Souls in Transition: Changes in Religious Affiliation

This is part of a series of posts in which I’m reflecting on Christian Smith and Patricia Snell’s new book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.

Today, I’m going to present what happens between the teen years (13-17) and the emerging adult years (18-23), according to Souls in Transition in regards to religious affiliation.  There’s lots of data in the book, and very many different religious groups are dealt with therein, but I’ve culled the data that’s most interesting to me — and probably will be to my readers — and made some graphs to better show the trends.

I’ll do is describe the trend below, then show the graph, and then offer a bit of reflection on the numbers and trends at the end.

First, how religious affiliation changes during these years.  Affiliation is what respondents say when asked how they classify themselves religiously.  Among both Protestants and Catholics, there’s about a 10-point drop.  Meanwhile, there’s a 15-point increase among those who claim to be non-religious.

Next is the change among claimed religious traditions.  Again, there’s a lots among every group — the biggest loser being Catholicism — and a hearty gain in the “not religious” category.

And third, we see the change and retention among the religious traditions.  What you see below is that 64% of conservative Protestants stay conservative Protestant, 10% switch to mainline, 15% become nonreligious, and 11% become something else, and so on.  Notable here is that mainline Protestantism has the lowest retention rate, at 50%.

In the end, Smith makes it clear that emerging adults are still relatively conventional in their religious beliefs, with about 60% claiming religion of one sort or another.  But that’s down about 15 points from when this same group was teenaged, about five years ago.  The biggest loser over those five years is mainline Protestant, and the biggest winner is nonreligious.

We’ll get to the question of “Why” in a couple days, but so far the data seem to indicate that the more progressive version of Protestantism results in young adults who are more likely to forsake their religion, especially in favor of non-belief.

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  • keep it coming, tony. i have the book but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. thanks for your analysis of it. i was just thinking this AM about your post of soulsearching, hurt, and pomoym…

    as i work in a mainline protestant church, this has HUGE implications (and indeed, has already HAD these implications).

  • Thanks, Tony. I appreciate the report(s). This has been an understood trend in mainline traditions for a while. We laud it…We love our independent children. We love their independence and yet we wonder where the young people are. What aren’t they in church.

    I think if you looked back over the last 20 years you would see very similar trends.

  • Tony, the reviews yesterday and the three reflections on Smith’s book have been great. Well done.

  • Interesting stuff!
    So less christian futur for my kids if they are brought up in an emerging type of church?

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  • filippe, I’m not sure there was an emerging demographic in those charts.

    but, that’s going to be an interesting thing to watch, i’m sure, over the next few years (just where specifically do kids in emergent churches end up?). I’m predicting almost no shift to purely mainline denominations in adulthood, but a decent sized reactionary shift to conservative protestantism and fundamentalism for the safe haven from insecurity, scrutiny, or doubt they bring. There will doubtless be a good-sized shift toward agnosticism as well, since emergent churches emphasize wide scholarship, and since education (as a matter of statistical fact) tends to breed much higher rates of atheism. That’s my broad guess

  • Tony,

    Chuck Bomar and I have had a lot of conversations around the transition out of high school and how college students drop off the map. I’m really wondering how much of the transition you’ve shown here has to do with that. I wonder if the data determined if non-religious is an actual determined, fixed point, or simply the inability of the college student to clearly state where they are at, and thus just choose non-religious because they are not what they used to be.

  • Jonathan, I wonder the same thing. And what I see happen in the mainline is that we think of this stage as a normal pulling away from church etc. It should be the other way around. It should be the time when we draw people in. “So, you don’t know what you think anymore? Welcome to the big leagues, kid. Let’s talk.”

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  • PFSVVd I’m out of league here. Too much brain power on display!