STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, let's ask why many Americans are saying they follow no organized religion. Close to one-fifth of Americans now say that - young Americans are even less religious. We heard those numbers in our series Losing Our Religion. And now David Greene has been listening to some of the voices behind the numbers.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: They're the voices of six young Americans - three young women, three young men - all struggling with the role of faith and religion in their lives. We gathered together at the Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, D.C., in many ways a fitting spot. It's a holy and secular place. They have everything from religious services to rock concerts. So, we were sitting in a circle at the front of the sanctuary.
MIRIAM NISSLY: My name is Miriam Nissly. I'm 29. I grew up in the Chicago area. I was raised Jewish. I consider myself Jewish with a, I don't know, agnostic-leaning bent.
GREENE: Meaning, Miriam's not sure she believes in God. Still, she loves going to synagogue.
NISSLY: I mean, I realize that maybe there's a disconnect, that, you know, why are you doing it if you don't necessarily have a belief in God. But I think there's a cultural aspect. There's a - I think there's a spiritual aspect, I suppose. You know, I find the practice of sitting and sort of being quiet and being alone with your thoughts to be helpful. But I don't think I need to answer that question in order to participate in the traditions that I was brought up with.
GREENE: Miriam still feels a connection to those traditions. Not so for Yusuf Ahmad, just to my left in our circle. He's 33 and was raised Muslim. Now, Yusuf calls himself atheist. His doubts really set in as a child. There were stories that he just didn't believe. Here's how he remembers one.
YUSUF AHMAD: Like the story of Abraham, like his God tells him to sacrifice his son, and he takes his son to sacrifice him - he turns into a goat. Like, even, like, I remember growing up when I was in fifth, sixth grade, I'd hear these stories and I'd be like, that's crazy. Why would this guy do this? You know, just 'cause he heard a voice in his head he went to, like, sacrifice his son and it turned into a goat. There's no way that this happened.
GREENE: You weren't believing that.
AHMAD: Yeah. Like, I wasn't buying it. And today if some guy told you that I need to sacrifice my son because God told me to do it, he would be locked up in, like, a crazy institution.
GREENE: So, this conversation at the synagogue goes on for two hours or so, everyone getting to know details about one another. Kyle Simpson, a 27-year-old from Iowa, has this tattoo on the inside of his left wrist.
KYLE SIMPSON: It says (Foreign language spoken). And Latin for salvation from the Cross, which is a little troublesome now when people ask me. I tell them and they go, oh, so, you're a Christian. And it's kind of like, well, I don't know...
GREENE: Like, maybe.
SIMPSON: Yeah. So, I try to skirt the issue now. And they go, like, what's that mean? And it's like, oh it's Latin for I made a mistake when I was 18. Just to kind of avoid the topic.
GREENE: Do you regret it? I mean, would you get rid of the tattoo if...
SIMPSON: No. The irony is when I first got the tattoo I remember thinking, oh, this will be great because when I'm having troubles in my faith I will be able to look at it, and I can't run away from it. And that is exactly what is happening.
GREENE: Do you believe in God?
SIMPSON: I don't really, but I really want to. That's the problem with questions like these is you don't have anything that clearly states, yes, this is fact. So, I'm constantly struggling. But looking right at the facts, like looking at evolution and science, they're saying, no, there is none. But what about love? What about the ideas of forgiveness? Things like that. I like to believe they're true and they're meaningful.
GREENE: I'm so interested to hear more about this because you said you don't believe in God but you really want to.
GREENE: Why is that?
SIMPSON: I think having a God would create a meaning for our lives, like we are working towards 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. Like, I love that idea.
GREENE: And yet Kyle's uncomfortable with some of the religious doctrine. He doesn't believe in hell. He also doesn't believe homosexuality is a sin. And that is also a problem for Melissa Adelman. She's 30 and was raised Catholic.
MELISSA ADELMAN: I mean, starting in middle school we got the lessons about why premarital sex was not OK, why active homosexuality was not OK. And so we had some of those conversations in school with our theology teachers. The thing for me was that part of the reason that I moved away from - well, a large part of the reason I moved away from Catholicism was because without accepting a lot of these core beliefs, I just didn't think that I could still be part of that community.
GREENE: So, you were a teenager and actually having some of these conversations with the nuns about homosexuality, about premarital sex, and...
ADELMAN: 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. And I very clearly remember the...
GREENE: Did you mark that, I mean, as the answer?
ADELMAN: Yeah, that's what I put down as the answer, but I vividly remember thinking to myself that that was not the right answer.
GREENE: Rigoberto, tell me about your religion growing up and what role religion played for you.
RIGOBERTO PEREZ: It was a fairly important part of our life. It was something that we did every Saturday morning.
GREENE: This is Seventh Day Adventist, right?
PEREZ: It is.
GREENE: Which is a Protestant (unintelligible) church.
PEREZ: We celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday. But it was pretty hard growing up, a lot of ways. We didn't have a lot of money, the household wasn't very stable a lot of times, so when something bad would happen, say a prayer, go to church, you know. When my mom got cancer the first time, it was something that, it was, you know, was useful at the time for me as a coping mechanism.
GREENE: So, one thing you were coping with was your mom, sounds like multiple battles with cancer.
PEREZ: Yes. She had cancer twice while I was a child, once as an adult and she passed on December 29 of the previous year...
GREENE: I'm sorry.
PEREZ: ...of cancer also.
GREENE: And not the only struggle. I mean, it sounds like there were other things in your life that really required coping for you.
PEREZ: Yeah. I mean, 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. You know, eventually that gets just too hard to believe anymore.
GREENE: That last voice is 30-year-old Rigoberto Perez. And he shares something with 23-year-old Lizz Reeves. Both of them have views on religion that was shaped by tragedy.
LIZZ REEVES: I had a brother pass away to cancer. And I wanted so badly to believe in God and in heaven, and that's where he was going and all these things. And I wanted to have some sort of purpose and meaning associated with his passing. And ultimately the more time I spent kind of thinking about it, I kind of 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 and pursue things in my life that give his life meaning.
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GREENE: Six young Americans talking to us for our series Losing Our Religion. And we'll hear more from this group later in the week. Tomorrow, a story from one of our correspondents, Barbara Bradley Hagerty. She'll dig deeper into this link between faith and tragedy.
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INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Greene, right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.