Pew Survey: Most Americans Have Switched Religious Affiliations at Least Once

44 percent now claim a religious affiliation different from their childhood faith.

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Prothero contrasts the tailored approach of congregations like Montclair's Christ Church, which on Wednesday night hosted a handful of study sessions for members with diverse interests, to the more one-size-fits-all mainline and Catholic churches.

The Pew study found that the Catholic Church faced the biggest defections, with 10 percent of the adult population in the United States now formerly Catholic. About half are now Protestant, and the most frequently cited reason among that group for leaving Catholicism is that their spiritual needs were not being met. Six in ten Americans who left one Protestant denomination for another gave the same reason.

"I was hungry for the Bible," says Rosa Howell, 50, explaining her decision to leave Catholicism for Christ Church even after attending Catholic schools straight through to 12th grade. "I was looking for a truer relationship with God," she says. "The Catholic Church teaches you the rituals, but you didn't learn the Bible."

The survey found that just 27 percent of former Catholics left because of the clergy abuse scandal of the past decade, while about twice as many cited the church's teachings on homosexuality and abortion as a reason for leaving. The group giving those kinds of political reasons is more inclined to be currently unaffiliated.

The Pew report also provides a striking new portrait of those religiously unaffiliated Americans, the fastest-growing segment of the American religious landscape. The report finds that religiously unaffiliated, widely considered to represent a dramatic spike in avowed secularists, are actually quite open to religion and that only a minority feel that science disproves religion.

Just like Protestants who left their denominations, religiously unaffiliated Americans are more likely to have grown disenchanted with their particular congregations or clergy than with religion per se. "Paradoxically, the unaffiliated have gained the most members in the process of religious change despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all religious groups," the report says. "Most people who were raised unaffiliated now belong to a religious group."

Which helps explain why Christ Church's Ireland is seeing more and more people joining his church who have no faith background whatsoever. "I used to start with the presumption that people knew the basics of the Bible," he says. "Now I start with no presumptions at all."

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