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Study Shows that U.S. Religious Identity Is Fluid, with Changes Widespread

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March - April 2008

More than a quarter of adult Americans have left the faith of their childhood to join another religion or no religion, according to a survey of religious affiliation by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.  
The report, titled “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” depicts a highly fluid and diverse national religious life. The New York Times (Feb. 26, 2008) notes that, “For at least a generation, scholars have noted that more Americans are moving among faiths, as denominational loyalty erodes. But the survey, based on telephone interviews with more than 35,000 Americans, offers one of the clearest views yet of that trend, scholars said. It shows, for example, that every religion is losing and gaining members, but that the Roman Catholic Church ‘has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes.’ The survey also indicates that the group that had the greatest net gain was the unaffiliated. Sixteen percent of American adults say they are not part of any organized faith, which makes the unaffiliated the country’s fourth-largest ‘religious group.’”  
Sixty-eight percent of people raised Catholic still identify with their childhood denomination, compared with 80 percent of Protestants and 76 percent of Jews.  
Prof. Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University, said large numbers of Americans leaving organized religion and large numbers still embracing the fervor of evangelical Christianity pointed to the same desires. “The trend is toward more personal religion, and evangelicals offer that,” Prof. Prothero said, Explaining that evangelical churches tailored much of their activities to youths. “Those losing out are offering impersonal religion,” he said.  
Editorially, USA Today (Feb. 27, 2008) declared that, “When it comes to religion, Americans tend to behave like the individualists they are in other things. In the USA’s marketplace of ideas, 44% of adults nave either switched or dropped religious affiliation, according to ... the Pew Forum ... America’s constitutional guarantees of religious freedom invites a diversity of faiths. This attracts more believers and encourages movement toward churches that respond to the needs of their congregants. That dynamism, in turn, has spawned a mutual tolerance. In fact, almost four in every 10 married people have spouses of different religious affiliation.”  
USA Today concludes: “American individualism in religion puts pressure on churches to change in ways that can make traditionalists uncomfortable. There is something disquieting about shopping for religion the way one would pick among lattes at Starbucks. But having options makes believers comfortable, not trapped, in their faith. It promotes intellectual exploration and unleashes creativity and outreach ... In religion, as in coffee, choice is a critical ingredient — one all too scarce in much of the world.”  
Some Jewish demographers dispute some of the findings in the Pew study, which is the largest, most in-depth survey of American religious beliefs and behaviors. According to Washington Jewish Week (Feb. 28, 2008), “Leading Jewish demographers ... dispute some of the Pew data relating to American Jewry, particularly the figures about converts to and from Judaism. ‘While we can learn a lot from this kind of survey in a general sense, in terms of Jews, per se, we have to be cautious because they’re such a small part of the sample,’ said Jonathon Ament, the assistant director of research at the United Jewish Communities ... With fewer than 700 Jewish respondents and a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 points that Ament calls ‘quite high,’ he said the Pew report should be ‘taken with a grain of salt’ ... Pew researchers take umbrage at that suggestion, saying the sample size is statistically sound.”  
According to the Pew study, 15 percent of America’s nearly 4 million Jewish adults were not raised as Jews. That means, Pew researchers said, they either converted to Judaism or embraced the Judaism of one of their parents or grandparents. The study also reports that 9 percent of adults raised Jewish now profess another faith.  
Still, the report found that Jews and Hindus are the most successful at retaining their people. More than 84 percent of those who were raised Hindu still identify as Hindu, followed by 76 percent of those raised Jewish who say they are Jewish today. Fourteen percent of those raised Jewish now identify with no organized religion.  
In an article titled “Religion Is Less A Birthright Than A Good Fit” (New York Times, March 2, 2008), Dana Jennings, an editor at the Times who converted to Judaism from Protestantism, writes: “When it comes to religion, it seems, Americans prefer a buffet of the spirit ... At its best, this cross-pollination breeds interfaith tolerance and understanding, and carries with it an unexpected energy and a broader spiritual palette to all traditions involved.”  
Mr. Jennings states that, “Religions, if nothing else, are metaphors for how we choose to lead our lives, how we choose to defy the empty cultural whirlwind. Our lives begin in mystery, and end in mystery. In between we try to explain ourselves to ourselves ... Judaism is my faith, my road, my metaphor — but my metaphor isn’t any better than your metaphor, and vice versa — which still shocks the 10-year-old country boy who lurks in my heart. Simply put, something deep and beyond articulation moved in my soul. And echoing Ruth in the Bible, I found myself saying to my wife, my sons and my synagogue community, ‘Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’ And that’s something no survey can measure.”

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