In the land of opportunity, many Americans, or 44 percent, have abandoned the religion of their childhoods, usually by their mid-20s, either to embrace a new faith tradition or to join the growing ranks of the unaffiliated, according to a poll published Monday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The reasons for all the religious churn are many and are roughly divided between matters of theology and matters of taste, results show.
Catholics and Protestants who left their churches for other denominations did so mainly because they "found a religion they like(d) more" or their "spiritual needs (were) not being met," according to the survey, called "Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S."
Catholics and Protestants who became unaffiliated did so because they "just gradually drifted away from the religion" or "stopped believing in the religion's teaching."
Authors of the survey emphasized in a conference call with reporters that sudden conversions were not common. Most respondents who said they switched religions, or rejected organized religion altogether, experienced a gradual change of heart, said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum.
"There were few Damascus Road conversions," he said.
John Green, senior fellow, said the poll, which is a follow-up to the sweeping 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, likely understates the amount of flux since incremental change (between closely related denominations, for example) was not considered.
To collect the data, 2,800 people originally polled for the Landscape survey were called back. Because respondents varied in age, the survey presents a snapshot of religious affiliation trends, but the Pew Forum expects to conduct more such surveys, eventually presenting yearly comparisons, Green said.
Other reasons given for changing or abandoning religion included misogyny, conflict with secular values, disagreement with a church's position concerning social or policy issues (e.g. abortion, birth control, divorce, poverty, war), dissatisfaction with clergy and concern about the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Some said they joined or left a church because of a new personal relationship or place of residence. A majority of respondents said they switched religions more than once.
The Catholic Church has endured the biggest net loss, according to the survey. For every one person who has joined the church, four have left, many for religious reasons, Green said.
Two-thirds of Catholics who have become unaffiliated, and half of those who have become Protestant, said they had stopped believing in the church's teachings. Between one-fifth and one-quarter of former Catholics said the clergy sex abuse scandal was a factor in their decision.
Lugo said that the population of Catholics in the U.S. remains relatively stable probably because of immigration. While white American Catholics are leaving the church in large numbers (about four for every one who joins), the difference is made up by Latinos.
For Protestant churches, the change is more subtle, involving shifts between organizations, according to the poll. While membership in mainline denominations continues its decline, nondenominational churches are growing.
Another poll, the American Religious Identification Survey, published in March by Trinity College, showed that the people who identified themselves as members of nondenominational congregations rose from 2,489,000 in 2001 to 8,032,000 in 2008.
The fastest growing, and most dynamic, group is the unaffiliated, according to Pew Research Fellow Greg Smith. This population includes self-identified atheists, agnostics and people who are "spiritual" but don't attend church. For every one person who leaves the ranks of the unaffiliated, three join.
Green said the large number of Protestant denominations in the United States and high degree of religious flux is an expression of the country's diverse society. Compared with other populations, Americans "are more religious because there is more religion," Lugo said.
The diversity also points to a commercial aspect of modern religion. In a "religious marketplace" churches compete for members, Green said.
And, Lugo added, there appears to be a "decrease in brand loyalty."