Study: Half of All Americans Switch Religions

Friday, 01 May 2009 09:49 PM

By David A. Patten

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The “brand loyalty” of Americans to specific religious denominations is far weaker than previously recognized, with more half of all U.S. citizens changing their religious practice at least once during their lives, an extensive new study reports.

Researchers add, however, that a willingness to switch religious affiliations may actually be a source of strength that contributes to the enduring power of religion in American culture.

“In sum, Americans change religious affiliation often, early, and for many different reasons,” says John Green, a Pew senior research fellow.

Researchers at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life describe the frequent changes in religious affiliation the “great flexidoxy” of American worship. The study, called “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the United States,” follows up on Pew’s 2008 Religious Landscape Survey.

That earlier study concluded that about 44 percent of all Americans change either their religion or their denomination at some point in their lives. The new survey, however, suggests that figure significantly understates the actual amount of religion-switching occurring in America.

For the follow-up research, Pew scholars conducted in-depth surveys of 2,800 persons who had participated in last year’s study. They focused on Protestants, Catholics, and those unaffiliated with organized religion.

This time, researchers wanted to know if some of those who still practice the faith they learned as children had, sometime in the past, flirted with another religious practice before returning the faith of their youth.

One in six persons said they did. And based on that new information, Pew now estimates that over half of all Americans have changed their faith practice at some point in their lives. “It is likely, if anything, these numbers underestimates the level of change,” Green adds, because switches among small denominations are difficult to detect.

Another important finding: Researchers find little evidence of a trend toward secularism, adding that about a third of those who leave organized religion continue to actively seek a faith that better reflects their beliefs and needs.

Among the survey’s major findings:

Of those who changed affiliation, the largest group consists of Protestants who changed denominations. Overall, 15 percent of Protestants now belong to a different Protestant faith than the one in which they were raised.

The big loser in America’s ongoing religious churn is the Catholic Church. Catholics leaving their faith outnumber Catholic converts by a 4-to-1 margin, and today one in 10 American adults is a former Catholic, the survey reports. This trend is offset by the influx of Catholic immigrants, however. Overall, Catholics continue to account for just under one-quarter of the U.S. population, a proportion that has held steady for decades.

The No. 1 reason believers leave the denomination they grew up with: They say they just gradually drift away from their religion. Other major reasons: They stopped believing in the religion’s teachings, or felt their spiritual needs were not being met.

Most of those who leave their childhood religion do so before age 24. Says Green: “Many of the switchers reported a waning of their religious fervor as children, several years prior to the switch. So early adulthood is a key timeframe in which religious changes of all sorts occurs.” Changing religions after age 50 is very rare.

When Protestants switch denominations, it is usually associated with a major life change, such as getting married or moving to a new town. However, 36 percent attributed their switch to “likes and dislikes about religious institutions, practices, and people.”

The behavior of churches and congregations can play a big role in the decision to unaffiliated with organized religion. Pew Research Fellow Greg Smith says many of the unaffiliated leave “due to disillusionment or disenchantment with religious people or organizations, saying that religious people are hypocritical and judgmental rather than sincere or forgiving, or saying religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality.”

Pew’s latest findings show that spiritual feelings run strong even among those who are unaffiliated – a group Pew represents 16.1 percent of Americans. That group doubled in size in the 1990s, but since then has remained about the same.

Despite the media attention paid to atheists and hardcore secularists, Pew researchers say, fewer than 25 percent of the recently unaffiliated agree with the statement that science has proven religion is just superstition.

“And upwards of a third of those who have become unaffiliated give evidence of being in the midst of, or continuing, a spiritual search,” Smith says. “They’re saying they just haven’t yet found the religion right for them.”

Luis E. Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, says the survey offers mixed news on the health of American religions.

“There is good and bad news from the standpoint of religious communities and their outreach,” Lugo says. “The bad news throughout for them is the decrease in ‘brand loyalty.’ There is no question that is going on … there has been a movement away from affiliation as such.

“On the other hand if you look at the people who are sort of drifting away – and I use the word ‘drifting’ because that’s what 70 percent of them tell us, they just sort of gradually drifted – these are folks who in some sense are catchable. They’re recoverable.”

Even after people become unaffiliated, he adds, they remain interested in religious faith, suggesting there are opportunities for religious leaders to attract their attention again.

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