The latest Pew Poll on religious life in America announces that religious affiliation in America has become a choice, not a consequence of birth circumstances. According to the report “roughly 44% of Americans now profess a religious affiliation that is different from the religion in which they were raised. ” At the same time, traditional protestant and catholic churches are in decline, while evangelicals and atheist/seculars are on the upswing. More political and religious polarization to come.
While those Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result of changes in affiliation, Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes. While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic. These losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of immigration. The Landscape Survey finds that among the foreign-born adult population, Catholics outnumber Protestants by nearly a two-to-one margin (46% Catholic vs. 24% Protestant); among native-born Americans, on the other hand, the statistics show that Protestants outnumber Catholics by an even larger margin (55% Protestant vs. 21% Catholic). Immigrants are also disproportionately represented among several world religions in the U.S., including Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.
The biggest gains due to changes in religious affiliation have been among those who say they are not affiliated with any particular religious group or tradition. Overall, 7.3% of the adult population says they were unaffiliated with any particular religion as a child. Today, however, 16.1% of adults say they are unaffiliated, a net increase of 8.8 percentage points. Sizeable numbers of those raised in all religions – from Catholicism to Protestantism to Judaism – are currently unaffiliated with any particular religion.
Another group that shows a net gain is nondenominational Protestants, whose share of the population has more than tripled as a result of changes in affiliation; 1.5% of the population was raised within nondenominational Protestantism, compared with 4.5% who currently report such an affiliation. Groups that have experienced a net loss from changes in affiliation include Baptists (net loss of 3.7 percentage points) and Methodists (2.1 percentage points). However, the group that has experienced the greatest net loss by far is the Catholic Church. Overall, 31.4% of U.S. adults say that they were raised Catholic. Today, however, only 23.9% of adults identify with the Catholic Church, a net loss of 7.5 percentage points.
How can this decline in the percentage of Catholics be reconciled with the findings from the General Social Surveys discussed in Chapter 1 that show that roughly the same proportion of
the population is Catholic today as was Catholic in the early 1970s? Part of the answer is that the Catholic Church has also attracted a good number of converts.