The United States is a nation of religious drifters, with about half of adults switching faith affiliation at least once during their lives, according to a new survey.
The reasons behind the swap depend greatly on whether one grows up kneeling at Roman Catholic Mass, praying in a Protestant pew or occupied with nonreligious pursuits, according to a report issued Monday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
While Catholics are more likely to leave the church because they stopped believing its teachings, many Protestants are driven to trade one Protestant denomination or affiliation for another because of changed life circumstances, the survey found.
The ranks of those unaffiliated with any religion, meanwhile, are growing not so much because of a lack of religious belief but because of disenchantment with religious leaders and institutions.
The report estimates that between 47 percent and 59 percent of U.S. adults have changed affiliation at least once. Most described just gradually drifting away from their childhood faith.
"This shows a sort of religion a la carte and how pervasive it is," said D. Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist of religion. "In some ways, it's an indictment of organized Christianity. It suggests there's a big open door for newcomers, but a wide back door where people are leaving."
The report, "Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.," sought to answer questions about widespread religion-changing identified in a 2007 Pew survey of 35,000 Americans.
The new report, based on re-interviews with more than 2,800 people from the original survey, focuses on religious populations that showed a lot of movement: ex-Catholics, ex-Protestants, Protestants who have swapped denominational families within Protestantism and people raised unaffiliated who now belong to a faith.
The 2007 survey estimated that 44 percent of U.S. adults had left their childhood religious affiliation.
But the re-interviews found the extent of religion-swapping is likely much greater. The new survey revealed that one in six Americans who belong to their childhood faith are "reverts" — people who left the faith, only to return later.
Roughly two-thirds of those raised Catholic or Protestant who now claim no religious affiliation say they have changed faiths at least twice. Thirty-two percent of unaffiliated ex-Protestants said they've changed three times or more.
Age is another factor
Age is another factor. Most people who left their childhood faith did so before turning 24, and a majority joined their current religion before 36.
"If people want to see a truly free market at work, they really should look at the U.S. religious marketplace," said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Sixteen percent of U.S. adults identified as unaffiliated in the 2007 survey; 7 percent of Americans described being raised unaffiliated, suggesting that many Americans end up leaving their religion for none.
About half of those who have become unaffiliated cited a belief that religious people are hypocritical, judgmental or insincere. Large numbers said they think religious organizations focus too much on rules, or that religious leaders are too focused on money and power.
John Green, a University of Akron political scientist and a senior fellow with the Pew Forum, classified most unaffiliated as "dissatisfied consumers." Only 4 percent identify as atheist or agnostic, and one-third say they just haven't found the right religion.
"A lot of the unaffiliated seem to be OK with religion in the abstract," Green said. "It's just the religion they were involved in bothered them or they disagreed with it."
The unaffiliated category is not just a destination. It's also a departure point: a slight majority of those raised unaffiliated eventually join a faith tradition.
Those who do cite several reasons: attraction of religious services and worship (74 percent), feeling unfulfilled spiritually (51 percent) or feeling called by God (55 percent).
The survey found that Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in all the religion switching. Nearly six in 10 former Catholics who are now unaffiliated say they left Catholicism due to dissatisfaction with Catholic teachings on abortion and homosexuality. About half cited concerns about Catholic teachings on birth control and roughly four in ten named unhappiness with Catholicism's treatment of women.
Staying in the fold
Converts to evangelicalism were more likely to cite their belief that Catholicism didn't take the Bible literally enough, while mainline Protestants focused more on the treatment of women.
Fewer than three in 10 former Catholics cited the clergy sexual abuse scandal as a factor — a finding that Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl cited as an example of the faith's resilience.
"Catholics can separate the sins and human failings of individuals from the substance of the faith," Wuerl said in a statement.
Wuerl noted a finding that getting teenagers to weekly Mass greatly improves their chances of staying in the fold; the same holds true for Protestant teens attending services.
The survey found that 15 percent of Americans were raised as Protestants but now belong to a different Protestant tradition than their upbringing. Nearly four in 10 cited a move to a new community, while one-third said they married someone from a different background.