Growing up in southeastern Indiana, Hannah Hunt questioned religion: Why did church lessons contradict what she learned in public school?

She attended services once each Wednesday and twice each Sunday. She saw no female leaders in the nondenominational Church of Christ, the centerpiece of her upbringing. The Bible, she said, called for her to be submissive to men.

Her textbooks introduced her to Gloria Steinem.

“At church, the woman would be the person in the background,” said Hunt, 24. “As long as I can remember, I would think: This is ridiculous. I’m not that person.”

Of course, many young women still embrace religion. But Hunt is far from a generational anomaly.

Millennials who spurn organized religion tend to reject belief systems before they leave home, said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of "Generation Me." One surprising aspect of this well-documented phenomenon: Teenage girls appear to be disproportionately driving the attitude shift.

Twenge’s team of researchers recently examined national survey responses from more than 11 million adolescent Americans, gathered between 1967 and 2013, to isolate religious differences between baby boomers, generation Xers and millennials.

Today’s young adults, they found, aren’t as pious as their generational precursors. They’re less likely, on average, to pray or attend religious services. They’re more likely to value individualism and ditch societal expectations.

Twice as many high school seniors in 2010, for example, reported “never” attending religious services than those in 1976 -- 21 percent, up from about 10 percent, according to the study published Wednesday in the Public Library of Science. Three times as many recent college students (27 percent) reported no religious involvement than those who graduated in the 1970s (roughly 13 percent).

A recent Pew survey found that millennials, born between roughly 1980 and 1996, are more likely than any previous generation to say they’re unaffiliated with religion:


Courtesy of the Pew Research Center

The majority, however, still practice some form of religion. They’re just “significantly less religiously oriented” than their parents and grandparents, the study said.

The trend is especially pronounced among girls and young women. They are still more likely to say they go to church or pray than boys and young men. But the gender gap in religious participation has in recent years significantly shrunk.

Over the last four decades, the number of 12th-grade girls who reported never attending church has surged 125 percent. The increase among their male peers was 83 percent. In the late 1970s, 12th-grade boys were 50 percent more likely than girls to say they never go to church, Twenge said. By 2010, that difference haddwindled to 22 percent.

“Given shifts away from traditional female roles, females may have been affected more than males,” the study team wrote.

Boys graduating high school in the late 1970s were twice as likely than their female classmates to assert religion was not an important aspect of their lives, according to Twenge’s calculations. By 2010, they were only 39 percent more likely than girls to express disinterest.

“Many religions have a very patriarchal tradition,” Twenge said. “Even for those with female clergy it’s often a recent development. That’s still very much in the minority.”

Beyond anecdotal evidence, it’s tough to explain the trends. Religion can provide social support and a sense of community. Followers may find purpose and peace in the world’s exalted texts. However, the authors theorize, “if religion is perceived as a dominating force that restricts freedom and enforces social rules, this will be linked with a decline in religious involvement.”

Before she could articulate why, Hunt sensed she did not fit into the gender roles prescribed by her religion. She thought women should be able to use birth control without judgment. She wasn’t in any rush to get married. She wanted to decide the terms of her life.

Hunt now works as an energy policy analyst in Washington. She left home seven years ago to study political science at Indiana University. While at college, she pushed herself to attend church, for her family's sake and because she didn't want to upset her mother.

Her resolve fizzled in the first semester.