More in US switch religious affiliations

Study cites loss of faith, personal circumstances

By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / April 28, 2009
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Catholics who leave their faith say they drifted away from the church because it did not meet their spiritual needs or they stopped believing in its teachings, according to a new study, while Protestants often tend to cite circumstantial factors, a move, a marriage, or a problem with a particular minister or congregation.

Altogether, Americans are switching in and out of churches at unprecedented rates, with about half of Americans today saying that they have changed their religious affiliation at some point during their lives, according to a study released yesterday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

"Americans change religious affiliation early and often and for varying reasons," said John C. Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron who oversaw the study.

The churn within American religion was one of the key findings of a major study released last year by the Pew Forum. The new study attempts to explore the reasons why Americans change denominations or religions, or, increasingly, drop out of institutional religion altogether.

Among the most striking findings is that most people who change religious affiliation leave the denomination in which they were raised by age 24, and many change religious affiliation more than once.

The study also explores the growing ranks of the unaffiliated, about 16 percent of American adults, according to Pew. The study finds many of the unaffiliated cite objections to religious people or religious institutions as the reason for leaving organized religion, rather than a conclusion that God does not exist.

About one third of the unaffiliated say they are open to finding the right religion.

"In American Christianity, you see a lot of talk about how vibrant it is and how people are moving in, but there's also a huge open back door that they must be leaving out of," said D. Michael Lindsay, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University.

"It's not so much that science disproves religion, so people abandon their faith. It's more like a gradual drifting away, and a number of unaffiliated folks end up coming back and getting involved."

The researchers said the number of people surveyed who converted to Catholicism, as well as the number of people moving in and out of non-Christian faiths, was too small to be analyzed in this study.

But the new study suggests that the sexual abuse crisis played at most a minor role in the decision of Catholics to leave. Only 2 percent of former Catholics who are now unaffiliated volunteered the abuse scandal as the main reason they are no longer Catholic.

Former Catholics who are now unaffiliated often said they left because of disagreements with the Catholic Church over homosexuality, abortion, birth control, or gender.

Former Catholics who are now evangelical often say they stopped believing Catholic teachings and are concerned with the Catholic Church's teachings about the Bible, while former Catholics who are now mainline Protestants most often say they changed because of marrying a non-Catholic or because they did not like their priest.

"For my first 20 years, it wouldn't even have occurred to me, no matter how bad it was, that I could change; being Catholic was just what you were," said Susan Spilecki, a 41-year-old English teacher from Brighton who was a lifelong and active Catholic until entering the Episcopal church last year.

By then, she said, she had growing concerns about the church's teachings on contraception, homosexuality, and the ordination of women; she grew tired of explaining why she remained in the Catholic Church; and her parish was closed by the archdiocese.

She found plenty of company when she left. In the Episcopal churches where she now worships, Spilecki said, "I've met more disenfranchised Catholics and Unitarians who discovered Jesus than cradle Episcopalians."

Despite the departure of Catholics from the church, the overall Catholic population in the United States has remained stable because of immigration.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops said it was pleased that the study found that retention rates in the Catholic Church are similar to those of other faiths, although the study's authors said that those leaving Catholicism outnumber converts to the church by four to one.

"The report highlights the importance of Mass attendance among children and teenagers," said Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, adding that the study found that a key factor in whether a person remains Catholic is whether he or she attended Mass as a young person.

Among Protestants, denomination switching is often triggered by marriage or by a family's move from one community to another.

"A lot of the switching is intra-Protestant switching, and I think at this point that's not even switching," said Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University. "Hardly anyone knows the difference between a Lutheran and an Episcopalian or even a Methodist and a Baptist. We live in a postdenominational time."

Kyle Thureen, a 26-year-old software engineer from Burlington, was raised in a Lutheran church in Minnesota and now attends the evangelical Grace Chapel in Lexington.

"The name on the front of the church is less important than what does the church believe and how do they live that out," Thureen said. "The bottom line is, I would describe myself as a Christian."

Susan Stewart, a 44-year-old church worker in Arlington, had long been affiliated with congregations of the American Baptist Churches, but then joined a United Methodist church because it had better programming for children.

Her husband was raised in the Catholic Church.

"We looked around at a bunch of places, and Calvary United Methodist is within walking distance of our house," she said.

"It was a neighborhood congregation, and there were a reasonable number of children when we started going there. Neither one of us had any experience with a United Methodist congregation, but originally the denomination did not particularly matter to us. In some ways, we were starting fresh together."

Michael Paulson can be reached at