Study Finds American Religious Affiliations Are Fluid

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A new study on religion in the United States released Tuesday found that more than a quarter of adult Americans have left the faith of their childhood and a growing number of people are unaffiliated. Analysts examine the role of faith in America.

MARGARET WARNER: Americans' sense of religious affiliation is surprisingly fluid, a broad new study has found.

Among the findings in a survey of 35,000 Americans by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: 44 percent of American adults say they have left their childhood faith in favor of another religion or no organized religion at all. That includes people who switched from one Protestant denomination to another.

The fastest-growing group overall are 16 percent who are unaffiliated with any particular faith. That is more than double the percentage who were unaffiliated as children.

And while 31 percent of Americans surveyed said they were raised Catholic, only 24 percent identify as Catholic today.

Overall, 78 percent of Americans are Christian. Just under 5 percent ascribe to all the non-Christian faiths combined, including Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism.

Among the dramatic declines: 51 percent of Americans say they are Protestant, down from nearly two-thirds in the 1970s.

And here to discuss these findings and their significance is Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; and Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology of religion at Boston University.

Welcome to you both.

And this is quite a study, Luis Lugo.

LUIS LUGO, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: Thank you. Good to be here.

New findings 'remarkable'
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you've been in this field a long time. Were you surprised at your own findings that 44 percent of Americans have changed their religious affiliation in their lifetime?
LUIS LUGO: It is truly remarkable. We know this anecdotally from talking to people whom we know who are changing on a regular basis. What we've done here is to carefully document the extent of that change.

MARGARET WARNER: And what explains it?

LUIS LUGO: Well, Americans seem to be comfortable with change just overall. They change jobs regularly. They change where they live regularly.

And they seem to be comfortable with changing their religion regularly. As you mentioned, half of our respondents said that they are something else today than what they were as children.

So change is the word when it comes to American religion. We seem to be a nation of seekers. Any economist, Margaret, looking at the American religious scene would conclude that this is, indeed, a very competitive and very dynamic religious marketplace.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor Ammerman, how new a phenomenon is this, if you look at, say, the last 100 years or 150 years of American history and religious experience?

NANCY AMMERMAN, Boston University: Well, we certainly have a picture of the recent situation in American religion as one in which, in the olden days, people lived in a small town, they lived with families over many generations, everybody was the same religious tradition, they stayed put.

But what we know is that, since particularly World War II, we have become a more mobile society. We've also become a society in which a higher proportion of people have left home, gone off to college, met somebody who was perhaps of a different religious faith, married them.

So this kind of fluidity and change has really picked up speed in the post-World War II period.

But it's also interesting to put this in a longer historical trajectory and say, "Well, what was it like, you know, before 100 years ago or so?"

And I think one of the things that's interesting about this picture of Americans choosing religious traditions and moving away from the tradition in which perhaps they were raised is that that's exactly where we started.

As a country, we started with people who were willing to leave the tradition of their childhood, get on a boat, and go start something new.

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