Americans change religious affiliation early and often. In total, 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, and many of those who change religion do so more than once. These are among the key findings of a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. The survey documents the fluidity of religious affiliation in the U.S. and describes in detail the patterns and reasons for change.
The reasons people give for changing their religion – or leaving religion altogether – differ widely depending on the origin and destination of the convert. 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. Additionally, many people who left a religion to become unaffiliated say they did so in part because they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money. Far fewer say they became unaffiliated because they believe that modern science proves that religion is just superstition.
My own experience in talking with people who are unaffiliated with a community of faith leads me to believe that many encounter interpretations of Christian doctrine they can no longer own or accept. Where the original sources of the Christian faith–sacred Scripture, lived tradition, human reason–are not allowed to engage in creative dialogue with the insights and sensibilities of the emerging culture of the twenty-first century, there is a huge credibility gap. People will always search for community and moral grounding, but in today’s world, that search must be met with radical welcome and a willingness to grapple creatively with the most difficult questions of life and faith in the world as it is today.
By the way, I’m personally glad that “dissatisfaction with the clergy at congregation” wasn’t number one on the survey!