Are Americans leaving their childhood faith in droves? It sure seems that way, according to a new study released in April by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. The survey of 2,867 adults in the fall of 2008—named “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.”—not only documents shifts in religious association, but also the reasons for those changes.
The study’s definition of leaving one’s childhood faith includes converting from Catholicism to Protestantism and vice versa; changing denominations within Protestantism; and breaking away from either Catholicism or Protestantism to become unaffiliated with any group.
Among those surveyed among all groups, 44 percent said they no longer belong to the faith of their youth. Most alarming to Protestant church leaders, perhaps, is the finding that half of former Protestants who have become unaffiliated said they did so mostly because they stopped believing in the church’s teachings. Thirty-nine percent said their spiritual needs were simply not being met. Twenty-five percent cited dissatisfaction with clergy as being their primary reason for leaving.
It appears focusing on the younger generation may be key here-most people within Protestantism who left their childhood faith did so before age 24. Few reported making a shift as older adults.
In addition, the survey notes that there is hope for those that weren’t raised in a Christian home: “nearly four-in-ten of those raised unaffiliated have become Protestant (including 22% who now belong to evangelical denominations), 6% have become Catholic and 9% are now associated with other faiths.” Overall, 4% of the total U.S. adult population that were raised with no religious affiliation now belong to a religious group.
The full survey is available for download at //pewforum.org.