Revised February 2011*
The biggest gains due to change in religious affiliation have been among those who say they are not affiliated with any particular faith. Overall, the 2007 “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” found that 16% of the adult population is unaffiliated, with the vast majority of this group (79%) reporting that they were raised in a religion as children. In total, more than one-in-ten American adults and more than a quarter of all those who have changed religions have become unaffiliated after having been raised as part of a religious group.
Religious Change Over the Life Cycle
The majority of both former Catholics (64%) and former Protestants (58%) who have become unaffiliated report having done so as adults. Among those who became unaffiliated as minors, most say it was mainly their own decision to do so rather than their parents’ choice.
Among the currently unaffiliated, large majorities of both former Catholics and former Protestants report attending worship services at least once a week as children (74% and 64%, respectively). However, regular church attendance drops dramatically by adolescence for both groups, and very few unaffiliated people report regularly attending worship services now, as adults. Unaffiliated former Catholics and former Protestants are equally unlikely to say they regularly attend worship services as adults.
Only 30% of former Catholics and 18% of former Protestants who are now unaffiliated report that they had very strong faith as a child. All three unaffiliated groups (former Catholics, former Protestants and those who were raised unaffiliated) continue to express low levels of religious faith as adults.
Former Catholics who are now unaffiliated are just as likely as lifelong Catholics to have participated in religious institutions and practices such as religious education classes (68% and 71%, respectively) and religious youth groups (32% for both groups). By contrast, just more than half of former Protestants who have become unaffiliated say they attended Sunday school, compared with roughly two-thirds of lifelong Protestants. And only about one-third of former Protestants who are now unaffiliated say they participated in religious youth groups (36%), compared with roughly half of lifelong Protestants.
Reasons for Becoming Unaffiliated
When asked whether a list of specific reasons were important factors in their decision to become unaffiliated, a significant proportion of those who have become unaffiliated after being raised in a religion say they simply do not believe in God or the religious teachings of most religions. About four-in-ten former Catholics and former Protestants who are now unaffiliated say this is an important reason they became unaffiliated.
Many of those who have become unaffiliated, however, remain open to the possibility that they could someday find a religion that suits them; roughly one-in-three agree they just have not yet found the right religion.
Very few people say they have become unaffiliated with religion in response to events going on in their lives, such as moving to a new community, getting married, losing a loved one or getting separated or divorced. Instead, strong majorities of those who have become unaffiliated say there are certain problems with religion, and most of those who identify these problems say they were important reasons they became unaffiliated. For instance, across all religious upbringings, roughly three-quarters of those who have become unaffiliated say religious people tend to be hypocritical and judgmental rather than sincere and forgiving. And most of these, including 55% of those raised Catholic and 53% of those raised Protestant, cite this as one of the reasons they became unaffiliated.
Three-in-four former Catholics (75%) and former Protestants (76%) who have become unaffiliated say that many religions are partly true but no religion is completely true. Most of those who agree with this statement say this is an important reason they became unaffiliated, including 48% of former Catholics and 43% of former Protestants. About seven-in-ten (73% of former Catholics and 71% of former Protestants) say that religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality, with nearly half saying this is an important reason they became unaffiliated. A slightly smaller fraction of those who have become unaffiliated say that religious leaders are more concerned with money and power than they are with truth and spirituality, and about four-in-ten say this is an important reason they decided to become unaffiliated.
In contrast to opinions on these questions, majorities of those who have become unaffiliated disagree with the idea that science proves religion is just superstition. Only 32% of former Catholics and the same percentage of former Protestants agree that science proves religion to be superstition, and fewer still (less than a quarter) say it was important in their conversion.
When asked to explain in their own words the main reason they chose to become unaffiliated, both former Catholics and former Protestants provide very similar answers. Among both groups, religious and moral beliefs are the reason most often cited for becoming unaffiliated; 45% of former Catholics and 42% of former Protestants say this. For example, one-fifth of former Catholics (20%) and more than one-in-ten former Protestants (12%) say they became unaffiliated because they do not believe in their former religion (or in any religion). Criticisms of particular religious institutions, practices and people were somewhat less common (30% for former Catholics and 25% for former Protestants). Only 4% of former Catholics and 6% of former Protestants say they became unaffiliated mainly in response to things going on in their lives, such as marriage and family or relocation to a new community.
Reasons for Leaving Childhood Religion
When asked a separate series of yes-or-no questions about why they left their childhood faith, more than seven-in-ten former Catholics and former Protestants (71% each) who are now unaffiliated say they just gradually drifted away from the faith, making this the most commonly offered reason by both groups. Many also say they left their former religion because they stopped believing in its teachings, with nearly two-thirds of unaffiliated former Catholics (65%) and half of unaffiliated former Protestants (50%) saying they left their childhood religion for this reason. Among both groups, roughly four-in-ten say they departed their former faith because their spiritual needs were not being met. Roughly three-in-ten former Catholics (29%) and more than one-third of former Protestants (36%) were unhappy with their former religion’s teachings about the Bible. Most of those who express concerns about the religion’s teachings on the Bible say their former religion interpreted the Bible too literally, with only a few saying their former faith did not follow the Bible literally enough.
Most unaffiliated former Catholics (56%) say dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church’s teachings about abortion and homosexuality contributed to their decision to leave, and about half (48%) say the same about the Catholic Church’s position on birth control. Additionally, nearly four-in-ten say they left Catholicism because they were unhappy with the Catholic Church’s treatment of women, and nearly as many (33%) express discontent with its teachings on divorce and remarriage. Roughly one-quarter of unaffiliated former Catholics name the clergy sexual abuse scandal, discontent with the Catholic Church’s rule that priests cannot marry and dissatisfaction with church teachings on poverty, war and the death penalty as motivating factors for having left their childhood faith.
One-in-five unaffiliated former Catholics (19%) and former Protestants (20%) say they left their childhood religion because they were uncomfortable with the sense of community at their congregation. Interestingly, most former Protestants who take this view say their congregation was too close (13%), with too many people involved in other people’s business, while fewer (4%) say there was not enough sense of community at their congregation. Among former Catholics, 10% say there was not enough feeling of community and 5% say their former parishes were too close, with too many people involved in others’ private lives.
Leaving the Ranks of the Unaffiliated
Paradoxically, the unaffiliated have gained the most members in the process of religious change despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all religious groups. Indeed, most people who were raised unaffiliated now belong to a religious group. 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 now belongs to a religious group after having been raised unaffiliated.
Almost one-third (32%) of those who have become religiously affiliated after an unaffiliated childhood joined their current faith as a minor, including 19% who did so before reaching age 13. But only 10% of those who have become affiliated with a religion after an unaffiliated childhood say it was mostly their parents’ decision.
Compared with those who have remained unaffiliated, the formerly unaffiliated attended religious services more regularly as children and teenagers. Those raised unaffiliated who joined a faith are more than twice as likely as those who have remained unaffiliated to say they attended worship services at least once a week as a child (23% for those who have joined a religion vs. 10% for those who remain unaffiliated), and almost four times as likely to say they attended religious services regularly as a teenager (23% vs. 6%). While worship service attendance stayed very low into adulthood for those who remained unaffiliated, it more than doubled among those who joined a faith, up 28 percentage points from childhood and teenage years to 51% as adults.
Those raised in no religion who converted to a faith also experienced a great strengthening of faith from childhood to adulthood. Only 10% say they had very strong faith as a child (the same as those who stayed unaffiliated), but this grew 53 percentage points for those who are now affiliated, to 63% as adults, the largest increase for any group of converts or nonconverts.
When asked whether a series of specific reasons helped lead to their first becoming affiliated with a religious group, most (51%) say they did so because their spiritual needs were not being met. Nearly as many (46%) say they found a religion they liked more than being unaffiliated. Far fewer cite life cycle reasons such as marriage (23%), moving to a new community (15%), losing a loved one (10%) or becoming separated or divorced (6%) as a reason for beginning to associate with a religion.
As with other groups of converts, enjoying the services and style of worship of a new faith stands out as the reason most commonly cited for joining their current faith by those who were raised without any religious affiliation. Nearly three-quarters (74%) cite this as an important reason for their conversion. A majority of those raised unaffiliated (55%) say they felt called by God to join their current faith. Just over a quarter (29%) say they were attracted by a particular minister or pastor, and the same proportion say they were asked to join by a member of the religion.
When asked about the main reason they joined their current faith, many (30%) of those raised unaffiliated mention liking things about religious institutions, organizations and people, such as feeling a connection with a particular church. Roughly one-in-four (24%) joined their faith because they agreed with its religious and moral teachings, with nearly as many (22%) volunteering that they joined their current religious group because something in their lives changed, such as marriage or other family reasons. One-fifth (19%) say they joined their current religion for personal spiritual reasons.
*Revised February 2011 to correct minor reporting errors in responses to Q.3 and Q.16, the open-ended questions that asked respondents why they left their childhood religion and joined their current religion. Due to double-counting, some reasons for leaving and joining religions were overstated in the previous version. (return to text)