May 16, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Rising number of Americans are switching religions

Reasons people gave for changing their religious affiliations
Data: PRRI, Health of Congregations Survey; Chart: Axios Visuals

Nearly a quarter of Americans say they used to follow a different religious tradition or denomination than the one they practice now — a percentage that keeps growing, a new survey says.

Why it matters: The jump in religion-switching comes as many Americans say they no longer believe in their initial religion's teachings — or, in many cases, disagree with a religion's stance against LGBTQ+ people.

By the numbers: The nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute survey of people across the country found that a quarter of Americans (24%) say they've changed religious traditions or denominations over their lifetime or recently.

  • That's a 50% jump from 2021, when 16% said they had switched, the survey found.
  • People who are members of other non-Christian religions (38%) or religiously unaffiliated (37%) were the most likely to say that they had switched from a different religious tradition.
  • About one in four Protestants of color (28%), white evangelical Protestants (25%), and Hispanic Protestants (24%) say they previously practiced or followed another religious tradition.

The intrigue: The survey found that the Catholic Church had lost the highest percentage of followers (39%) to the group without a religious affiliation.

  • Non-evangelical Protestants (28%) lost the second-most members.

Between the lines: A 2022 survey by PRRI's American Values Atlas found that only 64% of Americans identify as Christian — and the percentage has been dropping.

  • That PRRI survey says nearly 27% of the general public is now unaffiliated with any religion — the fastest-growing segment.

Zoom in: Among those who switched, 56% said they changed because they stopped believing in the religion's teachings.

  • About 30% said negative religious teachings about or treatment of LGBTQ+ people forced them to change.
  • Only 17% said they switched because their church or congregation became too political.

Yes, but: Most churchgoers (56%) do not believe their current church is more divided by politics than it was five years ago, the study found.

  • Only 13% say that their church is more politically divided.
  • White non-evangelical Protestants (17%) and Catholics (17%) are the most likely to indicate that their churches are more divided by politics.

What they're saying: "There's essentially kind of a paradox happening. On the one hand, there is more religious churning. There are also more people in America who are becoming less religious, " PRRI CEO Melissa Deckman told Axios.

  • "Among Americans who still go to church on a regular basis, they still seem to be pretty happy with what's happening in their churches."

Bottom line: Members of Gen Z — now ages 11 to 26 — are switching and shunning religion faster as young adults than other Americans. That's expected to continue.

Methodology: The Health of Congregations Survey was conducted Aug. 9-30 by PRRI. The poll is based on a representative sample of 5,872 adults (age 18 and older) living in all 50 states and the District of Columbia who are part of Ipsos' Knowledge Panel®.

  • The margin of sampling error is ±1.86 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, for results based on the entire sample.
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