Catholics who leave their faith say they drifted away from the church because it did not meet their spiritual needs or they stopped believing in its teachings, according to a new study, while Protestants often tend to cite circumstantial factors, a move, a marriage, or a problem with a particular minister or congregation.
Altogether, Americans are switching in and out of churches at unprecedented rates, with about half of Americans today saying that they have changed their religious affiliation at some point during their lives, according to a study released Monday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
“Americans change religious affiliation early and often and for varying reasons,” said John C. Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron who oversaw the study.
The churn within American religion was one of the key findings of a major study released last year by the Pew Forum. The new study attempts to explore the reasons why Americans change denominations or religions, or, increasingly, drop out of institutional religion altogether.
Among the most striking findings is that most people who change religious affiliation leave the denomination in which they were raised by age 24, and many change religious affiliation more than once.
The study also explores the growing ranks of the unaffiliated, about 16 percent of American adults, according to Pew. The study finds many of the unaffiliated cite objections to religious people or religious institutions as the reason for leaving organized religion, rather than a conclusion that God does not exist. About one third of the unaffiliated say they are open to finding the right religion.
“In American Christianity, you see a lot of talk about how vibrant it is and how people are moving in, but there’s also a huge open back door that they must be leaving out of,” said D. Michael Lindsay, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University.
“It’s not so much that science disproves religion, so people abandon their faith. It’s more like a gradual drifting away, and a number of unaffiliated folks end up coming back and getting involved,” he said.
The researchers said the number of people surveyed who converted to Catholicism, as well as the number of people moving in and out of non-Christian faiths, was too small to be analyzed in this study.
Last year, Pew released the eye-popping estimate that 1 in 10 Americans is now a former Catholic. About half of the former Catholics are now Protestants, and about half are now unaffiliated.
But the new study suggests that the sexual abuse crisis played at most a minor role in the decision of Catholics to leave. Only 2 percent of former Catholics who are now unaffiliated volunteered the abuse scandal as the main reason they are no longer Catholic. When prompted by an interviewer, 27 percent said concern about the abuse scandal was a factor in their departure.
Former Catholics who are now unaffiliated often said they left because of disagreements with the Catholic Church over homosexuality, abortion, birth control, or gender.