NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Evangelical leaders concerned about possible growth in the number of Americans unaffiliated with any religion may have found some good news Monday: A new study shows that many adults who were raised in an unaffiliated home later became Christian, mainly because they found themselves searching.
The finding is part of a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life that examined why Americans change their religious affiliation. It is a follow-up study to Pew’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which found that unaffiliated adults make up 16 percent of the population. That same ’07 survey also found that, among those who were raised unaffiliated — a category that includes agnostics, atheists and those who don’t identify with any religion — only 46 percent remain unaffiliated. That retention rate is far lower than Protestants (80 percent of whom remain Protestants) and Catholics (68 percent of whom remain Catholic).
“It does suggest that many people who are unaffiliated and who are raised unaffiliated are open to religion,” Gregory A. Smith, research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said during a conference call with reporters.
The 2007 survey found that the category of unaffiliateds had grown, so evangelical leaders shouldn’t be celebrating too much. But the new survey — which included follow-up questions to 2,800 people from the original survey and was conducted Oct. 3-Nov. 7 — does provide some good news. Pew asked the 54 percent of adults who were raised unaffiliated but later joined a religion why they left their childhood beliefs; they could give as many answers as they felt necessary. Their leading answers were:
- 51 percent said their spiritual needs were not being met.
- 46 percent found a religion they liked more.
- 23 percent got married to someone from a different faith.
- 15 percent moved to a new community.
- 10 percent said someone they were close to passed away.
“If I was a religious leader … part of the good news is in the low number of people who are raised unaffiliated who stay that way,” Smith said.
But will the number of unaffiliated adults continue to grow?
“Certainly if recent trends continue, they might,” Smith said. “But, at the same time, remember: Most people who are raised unaffiliated later wind up affiliated.”
Among the 54 percent who are no long unaffiliated, 22 percent are now members of evangelical churches, 13 percent mainline churches, 6 percent Catholic churches and 4 percent historically black churches. Nine percent are members of another religion.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.)