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Regional & National

U.S. faith in flux; why so many switch religions

April 28th, 2009 12:00 am by Staff Report

Americans change religious affiliation early and often. In total, about half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once during their lives. Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24, and many of those who change religion do so more than once. These are among the key findings of a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. The survey documents the fluidity of religious affiliation in the U.S. and describes in detail the patterns and reasons for change.

The reasons people give for changing their religion -- or leaving religion altogether -- differ widely depending on the origin and destination of the convert. The group that has grown the most in recent years due to religious change is the unaffiliated population. But this group's growth seems to have less to do with the belief that science disproves religion than with disenchantment with religious people and institutions. Many people who left a religion to become unaffiliated say they did so, in part, because they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money.1 Far fewer say they became unaffiliated because they believe that modern science proves that religion is just superstition.

Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change. Many people who leave the Catholic Church do so for religious reasons; two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated say they left the Catholic faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, as do half of former Catholics who are now Protestant. Fewer than three-in-ten former Catholics, however, say the clergy sexual abuse scandal factored into their decision to leave Catholicism.

In contrast with other groups, those who switch from one Protestant denominational family to another (e.g., were raised Baptist and are now Methodist) tend to be more likely to do so in response to changed circumstances in their lives. Nearly four-in-ten people who have changed religious affiliation within Protestantism say they left their childhood faith, in part, because they relocated to a new community, and nearly as many say they left their former faith because they married someone from a different religious background.

The new survey is a follow-up to the "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey," conducted by the Pew Forum in 2007 and released in 2008, and is based on recontact interviews with members of the largest segments of the population that have changed religious affiliation. This includes more than 300 interviews each with former Catholics who are now unaffiliated, former Catholics who are now Protestant, former Protestants who are now unaffiliated and those raised unaffiliated who now belong to a religious faith. The survey also includes nearly 300 interviews with people who have gone from one denominational family to another within Protestantism and nearly 1,000 interviews with people who still belong to the group in which they were raised. In total, the new survey allows for in-depth analysis of about eight-in-ten of those who now have a different religious affiliation than the one in which they were raised.2

One of the most striking findings from the 2007 Landscape Survey was the large number of people who have left their childhood faith. The 2007 survey found that more than one-in-four American adults (28%) have changed their religious affiliation from that in which they were raised. This number includes people who have changed from one major religious tradition to another, for instance, from Protestantism to Catholicism or from Judaism to no religion. If change within religious traditions is included (e.g., from one Protestant denominational family to another), the survey found that roughly 44% of Americans now profess a religious affiliation different from that in which they were raised.

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