A Look at Religious Switching in America Today

Princeton, USA – Seventy-two percent of Americans claim to have maintained the same religious preference during their entire lifetime. Fifteen percent say they have changed from one religious preference to another. Ten percent say they had moved away from religion altogether. These data were obtained in response to the following question asked in a recent June 9-11 Gallup Poll:

Which of the following best describes you:

Always the same religious preference – 72%
Switched from one religious preference to another – 15%
Moved away from any religion whatsoever – 10%
No opinion – 3%

This is a very broad but straightforward way of measuring religious switching. The question leaves the definition of what constitutes changing “religious preference” to the respondent. Clearly one individual might define a change between Protestant denominations as a switch (e.g., moving from being a Methodist to being a Lutheran), while another individual might not. Other studies over the years have looked at this social phenomenon in different ways (e.g., looking at religious identification by asking detailed questions about the religion of one’s parents) and have arrived at slightly different estimates of lifetime switching.

Nevertheless, the basic measure included in the recent Gallup Poll provides a broad indication of the relative stability of the religious identity of Americans today. It is clear that everything else being equal, most Americans stick with the same religious preference throughout their lives. That identity is for the most part, we assume, the one into which Americans are born and the one into which they are socialized.


But why is it that some Americans defy this pattern of religious stability and make a change in their religious preference during their lifetime?

The survey asked those individuals who had changed from one religious preference to another or who had moved away from religion altogether to rate the importance of a series of possible reasons for the change, with the following results:

BASED ON THOSE WHO HAVE SWITCHED THEIR RELIGIOUS PREFERENCE OR WHO HAVE MOVED AWAY FROM RELIGION ALTOGETHER

You disagreed with the teachings of your original religion
Major reason – 40%
Minor reason – 24%
Not a reason at all – 34%
DOESN’T APPLY (vol.) – 2%
No opinion – 1%


You found a new religion that is more fulfilling
Major reason – 38%
Minor reason – 14%
Not a reason at all – 46%
DOESN’T APPLY (vol.) – 1%
No opinion – 1%


You grew dissatisfied with your local church and as a result changed religions
Major reason – 26%
Minor reason – 18%
Not a reason at all – 52%
DOESN’T APPLY (vol.) – 4%
No opinion – 1%

You disliked the fact that the leaders were struggling with each other to control the direction of your religion
Major reason – 25%
Minor reason – 18%
Not a reason at all – 54%
DOESN’T APPLY (vol.) – 2%
No opinion – 1%

You married someone from another religion
Major reason – 12%
Minor reason – 10%
Not a reason at all – 74%
DOESN’T APPLY (vol.) – 3%
No opinion – —

You moved and could not find a church of your religion that you liked
Major reason – 9%
Minor reason – 14%
Not a reason at all – 75%
DOESN’T APPLY (vol.) – 2%
No opinion – *

(vol.) Volunteered Response
* Less than 0.5%

Previous research has suggested that individuals sometimes switch religions for quite practical reasons: marriage to a spouse of a different faith, the desire to worship with individuals of one’s social class after undergoing upward social mobility, and moving to an area in which there are no churches of one’s original faith.

These data, however, suggest that religious switchers are most likely to do so because of a disconnect between their beliefs and goals and what their former religion was teaching or providing. At the top of the list of reasons for switching are the statements “You disagreed with the teachings of your original religion” and “You found a new religion that is more fulfilling.” Of those who changed religions, 40% and 38% respectively cited these as major reasons for their switch. Switchers are much less likely to agree that the practical reasons of moving and marriage were reasons for the change.

Although the sample sizes involved are small, it is instructive to look at the importance of these reasons for leaving one’s religious preference among those who have switched from one religion to another and those who switched away from religion altogether:

Reasons for Religious Switching

You disagreed with the teachings of your original religion
Those Who Switched From One Religion to Another – 37%
Those Who Switched Away From Religion Altogether – 44%

You found a new religion that is more fulfilling
Those Who Switched From One Religion to Another – 63%
Those Who Switched Away From Religion Altogether – 2%

You grew dissatisfied with your local church and as a result changed religions
Those Who Switched From One Religion to Another – 31%
Those Who Switched Away From Religion Altogether – 18%

You disliked the fact that the leaders were struggling with each other to control the direction of your religion
Those Who Switched From One Religion to Another – 23%
Those Who Switched Away From Religion Altogether – 29%

You married someone from another religion
Those Who Switched From One Religion to Another – 20%
Those Who Switched Away From Religion Altogether – 1%

You moved and could not find a church of your religion that you liked
Those Who Switched From One Religion to Another – 12%
Those Who Switched Away From Religion Altogether – 4%

These data show the same basic pattern discussed earlier. Those who switched from one religion to another are by far most likely to agree that having found a “new religion that is more fulfilling” is of major importance as a reason why they switched. That’s followed by disagreement with the teachings of the original religion, and dissatisfaction with one’s local church. The practical reasons of moving and marriage are still at the bottom of the list among these inter-religious switchers.

Not surprisingly, those who switched away from religion altogether are most likely to agree that a disagreement with the teachings of the original religion was of major importance as a reason behind this switch.

News reports are full of stories of squabbles within religions and Protestant denominations over various doctrinal issues (e.g., the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, Southern Baptists). Of some interest is the fact that those who switched out of religion altogether are as likely to cite these types of internecine fights as a reason of major importance than are those who switched between religions, and that at least one out of five of those in both groups say leader disagreement has major importance. This suggests that struggles among church leaders in many religions today could be having a harmful effect on the viability of the religious group.

The Demographics of Religious Switching

There is surprisingly little difference across most major demographic groups in terms of switching from one religious preference to another. Fifteen percent of the overall adult population reports inter-religious switching, and there are few demographic or geographic subgroups in which this percentage is significantly higher or lower. Young people, for example, are no more likely to report having switched to a new religion than those who are older. There is a slight tendency for those with higher levels of education to report having switched from one religion to another.

There is an interesting correlation between church attendance and inter-religious switching.

Twenty-one percent of those who currently report attending church on a weekly basis say that they have shifted religious preference at some point in their lifetime, compared to 11% of those who seldom or never attend.

It is impossible to determine causality here. It may be that less-active church members become more active once they have switched and found a more compatible church. It is also likely that active church members are those most likely to take the time and effort to explore the possibility of switching to a new religion if they do not find their current religion to be fulfilling. At any rate, this correlation suggests that active, involved church members may also be the most mobile. This is not surprising, but could stand as a wake-up call for church leaders.

Some differences exist by age in those who report having switched out of religion altogether.

The percentages decrease from 19% of those aged 18 to 29 to just 6% of those aged 65 and older.

Of course, we do not know what has happened during the course of these individuals’ lives. In other words, older Americans may have shifted out of religion when they were young, and then back into a religious identity at a subsequent point in their lives. This “drop out in college and return to religion when the kids are born” pattern is the conventional wisdom about lifestyle changes in religiosity, but cannot be verified with these data. We can simply confirm the fact that young people are the least likely to claim a religious preference (based on data reviewed elsewhere), and are also the most likely to say they have shifted away from religion altogether. Of great concern to church leaders, of course, is the question of whether or not these young people will come back to religion as they age and as their life and familial circumstances change.

The data do not show major differences in self-reported religious switching by current religious preference. Current Catholics are just slightly less likely to say they have switched religions in their lifetimes than are current Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians. Of some interest is the fact that one out of four of those who currently profess they have no religion say they have not changed religious preferences in their lifetime, suggesting that they were raised in this religion-less environment.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,002 adults, 18 years and older, conducted June 9-11, 2006. For results based on these samples, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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Source

(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The Gallup Poll, USA
June 23, 2006
Frank Newport
poll.gallup.com

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