Survey: 1 in 2 Americans Switch Faith Affiliation

About half of the U.S. adult population has switched religious affiliation at least once in their lives and most did so before the age of 24, according to a new study released Monday.

"If people want to see a truly free market at work, they really should look at the U.S. religious marketplace," Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, told The Associated Press.

Results from the Pew Forum's "Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S." report show that 28 percent of American adults have switched from one major religious tradition to another. When including change within religious traditions, such as from one Protestant denomination to another, 44 percent have made an affiliation change.

Unaffiliated

Reasons for changing affiliation or leaving religion altogether were diverse.

Seventy-one percent of Catholics and Protestants who are now unaffiliated said they just gradually drifted away from the religion. Two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated and half of former Protestants who have become unaffiliated said they left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings.

Also, the now unaffiliated adults were more likely to leave their former religion because of disenchantment with religious people or institutions than belief that science disproves religion.

Specifically, they believe religious people are hypocritical, judgmental or insincere. They also believe religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality, or that religious leaders are too focused on money and power rather than truth and spirituality.

The unaffiliated population was reported as having grown more rapidly than any other religious group in recent decades.

The survey shows that 16 percent of American adults are currently unaffiliated, though only 7 percent were raised unaffiliated.

At the same time, the unaffiliated have one of the lowest retention rates of any of the major religious groups. Most people who were raised unaffiliated now belong to a religion. They cited the attraction of religious services and styles of worship, having been spiritually unfulfilled, and feeling called by God as major reasons for joining a faith.

The unaffiliated also do not necessarily lack spiritual beliefs, the survey found. Roughly four in ten unaffiliated adults said religion is at least somewhat important in their lives. Moreover, one in three former Catholics and Protestants said they just haven't found the right religion yet.

"[A] significant number of those who left their childhood faith and have become unaffiliated leave open the possibility that they may one day join a religion," the Pew report states.

Other faith switchers

Among former Catholics who are now part of a Protestant family, 71 percent said their spiritual needs were not being met, 70 percent said they found a religion they liked more, and 43 percent said they were unhappy with teachings about the Bible.

Among Protestants who switched to a different Protestant denomination, 58 percent they found a religion they liked more, 51 percent said their spiritual needs were not being met, and 39 percent said they were dissatisfied with the atmosphere at worship services.

When answering an open-ended question about reasons for changing or leaving, about half of former Catholics cited religious and moral beliefs and roughly four in ten former Protestants who are now unaffiliated said the same.

But for those who changed denominational families within Protestantism, religious institutions, practices and people were cited as the main reason for switching (36 percent). Also life cycle changes were cited by 30 percent in this group.

Overall, 15 percent of Americans who were raised as Protestants now belong to a different Protestant faith.

Forty-nine percent of adults who changed from one Protestant family to another Protestant family did so once; 28 percent switched twice; and 23 percent switched three or more times.

The new survey is a follow-up to the Pew Forum's "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey," which was released last year. Results of the new survey are based on re-contact interviews with more than 2,800 people from the original survey.