Church-Shopping: Why Americans Change Faiths

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Sebastian Pfuetze / zefa / Corbis

Forty-three years ago, this magazine published a stark cover with the words "Is God Dead?" stamped in red against an inky black background. The accompanying article predicted that secularization, science and urbanization would eliminate the need for religious belief and institutions before long; in modern society, only the weak and uneducated would persist in their faith. Yet rumors of religion's demise turned out to be premature. Over the past few years, neo-atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have taken up the cry again, encouraged by studies showing that the percentage of Americans who report no religious affiliation has more than doubled since 1990. But as a new report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows, it is a mistake to conclude that more Americans are rejecting religion. Leaving church, it turns out, doesn't mean losing faith.

When Pew researchers set out last year to map the U.S.'s religious landscape with a groundbreaking survey of more than 35,000 people, they expected fairly straightforward answers to questions about individual religious affiliations. (The survey included more detailed questions about religious beliefs and practices than have been asked in past censuses; the 2010 census will not ask about religion at all.) What the Pew researchers didn't anticipate is that fully 44% of Americans have changed faiths at least once. Some converted from one religion or denomination to another; others grew up with no tradition only to adopt one as an adult; still others left their childhood faith and found themselves with no religious home. (See pictures of John 3:16 in pop culture.)

"It was a phenomenon," says Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum. "We needed to make greater sense of it." So the researchers followed up with more than 2,800 of the original respondents who had reported changing religious traditions and asked why they had decided to leave and/or join a faith.

The answers were so varied that analysts nearly ran out of codes to categorize them. "The U.S. has an unmatched religious dynamism," explains Lugo. "It's an open religious marketplace as well as a very competitive one. This is the supermarket cereal aisle." Without an established state religion, all faiths can freely exist in the U.S. but must compete for adherents in order to survive. (See pictures of a drive-in church.)

With all those options, choosing a church (or mosque or synagogue or temple) isn't just a matter of theology for many Americans. They might decide where to worship because they adhere to a broad tradition — like Protestantism — or because they are drawn to a particular denomination, subdenomination or even an individual congregation. Or they might choose based on location or children's activities or the quality of preaching or music or potluck offerings. The concept of church-shopping itself is uniquely American. "'What is your religious preference?' is such an American question," Lugo says. "We can't ask that on surveys in other countries. In most places, religion is an assigned identity. It's part of your family, part of your heritage."

Despite the fluidity of religious affiliation in the U.S., the Pew study discovered some commonalities among those who switch. Former Catholics who either switched to another tradition or became unaffiliated cited unhappiness with church teachings on abortion and homosexuality and disagreements over the role of women in the church. Protestants were more likely to switch because they married someone from another tradition. And if they eventually left religion altogether, they were most likely of all formerly religious adherents to have tried several different traditions before giving up — 38% of unaffiliated former Protestants had switched traditions twice, and 32% had switched three or more times.

But what did Americans mean when they checked the box marked "no affiliation"? Pew researchers found that this category challenges assumptions about those who have "left" religion. In the 2008 survey, 16% of Americans said they had no religious affiliations, but of that group, only 10% identified themselves as atheists and 15% as agnostics. Far from joining in religion-bashing, roughly 4 out of 10 currently unaffiliated said religion is at least somewhat important in their life. And many said they are still hoping to eventually find the right religious home. Among those who were raised Catholic or Protestant, the study says, "1 in 3 say they just have not found the right religion yet." (Read "Finding God on YouTube.")

For the most part, the unaffiliated report deep dissatisfaction with organized religion, believing that it focuses too much on rules and that religious leaders are too concerned with acquiring power and wealth. "In the 2008 survey, when we asked other religion questions — whether they believed in God, how often they prayed or attended religious services — it was clear that 40% of these unaffiliated people are fairly religious," says Lugo. "They are not indifferent or hostile to religion." Indeed, only 32% of the unaffiliated agreed with the statement that religion is superstition, and even fewer (23%) said belief was important in their decision to leave a religious tradition.

Perhaps most surprising to the Pew researchers was that of the 7% of Americans who were raised unaffiliated, only half remained unaffiliated as adults. "Only Jehovah's Witness has a lower retention rate," says Pew analyst Gregory Smith. Unlike the disillusioned Catholics and Protestants who fled organized religion, these new adherents tend to see the positive aspects of being affiliated with a religious institution. When asked for the main reason they joined their current religion, 33% of the formerly unaffiliated cited the benefits of being spiritually and socially connected to a community, and 20% said it was a choice driven by personal spirituality and a sense that something was missing from their life.

These findings won't be music to the ears of Sam Harris or fans of his best seller The End of Faith. But they do confirm that a stubborn, insistent strain of religiosity continues to infuse Americans — even those who claim they've left organized religion behind.

See pictures of a drive-in church.

See pictures of Pope Benedict XVI visiting the U.S.