Faithlife Sermons

Study: 28 percent have left their childhood religion

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Submitted by SHNS on Tue, 02/26/2008 - 13:45. * By MATTHAI KURUVILA, San Francisco Chronicle

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Twenty-eight percent of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised, switching to another religion or no religion at all, according to a national survey of religious affiliation.

In addition, adults who claim no ties to any religious institution have grown into the fourth-largest category of religious identification, according to a report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

And while 10 percent of U.S. adults have left the Catholic Church, an influx of Catholic immigrants has kept the church's population stable.

Partly because the numbers of the unaffiliated have grown, Protestants, who have historically been the majority in the United States, are on the verge of losing that status. Only 51 percent of American adults describe themselves as Protestant.

The 28 percent of Americans who left their childhood faith include people who abandoned institutional religion entirely and people who have converted to another religion, such as a Christian converting to Judaism or a Buddhist becoming a Muslim.

An additional 16 percent of Americans have switched from the Christian denomination of their childhood to another Christian denomination, such as a Methodist becoming a Southern Baptist.

The fluidity of affiliation in the United States underscores the competitiveness of the religious market, in which groups are vying for members, said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum. "If you're going to rest on your laurels, you're history."

The survey of more than 35,000 adults was distinctive in the number of respondents as well as the number of questions posed. It found that 78 percent of the 220 million adults in the United States are still Christian.

Among Protestants, evangelicals are the largest single group, representing 26.3 percent of the nation's adult population. Mainline Protestant denominations -- including Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians -- continue to see their numbers shrink, currently representing just 18.1 percent of the overall population. Historically black churches, which are increasingly taking on members of other ethnicities, represent 6.9 percent of the overall population.

Catholics are the second-largest group of Christians, representing roughly 24 percent of the population -- a relatively constant figure for the past 35 years.

But the constancy of that figure obscures the dramatic and unique way in which immigration patterns are reshaping America's religious identity, the survey found. Unlike in Europe, the majority of immigrants to the United States are Christian. And those immigrants are heavily Catholic, particularly those from Mexico.

Among immigrant adults, Catholics amount to 46 percent, while 24 percent are Protestants. But among U.S.-born adults, Protestants outnumber Catholics, 55 percent to 21 percent.

The departures from the church mean that "roughly 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics," the study found. While 31 percent of American adults were raised Catholic, only about 24 percent describe themselves as Catholic today.

Roughly 16.1 percent of the U.S. population describes themselves as not affiliated with any religious organization or body, a category that includes those who believe in God. Researchers said the numbers of atheists and agnostics -- roughly 1.6 and 2.4 percent of the U.S. adult population -- have remained consistent over time.

Those who are raised unaffiliated change their beliefs, too: Roughly half of those who were raised without a religious tradition now claim one as adults, according to the survey.

John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum and a principal author of the study, said the impact of the unaffiliated has yet to be seen. But it needs to be watched.

"The large size of this unaffiliated group could have a profound affect on the character of American religion," he said.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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