Americans are Switching Religions in Droves

A new Pew survey proves that American spiritual life is more fluid than ever.

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Given the American penchant for change, it might not be surprising that more than one quarter of all Americans have left the religions of their childhoods. And that number would be close to 44 percent, a new poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows, if changes among Protestant denominations were included.

Change and creativity have long been a fact of American religious life. But the extent to which Americans move among different religious groups, or out of religion completely, has been hard to determine, in part because the U.S. Census does not track religious affiliation. But the new Pew survey, based on 35,000 telephone interviews, provides compelling proof that American spiritual life is more fluid than ever. And while it appears that Roman Catholicism has lost the most as a result of adult attrition, the ranks of the unaffiliated (including atheists, agnostics, but mostly people who see themselves as nothing in particular) have swelled the most—with more than double the number of people who say they weren't affiliated with any particular religion as children.

The losses to the Catholic Church would be even greater, the survey shows, if they were not offset by the large number of immigrant Catholics. (Among the immigrant population, Catholics outnumber Protestants by almost a 2-to-1 margin: 46 percent vs. 24 percent.)

Looking at the whole religious landscape, the survey found that America is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country, a fact that would signal perhaps the greatest single shift in the nation's cultural foundations. But among the Protestants, the nondenominational affiliations, which are usually evangelical in orientation, have grown the most.

The survey is a trove of information on matters that extend far beyond changes in adult affiliation. For example:

• Mormons and Muslims have the biggest families, with 20 percent and 15 percent respectively having three or more children at home.

• The unaffiliated are relatively young, with 31 percent under age 30 and 71 percent under age 50.

• Of all ethnic and racial groups, African-Americans are most likely to give a formal religious affiliation.

• Men are far more likely than women to claim no religious affiliation: nearly 20 percent versus 13 percent.

• Baptists account for one third of Protestants and close to one fifth of the total U. S. adult population.