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Religion Survey Finds Many Americans Swap Faiths

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Religion Survey Finds Many Americans Swap Faiths


Religion Survey Finds Many Americans Swap Faiths

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It may surprise you to know that nearly half of Americans say they are abandoning the faith of their fathers or mothers. They're in any event leaving the religion they grew up with. That's according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It found the pattern after studying 35,000 adults. And we're going to talk about this now with Luis Lugo, Director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Welcome to the program.

Mr. LUIS LUGO (Director, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life): It's good to be with you.

INSKEEP: What would you have assumed that Americans were doing?

Mr. LUGO: Well, we knew that there was an awful lot of change going on out there, but we were surprised, frankly, when we analyzed the numbers and saw that, conservatively estimated, nearly half of Americans tell us that they are something else today religiously speaking than what were when they were children.

INSKEEP: Because you would have guessed that by and large, once a Methodist, always a Methodist, or Baptist, or anything else?

Mr. LUGO: Indeed. But Americans seem to be very comfortable being on the move, not only with respect to their jobs and places of residence, but also, evidently, with respect to their religious affiliation.

INSKEEP: Well, why is it that we imagine that people are generally most comfortable in the faith that they had as a child when you suggest that at least in the present day, the pattern is very different for millions and millions of Americans?

Mr. LUGO: It is, indeed. I think we assume that because we assume that people are uncomfortable with change, particularly on this question of key religious identity. But, in fact, Americans seem to be extremely comfortable with change. And as I said, even when they change from a religion to a non-religion, that is to say they become unaffiliated, that is no guarantee that they will stay there. In fact, more than half of those with whom we spoke who said that they were currently unaffiliated said that as youth, they were affiliated, but also vice versa, which is really quite interesting. Half of those who were unaffiliated as children have now joined a particular religion.

INSKEEP: Who's winning here, if I can put it that way, winning more members than they're losing?

Mr. LUGO: Well, it is that unaffiliated group. Even though they lose a significant percentage of those who are part of them, they are gaining more than they're losing. I should add, incidentally, that not everyone in the unaffiliated group is unreligious. In fact, a good percentage of folks in that group tell us that religion is at least somewhat important in their lives, but they have become disassociated from institutionalized religion.

INSKEEP: You also say in this survey that it's gotten to the point where the United States is only about 51 percent Protestant, just barely a majority Protestant. If you follow the numbers forward, could you imagine a future in which a majority of Americans is something else, perhaps unaffiliated or something else?

Mr. LUGO: Well, not only envision it, I think it's right at our doorstep. Just as the ranks of the unaffiliated have gained from this very dynamic religious competition, clearly it's Protestantism, and particularly mainline Protestantism, that has seen the greatest losses. Although a good number of Catholics have also left the Catholic Church. But the reason why the Catholic percentage has remained steady is another major finding in this survey, which is the factor of immigration. Immigration is not only making the Christian balance in this country tilt towards Catholicism, but it's also greatly diversifying the range of Americans' religious choices towards these religions that are non-traditional to the U.S.

INSKEEP: Luis Lugo of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Thanks for sharing these numbers with us.

Mr. LUGO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: And there's a link to the complete results of this survey at

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