Ch-ch-ch-changes in pews (saith Pew)

pewoptionsThere are times when I really feel the pain of the brilliant folks who work with the polling and research division of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

After all, how would you like to try to put the astonishingly complex world of American religion into those short, punchy phrases that pollsters have to use? You have to use words that mean something to people on sidewalks and in living rooms, yet the phrases also have to have some connection to the actual doctrines and historical facts that are used by insiders and scholars.

Then, to make matters worse, all of this is going to be reporting in mainstream public media in short, short and shorter reports, at times by reporters who have no clue what they are doing.

You can see the problems, even when Pew Forum research ends up in the hands of veteran, skilled reporters who definitely know what they are doing. Here is Jacqueline L. Salmon of the Washington Post, describing the new Pew Forum report that attempts to shed light on the reasons that Americans give for switching from one religion to another.

More Americans have given up their faith or changed religions because of a gradual spiritual drift than switched because of a disillusionment over their churches’ policies, according to a new study released today which illustrates how personal spiritual attitudes are taking precedence over denominational traditions.

The survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is the first large-scale study of the reasons behind Americans switching their religious faith and found that more than half of people have done so at least once during their lifetime. Almost three-quarters of Catholics and Protestants who are now unaffiliated with a religion said they had “just gradually drifted away” from their faith. And more than three-quarters of Catholics and half of Protestants currently not associated with a faith said that, over time, they stopped believing in their religion’s teachings.

The problem, of course, is that it is almost impossible to precisely define what it means to “change religions.” Is there, for example, a difference between “changing” and “converting”?

Clearly, if people convert from Christianity to Judaism, they have changed religions. But most of the numbers, in this poll, reflect changes inside Christianity, including the hip change from membership in a specific church to the freelance “spiritual, not religious,” but still “Christian sort-of” status. The pollsters knew this and included a crucial line in their survey: “Raised Protestant, now different Protestant faith.”

So if you are Southern Baptist and become an Episcopalian, that is a change.

However, truth be told, I have known people whose faith changed more — in terms of doctrinal content — when they went from membership in a Southern Baptist church to being part of a “moderate” Southern Baptist church, than if that those same people had gone from membership in Southern Baptist congregations to membership in a low-church, evangelical Anglican parishes.

How about Southern Baptist to American Baptist? Episcopalian to Charismatic Episcopalian? A cultural Greek Orthodox parish to a convert-friendly Greek Orthodox parish? Evangelical Lutheran and Missouri-Synod Lutheran? Reform Jew to Orthodox Jew? Etc., etc.

Like I said, I feel the Pew folks’ pain. The online talking points about this study hint at another problem that is out there:

Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change. Many people who leave the Catholic Church do so for religious reasons; two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated say they left the Catholic faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, as do half of former Catholics who are now Protestant. Fewer than three-in-ten former Catholics, however, say the clergy sexual abuse scandal factored into their decision to leave Catholicism.

In contrast with other groups, those who switch from one Protestant denominational family to another (e.g., were raised Baptist and are now Methodist) tend to be more likely to do so in response to changed circumstances in their lives. Nearly four-in-ten people who have changed religious affiliation within Protestantism say they left their childhood faith, in part, because they relocated to a new community, and nearly as many say they left their former faith because they married someone from a different religious background.

How much of this, in other words, is simply generic church shopping? The marriage factor is also huge for people whose faith is not that central to their lives. It’s easy for people to switch when the switch doesn’t mean that much to them.

Over at USA Today, Godbeat veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman’s report also included a sobering summary for Catholic leaders. It appears that the mainline Protestant-ization of American Catholicism continues at a rapid pace. Perhaps generic, everyday Catholicism isn’t all that radically different these days?

Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change: The 10% of U.S. adults who have quit the church vastly outnumber the 2.6% who are incoming Catholics. Two in three who became unaffiliated — and half of those who became Protestant — say they left the Catholic Church because they “stopped believing its teachings.” The sexual abuse scandal was a factor for fewer than three in 10 former Catholics.

In conclusion, let me note one other issue that may be hidden down in this Pew Forum research (and I intend to ask about it).

Anyone who works in the wider world of modern religion knows about the so-called 80-20 rule. This states that about 80 percent of the work, worship and giving is done by about 20 percent of the membership, the most dedicated members who have the strongest ties to their particular faith and to the content of its doctrine.

What happens when these people convert from one faith to another? What are the doctrinal fuses that must be lit to drive a devout believer — say a clergyperson — from Canterbury to Rome, from Nashville to Geneva, from Jerusalem to Athens? I know, from experience (my Orthodox parish is about 90 percent converts), that this is a radically matter than making a church switch due to marriage or a change in zip code.

Alas, how do you put that kind of human blood, sweat and tears into a poll questionnaire?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    This was an interesting survey. I agree that it’s not trivial to interpret, even for the knowledgeable. And the 80/20 rule is remarkably true in religion as well as in other arenas although sometimes it’s expressed as 90/10.

    It’s easy for people to switch when the switch doesn’t mean that much to them.

    There’s a couple of different reasons the switch might not mean much. One is that religion is not that important. Some people go to church because it’s socially expected of them but they don’t really have a depth of faith. Others might have deep faith but not care about doctrinal differences between denominations and therefore choose a church based on other criteria.

    I suspect that there are quite a few in the first category but I would like to know how many there are in the second class.

  • will47

    This is a pretty interesting study, and I don’t envy those who must find the precise words necessary to communicate the stidy’s findings. I don’t know that those Protestants switching denominations within Protestantism would really speak of such a change as changing one’s “faith”. Doctrinally, the differences between, say, an ELCA church and the Episcopal church next door, or a Southern Baptist and a non-denominational church down the road would likely be perceived as quite slight. So switching churches to go to one’s wife’s church wouldn’t necessarily involve a significant change in theology or indicate a faith deeper or shallower than one who goes to the same church one’s entire life. I do wonder, however, whether such persons are more or less likely to “drift away” ultimately from that new church.

  • julia

    It seems to me that the people interviewed can’t just be sorted into little categories.

    My later mother grew up Protestant and said they went to whatever church was on the corner. She converted to Catholicism because it seemed to her to be more grounding.

    My father was a champion apologist as a boy, continued to be a a sincere, practicingm intellectually-directed Catholic his entire adult life and was reading “The Idea of a University” by Cardinal Neuman and new biography of St Paul when he died a staunch Catholic.

    Of my raised-Catholic siblings, one married a Jew and studied with Cincinnati rabbis for her bas mitzva, but she hasn’t quite let go of her emotional attachment to the Church, and always attends with me when in town. A brother married an agnostic Jew and to their surprise their children insisted on bar and bas mitzvas – so that might be ancestral nostalgia recovered by the children in spite of the parents.

    Another sibling drifted away after a divorce from a Catholic wife and tried about 3 different Christian churches with the new wife, but now is agnostic.

    Another married a non-practicing Protestant, made sure the kids were baptized in the Catholic Church and things just fell off after that.

    One has never fallen away. And I quit for about 10 years and reverted in my 50s.

    Two of my children married Catholics and go to Mass regularly after about being lapsed in their 20s. The other says he identifies with Catholicsm although he doesn’t practice it – he’ll go back some day or will continue not going to church anywhere except Christmas and Easter with the Catholics to please his mom.

    Friends tell me the same kind of situations. How many categories did I just mention? How many more are there that defy any categorization at all? And how many categories do people these days pass through?

  • Tyson K

    What julia describes about her family is, I think, a very common situation, and it highlights, to me at least, that the reasons for changing (or losing) denominations are generally social and cultural more than they are theological.

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  • Doni M

    Well, I became a Southern Baptist at age 24, and was baptized in a Baptist Church.

    Later, I fell in love with liturgical worship and the Book of Common Prayer while still a Baptist, and eventually discovered (duh!) that the Episcopal Church down the street worshiped liturgically with the Book of Common Prayer. It took some years before I really adjusted to the Anglican “culture” but I ended up an Episcopalian by age 32 — still conservative.

    Well, as the years went by, even though I was fortunate to be in a conservative Episcopal diocese, I realized that I could not stay yoked to the Episcopal Church, ultimately. Perhaps my “conservative-ness” pushed me out. Believe me, it was NOT easy. I dearly loved the Anglican culture that had nurtured me for so long.

    Well, to make a long story short, I’m now 45 and a new Catholic. And I figure at my age, I’ll likely stay put.

    But the point I’m getting at is, I still stayed the same person who loved the same God. Nor, really, my faith and belief in God. I still thought of God the same way, prayed to God the same way. I just evolved in how I expressed that faith. I don’t think my Baptist years were a mistake, nor all those years as an Anglican. It’s all part of my one faith journey, and all brought me to where I am now.