Religious Roots Readily Transplanted

By Electa Draper
The Denver Post
April 28, 2009

Americans change religion early and often, with about half of adults saying they have changed affiliation at least once, according a report released Monday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Most people who leave their childhood faith do so before age 24, the Pew survey found.

Altogether the numbers show a restless, fluid population, Pew researchers said in "Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S."

The report was released after Pew researchers called back 2,800 people of the 35,000 originally polled for the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey released in 2008.

Among the findings: About 44 percent of American adults have changed denominations. And of the 56 percent who say they belong to the same religion in which they were raised, one in six had at one point tried a different tradition or several.

People change religions for many reasons, Pew senior fellow John Green said at a news conference Monday. Each single individual would cite multiple reasons, and yet many spoke of a slow drift from the faith of their parents.

"It's more of a gradual process than a sudden epiphany," said Pew research fellow Gregory Smith.

Catholics and Protestants leave their churches for different reasons.

Two-thirds of Catholics who left the church and didn't join another say they left "because they stopped believing in its teachings." It's the same reason given by half of those Catholics who converted to Protestantism.

Fewer than three in 10 Catholics say "the clergy sexual abuse factored into their decision to leave Catholicism."

Former Catholics said they objected to church teachings on birth control, abortion and homosexuality.

Protestants are more likely to change denominations because of life circumstances, such as the 40 percent who said they switched because they moved to a different community, and those who switched because they married someone from a different religious background.

All the flux in membership has meant net gains for "unaffiliated" Americans, who describe themselves as either agnostic, atheist, indifferent or still searching. One-quarter of those who leave their faith tradition opt out of religion altogether, with many citing church hypocrisy and judgmental leaders and members as reasons. Others object to "too many rules" and not enough spirituality.

"It is generally not a conscious, committed dedication to a secularist world view," in which science has replaced faith, Smith said.

About 16 percent of American adults fall within the unaffiliated group about twice the percentage reported in 1990, according to another recent study, the American Religious Identification Survey.

On the other hand, the unaffiliated group has one of the lowest retention rates. Most people raised without a faith tradition eventually joined one religion or another, researchers found.

Roman Catholicism has experienced the greatest churning of membership, suffering the greatest net losses from conversion.

Those leaving the church outnumbered converts to Catholicism by a 4-to-1 margin, Smith said.

"No other religious group we looked at was close" in terms of net loss of converts, Green said.

Conversely, Catholicism has one of the highest retention rates from childhood, about 68 percent of those raised Catholic kept the faith through adulthood. And because of higher birth rates and high numbers of Catholic immigrants, the percentage of adult American Catholics has remained fairly steady for several decades at about 24 percent.

Protestants were a strong majority in America for most of this country's history, but the percentage fell to about 51 percent by 2007.

Evangelical Protestants had made gains; however, mainline Protestant denominations experienced greater losses.

Electa Draper: 303-954-1276 or


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