It is no secret New Mexico and especially Santa Fe are deeply rooted in Catholicism. More than 400 years have passed since the establishment of the city, and religion still plays a huge role today. With more than 40 Christian churches, six Buddhist temples, four synagogues and numerous other spiritual sites, Santa Fe is known for its abundance of religions.
While the number of sites are plenty, attendance is decreasing. According to a Gallup poll, 47 percent of adults belong to a church, synagogue or mosque. The Pew Research Center has found 89 percent of respondents believe in a god. For teens, the number is slightly lower at 80 percent.
In light of this, the question remains: Why are teens separating from religion but not the beliefs altogether?
In Santa Fe High sophomore Willow Shaffer’s experience, organized religion has given rise to several issues. Shaffer said she experienced judgmental behavior from religious followers. “I have been told by many people before that I am going to go to hell,” she said. “That really scared me at the time.”
Shaffer identifies as agnostic, which she defines as believing in “some sort of a higher power, but ultimately I believe in the ability of people to make choices for themselves.”
Shaffer said followers of organized religion exhibit restrictive, overbearing and controlling tendencies that turn off many teens.
“I have several friends who have been told that their gender identity or sexual orientation is wrong because it is not supported by the Bible,” Shaffer said. “This only makes it easier to not support religion as a teen than ever before.”
Shaffer isn’t alone in this view. Luna Parra, a sophomore at Santa Fe High, said, “As kids who were forced to go to church grow older, they sometimes realize their own stance on the world doesn’t always align with what they were brought up to believe. This can sometimes be painful for the developing mind to come to terms with.”
However, Katherine Ortega, a freshman at St. Michael’s High School, has had a different experience. Ortega, who described herself as a devout Catholic, said, “Religion has genuinely made me a much happier person for several reasons. I have something to live for, which would be getting into heaven and having a great life on Earth. I also feel like I have more support and love than I would have if I didn’t believe in God.”
Ortega is not the only teen who finds benefits in their religion. Research has shown teens involved in religious practices are less likely to suffer from depression and have faster recovery from depression compared to their nonreligious counterparts.
Diahann Larson, the director of Lasallian ministry at St. Michael’s, attests to this as well.
“I have known students who have felt lost and alone, but through their developing relationship with God, they grow in confidence, love and self-esteem,” Larson said.
Gayle McGuinness, youth minster at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, said religion is imperative for teens’ journey through self-discovery.
“Our teens are living in a world bombarded by immorality,” McGuinness said. “You guys are under tremendous pressure to act and look a certain way, all based on false and negative messaging. Religion is important because it gives you a better perspective of life. Knowing that someone much greater than you created everything that we see, feel, taste and touch reminds us to be humble, thankful and respectful of all life. It also carries and strengthens me through my darkest times.”
Even so, Larson recognizes the downward trend of teens affiliating with religion and said it reflects the changing times.
“I think the family dynamic has changed over the years,” Larson said. “When I was growing up, there were basic expectations from my parents about my faith development. … Another reason I think there has been a decline is that they do not feel appreciated and an important part of the church. This can be because of their own assumptions or a direct result of how they might be treated.”
Estrella Delora, a senior at St. Michael’s and a devout Catholic, said teens tend to shy away from religion because they hold more liberal viewpoints.
“I can say that I hold many of the same views, but I have found a way to balance that with my religious beliefs,” Delora said.
The Pew Research Center found Democrats are 18 percent less likely to be certain in the existence of a god and are 15 percent less likely to attend religious services regularly if they do identify as such.
While today’s youth uphold the trend of relieving themselves from organized religion, many still choose to partake in it, while others have made their spirituality a more personal journey. There are also those who have separated from the idea of a spirit altogether.
No matter what beliefs one may have, mutual respect and understanding will help to navigate a new era.