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Study Finds American Religious Affiliations Are Fluid

February 26, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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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.
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JIM LEHRER: And to some new information about Americans and their religions. Margaret Warner has that story.

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.

Organized religion loses out

MARGARET WARNER: Very true.

So, Luis Lugo, now, the fastest-growing group, the 16 percent who say they are, quote, "unaffiliated," now does that mean they're not religious or are they religious but just not affiliated with an organized religion?

LUIS LUGO: Both segments seem to be growing, that is, those who are non-affiliated and are non-religious, as well as those who are unaffiliated and are religious.

In fact, more than a third of those who told us that they were not affiliated with any particular religion also told us that religion was important in their lives.

So I think you're seeing the double trend, both increasing secularism on the part of one segment of Americans, but even among those who are religious increasing distance from institutional religion.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, Nancy Ammerman, the ones who say they're still deeply religious, then what are they saying about religion in their lives?

NANCY AMMERMAN: Well, I think Professor Lugo is exactly right that what we're seeing here is much more a disenchantment with existing organized religions than with religion or spirituality as something that is going to be important to people.

We may see some of these people show up later in their lives in a religious congregation or tradition or we may see some of them actually invent new ways of being religious and invent new religious organizations and traditions.

That's something that has, again, occurred over and over again in American history, that we've taken our discontents with what we had available to us at any given time and created new solutions, new alternatives.

Immigration has huge impact

MARGARET WARNER: Luis Lugo, immigration, of course, a very powerful force in America today. That has had quite an impact, has it not, on this whole picture, particularly the make-up and character of the Catholic population?

LUIS LUGO: Absolutely. Immigration is adding to the great dynamism and the menu of choice for Americans when it comes to religion.

It is interesting to note that the vast majority of immigrants are, in fact, Christian immigrants. So in that sense, they're reinforcing the generally Christian nature of American society.

But the balance within that Christian immigrant community between Catholics and Protestants is very, very different than we find among the native-born population.

Very briefly, among native-born Americans, Protestants outnumber Catholics by more than 2 to 1. Among immigrants who are Christians, it's Catholics that outnumber Protestants by 2 to 1. And that tells us you why, despite the numbers you gave with regard to the Catholic Church, the percentage of Catholics in this country has remained fairly stable.

Immigration, however, is also adding diversity beyond the Christian community with many groups, world religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, also being much more representative among immigrant communities than they are among the native-born public.

MARGARET WARNER: So even though they're only 5 percent of the total, in total now, what you're saying is that's a fast-growing area, as well?

LUIS LUGO: It's very fast, both because of immigration, but also number of children and other factors that come into play. And they're also effective in drawing new converts. Particularly Islam and Buddhism have proven to be very, very effective in drawing native-born converts to their ranks.

MARGARET WARNER: Nancy Ammerman, what do you think is the significance or impact on the American character of the decline in the percentage of Americans, at least, who call themselves Protestant, as we said in the intro, we went from two-thirds in the '70s to roughly half today, when you think that our country was really founded by Protestants on a set of sort of Protestant views, beliefs, social, cultural, political?

NANCY AMMERMAN: Certainly it's a major shift in our psyche to think that this very presumably Protestant culture is one that is no longer numerically dominated by Protestants.

But let's also remember that the Western half of the United States was founded as a Catholic part of the continent. So that's always been a piece of the overall picture.

But I think it's also important to recognize the degree to which that initial Protestant founding still infuses our culture, the notion that part of what Protestantism means is that one is, in fact, choosing a kind of individual, voluntary relationship to a religious community, that you're expected to make a choice to individually or to collectively form your congregations, your denominations, and so forth.

And lots of those basic Protestant presuppositions are in some ways embodied in what we see in this larger cultural trend today of more and more people choosing to be religious in their own way and, in some cases, being religious outside of an established religious organization.

Interfaith marriages increasing

MARGARET WARNER: I want to ask you both, finally -- we don't have a lot of time, so maybe briefly -- but how do these changes in people's religious identification manifest themselves in Americans' daily lives or in the American character apart from religion?

LUIS LUGO: Well, we know from all the research we've done at the Pew Forum that it matters how people vote, how people orient themselves on major public policy issues their religious affiliation, their level of church attendance. All those things matters.

But, you know, it's not just in politics. It's within people's homes. Nancy mentioned intermarriage. We found that nearly 4 out of 10 married Americans are married to someone with another faith. So we're having to negotiate this diversity in the very context of our own homes.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Nancy Ammerman, a brief final thought on this?

NANCY AMMERMAN: Absolutely. I think we see it most profoundly in the home. People are making these decisions and negotiating who they will be and how they'll relate to religion out of their family experience. And then it has ripples out into all other aspects of their lives.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Nancy Ammerman and Luis Lugo, thank you both.

LUIS LUGO: Thank you.