How Americans Change Religions (Pew Survey data)

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 10, 2010 in General Atheism

The Pew Forum has released a 75-page report on how Americans change their religious affiliation. How many Catholics end up atheists? How many atheists end up evangelical Christians? How many mainline Protestant Christians end up Catholics?

Here’s the summary:

…about half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once during their lives. Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24…

…The group that has grown the most in recent years due to religious change is the unaffiliated population. Two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated and half of former Protestants who have become unaffiliated say they left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, and roughly four-in-ten say they became unaffiliated because they do not believe in God or the teachings of most religions…

Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change… Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change. Many people who leave the Catholic Church do so for religious reasons; two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated say they left the Catholic faith because they stopped believing in its teachings…

…In contrast with other groups, those who switch from one Protestant denominational family to another… tend to be more likely to do so in response to changed circumstances in their lives.

…Very few report changing religions after reaching age 50.

From Internet Monk, here’s an excellent graphic representation:

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

As you can see, the non-religious are growing the most, and Catholicism is shrinking the most.

Fascinating.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Hermes July 10, 2010 at 6:16 am

What stood out for me is not the increase in Other and None, but in Black Protestant (Black Prot.), and mostly from the Evangelical group, though some from all other groups.

Note that the graph shows no shift *from* Black Protestant to any other group. That might be because of the small size of the BP group in comparison to the others, and the percentage of the BP group may be otherwise significant at the level of the BP group alone. (It might also be an artifact of the way the poll was conducted.)

Also, it is interesting that no other racial group is segmented along religious sectarian lines.

  (Quote)

Alexandros Marinos July 10, 2010 at 6:47 am

I was also curious at the lack of defects from black protestants, but if you look closely, ‘previously black protestant’ has a small gap and ‘currently none’ also has a gap about the same size, I suspect there is a from->to relationship missing there.

  (Quote)

Alexandros Marinos July 10, 2010 at 6:52 am

The other thing that stands out for me is the extreme volatility of the ‘none’ camp. About half that started out there ended up somewhere else.

Also interesting is that the largest leak for ‘other’ is to ‘none’. All these ‘other’ religions are a gateway after all :D

  (Quote)

Erp July 10, 2010 at 7:16 am

The Black Protestant group is because almost all the Protestant groups from the late 1700s on segregated and did not permit Blacks to be leaders and so free Blacks often formed their own parallel churches and denominations (oldest I think are AME and AME Zion); they tend to be different in many ways from their “white counterparts” (e.g., liberal on racial civil rights but conservative on gay and women civil rights). Non-Blacks do belong to traditional Black churches (and would be counted as members in the chart above) and Blacks do attend traditionally white churches (Barbara Harris, the first female Episcopalian bishop in the US is also Black).

  (Quote)

Hermes July 10, 2010 at 7:17 am

I suspect there is a from->to relationship missing there.

That’s a good guess. Unfortunately, the document doesn’t cover BP in any detail.

Does anyone see raw data for the poll?

  (Quote)

Hermes July 10, 2010 at 7:32 am

Erp: Non-Blacks do belong to traditional Black churches (and would be counted as members in the chart above) and Blacks do attend traditionally white churches (Barbara Harris, the first female Episcopalian bishop in the US is also Black).

Good point.

  (Quote)

lukeprog July 10, 2010 at 7:32 am

I wonder how many Black Southern Baptists there are, given that a major reason for their split from the Baptists was to defend slavery?

  (Quote)

Bill Maher July 10, 2010 at 7:46 am

Luke,

My city contains First African baptist, on which there has been some very interesting historical work done.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savannah,_Georgia

It is easily found for anyone who wants to learn about southern religion and ethnicity.

  (Quote)

Scott July 10, 2010 at 8:20 am

What’s the difference between Mainline & Evangelical?

  (Quote)

Alex July 10, 2010 at 9:35 am

At least in U.S. terminology, Mainline Protestants are the liberal Protestants, whereas Evangelicals are the conservative Protestants (roughly).

  (Quote)

noen July 10, 2010 at 10:26 am

“Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24…”

That’s just adolescent rebellion. Young males rebel against parental authority, I mean, that’s just anthropology 101. In so-called primitive cultures they don’t have an alternative to the dominant cultural myths. But in our multicultural society we do. So, many choose scientism as their primary myth making ideology.

But really, it all about rebelling against Daddy.

  (Quote)

Alexandros Marinos July 10, 2010 at 10:36 am

Noen, David Wolpe, a rabbi that debated Hitchens once, wrote in an article the following line which I think you should keep in mind:

“Beware, I told the group, of people who explain their own beliefs by reason and others’ beliefs by psychology”

  (Quote)

noen July 10, 2010 at 10:53 am

“What’s the difference between Mainline & Evangelical?”

Evangelical churches are the strawman that atheists pretend represent all Christians. Mainline protestants are those who do not believe that science and religion are in any real conflict. They believe in evolution, the big bang and that the Bible is not the inerrant word of god. You know, everything you believe with one addition.

  (Quote)

noen July 10, 2010 at 10:58 am

Alexandros Marinos – “Beware, I told the group, of people who explain their own beliefs by reason and others’ beliefs by psychology”

What?? Are you claiming that you have free will? That your beliefs and values are not “fully determined” by their antecedent causes? The fact that young adolescent males will rebel against their fathers is about as reliable as the fact that the sun will rise in the morning.

  (Quote)

Ryan M July 10, 2010 at 11:22 am

Noen, what is your stance concerning freewill?

  (Quote)

Bill Maher July 10, 2010 at 11:39 am

“But really, it all about rebelling against Daddy.”

Noen,
For someone who gets mad when people generalize religious people, that is one hell of an assertion. I take great offense to this because I tried hard to make my religion work. It killed me precisely because I was so close to my family and my religion reminded me of my close relationship to my parents..

  (Quote)

jbcrail July 10, 2010 at 11:42 am

Noen,

If this was simply adolescent rebellion against fathers, why isn’t the switch from childhood faith to adult faith more uniform across all faiths? Clearly there are larger forces at work beyond Anthropology 101.

Also, previous surveys show that in general males tend to be less religious than females. Why would someone rebel against a view held apathetically by their father?

  (Quote)

Justfinethanks July 10, 2010 at 11:44 am

So, many choose scientism as their primary myth making ideology.

That analysis doesn’t really make sense when you look at the numbers, as a healthy number of “nones” are flowing towards various religious traditions. How are they “choosing scientism?”

What?? Are you claiming that you have free will? That your beliefs and values are not “fully determined” by their antecedent causes?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the point was that saying “You just believe in X because of psychological phenomenon Y” is a meaningless genetic fallacy, and doesn’t provide us meaningful information about whether or not X is true. We could grant that people leave their faith because they are “rebelling against daddy,” but it doesn’t follow that leaving your faith is an irrational thing to do.

The fact that young adolescent males will rebel against their fathers is about as reliable as the fact that the sun will rise in the morning.

What?? Are you claiming that young people are determined by factors beyond their control to rebel against their fathers, and this is a predictable psychological phenomenon?

  (Quote)

Atheist.pig July 10, 2010 at 12:55 pm

We should also expect the “none” section of the chart to be underrepresented for various reasons.
Like (www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP08122150.pdf).

  (Quote)

Alexandros Marinos July 10, 2010 at 1:18 pm

I got to thinking, if this is about self-reporting, wouldn’t many say ‘I used to be an atheist but now I’m a born again christian’ when in reality they were simply apathetic or secular-minded christians, as a form of revising their own history? This would explain the seemingly huge leak (~50%) from none to the various religions.

  (Quote)

Hermes July 10, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Alexandros Marinos, if you haven’t figured it out, Noen is like diet water, with a drop of bile flavor.

  (Quote)

Hermes July 10, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Atheist.pig, good find. Most of what I’ve read along those lines is anecdotal but makes sense.

  (Quote)

Fortuna July 10, 2010 at 1:59 pm

What?? Are you claiming that young people are determined by factors beyond their control to rebel against their fathers, and this is a predictable psychological phenomenon?

I sure hope he or she isn’t, because that would be quite the over-generalization. I never rebelled against my father in any kind of major way; he’s really quite a nice guy, and we agree on lots of stuff.

  (Quote)

Hermes July 10, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Alexandros Marinos: This would explain the seemingly huge leak (~50%) from none to the various religions.

Good point. I take it as a given most of the time that even atheists don’t realize they are atheists.

Along the lines of what you noted, there is a tendency to equate anything but the ‘one true religion’ or a simple lack of furor with active apostasy. The “I did sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, I was a horrible unrepentant sinner — till I found Jesus!” move. The no atheists in foxholes slur also comes out of that frame of mind. Being inventive, there are other moves, too, sometimes done soberly to gain evangelical street cred or to pad out a resume.

  (Quote)

Hermes July 10, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Fortuna: I sure hope he or she isn’t, because that would be quite the over-generalization. I never rebelled against my father in any kind of major way; he’s really quite a nice guy, and we agree on lots of stuff.

Same here. It wasn’t till I was in my 30s that I realized my father had even a slight bit of disagreement with me on the topic of religion (the topic never came up). At that point, though, he immediately accepted my position as understandable and reasonable even if he disagreed.

I think the claims about rebellion are just to justify religious/theistic embarrassments. Why else do people still not want to discuss this stuff in public?

  (Quote)

Zak July 10, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Noen,

I hardly think that a 24 year old can be called an adolescent. If it was all teenagers, you might have a point. But I would hardly call someone who is old enough to be in graduate school an adolescent.

  (Quote)

lukeprog July 10, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Good link, atheist.pig

  (Quote)

Eric July 10, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Neon,
Maybe you should listen to Lukeprog’s interview with James Spiegel. As Luke says, “the knife cuts both ways…” Never have I seen Luke dismantle an interviewee’s argument so well…

  (Quote)

Polymeron July 11, 2010 at 5:42 am

“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. Indeed,
most people who were raised unaffiliated now belong to a
religious group.”

I noticed this straight away in the diagram and find this to be significant. It seems that being raised unaffiliated with religion does not at all guarantee staying that way.

I wonder if it’s the “herding cats” problem again, or just because “unaffiliated” is a pretty diverse group that does not catch the complexities. I wonder, how many children of strong-minded Atheists and Agnostics “found” the faith? Hard to say.

At any rate, if non-religiosity keeps having less than 50% retention rate, we shouldn’t expect it to keep expanding for very long the way it is now, as a simple mathematical matter. Either retention would go up (by having a strong core of well-educated, nonbeliever communities maybe?), or non-affiliation would stop expanding at around the 30% mark.

  (Quote)

Hermes July 11, 2010 at 8:04 am

Polymeron, yep. The unaffiliated group in the Pew study only means unaffiliated with one of the specific other religious categories. They don’t break it down into any other categories. There’s not much definitive to say about the attitudes of non-religious people, let alone the non-theists.

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment