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The Shifting American Religious Landscape

by Paul Rasor, Center Director

One of the most important dimensions of religious freedom is the right to change our minds. This right is implicit in the very nature of religious liberty, and it is made explicit in several international human rights documents. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it this way: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief." We might think of this as a right of religious conversion.

A recent groundbreaking study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicates that this right is widely exercised in the United States. The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, as it is known, shows that 28% of adult Americans have left their childhood faith, either for another religion or, increasingly, for no religion at all. When conversion from one Protestant denomination to another is included, this number jumps to 44%. This means that nearly half of all adult Americans have, at some point in their lifetimes, either switched religious affiliation, joined a religious group after being unaffiliated, or simply dropped religious ties altogether.

These changes are not limited to any particular religious group. While some groups are growing and others declining, all groups are constantly gaining and losing adherents. As the study puts it, religious affiliation in the U.S. is both very diverse and extremely fluid.

While constant movement is the central theme, some groups experience more movement than others. It is well known, for example, that most Protestant denominations are losing members at a greater rate than they are gaining new ones, though a few are increasing. Overall, nearly half (48%) of those raised Protestant have changed religious affiliation, and 20% have left Protestantism altogether. Protestants now make up a bare majority – 51% – of the U.S. population, down from nearly two-thirds only twenty years ago. This is a major shift, and it has important implications for our self-understanding as a society. Roman Catholics have held steady at about 24% of the population, with significant losses among members raised in the faith being offset by immigration.

Among smaller groups, those with the highest percentages of members raised in other traditions include Jehovah's Witnesses (67%), Buddhists (73%), and Unitarian Universalists (nearly 90%). Hindus have been the most stable group, with 84% of those raised in the tradition still identifying as Hindu. Other groups with high retention rates include Mormons, Orthodox Christians, and Jews.

Perhaps most significantly, the largest net gain among all groups was found among the "religiously unaffiliated," now more than 16% of adult Americans. If we think of them as a religious group, the unaffiliated would be the fourth largest in the U.S., behind evangelical Protestants (26%), Roman Catholics (24%), and mainline Protestants (18%). Yet like other groups, the unaffiliated reflect considerable diversity; their number includes atheists, agnostics, people for whom religion is simply not important, and people who are religious but not affiliated.

Religion in the U.S. is often described as a spiritual marketplace in which individuals shop for the faith tradition that best meets their needs. The landscape survey confirms that this market analogy is apt. This reality has both dangers and benefits. As religion becomes ever more commodified, it may be unable to provide the deep sense of meaning and connectedness that can ground our commitment to religious values such as justice, love, and peace. At the same time, however, the survey indicates that large numbers of people are taking their religion seriously enough to explore other traditions and to think carefully about these critical life decisions.

The fluidity of the American religious landscape also has some important implications for religious freedom. Most obviously, it tells us that religious freedom is not only a deeply held value, but that it is enthusiastically practiced. More importantly, the fact that nearly half of us have changed our religious affiliations during our lifetimes tells us that our vast religious diversity is not something to fear, but to celebrate.

The large numbers of unaffiliated people also remind us that an important part of religious freedom is what some call freedom from religion. One of the last bastions of religious intolerance in our society is against atheism and other forms of unbelief. But just as discrimination based on religion is contrary to the spirit of religious freedom, so too is discrimination based on non-religion. As the United Methodist Church Resolution on Religious Liberty says, "religious liberty includes the freedom to doubt or to deny the existence of God, and to refrain from observing religious practices."

The dynamic cultural reality documented by the Landscape Survey challenges all of us. It reminds us of the importance not only of tolerance, but also of education and of direct and open engagement with those from other faith traditions – traditions which the survey suggests we, or our children, might someday adopt as our own.

The Nexus Interfaith Dialogue Series for 2008-2009 will take up some of the issues raised in this survey; see page 6 for details. The survey can be found on the Pew Forum's website at http://religions.pewforum.org.

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