Faith "switching": Religions are leaking members and can't plug the holes fast enough
Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and Black Protestants have struggled to retain members compared to a few decades ago
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Back in 2015, the Pew Research Center released a landmark study about the changing religious landscape in America, and there was one graph in particular I still think about to this day. I’ve even used it in presentations I’ve given to various groups over the years.
It involved religious “switching” and showed that people were leaving Catholicism, Mainline Protestantism, and Historically Black Protestantism at a much faster rate than they were entering. Similarly, people were “joining” the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated much more frequently than they were exiting. (Evangelical Protestants were growing, too, but at a much slower rate.)
The same 2014 Religious Landscape Study also found that 22.8% of Americans were Unaffiliated compared to 70.6% who were different varieties of Christian.
(More recently, Pew has found that 29% of Americans are religiously Unaffiliated while 63% are now some form of Christian.)
Anytime you see graphs like this, though, you have to wonder if there’s anything about the methodology that led to the results. Did the researchers uncover something that was already happening, or did they inadvertently create conditions that led to these results (like by asking the questions a certain way). That’s why it always helps when a different survey, using non-identical methods, produces similar results.
Recently, sociologist Ryan P. Burge used the (massive) General Social Survey to find out whether religious switching is happening and whether it affects certain faiths more than others.
He basically found the same results: Catholics and Mainline Protestants are struggling to maintain their tribe, and so are Black Protestants (albeit to a lesser extent). Evangelicals, in this survey, are leaking a bit rather than growing. And the “No Religion” crowd is just amassing all the shattered pieces of the other groups.
Burge writes (emphasis his):
Retention is down for all Christians, but at different rates. For Catholics, it dropped below 80% somewhere in the early 1990s and it fell below 70% in the early 2010s. For Protestants, it’s still fairly high but is clearly down from the 90% reported in the 1970s. Today, about 80% of folks raised Protestant are still Protestant as adults.
The nones are different story entirely, though. It used to be that 2/3 of those raised nones identified with a religion as adults. Now, about 2/3 of those raised with no faith group are still nones into adulthood. In other words, most people raised none are still a none now. That wasn’t the case forty years ago.
Think about what all this means. Among everyone raised as Catholic, a third of them no longer claim the label as adults. They’ve left the Church. Evangelicals retain three out of every four members, which isn’t bad for them, but the grip isn’t as strong as it used to be decades ago. And while only two out of three people raised without religion are still non-religious when they’re older, we’re showing a rise in retention… all without the infrastructure and organization that everyone else designs to keep people in the fold.
Here’s another way of looking at it: While the majority of people raised in any of the major religions will keep that label into adulthood, the biggest landing spot for anyone who leaves the faith… is “No Religion.”
9% of kids raised in Catholicism will become evangelical when they’re older, but 17% of kids raised in Catholicism will ditch religion altogether.
Similarly, 8% of kids raised in evangelical Christianity will become Mainline Protestants when they’re older, but 13% of kids raised in evangelical Christianity will will ditch religion altogether.
“No Religion” is the most popular tourist destination for people looking to travel from their childhood faiths.
You might be wondering about the 34% of people raised without religion who become religious as they age. What do they become? Burge has a surprising answer (emphasis his):
About half of them start identifying as evangelical Christians as adults. The remainder are scattered across a lot of faith groups - a few becoming Catholics, a few switch to a non-Christian faith.
I would’ve expected something less… intense, but that shows you the pull that evangelicals have over people seeking God. (It’s a reason so many megachurches devote so many resources to reaching that exact crowd.)
Burge also found that most Secular Americans “are not born, they are made.” That is to say: We’re mostly a group of “first generation” heathens. Our parents didn’t raise us to be non-religious; rather, we left some other faith. It’ll be interesting to see what happens a decade or so from now when we start to see more “second generation” Nones who were never raised with any formal religion.
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