Friday, February 29

The changing faiths of Americans

A major study on the religious landscape of the United States was released earlier this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The study creates possibly the most detailed picture ever of which Americans belong to which religious groups.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the survey is how it demonstrates that rate at which people change faiths. The study points out the one of the most significant features of religious life in American is this "churn."

Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum, said that Americans "not only change jobs, change where they live, and change spouses, but they change religions too. We totally knew it was happening, but this survey enabled us to document it clearly."

According to the study, 28% of American adults currently affiliate themselves with a different religious faith than they had as a child. And this number does not include people who have changed from one Protestant denomination to another. If you include that figure, then the number jumps to 44%. Let that sink in for a minute. Almost half of all Americans have a different religious affiliation than the one they were raised with.

For some groups, this churn is hidden by the raw numbers. For example, since 1972 the number of Catholics in the United States has remained pretty stable, moving from 25% of the population to 23.9%. However, nearly 1/3 of those who were raised Catholic have left the Catholic church. Put another way, nearly 10% of the U.S. population is ex-Catholic.

The Jehovah's Witnesses give an even more extreme example of this turnover. Although the number of Jehovah's Witnesses has stayed roughly the same, nearly 2/3 of those who said they were raised as Jehovah's Witnesses have left that faith.

The group that has seen the biggest "gains" in terms of people coming in versus people leaving is the group of "unaffiliated." This includes atheists, agnostics, and people whose affiliations are "nothing in particular." This group now makes up 16.1% of the U.S. population. But still, 50% of adults who were raised "unaffiliated" now, as adults, have made a religious affiliation.

The study doesn't speculate into the reasons for these changes, but there are a couple of things that stand out to me. The first is that traditional, family, and historical ties are loosening. People no longer continue to attend a church, or even a type of church, simply because they is what their parents did. I don't think that's an entirely bad thing. I think that if these factors alone determines a person's faith, I think that it is more likely that the faith never really becomes theirs. Instead, religion or church becomes nothing more than something they do every Sunday (or Saturday or Friday or whenever). As a follower of Christ, I know that I need my own faith in Jesus, not just a tradition to follow.

The second thing I see is that people are searching. They are looking for spiritual fulfillment. And if they aren't finding it where they are, they are willing to go somewhere else to look for it. That fact should be an encouragement to those of use who are trying to provide a place where spiritual fulfillment and spiritual growth can happen.

If you are looking for more information about the survey, you can find articles about it here and here.

I also recommend looking at the survey results themselves. They are fascinating. You can find an entry page to the survey here. You can find all kinds of statistical breakdowns and maps and all sorts of things. I recommend taking some time to explore it.

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