Monday, February 25, 2008

The Volatile Religious Marketplace in the U.S.

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I am sure that by now you all have seen -- or heard about -- the new study released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The group interviewed more than 35,000 adults -- an amazing scope for such a study! And the results of this survey? The revelation that Americans are switching faiths at an incredibly high rate.

According to the study, "nearly half of American adults leave the faith tradition of their upbringing to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether." Additionally, non-denominational churches are gaining ground and Protestant churches are in decline as far as membership. The survey concluded that 78 percent of Americans are Christian, and one in four adults ages 18 to 29 claim NO AFFILIATION with a religious institution. I find this quite sobering, considering this is the period in  most people's life where they embrace a belief system. Though I suppose at the same time this might also be the period where people deny and depart from their faith of upbringing. Also interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church has lost more members than any faith tradition "because of affiliation swapping." According to the survey, nearly one in three Americans were raised catholic, but fewer than one in FOUR say they're Catholic today. What does that mean? There's a whopping 10 percent of all Americans are lapsed Catholics.


The group with the highest retention rate is sort of surprising, in my opinion, and that is Hindus, at 84 percent! Of course, it should be known that the retention rate among Orthodox Jews is 89 percent (this comes from a different survey than the one I write about here). In this survey, though, Jews accounted for only 1.7 percent of the overall population.

The few! The proud!

Interestingly, though, more people in the survey identified as Buddhist than Muslim, with Buddhists accounting for .7 percent of those surveyed. The story on raises an interesting question in regard to this: What does affiliation mean? They ask this, considering many people "identify" as Buddhist simply because they practice yoga or meditation. I recall in college many friends who identified as Buddhist, despite not living a Buddhist lifestyle. I frequently remember saying to friends "you aren't just Buddhist, it's a lifestyle, and you're not living the lifestyle." To some extent, this is true.

I'm curious about reactions, of course, considering this is a forum and blog for those who have returned to the faith, converted to Judaism, etc. We are the essence of stories like this! In fact, I was interviewed by the local paper back in Lincoln, Nebraska, about my conversion and how I grew up. I'll be sure to update the post when the story appears on the Web.

So what do you think? Is this depiction of Americans and religious identity today? I'm amazed at the scope of the study, and I think that it's probably one of the most representative tests of religious identity that I've seen. It's also surprising that so few identify with a religious group. I'm presently taking part in a mini-debate on a local web forum about the article, and interestingly, 9 out of 10 on the board debating the topic are agnostic/athiest. It's hard to be an adherent to an "organized religion" sometimes, but I have to say that we hold a special place in the sphere of religion today. There are several people who have said that they admire those who have faith, who believe. And as someone who once struggled with where she fit, I can say I understand that admiration.