More than a quarter of adult Americans have left the faith of their childhood to join another religion or profess no religion, according to a new 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 U.S. Census Bureau 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.”
Detailing the nature of religious affiliation — who has the numbers, the education, the money — signals who could hold sway over the country’s political and cultural life, said John Green, an author of the report and a senior fellow on religion and American politics at Pew.
Michael Lindsay, assistant director of the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life at Rice University, echoed that view. “Religion is the single most important factor that drives American belief attitudes and behaviors,” said Lindsay, who had read the Pew report. “It is a powerful indicator of where America will end up on politics, culture, family life. If you want to understand America, you have to understand religion in America.”
In the 1980s, the General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center indicated that 5 percent to 8 percent of the population described itself as unaffiliated with a particular religion.
The Pew survey, available on the Web at religions.pewforum.org, was conducted between May and August of 2007. The margin of sampling error ranges from plus or minus one percentage point for the total sample to two points for Catholics and eight points for Hindus.
In the Pew survey, 7 percent of the adult population said they were unaffiliated with a faith as children. That segment increases to 16 percent of the population in adulthood, the survey found. The unaffiliated are largely under 50 and male. “Nearly one in five men say they have no formal religious affiliation, compared with roughly 13 percent of women,” the survey said.
The rise of the unaffiliated does not, however, mean that Americans are becoming less religious. Contrary to assumptions that most of the unaffiliated are atheists or agnostics, most described their religion “as nothing in particular.”