Shopping for religion widespread, Pew survey finds

“Americans change religious affiliation early and often” according to a report on religious switching from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, released in April 2009.

The report

The report, titled “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.,” follows up and expands on findings of the landmark U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Forum in 2007 and released in 2008, and offers unique statistical grounding for phenomena that journalists encounter every day in writing about religion. The numbers provide fodder for numerous stories, and this edition of ReligionLink supplies further resources for reporting those pieces.

The analysis shows great fluidity in religious affiliation in the U.S., with about half of American adults saying that they have changed religious affiliation at least once during their lives.

According to the survey, the numbers break down this way: 28 percent of American adults have changed religious affiliation from the one in which they were raised, and the figure rises to 44 percent when change within religious traditions is included (e.g., from one Protestant denominational family to another). Moreover, among the 56 percent of adults who currently belong to the same religion as the one in which they were raised, one in six say they had at one point been a member of another tradition. That means about half of American adults have switched at least once during their lives, some several times.

In addition, the survey found that most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24.

Among the survey's findings

  • Catholics and Protestants leave their churches for different reasons. Two-thirds of Catholics who have become unaffiliated say they did so “because they stopped believing in its [the church’s] teachings, as do half of former Catholics who are now Protestant.” The sexual abuse scandal played a lesser role, as fewer than three in 10 former Catholics say “the clergy sexual abuse scandal factored into their decision to leave Catholicism.”
  • Protestants are more likely to switch denominations because they moved to a different community (nearly 40 percent), and nearly that many said they switched “because they married someone from a different religious background.” This finding raises questions about rates of intermarriage and how the increasing religious diversity and demographic mobility of the United States is affecting religious loyalties.
  • Most switching occurs by the age of 24, and a large majority say they joined their current religion before age 36. The level of religious observance as a child also appears to have an effect on the propensity for religious switching later in life. This has implications for religious education, from Sunday school to youth groups to campus ministry, and for the role of parental involvement in raising children in a religious tradition.
  • Religious switching has meant a net gain for the “unaffiliated” category, as one-quarter of those who switch wind up opting out of organized religion altogether (even as many still hold to certain beliefs). Some 16 percent of the overall population falls under the unaffiliated category. Disenchantment with religious institutions and religious people and “rules” are the main reasons for leaving, the unaffiliated say. Scientific arguments against religion are not typically a determinant, the survey says.
  • On the flip side, the unaffiliated also have “one of the lowest retention rates of any of the major religious groups,” as the survey’s authors write, “with most people who were raised unaffiliated now belonging to one religion or another.” Reasons for choosing a religion include the attraction of religious services and styles of worship (74 percent), having been spiritually unfulfilled while unaffiliated (51 percent) or feeling called by God (55 percent).

National sources

  • Robert Wuthnow

    Robert Wuthnow is director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He wrote the book Poor Richard’s Principle: Recovering the American Dream Through the Moral Dimension of Work, Business and Money and was the editor of the 2006 Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion. He is also the author of  After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion and Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland. He can speak about hot-button issues including abortion, the separation of church and state and gun control.

  • Alan Wolfe

    Alan Wolfe is the founding director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and a frequent commentator on religion and politics. His books include The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, which focuses on the impact of evangelicals on American religious culture. He has written widely on secularism.

  • Wade Clark Roof

    Wade Clark Roof is F. Rowny Professor of Religion and Society and chairman of the religious studies department at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is a columnist for Beliefnet and author of, among other books, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton University Press, 2001). He is also editor in chief of Contemporary American Religion (Macmillan Reference USA, 1999).

  • Mark Regnerus

    Mark Regnerus is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He has done research on the influence of religion on adolescent behavior, including the influence of teens’ religiosity on delinquency, whether they stay in school and what they think about sex, for example. Regnerus is co-author, with Jeremy Uecker, of Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think about Marrying (2010).

  • Barry Kosmin

    Barry Kosmin directs the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. He has conducted polls on religion and society in the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia.

  • Byron R. Johnson

    Byron R. Johnson is a professor of sociology at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who has written widely on the relationship between religion and criminal behavior. He is the author of the entry “The Role of Religious Institutions in Responding to Crime and Delinquency” in The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion.

  • Roger Finke

    Roger Finke is a professor of sociology, religious studies and international affairs at Penn State University. He’s also director of the Association of Religion Data Archives.

  • Diana L. Eck

    Diana L. Eck is a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University. She is also director of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, which explores the religious diversity of the U.S. 

  • Kevin Dougherty

    Kevin Dougherty is an associate professor of sociology at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. His research focuses on the sociology of religious congregations, including racial diversity in churches.

  • Mark A. Chaves

    Mark A. Chaves is professor of sociology at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He is an expert on religious organizations in the United States and leads the National Congregations Study.

  • Nancy Ammerman

    Nancy Ammerman is professor of sociology at Boston University and a leading expert on congregational dynamics, especially in mainline Protestantism. She is the author of Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life and Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and Their Partners. She is also an expert on religious movements and has written about the rise of fundamentalism.

  • Patrick N. Allitt

    Patrick N. Allitt is a professor of American history at Emory University in Atlanta. In his book Religion in America Since 1945: A History, he looks at the role religion has played in public school education. He is also an expert on religion and environmentalism and is author of the book A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism. He has also written about American Catholics and the environment.

Pew experts

  • John C. Green

    John C. Green is a senior fellow at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, specializing in religion and American politics. He also serves as interim university president, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and distinguished professor of political science at the University of Akron.

  • Gregory A. Smith

    Gregory A. Smith is the associate director of research at the Pew Research Center. He’s an expert on religion in America. Arrange interviews through Anna Schiller.

Additional research

  • Louisville Institute

    The Louisville Institute is a seminary that works to enrich the religious life of American Christians and to encourage the revitalization of their institutions, by bringing together those who lead religious institutions with those who study them, so that the work of each might inform and strengthen the other.

  • Faith Communities Today (FACT)

    Based at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary. Has data from 2000, 2005, 2008, and 2010. The survey involved researchers and religious leaders in a survey of 14,300 American congregations of all faiths and denominations. FACT can provide information about megachurches (Protestant churches claiming 2,000 or more attending weekly worship), which have been growing at the same time as the planting of small churches has increased. The site also provides links to recent articles about church growth and trends.

  • The Pluralism Project

    The Pluralism Project at Harvard University lists resources across the country by religious tradition, including interfaith resources. It is aimed at engaging students in studying the new religious diversity in the United States.

  • Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture

    The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis explores the connection between religion and other aspects of American culture.

  • SocioWeb: The Sociological Resource Center

    SocioWeb: The Sociological Resource Center an independent guide to sociological resources available online.

  • Americas Society/ Council of the Americas

    The Americas Society/Council of the Americas provides information on diverse cultures in the Americas. It has offices in New York City, Washington D.C., and Miami.

  • Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research: General Social Survey Series

    Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research: General Social Survey Series is an annual study on political and social sciences in the U.S.

  • Gallup: Religion

    Gallup’s page on religion provides a number of studies and research reports on religion in the U.S. Contact through the website.

  • U.S. Congregational Life Survey

    U.S. Congregational Life Survey is a representative research report that provides information on worshipers and their congregations around the U.S.

    Contact: 888-728-7228 ext. 2040.
  • Statistical Abstract of the United States

    The Statistical Abstract of the United States is “the authoritative and comprehensive summary of statistics on the social, political, and economic organization of the United States” provided by the United States Census Bureau.

    Contact: 301-763-4636.

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