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Poll says Half of all Americans Change Religious Affiliation


A new survey says about half of all American adults have changed their religious affiliation at least once during their lifetime. The survey indicates a fluid and diverse religious life in the United States marked by people moving among faiths and denominations.

The poll, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says Americans change religious affiliation early and sometimes often.

The survey found that most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24, and a majority joined their current religion before turning 36.

John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, says those surveyed reported many different motivations for changing their religious affiliation.

"Overall, most people reported just gradually drifting away from their childhood faith," said John Green. "Another common reason was that the respondents stopped believing their religion's teachings. Specific complaints about religious leaders and religious institutions also mattered to many people who changed."

The new report, titled "Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.," seeks to answer questions about widespread religion changing identified in a 2007 Pew poll of 35,000 Americans.

The latest survey is based on interviews of more than 2,800 people from the original survey and is focused on religious populations that showed significant movement, such as former Catholics, former Protestants or Protestants who have changed denominations.

Greg Smith, a research fellow at the Pew organization, says many people who are currently not affiliated with any denomination have stopped believing in the teachings of their former religion.

"And many also become unaffiliated due to disillusionment or disenchantment with religious people or organizations, saying that religious people are hypocritical and judgmental rather than sincere or forgiving or that religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality," said Greg Smith.

According to the poll, the reasons behind decisions to change affiliations depend largely on whether a person grows up kneeling at a Catholic Mass, praying in a Protestant pew or occupied with nonreligious pursuits.

Smith says two-thirds of former Catholics who are not currently affiliated with a denomination say they left the church because they stopped believing in its teachings.

"More than half expressed discontent specifically with Catholic teachings on issues like abortion and homosexuality," he said. "About half expressing displeasure with the religion's teachings on birth control and one-third expressing dissatisfaction with Catholicism's teachings about divorce and remarriage."

Smith says among those surveyed who switched denominations within the Protestant church, beliefs were less important as a reason for change.

"Instead we see people reacting and changing, either in reaction to particular congregations, especially styles of worship and we also see people changing in reaction to changes that take place in their life, like getting married and moving to a new community," said Smith.

The survey indicates religious commitment as a child and teenager appears to be related to later decisions to change religion.

Catholics and Protestants who have left the church were far less likely to have regularly attended services or Sunday school when they were young.

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