Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Survey: Half of U.S. adults have switched religions
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Vang Lutheran Church, Dunn County, N.D. Seven percent of U.S. adults raised Protestant are now unaffiliated, while 15% have switched to a different Protestant faith.
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Vang Lutheran Church, Dunn County, N.D. Seven percent of U.S. adults raised Protestant are now unaffiliated, while 15% have switched to a different Protestant faith.


Percentage of American adults surveyed about switching religions:

Pew Research Center

Interactive graphic: Compare Americans' answers on their beliefs and practices
Analysis: More drop dogma for spirituality
Map: State-by-state numbers of faithful
Americans freely change or drop religions
Blog, forum and more: Join the conversation on religion, spirituality and ethics


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Cathy Lynn Grossman.

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By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY
About half of all Americans have switched religions at least once, according to the most in-depth survey on the topic, released Monday.

And that may still be "a conservative estimate," says Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

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Pew's new survey is based on re-contacting 2,800 people from its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of 35,000 people, released last year. Pew estimated at the time that about 44% of Americans have changed religions. It now says between 47% and 59% have, if you count the millions who once switched but have returned to their childhood faith.

Key findings:
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•The reasons people give for changing their religion — or leaving religion altogether — differ widely: 71% of Catholics and nearly 60% of Protestants who switched didn't think their spiritual needs were being met, liked another faith more or changed their religious or moral beliefs.

•Most switched early, committing to one faith by age 36. Americans switch religions "often, early and for many different reasons," says John Green, a Pew senior fellow.

•Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change: The 10% of U.S. adults who have quit the church vastly outnumber the 2.6% who are incoming Catholics. Two in three who became unaffiliated — and half of those who became Protestant — say they left the Catholic Church because they "stopped believing its teachings." The sexual abuse scandal was a factor for fewer than three in 10 former Catholics.

•Life circumstances, not religious doctrinal differences, prompt most Protestants who switch denominations (Baptist to Methodist, for example). Moving to a new town or marrying someone of a different tradition are the most often-cited reasons, but 36% attributed changes to "likes and dislikes about religious institutions, practices and people."

•Many people who left a religion and now are "unaffiliated" say they did so in part because they see religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules, or because religious leaders focus too much on power and money.

•Among the 16% of Americans who say they're now not affiliated with any religion, most are former Protestants and Catholics who say they didn't quit in a huff or get lured away by science or by atheist philosophy: About 70% say "they just gradually drifted away" from their childhood religion.

•About 9% return to their childhood religion, saying they tried another religion or two but then went back.

Religious education or youth group participation seemed to make no dent, although people who say they participated frequently in worship services or Mass were less likely to switch.

Green sees no simple answer for retaining members in "a competitive religious marketplace."

The findings "suggest that one thing that might be needed to recruit and keep members is vibrant and vital congregations — a tough thing to create."

The Flux questionaire was conducted in English and Spanish between Oct. 3 and Nov 7. The findings are focused on Catholics, Protestants and the unaffiliated. There were too few converts to or from Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and other religions to analyze their views, researchers said.

Both the original Religious Landscape Survey, and the new survey are snapshots in time, so it's not possible to tell whether America has always been a bubbling chemistry lab of religious change. But this is the first to spell out the switches in such detail, establishing a baseline to measure future changes, and potential problems.

Lugo says the findings present opportunities for churches, which have seen "a decrease in brand loyalty"— especially among "spiritual but not religious" Americans. "These are folks that are, in some sense, 'catchable.' "

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