Diverse Reasons, but Distinct Patterns Emerge

A new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that Americans change their religious affiliation early and often, and the reasons they give for changing—or leaving religion altogether—differ widely depending on the origin and destination of the convert.


Mary Schultz
Communications Manager

“Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.” is a follow-up to the “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” conducted by the Pew Forum in 2007 and released in 2008, and is based on over 2,800 callback interviews with members of the largest segments of the population that have changed religious affiliation.

The poll results offer a fuller picture of the “churn” within religion in America, where about half of adults have changed religious affiliation at least once in their life.

Key findings include:

  • Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24, and many of those who change religion do so more than once.

  • Many people who have left a religion to become unaffiliated, the group that has grown the most from religious switching, say they did so in part because they stopped believing in the teachings of their childhood faith. Many also cite disillusionment with religious people and institutions as reasons for becoming unaffiliated.

  • Many people who have left the Catholic Church say they did so because they stopped believing in Catholic teachings. This is true for half of Catholics who have become Protestant as well as two-thirds of Catholics who have become unaffiliated. Many fewer say they left because of the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

  • In contrast with other groups, Americans who have switched from one Protestant denominational family (e.g., Baptist, Methodist) to another tend to do so because of changes in life circumstances, such as marriage or moving to a new community.

The report, including a detailed executive summary, methodology and topline questionnaire, is available online. For the original “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” visit religions.pewresearch.org/religion.

If you are interested in arranging an interview with a Pew Forum researcher or need more information, please contact Loralei Coyle at 202.419.4556 or lcoyle@pewresearch.org/religion  or Robbie Mills at 202.419.4564 or rmills@pewresearch.org/religion .

The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life delivers timely, impartial information on issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs. The Pew Forum is a nonpartisan, nonadvocacy organization and does not take positions on policy debates. Based in Washington, D.C., the Pew Forum is a project of the Pew Research Center, which is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.