. The mother of her best friend in seventh grade had a rule: if you wanted to sleep over on Saturday night, you had to go with their family to church on Sunday morning. Gee wanted to be with her best friend, and there was a boy she liked who also went to their Baptist church, so she happily complied.

Gee described her mother as an "ex-Catholic" and her family as atheists. "My mom didn't really share much with me ... neither did my father. There was absolutely no [religious] influence," she said. Gee was intrigued by the community that she encountered at her friend's church. Although their approach involved a lot of "fire and brimstone," which discomfited her, she agreed with the basic tenets of Christianity. And she found that she enjoyed praying with other people, instead of considering God all alone.

At age 12, she was "saved." Though it might seem that 12 is too young for such a monumental experience, the Pew Forum found that 19 percent of those who joined a faith after a religiously unaffiliated childhood did so before age 13 — arguably before their childhood was over. Seemingly, Gee and other juvenile converts can't have the same maturity level of an experimenting, questing college student. Nevertheless, Gee's explanation for her decision sounds similar to those of slightly older converts: "[That church] is all that was available to me. I wasn't drinking the Kool-Aid, but I was sipping it and trying to figure out what it tasted like."

Rabbi Avi Weinstein, a long-time Jewish educator, explained what it means to adopt religious traditions, as Gee has. "I would say, nowadays, when somebody is looking for an observant tradition, it's generally because they saw something in that community that was missing in their own." Community, he said, always trumps the individual. Gee joined the religious community that was available to her as a preteen, despite her personal misgivings. "I was gonna stick with fundamentalism. I was gonna stick with my choice until I could rationalize something else," she explained.

As she's moved to different parts of the country, Gee has drifted away from the strict religious approach of that Baptist church. "I started to part more and more from the Christianity I'd been dealt," she said. Gee took issue with the fundamentalist concept of Hell, for instance. Her parents are nonbelievers, but she doesn't think that they deserve to be punished. When she was a teenager, her family moved to Tennessee, and she went to a Presbyterian church; now, at age 25, Gee lives in New York City as an aspiring actress. She attends St. Bartholomew's Church, which is Episcopalian, and identifies as a "non-fundamentalist Christian," even though her initial foray into faith was through what she calls a "cultic" lens.

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"And it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall commence his work among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, to bring about the restoration of his people upon the earth ... And he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth; and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked."
– 2 Nephi 30:8-9, Book of Mormon

Sheila Klein's family was furious when she became a Mormon at age 20: "They think it's a cult, which I know is a really common misconception," Klein said. If the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a cult, it's a huge one: 1.7 percent of Americans identify as Mormon, making their population equal to that of American Jews.

In the 21st century, the general understanding of Mormonism seems to be focused on the fundamentalism of the faith's 19th century founders. Viewers tune in to watch HBO's "Big Love," a drama about a modern-day Mormon polygamist and his three wives. Jon Krakauer's 2004 "Under the Banner of Heaven" was described as "an arresting portrait of depravity" in the New York Times.

But what the current leader of the Park Slope Mormon Ward describes as his church's practice seems far more mainstream. Bishop Jared Thompson believes a new Mormon needs three things: "They need a friend, they need to be nourished by the good word of God, and they need responsibility."

He went on. "The more that they're able to participate, the more successful that transition will be." Klein moved to New York to pursue a dance career after growing up in Michigan, and is now a member of Thompson's congregation. The 23-year-old seems to enjoy her new community and the responsibilities she's been assigned. She has just started teaching Sunday school.

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From the standpoint of attracting new membership, churches are having trouble. While the Catholic Church is certainly not a marginal religious group in the United States, its membership is waning. Those who have left Catholicism outnumber those who have joined the Church by a margin of almost four-to-one, according to the Pew Forum. One in ten American adults is a former Catholic.

The crowd at St. Patrick's Cathedral on February 21, however, seemed to challenge those statistics. It was the first Sunday of Lent, the date of the annual Rite of Election in the Catholic Church. The ceremony acknowledges those who are studying to become Catholics (known as catechumens), as a prelude to the initiation sacraments they will receive at Easter. The pews of the cathedral were overflowing with catechumens from throughout the Archdiocese of New York, along with their families, clergy, tourists, and regular worshippers. Last year's Rite of Election recognized some 600 catechumens, and this year's massive throng of worshippers seemed at least as large.

The "new elect" are all participants in their local parish's Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, or RCIA. The program "directs, supports and sustains the way adults (and children who have reached the age of reason) are initiated into the Catholic Church," according to the Archdiocese of New York's website.

The problem for the Church is how to continue to support these adults after they've been baptized. Of the 600 people who participated in last year's ceremonies, "I would suspect half of them have left," estimated Oscar Cruz, director of adult catechesis and the catechumenate for the archdiocese. People who participate in the RCIA program are cradled by a community during their conversion, but the local parishes have trouble continuing that engagement once the "new elect" become Catholics. "They're touching people's minds, if that, but they're not touching people's hearts," Cruz said.

"People are on different spiritual journeys and we have to address that," he said. After all, Cruz noted, "the word 'catholic' means to be universal." To solve their declining population problem, those in the Catholic Church's administration will likely have to change their ways. As of now, most priests don't get much leadership training, and most churches have programming for children (often via parochial schools) and seniors, but not for 20- and 30-year-olds. Garces-Foley of Marymount added, "Obviously the Catholic tradition does not easily adapt to contemporary worship styles [like evangelism has]. There's the question of whether young adults find the worship service engaging and fun ... They would rather stay away from church than go to church and hear that they're living incorrectly."

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When [Abraham] saw the sun rising, he said, "This is my Lord; this is greater!" But when it set he said, "O my people, surely I am quit of that which you associate."
– Qur'an Sura 6:78

Rabbi Sarna of NYU said, "Becoming religious is a countertrend. It's easy to see why a mainstream college student would want to stay that way," meaning secular. Taylor Horak, a freshman at NYU, doesn't identify with any faith currently for just that reason. "I kind of just want to go to class and just enjoy my Sundays off," she said. Still, she grew up in a Christian family and went to bible camp; she thinks that she'll want to raise her children the same way one day.

Horak expressed her views in an op-ed published in the school newspaper, The Washington Square News, on October 7, 2009. Under the headline, "Shopping around for the right faith," she wrote, "Personally, I am not exactly sure where my own faith begins and ends. Depending on the context, my justifications become jumbled; exactly who is this god that I am placing my faith in?" Horak doesn't go to church because of her misgivings. "I just don't feel like it's right to go [to church] if you're not going for the right reasons," she said. Instead, she's analyzing the spiritual in an academic sense. She examined God as a literary character in her op-ed, and later claimed that literature is her personal god because reading gives her peace.

Yet Horak is, in a way, ultra-religious in her questioning of faith. At a panel of rabbis held at NYU last October, Rabbi Michael Friedman of Central Synagogue presented the idea that doubting religion is a very Jewish thing to do. The term "Yisrael" means "to wrestle with God." "Wrestling ... that's faith," he said.

Smith believes that those who are wrestling occasionally become converts. "There's gotta be more religious conversions than through college groups or lives sort of falling apart. There's gotta be people doing their own seeking and pursuing," he said.

For Kate Phillips, "It wasn't so much doubting, it was just that there was so much more out there," she said. "Being open to other cultures kind of opened my mind up." Though she grew up as the granddaughter of a Presbyterian minister, Phillips went to a small Lutheran college in Iowa. She came to New York City the summer between her junior and senior years of college, and decided to visit a different church every Sunday. This is known as "church shopping." The first week, she tried a Methodist church; the second week, she attended services at a Unitarian Universalist congregation, All Souls. Something clicked.

"I really liked that [Unitarian Universalism] is non-creedal ... there's no one telling you what you believe. You get to apply the principles as you see fit," she explained. Though sometimes associated with Christianity, Unitarian Universalism rejects the idea of a Holy Trinity and focuses on finding truth through lived experiences. Instead of a credo, Phillips mainly places her belief in love. Consequently, she said, "I'm more conscious about my interactions with other people. Because I believe in love, I think I have to prove that." Phillips is the first in her family to break away from traditional Christianity.

Smith is dubious about assigning too much autonomy to the process of seeking religiosity, though. "I don't at all deny that people have agency and make choices and that they have unique particular situations. But, from a sociological perspective, that's still formed by, or conditioned by, larger forces and cultures that help to make things somewhat predictable, or at least patterned."

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So Ananias went and, on entering the house, laid his hands on him and said, "Saul, my brother, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me to you so that you may recover your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." Immediately it was as if scales had fallen from his eyes, and he regained his sight.
– Acts 9:17-18

There are stages to religious exploration, Rabbi Sarna of NYU observed. The first one is "just being enamored with the opportunity and promise of something they never even knew existed. There's a great feeling of insecurity ... people will describe themselves like they're on fire. They're addicted, they're obsessed." Such people are able to experience religion, as opposed to just going through the motions of tradition; their faith often becomes all-consuming as a result.

A sophomore in college, Ian Sherman spent a week in a sukkah, the hut that is erected during the Jewish harvest festival; he emerged firmly believing that Lubavitch Judaism is truth.

Sheila Klein became convinced that she should join the Church of Latter-day Saints after her Book of Mormon flipped open to a particularly inspiring passage.

One young man told his minister that he saw the hand of God reach down to him in the middle of a church service in New York City.

A young woman considering Islam looked out the window of an airplane several years ago, and firmly believes that she saw Allah in the clouds over the heartland of the United States.

On April 16, a woman in Texas saw Jesus' image on one of the food warmers in her restaurant.

And Ashley Okamoto had a defining religious experience in the shower. "I put my hand out into the fog of the shower," she recalled. "I started to think about the physics of my hand." Staring at her fingers through the mist, Okamoto realized that her hand was made of atoms, just like the faucet and the water in her shower. In that one glimpse, "everything fell away. I realized God," she said. Talk about spiritual cleansing.

Okamoto's husband is a physicist, which she said helps to affirm his faith every day and which might account for her understanding of atoms. But she can't elaborate on how or why she understands God. "It's hard to explain to someone who's secular what faith is," she said.

Even professionals balk at describing belief. "I'm not sure there's ever been a very concrete definition of religion. It's a hotly debated topic," said Wade Clark Roof, a sociologist of religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Faith may be difficult to define, but our founding fathers made it known "that all men have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," even if that means pursuing something different from what is comfortable or expected.

We are a nation of explorers, of dreamers, of outcasts and comeback kids and rebels without cause. "The meat and potatoes of our culture is American individualism and materialistic success; we've been a nation chiefly concerned with that since our founding. That is, if you will, the 'deep religion' of America," wrote Tim Clydesdale, professor of sociology at The College of New Jersey, in an e-mail.

In abandoning the religious practices of their families, young adult religious converts ultimately redefine their identity. The quests of today's young adults will influence the political, economic, and social outlook of the nation, just as their parents and grandparents' decisions did in previous decades. The Millennials will have a role in shaping what it means to be "one nation under God" for future generations.

Their choices will be spurred on by their peers and usually discouraged by their elders; their own children will embrace or reject those choices. They will continue to defy statistical representation and to break rules. They will adapt family recipes. They will form new friendships. They will fall in love. They will live, whether their purpose is charted by an omnipotent force or their own free will. Hallelujah.

Rachel can be contacted at

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NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute