In Major Poll, U.S. Religious Identity Appears Very Slippery

Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 26, 2008; Page A01

America has always been a competitive religious marketplace, but a major survey released yesterday shows a country increasingly exploring different faith identities and ways of worship. More than 40 percent of respondents told pollsters that they had changed their religious affiliation since childhood.

Experts say the growth of religious minorities, American mobility and intermarriage are key factors in the churn documented in the Religious Landscape Survey, one of the largest such polls ever done, with 35,000 adults interviewed.

Conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the survey confirms on a grand scale trends that demographers have noted for years: the slipping percentage of Protestants, now down to 51, and the rise of people who call themselves unaffiliated, now at 16 percent, up from similar surveys.

The survey also lays out, just weeks before Pope Benedict XVI's first papal visit to the United States, the Catholic Church's challenge here: no American faith group has lost more adherents. Among U.S. adults, about the same percentage -- 24 -- call themselves Catholic as in the past, but that statistic masks significant turnover. The percentage has held up primarily because of the huge number of recent Latino immigrants, who are largely Catholic, the survey found. Sixty-eight percent of people raised Catholic still identify with their childhood denomination, compared with 80 percent of Protestants and 76 percent of Jews.

Millions of dollars are being pumped into such research as religious institutions -- like hospitals, universities and social service organizations -- watch Americans increasingly dismiss the importance of denomination, long a key societal organizer. Old barometers of religiosity such as church membership are becoming less important as Americans craft a more bottom-up, individualized concept of faith. The new landscape has nondenominational megachurches, worship services in movie theaters, Episcopalians speaking in tongues and independent rabbinical schools.

"When it comes to religion, there is believing, belonging and behaving, and they don't always correlate," said Barry Kosmin, a co-author of the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, which polled 50,000 people but asked fewer questions than the new Pew poll.

Pew's survey also includes a basic sketch of each state's religious profile. Compared with national percentages, Virginia has relatively more white evangelicals and fewer Catholics; Maryland and Washington have three times the percentage of black Protestants and Jews. The survey does not do a separate count for Northern Virginia and treats Maryland and Washington as one entity, because the District's sample size was small.

The survey is likely to feed the debate raging among scholars about what is happening in American religion. Some think that secularism is underreported as people may check a box correlating to a faith group without actually believing its tenets or following its practices. Others think the growth of the unaffiliated (sometimes called "religious nones," because they check "none" when asked their faith on polls) disguises the number of people who consider themselves "spiritual but not religious."

Tom Smith, director of a major sociological survey at the University of Chicago, estimated that about 25 percent of U.S. adults think of themselves as spiritual but not religious. "Some trends show there is less support for organized religion but either a steady or, by some measures, rising support for personal religious beliefs," Smith said.

Some Catholic researchers played down the survey's finding that about 10 percent of U.S. adults are former Catholics, and they said the church has always been significantly impacted by immigration. They also said the church's membership has increased by about 20 million since 1965.

Mary Gautier, a sociologist at Georgetown's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, said Catholics are more likely than members of other denominations to say they "left" their faith because the bar of being a "practicing Catholic" is high.

"They feel guilty," she said. "If you're a Methodist and you only go to church occasionally, you don't consider yourself no longer practicing, but Catholics tend to do that."

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