A NEW study on religious mobility in America has found that many Americans have given up the religious tradition they grew up with and simply not replaced it or turned to another form of religion.
Catholics and conservative Protestants are the most loyal, but even large segments of their membership are showing increasingly marginal ties to their denominations, researchers say in the latest issue of the Review of Religious Research.
The social pressure to belong to an organized religious group that reached its height in the 1950s doesn't seem to apply.
``It's become quite acceptable these days to be nothing throughout your life,'' says C. Kirk Hadaway of the United Church Board of Homeland Ministries. ``It doesn't really matter what you are anymore.''
In their study, ``All in the Family: Religious Mobility in America,'' Mr. Hadaway and sociologist Penny Long Marler of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., looked at religious switching patterns from 1973 to 1990 based on General Social Survey interviews collected by the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago.
In that period, conservative Protestants, such as Southern Baptists and members of the Assemblies of God, surpassed Roman Catholics as the group most likely to stay in the religious tradition they were raised in. In surveys from 1988 to 1990, 83 percent of adults raised as conservative Protestants said they remained conservative Protestants, and 81 percent of Roman Catholics stayed in the Catholic Church. The trend overturned that in surveys done from 1973 to 1976.
The net effect of religious switching is that all the nation's largest religious groups lost members, Hadaway says. The net loss ranged from 1 percent for conservative Protestant groups to 16 percent for moderate Protestant groups, which included the United Methodist Church and other denominations that have endured dramatic membership losses in the last two decades.
The big gains from religious switching came in the ``other'' and ``none'' categories. There was an 86 percent increase in individuals switching to no religious affiliation in the surveys from 1988 to 1990. The ``other'' category - including minority religions, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Christian Scientists -
had a net gain of 33 percent through religious switching.
Sociological trends such as the decline of the traditional family, one of the constituencies most likely to pass on the faith, increase the gravity of the challenges the nation's largest churches face, researchers said. ``It's especially a problem for liberal Protestants who can't go out beating the bushes with the old-time Gospel,'' says Benton Johnson, a University of Oregon sociologist. William McKinney of Hartford Seminary notes signs that mainline Protestant denominations, which were hit with the first wave of membership declines, are starting to address the issues of passing on the faith to future generations. Updating hymnals, developing statements of faith, and involving congregations in major church policy pronouncements indicate ``a new kind of realism'' among these congregations, he says.