Panel Transcript: Changes in U.S. Religious Affiliation

The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life held a conference call with journalists to discuss the release of a new Pew Forum survey that documents the fluidity of religious affiliation in the U.S. and describes the patterns and major reasons for change.

“Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.” is a follow-up study to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Forum in 2007 and released in 2008, which found that a remarkably high number of people have changed their religious affiliation since childhood. The new poll offers insight into how often people change religion and the main reasons they give for changing – or leaving religion altogether.

The survey is based on callback interviews with people who were originally polled for the Religious Landscape Survey and who represent the largest segments of the population that have changed religious affiliation. This number includes former Catholics who are now unaffiliated or have become Protestant, former Protestants who are now unaffiliated, people who have changed from one denomination to another within Protestantism, and those raised unaffiliated who now belong to a religious faith.

Luis Lugo, Director, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
John C. Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Gregory A. Smith, Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Navigate this transcript:
– Frequency of Change in Affiliation
– Reasons for Switching Religion
– Increase in the Unaffiliated
– Decline in Catholic Affiliation
– Multiple Reasons Given for Change
– Strength of American Protestantism
– Catholic Church’s Retention Rate
– Surveying Hispanic Catholics
– A Closer Look at the Unaffiliated
– Immigration’s Impact on Catholic Percentage
– Effect of the Consumer Culture
– Growth of Nondenominational Churches
– Jewish Identification
– Retention Rate Among Evangelical Protestants
– Event Transcript

LUIS LUGO, PEW FORUM ON RELIGION & PUBLIC LIFE:  Thank you all for joining us today for the release of our new survey on changes in religious affiliation in the U.S. As was mentioned, I’m Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, and I am joined by senior fellow John Green and research fellow Greg Smith.

This latest release is the second follow-up report to the initial findings of the Religious Landscape Survey, which we released last year. Two key findings in particular raised a lot of questions that we thought needed further exploration. The first had to do with the great “flexidoxy” among Americans on the question of what religions lead to eternal life, and we addressed that in a report, as you will recall, that we released in December. The second and much more difficult issue to get at had to do with the changes in affiliation in the United States: when, how often and why do people switch religions? This report addresses these questions.

The survey is based on callback interviews with more than 2,800 people who were originally polled for the Landscape Survey. Alas, there are financial limits – even for Pew – so we were not able to survey all the groups of converts, but we were able to recontact the largest segment of the population that had changed religious affiliation and they together comprise about 80 percent of the total of converts – so a very, very good slice of the total population.

Before I turn this over to John and Greg to present the key findings of this report, I encourage you to take a look at the resources on the Pew Forum’s website, There you will find the full PDF of the report, as well as the new interactive graphic that allows you to rank-order the reasons people give for leaving or joining a religion – very difficult to do that on paper, but the Web makes that possible, so I encourage you to visit that.

As a reminder also, you can find the previous Religious Landscape Survey report, as well as quite a few interactive tools that allow you to explore the findings, at

John, if I could ask you to start us off.

JOHN GREEN, PEW FORUM ON RELIGION & PUBLIC LIFE:  Thank you very much, Luis, and thanks everyone for joining us. My name is John Green. I’m a fellow here at the Pew Forum. Today we will be releasing a report that contains information from the original 2007 Religious Landscape Survey and also the recontact survey with key members of that original sample. Those individuals were chosen carefully to more fully explore the change in religious affiliation, including the reasons why people have changed.

Before I turn to the overall conclusions, it’s important to clarify what we mean by change. In this report when we talk about change in affiliation, we’re dealing with self-reported change over the respondent’s lifetime. This is a very valuable way of looking at religious change because individuals can tell us why and when these very important changes occurred.

However, because the respondents’ lives are of different lengths – some of our respondents are younger and some of them are older – this information cannot be pinpointed to a particular year or decade. So what we don’t have today is a comparison of a particular year, say, 1980 with 2009. Because we’ve only done the RLS once, we don’t have that kind of over-time comparison.

But what we can do is ask the respondents to tell us about their religious and spiritual journey and the kinds of changes that have occurred and the reasons for this. In the future we would hope to do the Religious Landscape Survey again, and at that point we’ll be able to have this year-to-year comparison. So when we talk about change here for the next few minutes and during our Q&A, we have to keep in mind that the change we’re talking about is self-reported change over the lifetime of the respondents.

Well, what did we find? In sum, Americans changed religious affiliation often, early and for many different reasons. Let’s take those conclusions up one at a time.
Frequency of Change in Affiliation

In terms of changing often, the Religious Landscape Survey found that more than two-fifths of Americans reported switching from their childhood religious affiliation. This recontact survey that we’re reporting on today adds a new important finding to those initial figures. About one-sixth of Americans who report still being affiliated with the religion of their childhood nonetheless reported considerable change between then and now. In fact, many of them reported changing more than once from their original childhood religion before returning to that faith today. This amounts to about one-tenth of the adult population.

It’s this churn within religious affiliations – people starting out one place, changing once or several times, and then returning to that affiliation – if that is added to the overall switching, then a solid majority of Americans have reported some kind of significant change in their affiliation over their lifetime. This is a larger estimate than has been seen in previous surveys because we were able to ask these different kinds of questions.

However, it is likely that, if anything, this number underestimates the level of change because even these large and sophisticated surveys are not fine-grained enough to capture all of the potential kinds of change. For instance, there could be changes among small denominations that we can’t measure in statistically significant ways, or there may be changes between closely related denominations that escape our attention. But nonetheless, the figure of approximately one-half of Americans having changed their affiliation over their lifetime is quite significant.

In terms of changing early, most respondents said they changed their religion early in life. A large majority said that the change occurred before they were 24 years old, and most people reported adopting their current affiliation – whatever that may be – before they were 36 years old. By the same token, very few respondents reported changing religious affiliation after the age of 50.

The strength of religious commitment as a child turns out to be an important factor in these kinds of changes, with those who’ve changed tending to have lower levels of religious commitment compared with those who did not. In fact, many of the switchers reported a waning of their religious fervor as children several years prior to the switch. So early adulthood is the key timeframe in which religious change of all sorts occurs.
Reasons for Switching Religion

In terms of the many reasons for change, the respondents reported many, many different motivations for changing their religious affiliation, and most people named more than one reason for making such a change. Overall, most people reported just gradually drifting away from their childhood faith. Another common reason was that the respondents stopped believing their religion’s teachings. Specific complaints about religious leaders and religious institutions also mattered to many people who changed. All of these reasons were especially common for those individuals who left religion altogether and became unaffiliated.

In addition, many people reported that meeting their spiritual needs was an important factor in change. Along these lines, many people also reported finding a religion they liked more as a reason for change. Still another set of reasons for change reflected lifecycle changes, such as aging and marriage. These particular reasons for change were most common for people who switched from one faith to another, including people who were raised unaffiliated and now are involved in organized religion.

In sum, American religion has many moving parts, and these moving parts can be best seen in the patterns of change for the largest religious traditions in the United States. And now I’d like to turn the program over to Greg Smith to describe some of the patterns of these large groups in more detail.
Increase in the Unaffiliated

GREG SMITH, PEW FORUM ON RELIGION & PUBLIC LIFE:  Thank you, John, and thanks to all of you for participating in this conference call. We’ve focused our analysis here on the three largest groups of people who have switched religions. The group that’s grown the most in recent years due to religious switching is the religiously unaffiliated, a group that consists of atheists and agnostics, as well as people who say they just don’t belong to any particular religion. Overall, more than one-in-ten U.S. adults have become unaffiliated with any particular religion after having been raised in one faith or another.

Now, many of those who’ve become unaffiliated say they’ve done so because they’ve stopped believing in the teachings of their former religion. Many also become unaffiliated due to disillusionment or disenchantment with religious people or organizations, saying that religious people are hypocritical and judgmental rather than sincere or forgiving, or that religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality.

We do not tend to see, however, a kind of principled fundamental rejection of a religious worldview on the part of many of these newly unaffiliated people. For instance, fewer than a quarter of the newly unaffiliated say they became so because they think that science proves that religion is just superstition. And upwards of a third of those who have become unaffiliated give evidence of being in the midst of, or of continuing, a spiritual search, saying that they just haven’t yet found the right religion for them.
Decline in Catholic Affiliation

While the unaffiliated have benefited the most due to the United States’ high degree of religious churn, the Catholic Church has suffered the greatest losses. Overall, roughly one-in-ten American adults are former Catholics, and Catholic losses due to religious switching far outnumbered gains, with those leaving Catholicism outnumbering converts to Catholicism by roughly a 4-to-1 margin. Upwards of half of former Catholics say they left the religion because they stopped believing in its teachings.

In some ways, this is especially true of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated. Two-thirds of this group say they left Catholicism because they’ve stopped believing in its teachings overall, with more than half expressing discontent specifically with Catholic teachings on issues like abortion and homosexuality, about half expressing displeasure with the religion’s teachings on birth control, and one-third expressing dissatisfaction with Catholicism’s teachings about divorce and remarriage.

The survey also finds some interesting differences between former Catholics who have become evangelical Protestants compared with those who have become mainline Protestants. For example, most former Catholics who have become evangelical say they left Catholicism because they didn’t like its teachings about the Bible. And the vast majority of these say Catholicism did not take the Bible literally enough.

Former Catholics who have become mainline Protestants, on the other hand, don’t express nearly as much concern over Catholicism’s handling of the Bible, and those who do have these concerns are more or less divided between those who say the church didn’t take the Bible literally enough and those who say the Catholic Church took the Bible too literally.

One final note that John already touched on about reasons for leaving Catholicism. I was struck by the large number of former Catholics who say they left Catholicism in part because they just gradually drifted away from the religion. Indeed, this was a commonly cited reason for having left their former faith by all of the groups that we surveyed, and I think it suggests that many times changing religion is more of a gradual process rather than a decision or an event that takes place at a particular moment in time.

The single-largest group we look at in this report is people who have changed faiths within Protestantism – for example, those who were raised Baptist and have become Presbyterian, or raised Lutheran and become Methodist, and so on. Overall, about 15 percent of adults in the U.S. are part of this group. More so than other groups, those who switch from one Protestant faith to another tend to do so in response to changed circumstances in their lives, such as moving to a new community or getting married.

Personal preferences also factor prominently, with many in this group saying they changed faith because they found a religion they liked more or because their spiritual needs weren’t being met. Interestingly, compared with other groups, fewer people who change religions within Protestantism say they left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings.

Finally, I should note that even though we’ve done our best to represent the views of the largest groups of religious switchers, we are unfortunately unable to survey and to discuss those from several other important though smaller groups of converts. Converts to Catholicism, for instance, account for about 2.5 percent of the adult population, and our analyses of conversion to a religious faith after an unaffiliated childhood do include many people who have become Catholic. However, our sample does not include enough cases to analyze converts to Catholicism separately.

Similarly, we don’t have enough interviews with people who have converted to Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal denominations or to nondenominational Protestantism to be able to analyze these groups separately, even though there are millions of Americans who have converted to each of these faiths. But despite these limitations, we think that these data and this report can help increase our understanding of religious change in the United States.

And with that, I’ll turn it back over to Luis and look forward to taking some of your questions.

LUGO:  All right. Thank you very much to the both of you. Let’s hear what’s on your mind out there.
Multiple Reasons Given for Change

NAOMI RILEY, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL:  The website, you said, would rank a lot of these different reasons. But I’m curious if you could try to quantify – if I can put it this way – the human versus the divine reasons for leaving a faith. What do we blame on the people running churches versus the beliefs? And I know that obviously you’re working with a lot of different groups here, but do you think you can make any general statements about that question?

LUGO:  Interesting question. How do you parse that as social scientists, gentlemen? The reasons, human and divine, as it were.

SMITH:  Let me preface that by saying that as we got into analyzing these data, I think I speak for all of us when I say that one of the things that was really striking is that you simply cannot talk about religious change for the population overall. There is no single reason or even a single set of reasons that we can point to and say, look, that’s why people in the United States change faiths, or this is why people change faiths. It really depends on a lot of factors, including people’s religious origin, that is, the faith that they are converting from and their religious destination, that is, the faith that they are converting to.

However, I can say that there were a few patterns that jumped out at me. I think first about people who have become unaffiliated after being raised in one religion or another. For this group, we see that both beliefs and reactions to religious people – both of those things – are very important. Most people in this group say they stopped believing in the teachings of their former religion, and particularly former Catholics who have become unaffiliated object to a number of specific teachings of their former faith, such as Catholic teachings on issues like abortion and homosexuality and birth control.

At the same time, however, many people who’ve become unaffiliated do say that a negative reaction to religious people or religious organizations contributed to their decision to become unaffiliated. Most of this group, for instance, say that they think of religious people as hypocritical and judgmental and that this helped lead them to become unaffiliated.

What we don’t see among this group is kind of a conscious, committed dedication to a secular worldview. It seems less common for people to say that they think science has disproven religion. Among people who have left Catholicism, including people who’ve become unaffiliated, again, we see beliefs as an important factor, with many people saying they just stopped believing in the teachings of Catholicism.

Among converts within Protestantism, the thing that jumped out at me is that beliefs there are really less important. Instead, we see people reacting and changing either in reaction to particular congregations and especially styles of worship, and we also see people changing in reaction to changes that take place in their life, like getting married and moving to a new community.

So while I don’t think it’s possible to point to one set of reasons that covers everybody, I do think we can look at these specific groups for some patterns, and I’ll leave it now to John and Luis to jump in.

GREEN:  I would just add one thing to what Greg said. Because American religion is so diverse, it should not surprise us that the reasons that people move from one religion to another would also be diverse. That’s all part of this image of the religious marketplace that very accurately characterizes religion in the United States.

LUGO:  Could I just take this as an opportunity to ask you folks to share the numbers – the multiple reasons, on average, that people give from these groups – because I think it’s important to underscore here, Naomi and others, that all the reasons we talk about here are reasons people say are contributing reasons. No single reason is decisive for folks. In fact, what is the number there for the various groups, the number of reasons that, let’s say, former Catholics or others cite for having switched?

SMITH:  I think that’s a really interesting way to look at this. It’s true, and as John points out, it’s not entirely surprising that if you just look at the full sample, if you just look at society as a whole, people give lots of different reasons for changing religions.

What I find striking is that that’s true not only of the society, it’s true for most individuals. Most of the individuals we talked to named more than one reason for changing faiths. For example, we asked people in this survey a set of about 15 or 20 close-ended questions, where we just said, how about this, is this a reason that you left your childhood religion or not? And people could say “yes” or “no.”

Of all the former Catholics that we talked to, upwards of nine-in-ten said “yes” to two or more of those reasons that we asked about, and roughly two-thirds said “yes” to five or more of these reasons. We see the same kind of pattern among people who have changed Protestant faiths, either changing faiths within Protestantism or leaving Protestantism altogether to become unaffiliated. We see three-quarters or more saying that there are two or more reasons that contributed to their decision to leave their childhood faith, and roughly half saying there are four or more reasons.

So I think we can see that not only at the level of the culture and the society are there multiple things going on, but there are multiple things going on for the vast majority of individuals who change faith.

LUGO:  And wasn’t it also the case that when we asked the open-ended question and encouraged people to give us the main reason why they switched, it was still the case that they gave multiple reasons? That’s why it totals to more than 100. So I think you’ve got this basic point here – many contributing reasons that people cite for their switch. I think that’s in line with the point that John made that this process is a process that happens over time – you know, over the lifetime of people. Very few have Damascus-road type experiences that cause them to change. It really builds up from childhood into the teenage years and then into early adulthood for most folks. So I think all of those things are of one piece.
Strength of American Protestantism

CHARLES LEWIS, NATIONAL POST:  My question is that there seems to be a lot of fluidity within Protestantism. At the same time there’s also been a lot of talk about the decline of mainline Protestantism, people just dropping out, losing interest. This fluidity, does it tell you anything about the strength of American Protestantism today? Does it give you any indication of whether it’s strengthening, weakening? Can you draw any results from that?

GREEN:  I think American Protestantism, as a whole, comes off as being quite a viable approach to religion. But part of its success is because of its enormous diversity. In fact, many analysts would argue that speaking about Protestantism is always problematic because which Protestants are you talking about? But clearly, if you just look at the group of Protestants as a whole and compare them to Catholics or the unaffiliated, there’s a lot of vitality there – a lot of people moving around and finding more congenial places.

Now, over the long haul it is clear that mainline Protestants have lost membership in ways somewhat parallel to what has happened to native-born white Catholics. But at the very same time, there’s been the development of the nondenominational churches and the growth of evangelical churches, which are increasingly diverse. Certainly evangelical churches are not all cut of the same mold. So Protestantism as a version of Christianity seems to be very vital and very healthy in the United States, but part of that success comes from the fact that it has so much internal variation.

LUGO:  And it could be that disaffected Protestants don’t leave Protestantism altogether precisely because of that variation, whereas in the Catholic Church, they just may skip town, as it were. But when it comes to Protestantism, well, they don’t like this one, they’ll go to another one. Therefore, the retention rate for Protestantism, as a whole, looks better than the retention rate for Catholicism.

SMITH:  The one thing I’d point out is that we have to keep in mind that Protestants who change religions are going, for the most part, to one of two places. They’re either leaving Protestantism and becoming unaffiliated or they’re changing faiths within Protestantism. And we know from our previous research that the unaffiliated population, even though it’s not entirely made up of people with a purely secular outlook, is more secular, is less traditional than most religious groups.

However, we’ve also done some additional analyses of the original Religious Landscape Survey, and what we find there is really interesting. We looked into whether or not there is such a thing as the zeal of the convert, that is to say, are people who have become part of various Protestant denominations more religious than people who were raised in these faiths? What we find is very interesting: Across a wide variety of Protestant denominational families, there is a link between having converted into that faith and being more religious.

Now, the links are not always extraordinarily large – we’re not talking about 20, 30, 40 point differences here – and they don’t occur in every single instance. They don’t occur in every single denomination, and they don’t occur on every single measure of religious commitment. But overall, the pattern is clear: Having changed religions is linked with higher levels of religious commitment.

So in that sense, while people leaving Protestantism to become unaffiliated may contribute to the weakening of American Protestantism, you have the opposite effect among people who are changing faiths within Protestantism. That may actually contribute to a strengthening of religious commitment within that group.

LUGO:  Which is part of the argument many people make about the vitality of American religion, that it’s so vital because there are so many choices and people exercise that choice. Rather than opting out of religion altogether, they’ll find something else that they find more suitable.
Catholic Church’s Retention Rate

DAN GILGOFF, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT:  Thank you very much. I wanted to see if you might be able to respond to a release that went out this morning from the U.S. Catholic bishops. I think Greg, in particular, pointed out that Catholicism seems to have suffered the biggest losses in this religious churn.

The Catholic bishops find a silver lining in a headline they released: “Pew Study Finds High Retention Rate Among Catholics,” the first line of which says, “A new Pew Forum poll on Americans and their religious affiliations finds Catholics have one of the highest retention rates – 68 percent – among Christian churches when it comes to carrying the Catholic faith into adulthood.” I’m wondering if you could react to that and if this is an honest-to-goodness silver lining in this poll or if this is putting a more positive gloss on what the survey really turns up?

SMITH:  Sure. I think that it’s absolutely right to point out that the Catholic Church has quite a high retention rate. Of everybody that we talked to who was raised Catholic, about two-thirds of them are still Catholic, and that is quite good compared with other religious groups. It’s not the highest, but it’s certainly not the lowest. It’s a good solid retention rate.

At the same time, I think that what our survey makes clear, not just for Catholicism but for every religious group and for the U.S. religious landscape as a whole, is that religious change is not simply a function of retention. It’s also not simply a function of recruitment. It’s a function of both sides of the ledger: how many people are leaving a particular faith versus staying put, and how many people are joining a particular faith versus staying in their original faith.

The thing for Catholics is that the number of people leaving the Catholic Church outnumber the number of people joining the Catholic Church by a 4-to-1 margin. There is no other religious group we’ve looked at where we see that kind of ratio of people leaving versus people joining. So, yes, it’s perfectly accurate to point out that the Catholic Church’s retention rate is quite comparable to that of other groups, but at the same time the thing that we’ve been struck by is the overall ratio – people leaving Catholicism to people joining Catholicism.

I should just point out on a related note that the exact opposite of that is true for the unaffiliated population. That’s the group that’s grown the most in this process of religious change despite the fact that they have one of the worst retention rates. Most people who were raised unaffiliated with any particular religion are today associated with a religious group – most people. But the reason that that group has grown so much is because the number of people becoming unaffiliated outnumber the number leaving the unaffiliated by about a 3-to-1 margin. It’s basically the mirror image of what you see for Catholicism.

LUGO:  Let me add to that because it is interesting when you look at the Catholic percentage in the country over the last few decades. It has remained fairly stable at about 24 percent or so, which raises the question how could that be if you don’t have a very good ratio of recruitment-to-retention? I think there are a couple of other things, one of which we pointed out in the original Religious Landscape Survey, which we don’t dwell on here, that is immigration. The Catholic Church does very well among immigrants. The vast majority of immigrants to the United States are Christian, and by 2-to-1they are Catholic as opposed to Protestant. So immigration is another important component.

A third thing that we did not get into in the Religious Landscape Survey but that is also a factor – you can think of this as the third major dynamic contributing to overall changes in religious affiliation – is the whole issue of fertility rates. Catholics for many decades had much higher fertility rates than Protestants. That has basically evened out at this point, but fertility rates among Latinos are the highest of any group in the United States and Latinos – two-thirds of them are Catholic.

So I think you’ve got some things going for the Catholic Church in this whole scenario. One is that there is significant recruitment, as anybody sees when you go to Easter Vigil and see all the new converts coming in through the RCIA program. It’s not insignificant; it just doesn’t begin to replace the number who have left. But then you’ve got the issue of immigration and fertility, which also have to be taken into account, so that overall the Catholic percentage of the population has remained fairly stable.

Obviously if the Catholic Church is much more successful in its recruitment side, it would not only stay at the same percentage of the population, but it would actually be growing as a percentage of the population.
Surveying Hispanic Catholics

EMILY PROBST, CNN:  Actually I wanted to pick up right where you left off with Hispanics. Were you able to cull anything from Hispanic Catholics and then in particular whether they are leaving the Catholic tradition?

SMITH:  We did survey Latinos as part of this survey, but unfortunately, due to limitations of sample size, we just don’t have enough interviews to be able to talk about them separately in terms of the reason that they change religion. For instance, we conducted 400 interviews in total with people who have left Catholicism and become unaffiliated, and a significant number of those are with Latinos. However, I think the total number was about 50 or 60 interviews with that group, which just isn’t large enough to be able to break them out separately. So they’re included in the totals, but we can’t talk about them separately.

We did look, back in the original Religious Landscape Survey, as to whether or not Latinos are more or less likely than other groups to have changed faith. And what we saw, particularly among those who were raised Catholic, is that Latinos are a little bit more likely to remain Catholic, but the differences aren’t huge. It’s not the case that they’re overwhelmingly more likely to stay within the Catholic Church. They, like their non-Latino counterparts, are – there’s a significant number who do change faith.

LUGO:  And a lot of that has to do, of course, with the enculturation process or integration process. One of the reasons why I personally didn’t press to have more Latinos here is that we did a big survey with our colleagues at the Pew Hispanic Center, a completely bilingual survey a couple of years ago that looked specifically at the Latino community and that probed the numbers who were converting and then also the reasons for their conversion. And so we thought we had that one fairly well-covered, so we wanted to put our resources to work on this.

I think, if I remember correctly – it’s quite a long time now it seems – but I think about 20 percent of Latinos indicated that they had converted to a new religion, and particularly for those coming out of Catholicism, many of them went and became unaffiliated, but a large percentage were heading into evangelical Christianity, specifically Pentecostal evangelical Christianity, which seems to be attracting quite a few Latino converts but also native-born Latinos who were not Catholic. It’s really quite a growing presence within the Latino community – Pentecostalism is.

SMITH:  If I remember the numbers correctly, and I don’t have them here in front of me, but I think that about 65 percent of non-Latinos who were raised Catholic are still Catholic. The comparable figure for Latinos is closer to like 72 or 73 percent. So it is higher and I do think that that’s a statistically significant margin there, but again it’s the difference between 65 or so and 72 or 73. It’s higher, but not by a particularly large margin.

LUGO:  And that’s also a generational thing in the Latino community. Again, it’s the enculturation process as well. First generation Latinos are much more heavily Catholic than second and third generation Latinos. So by the second and third generation, Latinos just like everybody else in this country are getting into the religion switching business.
A Closer Look at the Unaffiliated

MATTHEW PHILIPS, NEWSWEEK:  There’s a recent American Religious Identification Survey that shows the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, from 8 to 15 percent. There’re a couple of ways that people have interpreted that, and I would like to get your take on it in light of your recent survey. One is that people are going to church less, generally speaking. Another is that they’re going to the unaffiliated churches – the evangelicals. And I wonder, broadly speaking, in light of your survey which of these two takes you find more accurate.

LUGO:  John, why don’t you respond. But it is the case that we basically found the same number. We had 16 percent who were unaffiliated, but get within that a little bit more, John.

GREEN:  The major finding of the ARIS study, which is that there has been an increase in the number of people who report being unaffiliated with organized religion over the last two decades, is actually confirmed by lots of other studies. That certainly has happened. But that group of unaffiliated is very diverse. Some of them are hard-core secularists, people who have rejected religion or who are actual atheists who have the affirmative position that there is no God. And that group actually has increased as well, but the increases among atheists and agnostics by no means account for the overall increase in the unaffiliated population.

There’re a lot of people who are – I guess the popular term for it is spiritual but not religious – people who have religious beliefs, have engaged in religious practices, but just haven’t found an organized religion that they like. Some of them are people who are merely indifferent to religion. And if our present survey, the “Faith in Flux” survey, is correct, then some of those people will eventually find an interest in religion and may in the next iteration of this survey be part of organized religion. So there’s a lot of diversity in the unaffiliated group.

At the very same time, there has been an increase in nondenominational church membership and participation. There has been a spreading religious diversity. We have all kinds of other religious groups that have also grown. However, the overall level of worship attendance has hardly changed at all. It’s been very stable over this period. We have to remember that affiliation and attendance are two different things, and while they’re related, they’re really two different expressions of religion.

One further thing I’ll say about the unaffiliated population over this period. It did surge in the 1990s. Since the turn of the century, the numbers have been many consistent in many surveys; this number of 15, 16 percent has been very stable. So there appears to have been something that happened in the 1990s that dramatically increased the number of people reporting a lack of affiliation.

Now the cynics among us think that this might be that pollsters, such as the pollsters at the Pew Research Center, started asking questions better about religion. This argument would be that there have always been some unaffiliated people that simply weren’t being picked up in the questions. Less cynical people argue that what may have been happening there is people simply became more comfortable with admitting that they were not part of a religious community because the stigma of being unaffiliated had gone down in many parts of the country.

But whatever methodological questions, questions of social desirability, whatever may actually be going on there, there is no question that we have a larger group of unaffiliated people today and that that group of people is very diverse.

GREG TOPPO, USA TODAY:  I wonder if there was any indicator in the responses that gives you folks reason to believe that the religion switching and the unaffiliated numbers are going to keep rising in any appreciable way. Then I have a follow-up question.

GREEN:  I don’t think there’s any way to tell for sure whether these trends will continue, but my guess, having looked at lots and lots of surveys and paid attention to this for a long time, is that these patterns are unlikely to decrease in the near term and in fact may accelerate.

Now why do I say that? Well, because these patterns of change in affiliation seem to be highly correlated with the religious diversity of the country, and the country shows no sign of being less diverse in religious terms. One way to look at these patterns is that there’re lots of religious groups for people to move from and groups for them to move to. So given that factor, it just seems very unlikely to me that the level of religious switching would decline, and in fact there’s reason to believe that it might increase as we go forward.

TOPPO:  Actually my follow-up question was sort of along these lines, and that’s, if I’m a religious leader planning for the long term, it sounds like I should be welcoming families with small children as much as I possibly could. Is that misguided, or – (laughter).

GREEN:  Well, the Pew Forum does not give advice to religious leaders. (Laughter.) However, there are some implications in our findings that religious leaders might want to take seriously. It seems to me that there are two, and my colleagues can join in if they see more than two. One is just how important things like birth rates and early childhood socialization are for the vitality of religious communities. So much of the change depends upon the children that you have and being able to keep those children involved in organized religion as they grow up. So that’s an area in which religious leaders might want to pay a lot of attention.

But the second part of this is we do live in a competitive religious marketplace. I know some religious people don’t like that terminology because they think of religion as somehow being sacred and the marketplace as being profane. But in fact that image of a religious marketplace does explain the American situation very, very well. And in that context religious leaders have to be competitive. They’re not going to satisfy everybody, but they have to be able to attract and keep people if their organizations are going to be viable. And that’s another thing that religious leaders might want to pay attention to.

LUGO:  I think the evidence here is on both sides. There is good news and bad news from the standpoint of religious communities and their outreach. The bad news throughout for them is the decrease in brand loyalty. There’s no question that that is going on. So that even among some people for whom religion is at least somewhat important, and as you said John, that’s more than 40 percent of the unaffiliated, they still don’t cite an affiliation. So there has been a movement away from affiliation as such.

But on the other hand, if you look at the people who are sort of drifting toward – and I use the word drifting because that’s what 70 percent of them tell us. They just sort of gradually drifted. These are folks that in some sense are catchable – they’re recoverable – because they tell us for one thing that the year or two before they joined the ranks of the unaffiliated, religion had just stopped being important. It’s not as though it was important one day and unimportant the next. They sort of gradually move away, which means more opportunities, let’s say, from the teenage years until the early 20s, where these folks seem to be going in one direction or the next.

It’s also the case that even after they become affiliated, there’s a high percentage of these folks who tell us that they’re still open. They’re still searching for a religious home. And so I think both of those present interesting opportunities, although there are plenty of challenges as well.


SMITH:  I don’t have anything to add. I think you all covered the waterfront.

TOPPO:  It sounds like this idea of spiritual but not religious is sort of a demographic that churches really have huge potential to tap. Do you think they’ve done a good job?

SMITH:  I guess the one thing that I would point to – we obviously can’t directly evaluate the success of any group’s recruitment efforts, but if I were a religious leader, in line with what Luis was saying, part of the good news is in the low number of people who were raised unaffiliated who stay that way. We have to remember – and I try to remind people when I get the question, do you think that the ranks of the unaffiliated are going to continue to grow – well, they might, certainly if recent trends continue, they might.

But at the same time, remember, most people who were raised unaffiliated later wind up affiliated. So that to me suggests that yes, there is some degree of success here. Now whether that’s success on the part of religious leaders attempting to reach out and attract converts, or as many of our respondents tell us, it’s a product of individuals saying, look, my spiritual needs just weren’t being met. Look, I was just searching for something deeper. I needed something more in my life. It’s hard to say, but it does suggest that many people who are unaffiliated who are raised unaffiliated are open to religion.

LUGO:  That’s right. So this is not just all movement in one direction by any means.
Immigration’s Impact on Catholic Percentage

DUKE HELFAND, LOS ANGELES TIMES:  I have two questions. One, could I return to the ratio on Catholicism, those leaving versus coming? When you factor in immigration, doesn’t that more than make up for the loss of white native-born Catholics?

LUGO:  That’s what I was indicating in my response a few minutes ago that yeah, it has to. Both immigration and fertility rates historically among white Catholics, more recently among Latino Catholics, obviously are making up the difference in terms of the percentage of the population that’s Catholic. If you look at all these figures across time, it looks like it has stayed fairly constant at around that, which is quite a lesson because on the surface that suggests great stability, doesn’t it?

In fact, there’s a lot of churn going on within the Roman Catholic Church – people leaving, people joining, immigrants coming in – so that you’re literally seeing before your very eyes the complexion of American Catholicism changing. About a third of all adult Catholics in this country today are Latino. Among Catholics under 40, that’s about 50 percent. And that’s not counting children. This is just among adults. So clearly the immigration and the higher Latino fertility rates are being seen within the Roman Catholic Church. So the answer to your question is, yes, a combination of immigration and fertility rates seems to be making up the difference for those Catholics who leave.

HELFAND:  And then my follow-up question was the point in your report where it talks about the sexual abuse crisis seems to not be a significant reason for people leaving the Catholic Church. Were you surprised by that, and what does that say about Catholic response to the crisis? Because every time I write a story about that, I get e-mails from people saying, this is why I left the Catholic Church.

SMITH:  I would just point to the two different kinds of questions we ask. First of all, we didn’t want to put unnecessary or undo restrictions on what people could tell us about why they changed faiths. So before we asked them a whole bunch of possibilities that came to our mind as we were formulating the questionnaire, we started this survey off by asking people an open-ended question.

We just said, hey, in your own words can you please tell us what’s the main reason you left your childhood religion? So in the case of people who were raised Catholic, we said, what’s the main reason you left the Catholic Church? Very few people mentioned the sex abuse crisis in response to that question. Only 2 or 3 percent of former Catholics said, you know, the main reason I’m no longer Catholic is the sex abuse scandal.

However, we then asked a follow-up series of questions, where we just asked people not what in your own words was the main question, but instead we asked whether or not a series of discrete items were factors – whether they were the most important or not in people’s decision to change faiths. And there we see more people saying the sex abuse crisis was a factor. Somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of former Catholics say, you know, that did matter. Maybe it wasn’t the most important reason. Maybe it wasn’t the only reason, but it did play a role in my decision to leave the Catholic Church.

I found that result interesting. I can’t say I found it terribly surprising, simply because I’ve never seen any good data, one way or the other, to put a figure on it. I have read where the church has possibly received less in the way of donations, but I haven’t seen any good data on the number of people who’d actually left for that reason. So I can’t say I was surprised one way or the other at those particular responses.
Effect of the Consumer Culture

BILL TAMMEUS, THE KANSAS CITY STAR:  Are there studies about religious change in other countries that allow us to say that your findings just reflect the American culture of consumerism versus a culture of deep theological reflection?

LUGO:  What about it? How does the U.S. look in comparative perspective? You’d really have to start at pointing to how different the United States is from the other developed countries. When you look at any of them, there’s just not one that’s even close to the United States on any of these measures of the importance of religion in people’s lives, church attendance, etc. There are some who argue specifically with respect to the U.S.-Europe comparison that one of the reasons why the United States has remained much more religious than Europe is precisely because of the level of religious activity and dynamism and competition.

Does that generate a thinner, let’s say, understanding of theological ideas and so forth? That’s a good question. The consumerist drive does tend to make all of the religious communities much more sensitive to what people are searching for. Does that necessarily result in thinner religious beliefs and practices? What do you think, John? What kind of evidence have you seen on that score?

GREEN:  One can certainly imagine that many Americans reflect in their religious lives the same consumer culture that we see in the marketplace for goods and services and their jobs and popular culture and even in politics. So I think there’s a good bit of truth to that concern. But I would urge us all to be cautious about assuming that change means a lack of reflection. In fact, serious reflection may require change, that people just don’t accept their inherited beliefs and stick with them, but in fact they really try to come to terms with their spiritual needs but also with the requirements of faith.

And we see in our religious flux study examples of both things. We see people who tell us that they changed because they didn’t like the music, because there wasn’t enough of a good program for the kids, because it was hard to get to, and so forth. They didn’t have a good cafeteria. Those are things that, I think, most serious religious people, whatever their faith, would regard as perhaps not serious theological reflection. But at the same time, we see evidence of people who clearly have taken these debates very, very seriously. In many cases those people have changed their affiliation in response to that deeper reflection.

So part of the diversity of American religion and this very high level of change is that we’ve got a lot of things going on at once. Some of it’s just the sort of thing that the seriously faithful would applaud and a lot of things that perhaps they wouldn’t.

LUGO:  By the way, that discussion about self-reflection is happening among some of the most innovative and successful of the churches, the mega-churches and others, who themselves are asking each other whether they’ve dumbed down things too much, etc., etc. So it is an interesting question and one that I know many religious leaders are taking very seriously.

TAMMEUS:  But from your study, you’re not willing to say that we’re just a nation of mindless religion shoppers?

GREEN:  No, I would not say that. The picture is much more diverse than that.

LUGO:  I would agree.
Growth of Nondenominational Churches

CHRISTOPHER QUINN, THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION:  Hi, gentlemen. I was about to ask the question that the previous reporter just asked, but something occurred to me while I was sitting here just a moment ago. What does this say about the growth and the influence of the nondenominational churches? Is there something about nondenominational that attracts people because they say they’re leaving their church for various reasons, because it’s hypocritical, etc., which is usually connected to particular church teachings or organizations? You might think of the abortion groups or the various teachings specifically of the Catholic Church. So are people trying to get away from those specific teachings thinking that the nondenominational churches will be softer on those issues, or what?

GREEN:  I think it’s important to realize that the nondenominational category is very, very diverse. It includes all different kinds of churches, some of them that might as well go and join the Southern Baptist Convention because they are probably more Baptist than the Baptists but then other nondenominational churches that have a very different perspective. We lump them all together because we recognize this is an important phenomenon, but it’s not like a denomination that has a set of norms and a set of teachings and a theological perspective.

To my way of looking, this nondenominational category is precisely a reflection of the religious marketplace and of diversity – that people who are unhappy with particular denominations can find vibrant churches that meet their needs and that they can agree with. Just the breadth of theological diversity among the nondenominational churches and even among the nondenominational mega-churches is really staggering, and there’s just a whole variety of choices that people have there. So to me, the rise of the nondenominational churches is perhaps the best example of the importance of religious choice in the United States.
Jewish Identification

ALLISON HOFFMAN, THE JERUSALEM POST:  This is focused on Catholics and Protestants, but I wondered whether there were lessons the other religious groups, particularly Jews, could draw as far as stickiness. I’m wondering particularly about Catholics and whether they’re likelier to continue identifying as Catholic even if they no longer go to church or whether there’s kind of stickiness that way, or whether they are as likely as Protestants to identify as unaffiliated.

LUGO:  I’ll let my colleagues jump in on the religious changes and how that might impact American Judaism. I can tell you that on the other two factors that I addressed, fertility rates and immigration, the picture does not look particularly promising for American Judaism. The percentage of immigrants who are Jewish in the last few decades is lower than the native-born Jewish population. And Jews have among the lowest fertility rates in the country. So on these two factors that the Catholic Church, let’s say, counts on to replenish some of those who leave, American Judaism is not in very good shape.

But what about on the affiliation issue? Again, we didn’t focus on Jews here specifically, but more broadly.

SMITH:  This would fall under the category of the interesting groups that unfortunately we simply don’t have enough interviews with to be able to analyze them separately. We don’t have enough interviews either with converts away from Judaism or converts to Judaism.

I guess more broadly maybe one additional point I’d make with respect to the stickiness and the way people either do or don’t change faiths in the religious marketplace in the U.S. – and this would apply to Judaism as well as to any other faith – is that one of the things I think this study shows is that there’s a real demand-side aspect to the U.S. religious marketplace to complement the supply-side aspect.

So often people who discuss exceptionalism in terms of the United States’ high degree of religious commitment, we point to factors like the lack of establishment and lack of government support for various religious groups, which means that religions are forced to compete for members. One of the things that these data show is just as on the supply side groups are forced to compete for members, on the demand side there’s a real demand for a great variety of different characteristics that people look for in choosing a faith.

I think that’s worth people keeping in mind, particularly religious leaders keeping in mind – and that would include Jewish leaders – that there are people out there that are ready, willing and able to change faiths if they find one that appeals to them.

LUGO:  But let me continue just on that for a second. There is also the ethnicity question, by the way. American Judaism is the most white of American religions, overwhelmingly white. And that’s not the demographic growth in this country. By 2050, demographers tell us that whites will be a minority in the United States at 47 percent. So that’s clearly an issue.

The growth in the United States population is among Latinos, it’s among Asians, it’s African-Americans. And there, American Judaism has just not been as successful in attracting those, except for some very high visibility converts. But there is something that gets at the stickiness question, Greg, that you mention. There is a strong cultural element to American Judaism that keeps many Jews within the broader fold of Judaism and their self-identification as Jews, even though when you look at religious measures like synagogue attendance and the importance of religion in their lives, Jews rank among the lowest religious groups in the United States on all those measures.

So if you look at just the religious beliefs and practices, you would say, Jews are going to disappear. But if you look at the cultural dimension of American Judaism, the history and everything else that keeps that community whole, that’s an important stickiness element in the cohesion of that particular community.

EDWARD STANNARD, NEW HAVEN REGISTER:  I was wondering about the ratios of joining versus leaving particular religions among Mormons and non-Christian groups like Jews, Muslims, Hindus.

LUGO:  Yes. We reported on that in the first release of the Religious Landscape Survey. It’s not specifically in this particular one. So as Greg is turning to that page, he can direct you to it. That’s on our website,

SMITH:  For anybody who wants to look up the numbers for all of the various religious groups, I think it’s on page 26 of the first religious landscape report. Mormons, we found that the number of people entering the group and the number of people leaving the group are just about even. We found 0.4 percent of the U.S. population has become Mormon after being raised something else, and 0.5 percent has left Mormonism after being raised Mormon. What were the other groups that you said you were interested in?

STANNARD:  Jews, Muslims, Hindus.

SMITH:  Jews, we see a similar picture: 0.3 percent have become Jewish versus 0.5 percent who have left Judaism. For Islam, we don’t have good estimates because of the low numbers of Muslims. We picked up very few people either entering or leaving Islam, not because there are few people in absolute numbers but because in terms of proportions there are few of them. And we see something similar for Buddhists.

LUGO:  Let’s just say for those smaller religious traditions, and not Judaism but for, let’s say, Islam and Hinduism, these are very immigrant religious communities. I think it’s over 80 percent of American Hindus are foreign-born; two-thirds of American Muslims are foreign-born; a significant percentage of Buddhists.

So those smaller religions are being fed by and large by immigration, although it’s also the case particularly for Buddhists and Muslims that they’re also attracting a significant number of converts – less so of Hinduism, but it’s certainly the case of Buddhism and Islam. They’re attracting a significant number of native-born converts. Among Muslims, it’s particularly true of African-Americans. In fact, if you look at the ethnic distribution of American Muslims, it is the most ethnically diverse religious community in the United States. It’s really quite remarkable.
Retention Rate Among Evangelical Protestants

SYLVIA SMITH, THE FORT WAYNE JOURNAL-GAZETTE:  I’m curious about what you can tell us about evangelical Protestantism. It looks to me like at least in the executive summary the dynamic or the information is between Catholics and all Protestants or unaffiliated all Protestants. What can we find out from this about changes within evangelical Protestantism, especially the issues of retention and recruitment?

LUGO:  What about retention, recruitment within evangelical Protestant churches?

GREG SMITH:  It’s hard to put exact figures on the success or failure of different evangelical and mainline denominations to retain and attract new members. The reason is because it turns out it’s very hard to measure people’s childhood religious affiliation with that degree of specificity.

When we did the original Landscape Survey, one-third of all Protestants in the United States couldn’t tell us the specific denomination to which they belong. They could tell us, well, I’m Baptist, but I’m not sure if that’s Southern Baptist or National Baptist or American Baptist. I’m Methodist, but I don’t know which specific Methodist denomination that is. That problem would only be that much worse were we to ask people about their specific childhood denomination.

LUGO:  And on two counts, if I may add, before you continue. It’s not only that it’s difficult for people to peg it, but remember, Protestant denominations themselves have undergone theological changes from evangelical to more theologically liberal, from more theologically liberal to more evangelical. So it’s not just the people themselves, but the denominations within Protestantism that have been in almost constant flux. But please continue, Greg. And then I’ll have John wrap it up with that.

SYLVIA SMITH:  Your map on the website divided between Protestants mainline and evangelicals.

LUGO:  Yes. In terms of their current affiliation. That is correct. But Greg was addressing the difficulty of asking people about their childhood affiliation. But Greg, I interrupted, probably I shouldn’t have, but continue. Finish your answer and then we’ll see if there’s a follow-up.

GREG SMITH:  So that’s one methodological caveat, that this is a hard subject to put really concrete numbers to. However, there are a couple of things worth pointing out. One is that our data from the first Landscape Survey are very consistent with other previous research that has shown that it’s really mainline Protestantism that has seen a decline in recent years and evangelical Protestantism that has either held steady or perhaps even grown.

We can see that because if we look at people who were raised in denominations that are mostly evangelical – so Baptist denomination, Pentecostal denomination, Holiness denomination – people who were raised in those denominations tend to either still be part of those faiths or if they’ve changed, they tend to have changed to other evangelical faiths. Among people who were raised in Protestant denominations that are mostly mainline in nature, such as Methodists and Lutherans, people who have left those denominations tend to be more or less evenly divided between people who have left for other mainline faiths and people who are now evangelical. So that’s one point I’d make.

The other thing I’d point out is that the one place where we really can look at differences between people who have become evangelical versus mainline is among our former Catholics. And there, we really do see some really big, really interesting differences. Evangelicals tend to have left Catholicism for kind of theological or belief reasons. They weren’t happy with church teachings about the Bible or on other aspects of faith.

People who have left Catholicism and become mainline Protestants are more likely to have done so because they married someone who was a mainline Protestant, or because they just weren’t happy with the clergy at their local congregation. They’re much less likely to express theological concerns or concerns about belief.

LUGO:  So, John, can we say that – because there is the overall decline of Protestantism. It’s now barely at 51 percent, particularly in the last 15, 20 years. It was at two-thirds not that long ago, the population. So can we say as a general rule that the decline has been concentrated among mainline Protestant churches – that historically black churches have held fairly steady, evangelical Protestant churches have held steady or even grown, let’s say, in Pentecostalism or nondenominational churches, and that it’s mainline Protestantism that has taken the biggest hit demographically?

GREEN:  Yes, that’s accurate. Despite the methodological problems, if we put all of this together, the largest decline among Protestants has been among mainline Protestants. In fact, if you go back to the middle of the 20th century, that is the story of religious change among Protestants. It’s the decline of mainline Protestants in relative as well as absolute numbers. But other elements of Protestantism have either held their own or grown.

I think our religious flux survey shows that in that competition, evangelicals seem to have an edge. It is not completely one-sided by any means, but they seem to have an edge. One of the reasons that evangelicals have become more numerous all across the country is partly because they have that edge in recruitment versus losses, but also because of two factors that Luis mentioned earlier with regard to Catholics: higher fertility rates among evangelicals generally speaking, but also to the extent that there are Protestant immigrants, they tend to be evangelical.

LUGO:  By 3-to-1, evangelical rather than mainline.

GREEN:  So if you put all of this weight of evidence together, it does seem to be in favor of growing numbers of evangelical Protestants.

LUGO:  Thank you very much for your fine questions.


This written transcript has been edited by Amy Stern for clarity, spelling, grammar and accuracy.

Disclaimer: Articles featured on Oregon Report are the creation, responsibility and opinion of the authoring individual or organization which is featured at the top of every article.