Switching religion

A new survey released this week by the Pew Forum in the US shows that roughly half of Americans change religion in their lifetime. About 16pc now describe themselves as ‘non-affiliated’ while the rest move from one religion to another. 

When Americans switch, they tend to move from one Protestant Church to another, or from the Catholic Church to the Protestant Church. Only a small minority, too small to be separately categorised in this survey, switch to Catholicism from some other religion.

The survey reveals that half of Catholics who leave the Church leave religion altogether, while the other half become Protestants. About a tenth of the total American population is ex-Catholic, meaning around 30 million people. That is an extraordinary figure, although it is certainly exceeded by ex-Protestants when you tot up all the denominations together.

Those who leave religion altogether, and those who switch from one religion to another obviously do so for different reasons. 

The main reason respondents give for leaving religion completely is that they “drifted away”. The second reason respondents offered is that they disagree with the teachings of their Church. The sexual ones are most often cited. No surprise there. 

The main reason given for switching from one religion to another is that the new religion better meets the person’s spiritual needs or they feel more comfortable in their new religion. 

Catholics are more likely than Protestants to cite the teachings of their Church as a reason for quitting religion, or switching religion. Why might this be? 

One reason could be that the Catholic Church tends to be more upfront about its teachings than many of the Protestant Churches. It hasn’t cut its moral cloth to measure as some of the more liberal Churches have. 

What’s worth noting, by the way, is that the Churches that have cut their cloth to measure haven’t managed to hang onto their members. In fact, they have lost members even faster than the Catholic Church and much faster than the Evangelical Churches. 

The fact that a lot of Protestant Churches have substantially watered down their teachings, especially with regard to sexual morality, may explain why most Protestant Americans who say they have switched religion or abandoned religion don’t cite the teachings of their Churches. 

Why is religious adherence so fluid in America? The answer is probably that America has so many religions, or more precisely, so many Christian Churches. This may also explain why Americans are less likely to lapse altogether than Europeans. 

In America a person who is dissatisfied with their own religion has many other religions they can consider that are easy to hand. In Europe, a person who is dissatisfied with their own religion may well live in a country that is mainly Catholic or mainly Protestant and so when they leave their Church, not finding an easy-to-hand alternative, they abandon religion altogether.