Why so many Americans switch religions
A new Pew survey suggests that many Catholics leave their church because of doctrine, whereas Protestants tend to leave because of life changes such as marriage.
America is a country on the move in innumerable ways, and religion is no exception. Half of Americans have changed their religious denomination at least once in their lives – many several times – and 28 percent have switched faiths altogether (for example, from Christianity to Judaism). Amid this fluidity, the number of "unaffiliated" adults has grown to 16 percent of the population.Skip to next paragraph
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What is behind such extraordinary "churn" in US religious life? As a follow-up to its pathbreaking 2007 survey of the American religious landscape, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a new survey Monday – "Faith in Flux" – that explores in depth the patterns and reasons for such remarkable change.
Most people who switch their allegiance during their lifetime, the survey finds, leave their childhood faith while they are still young, before the age of 24. Yet the opportunities for attracting them to another religion appear to continue for some time.
The reasons for leaving differ according to the origin and destination of the convert. Roman Catholics, for instance, tend to leave because they don't accept certain church teachings. Those Protestants who switch denominations do so more often in response to life changes such as relocation or marriage, or because of dislikes about institutions or practices.
While 56 percent of US adults remain in their childhood faith, 16 percent left, joined another house of worship at least once, and then returned to their original fold.
Of those raised Protestant, 80 percent remain so, with 52 percent still in their childhood denomination. Twenty-eight percent have moved to another Protestant following, 13 percent are now unaffiliated, 3 percent have become Catholic, and 4 percent joined other faiths.
Of those raised Catholic, 68 percent remain in the faith, 15 percent are now Protestant, 14 percent unaffiliated, and 3 percent in other faiths.
As several polls have shown, the "unaffiliated" is the fastest growing group in the past two decades. Yet the Pew survey shows this group to be very diverse, and often serving as a way station for many still seeking a religion.
While about 40 percent in this group say they don't believe in God, another 40 percent say religion is somewhat important in their lives, and roughly one-third say they just haven't found the right religion yet.
"We do not see a kind of principled, fundamental rejection of a religious worldview," says Greg Smith, a Pew researcher.
At the same time, 55 percent say they became unaffiliated because they found religious people hypocritical and judgmental. Many view religion as too focused on rules and not enough on spirituality.
"When a little girl has a Jewish grandparent and the teacher says Jews are going to hell, it's not conducive to a sense of belonging," Ms. Talmadge explains. She stopped going to church as soon as she could and eventually found her own spiritual path.
"I do believe in God, and our spirituality is inherent in who we are," she says. "Religion is man-made dogma.... Spirituality is God-made. Spiritual practice for me is very individualized."