Walter Petit was 13 years old when he informed his mother that he didn’t want to go to church anymore. He had been raised in the Pentecostal and Southern Baptist churches, but he never felt connected to Christianity.
“I was miserable for a very long time about it. I didn’t understand why I didn’t have that connection,” he said. “I would pray. I read the Bible ... was I a bad person? Was there something wrong with me?”
Now, as an atheist agnostic and founder of the Western Kentucky University Secular Student Alliance, Petit realizes he is not alone. In fact, a growing number of young people are leaving the church and their childhood beliefs, studies show.
A combination of church politics and exposure to other ideas contribute to that growth, experts say.
About 1 in 4 Americans ages 18 to 29 say they do not affiliate with a particular religion. More than a quarter of all American adults have left their childhood faith for another religion or no religion, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
In terms of religion, the greatest increase among Americans is no religion at all, the study says. Among those who do not claim a belief, 31 percent are under age 30 and 71 percent are under 50.
The trend of switching religions and straying from childhood beliefs began with the baby boomer generation. The current young generation is simply continuing that movement, said Lawrence Snyder, associate professor of religious studies at Western Kentucky University.
Experts are still trying to pinpoint why so many people are nonreligious, but a contributing factor is that religion is becoming more political, Snyder said.
“I think traditions are making a huge mistake by politicizing their faiths,” he said.
A majority of nonreligious people are moderate, pro-abortion rights and pro-gay rights, according to the Pew report.
That could be one reason, studies show, that so many young people no longer affiliate with conservative Christian religions, which overwhelmingly are anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage.
“As far as politics go, there’s a lot of influence there” that persuades young people to become nonreligious, Petit said. “The secular community has been behind gay rights for a long time.”
Even young evangelicals are less committed to issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, than their elders. Young, devout evangelicals tend to focus on topics such as social justice and the environment, Snyder said.
“They’re becoming more green and becoming more politically active, but not necessarily on the side of the religious right,” he said. “They’re more centered or to the left.”
Fred Luter Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told the Daily News during a visit to Dripping Spring Baptist Church in Olmstead that he does not believe the denomination is on the wrong side of history when it comes to opposing gay rights.
“As long as the denomination is on the right side of the Bible, I’m not concerned if we’re on the right side of history,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re right with the word of God.”
While a majority of religious Americans still say they are Christians, Protestant denominations are on the verge of becoming a minority, with 51 percent of Americans – a sharp decrease over the years – affiliating with Protestant churches, the Pew study shows.
In fact, religion probably is not in trouble – America’s attitude about religion tends to go in cycles, and we are in one of those cycles, Snyder said. But Protestantism might be in for a change, he said.
“I think the privileged position that Protestantism has had in American society and culture is gone or is going,” Snyder said. “But that doesn’t mean that is a bad thing.”
As people withdraw from Protestant churches, the denomination – and Christianity as a whole – will have a chance to renew and re-evaluate itself. Historically, every time Christianity has shifted, it has been “on the outs with the culture,” he said.
At Seventh Street Baptist Church, Pastor Fred Brown told the Daily News that he notices a dip in the number of young adults who attend.
“They do well until they start leaving high school and go into college. I’ve never been able to figure out what happens at that point,” he said. “They seem to want to sever all ties with the church.”
Brown said he is concerned about that shift, although he has experienced visions that indicate the church will survive over the next few decades. The church has built a ministry that specifically reaches out to young adults, he said.
“That is an issue in many churches. How do you maintain? How do you stop the revolving door?” he said.
But while statistics show that fewer young people are sitting in pews, some say the younger generation is still drawn to Christian events and groups, such as campus clubs. For example, several students are part of Baptist Campus Ministries at Western Kentucky University, but not all of them go to church, said Cassie Kaufman, a WKU graduate and BCM intern.
“We promote people going to church in the Bowling Green area, and we’ve seen a lot of people who have gone to church as well as people who haven’t,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are (leery of) church and don’t see it as a priority. And there are people here who see it as their number one priority.”
The BCM has its share of participants who were either hurt by a church or have never gone to church. But others, like Kaufman, are drawn to church, she said.
“It’s very much important to my walk,” she said. “And it’s just really important from a community aspect.”
While Protestantism declines, Catholicism has experienced the greatest loss. Nearly 31 percent of Americans were raised in the Catholic faith, but today fewer than 24 percent call themselves Catholic, according to the Pew study.
Locally, minority denominations are reporting attendance bumps as more people look for something different. At the beginning of the year, Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green was reporting an estimated 700 parishioners – an increase over the years.
People flock to the Episcopal tradition in large part because of its openness, the Rev. Michael Blewett told the Daily News. For example, the denomination accepts gay and female clergy, and Blewett says parishioners never decipher his stance on social issues through his preaching.
“We don’t want people to check their brains at the door,” he said. “We don’t want to tell them what to think.”
Similarly, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green has grown over the years.
“I think there is a real thirst for spirituality in this country, even though the number of people going to church is going down all the time,” the Rev. Peter Connolly said. “At the same time, there are people who identify as having no religion, who are still very interested in the spiritual life. Those are people who are more likely to come to a church like ours.”
At WKU, Petit’s secular group has blossomed since it was formed in October 2011. This time last year, about eight people were attending group meetings. Recently, nearly 50 students showed up for a video screening, Petit said.
He attributes that growth – and the rising number of people his age who are nonreligious – to better access to education and information, which shows that there are other ideas than what is preached in church or written in the Bible, he said.
More than a decade after Petit first told his mother he no longer wanted to attend church, she still asks him to go with her, Petit said, adding that in spite of his views, he has a good relationship with his mother.
“But she has told me before that me being an atheist is her biggest failing as a parent,” he said. “She’s not fond of it at all.”