WASHINGTON – According to a new study on the religious affiliation of U.S. adults, 28 percent of Americans have either changed religious affiliations or claim no formal religion at all.
The study also shows the Catholic Church has been hardest hit by these shifts, but that the influx of Catholic immigrants has offset the loss. So, the percentage of the adult population that identifies itself as Catholic has held fairly steady at around 25 percent, it says.
The 148-page study, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” was conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and based on interviews with 35,000 adults last year.
Its findings, released Feb. 25, show that roughly 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics. Almost half of these former Catholics joined Protestant denominations, while about half do not have a religious affiliation and a small percentage chose other faiths.
“If everyone raised Catholic stayed (with their religious affiliation), Catholics would be one-third of the population,” said John Green, a senior research fellow and a principal author of the study.
Jesuit Father Allan Figueroa Deck, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church, said he was hardly surprised by the report, which he described as “more than a gentle wake-up call.”
He told Catholic News Service Feb. 27 that the trend of adult Catholics leaving the church points to the “lack of a more vigorous engagement” with the church’s diverse membership. “We can’t sit on our laurels,” he said, stressing the need to promote lay leaders, encourage vocations and also think of creative ways to evangelize and reach out to members.
The margin of error for the total sample surveyed is plus or minus 0.6 percentage points.
In a Feb. 25 teleconference with reporters, Mr. Green attributed the shifts in religious affiliation to “lifecycle effects,” or the changes young people make when they are on their own. He also said the changes in religious affiliation could be explained in part by the diversity of today’s American society where there are “a greater number of options.”
The Catholic Church was not the only religious affiliation to lose members. Study researchers said they found an overall fluidity of religious affiliation.
Baptists experienced a net loss of 3.7 percent and Methodists lost 2.1 percent. Figures relating to the Catholic Church show that 31.4 percent of adults in the United States said they were raised Catholic while only 23.9 percent of them identify with the Catholic Church today, giving the church a net loss of 7.5 percent.
“Everybody in this country is losing members; everybody is gaining members,” said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, during the teleconference.
“It is a very competitive marketplace and if you rest on your laurels, you’re going to be history,” he added.
The survey, conducted through phone interviews from May to August 2007, asked respondents more than 40 questions, including what faith they were raised in and what they currently practice. According to the responses, 78.4 percent of Americans are Christians, about 5 percent belong to other faith traditions and 16.1 percent are unaffiliated with any religion, which the survey described as the fastest-growing religious category in America.
The respondents who said they were not affiliated with any particular faith today are more than double the number who said they weren’t affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-quarter say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.
The survey’s researchers said the study also confirms that the United States is “on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country.”
Although roughly 51 percent of Americans said they are members of Protestant denominations, the study points to “significant internal diversity and fragmentation” among Protestants where “hundreds of different denominations (are) loosely grouped around three fairly distinct religious traditions – evangelical Protestant churches, mainline Protestant churches and historically black Protestant churches.”
Mark Gray, a research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, called the Pew report a “great study” but said much of the media coverage of it could be misleading.
For example, he told CNS, one aspect of the study that has been overlooked is that, despite the number of adults leaving, the Catholic Church continues to have a 68 percent retention rate of members who have been Catholic since childhood.
He said that rate puts the church just behind the Mormon, Orthodox and Jewish traditions, which have a 70 percent retention rate. Hindus top the list with an 84 percent retention rate. These figures can get lost because the Catholic Church is such a large religious group and “everything is proportional,” Mr. Gray added.
In examining the data for the Catholic Church, the researchers said the increase in Latin American members projects not only a future trend for the makeup of American Catholicism, but for the United States as a whole.
According to the survey, Latinos already account for roughly one in three adult Catholics overall and may account for an even larger share of U.S. Catholics in the future. It said Latinos represent roughly one in eight U.S. Catholics age 70 and older and account for nearly half of all Catholics ages 18-29.
“There is no question that there has been a transition in the Catholic Church for few decades,” Father Deck told CNS. He said the U.S. Catholic Church has been “moving from a base that is primarily European to a Latin American and Asian base” and needs to be able to minister to these groups that have different issues and different ways of doing things.
“There is a tremendous amount of work to be done, not that we haven’t made progress,” he said.
He called the increased number of Hispanics joining the U.S. Catholic Church a “blessing,” but added, “We need to continue to adequately integrate new groups in the church, creating a church with a new feel, a new rhythm.”