Pew Forum report details changing U.S. religious affilations

April 27, 2009

The folks at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have come up with a new bit of intriguing number crunching. This time round they have taken a more detailed look at how Americans change religious affiliations in a new report entitled “Faith in Flux.” You can see the report here. It is a follow-up to Pew’s huge U.S. Religious Landscape Survey which was conducted in 2007.

archbp-dolanAmong the highlights which underscore the fluid nature of American faith:

* It finds that 44 percent of the U.S. adults do not belong to their childhood faith.

* Among the 56 percent who belong to their childhood faith, one in six say there was a point in their life when their religion differed.

* Faith-switching is most appealing for the young: Most of those who left their childhood faith did so before reaching age 24; a large majority say they joined their current religion before they turned 36.

* But very few report changing religions after reaching the age of 50.

* When asked in an open-ended question to explain in their own words the main reason they are no longer part of their former religion, roughly half of former Catholics give an explanation related to religious and moral beliefs. The same is true of roughly four-in-ten former Protestants who have become unaffiliated.

* The Catholic Church has suffered the greatest net loss of faithful while the ranks of the unaffilated have swelled the most because of changing religions.

There are critics who will question some aspects of such an exercise. Among the crop of neo-atheists, Richard Dawkins for example has argued that it is absurd to refer to Catholic or Muslim children on the grounds that a child cannot make such a decision (so you cannot really say that anyone has changed their “childhood faith”). But there is clearly much to be gleaned from this survey and if one thinks of American history — its great awkenings, the birth of the Mormon Church, the recent evangelical surge — then it could be argued that changing faith is almost as American as apple pie.

(Photo: Newly appointed New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan at his installation in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, April 15, 2009/Julie Jacobson)
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