Many Americans switch religious denominations, study finds
In a landmark survey, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds a new religious landscape in America.
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Perhaps the big surprise, though, relates to Roman Catholicism, which experienced the greatest net loss. While 31.4 percent of adults say they were raised Catholic, today only 23.9 percent identify as Catholic, a net loss of 7.5 percent.Skip to next paragraph
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"The Catholic numbers are eye-popping," says Dr. Lugo. "One out of every 10 people you meet on the street is a former Catholic."
Fortunately for the Church, however, its share of the religious pie has remained steady in recent decades, due partly to conversions but largely to immigration. Catholics account for 24 percent of the adult population, but immigration could well boost its future share.
"Within our society, Protestants basically outnumber Catholics 2 to 1," Lugo says. "Among immigrants, it's the reverse: Catholics outnumber Protestants by more than 2 to 1."
The big winner on the shifting religious scene is the group of "unaffiliated" Americans. Today 16.1 percent of adults fit that category. Among young people 18 to 29, one-quarter are unaffiliated.
It's common for young adults completing education or starting careers to become detached from their faith connection. Other people may become disillusioned with organized religion.
"Scandals and conflicts lead some to distance themselves even though they still hold Christian beliefs," says Darren Sherkat, a sociologist at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, who has studied the unaffiliated. "A perhaps growing percentage are disaffiliated because they don't hold Christian beliefs."
The survey found that 1.6 percent of adults call themselves atheists and 2.4 percent are agnostics (who consider God to be unknowable). The remaining 12 percent in "unaffiliated" split almost evenly between the secular and the religious, who may practice their faith on their own.
Although this category is growing the fastest, the survey shows that about half of the unaffiliated end up returning to a faith connection. Other research, however, indicates that many young people today are disaffected from Christianity, and religious leaders worry that they won't follow the usual return pattern.
Currently Christianity retains the allegiance of 78 percent of Americans. Nondenominational churches are growing and attracting about 5 percent of adults.
Other world faiths also now account for 5 percent of the population (see chart). Their net losses or gains in affiliation were relatively small: Jews dropped by 0.2 percent, Muslims gained by 0.1 percent, Buddhists gained by 0.3 percent, and Hindus showed no change.
The survey, which provides information on more than a dozen traditions and on religious groups as small as 3/10 of one percent of the adult population, is available at www.pewforum.org