NY Times on the Pew Forum Survey: Poll Finds a Fluid Religious Life in U.S.

Posted by Kendall Harmon

More than a quarter of adult Americans have left the faith of their childhood to join another religion or no religion, according to a survey of religious affiliation by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The report, titled “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” depicts a highly fluid and diverse national religious life. If shifts among Protestant denominations are included, then it appears that 44 percent of Americans have switched religious affiliations.

For at least a generation, scholars have noted that more Americans are moving among faiths, as denominational loyalty erodes. But the survey, based on telephone interviews with more than 35,000 Americans, offers one of the clearest views yet of that trend, scholars said. The United States Census does not track religious affiliation.

It shows, for example, that every religion is losing and gaining members, but that the Roman Catholic Church “has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes.” The survey also indicates that the group that had the greatest net gain was the unaffiliated. Sixteen percent of American adults say they are not part of any organized faith, which makes the unaffiliated the country’s fourth-largest “religious group.”

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Posted February 26, 2008 at 7:09 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Anglicanum wrote:

that the Roman Catholic Church “has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes.”

Hmmmm ... is that just because there are numerically more Roman Catholics in this country than any one Protestant denomination?  Or does it mean a larger *percentage* of Roman Catholics left than other churches? 

Mathematically fuddled minds want to know.

February 26, 8:20 am | [comment link]
2. D. C. Toedt wrote:

What these data imply is that religious belief is essentially a matter of personal taste. Which may imply in turn that religious doctrine is less a reflection of the reality that God actually wrought than it is a product of our wishful thinking.

February 26, 9:24 am | [comment link]
3. Words Matter wrote:

Good try, D.C., but it’s entirely possible that denominational/religious change represents a movement from cultural membership to deliberate, intentional belief in one’s faith. The inner structure of “opinion” and “belief” are quite different.

It’s also possible that as the national origins of various denominations fade in U.S., people find less distinction between, say, the Methodists and the Presbyterians. Inter-church marraige is probably easier than it once was (a fair number of new Catholics simply marry in). The effects of the relentless, secularist mass culture in the U.S. shouldn’t be ignored, either, since it does, among other things, attempt to reduce faith to simple opinion, as D.C. does.

Anglicanum - the article was speaking in percentages and the losses were among American born Catholics. Given the influx of hispanic Catholics, I’m not surprised at this finding. We are growing numerically, but not as a percentage of the population.

February 26, 9:40 am | [comment link]
4. Terry Tee wrote:

As a Roman Catholic I would like to point out some good news in this report to my Episcopal friends.  The Episcopal/Anglican proportion of the population is said to be 1.7%.  (Add 0.3% Anglican/Episcopal in the Evangelical Tradition to 1.4% Anglican/Episcopal in the Mainline Tradition.  With the US population currently just over 300m, by my math that gives you around 5.1m adherents.  I have always thought that Episcopalians had a larger penumbra than they realised of loosely-affiliated.  If only you could win those into active membership.  And if only we RCs could stop the draining away.  Kyrie, eleison

February 26, 10:15 am | [comment link]
5. bob carlton wrote:

My biggest a-ha from the study is that America is not just losing it’s religion - but in fact churning our religion,  like a broke buys and sells (a client’s securities) frequently, like a butter maker moving or shaking in agitation with violence or continued motion, religion seen as a liquid or any loose matter.  You can see this in the study, but also in conversations & churches & the way people hunger for hope & vision. 

This is particularly the case with young people -  among those aged 18 to 29, 25 percent said they are not affiliated with a particular religion.  You can see this in Christian Smith’s work on the National Study of Youth and Religion.  According to Smith, one-third of U.S. teens are regularly involved in religion, one-third are sporadically involved in religion, and one third are never religiously involved.  “Teens feel it is okay to be somewhat religious,” Smith has said. “But important not to be too religious.”

Anecdotally, it is my sense that people - particularly young people - have a strong sense of supernatural and moral claims, but they are recoiling from codified prayer, ritual, and religious law.  The pundits will point out their rationales for this - whether liberal theology or conservative hegemony is to blame.  I think it is both - the whip-lash effect of American culture has rendered religion just another flash point, just another way to categorize, the ultimate crossfire. 

For more granular analysis,  USATODAY has a great interactive GRAPHIC: A state-by-state look at religious affiliations: http://www.usatoday.com/news/graphics/pew-religion-08/flash.htm

February 26, 10:58 am | [comment link]
6. 0hKay wrote:

Terry Tee—Official Episcopal statistics report 2.2 reportable members. According to the instructions for the annual parochial report this must include those who showed up even once or gave even a dollar during the year. Average Sunday Attendance is now under 765,326 according to Episcopal “Fast Facts.”

February 26, 10:58 am | [comment link]
7. 0hKay wrote:

2.2 reportable members—that’s a few years from now. It obviously should have been 2.2 million.

February 26, 11:00 am | [comment link]
8. Chris Molter wrote:

that the Roman Catholic Church “has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes.”

Not surprising given the increasing secularization of US culture, the relatively dismal (though improving) state of catechesis, and a still large (though decreasing) number of theological liberals in positions of power and authority (both lay and ordained).  I think as the “Spirit of Vatican II” types begin to age and die off or drift away to more “relevant” pastures and the actual reality of Vatican II comes to fruition, we’ll see a decrease in the trend and potentially a real turnaround in evangelism.

February 26, 11:05 am | [comment link]
9. Ross wrote:

0hKay:  this survey was conducted by asking people to identify their religious affiliation, so it’s bound to get different numbers than what the various denominations report.  The 1.4% it reports for “Anglican/Episcopal in the Mainline Tradition” no doubt includes people who consider themselves Episcopalian but haven’t set foot in a church in years.

I’d be willing to bet that most of the mainlines have a fair number of such people.  Which leads to the interesting conclusion that perhaps the first target of evangelism for the mainlines should be this “penumbra” (to use Terry Tee’s phrase) of vaguely-affiliated.

February 26, 1:17 pm | [comment link]
10. Terry Tee wrote:

Ross and OK:  Yes, of course I realised the distinction between official membership and affiliation.  I am an avid follower of church statistics.  My point - not made too clearly above, for which I apologise - was that for Episcopalians there is a hinterland of loose affiliation and goodwill.  People who in some vague way think of themselves as Episcopalian, and who might be thought of as very lapsed.  Surely there is goodwill here, some understanding of what the Episcopal Church offers and some openness to being approached and invited back.

February 26, 1:35 pm | [comment link]
11. Echolord wrote:

Youth survey’s are not very reliable, since most of the youth population’s ideas are in a state of flux and are more fluid as a result.  In my qualitative analysis, since the age at which Americans are marrying is generally older than previous generations, the level of family and child rearing activities are also postponed to a later age.  Church life seems to correspond with family life, and stable family lives will tend to generate stable religious lives.

February 26, 3:03 pm | [comment link]
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