When author Anne Rice recently “quit Christianity” on her Facebook page, she lit up the blogosphere and sparked interest among media. Though the novelist announced that this time she was quitting “in the name of Christ,” her previous journey away from – and back to – the Christian faith had been well chronicled.
Just how common is this type of experience for Americans? How many Americans change faiths? A multi-year study conducted by the Barna Group explores the percentage of Americans who report shifting to a different faith or significantly changing their faith views during their life.
Anne Rice is not alone. She shares a spiritual profile with nearly 60 million other adults nationwide. In the Barna study, the matter of faith switching was explored in several ways. First, respondents identified their childhood faith, if any, and then were asked to list their current faith allegiance. A comparison of the two answers showed that nearly one-quarter of adults (23%) had moved from one faith or faith tradition to another. This definition of faith change included those who switched from Catholic to Protestant and vice versa, but did not include those who changed from one Protestant denomination to another within the Protestant tradition. Overall, an additional 12% of adults had shifted affiliations but had not altered their Protestant orientation.
A second survey approach mirrored the findings of major faith change. Respondents to the same study were also asked if they had ever “changed to a different faith or significantly changed their faith views” or if they were “the same faith today as they were as a child.” Once again, about one-quarter of Americans (26%) said they had changed faith. Based on the research profile, these types of individuals were more likely than average to be women, divorced adults, residents of the Western states, atheists or agnostics, unchurched, and political independents.
The most common type of spiritual shift was from those who were Christian, Protestant or Catholic in childhood to those who currently report being atheist, agnostic or some other faith. In total, this group represents about one out of every eight adults (12%), a category that might be described as ex-Christians.
Converts to Christianity (those converting from another faith or from non-belief as a child to the Christian faith as an adult) represent 3% of the population. About twice as many (7%) moved from Protestant to Catholic or from Catholic to Protestant. Another 2% of adults were no longer the same as their childhood faith but did not fit into any of these three categories.
Why People Change
The survey also explored the top-of-mind reasons why people change faiths. The most common reasons for moving away from Christianity included life experiences, such as gaining new knowledge or education; feeling disillusioned with church and religion; feeling the church is hypocritical; having negative experiences in churches; being in disagreement with Christianity about specific issues such as homosexuality, abortion or birth control; feeling the church is too authoritarian; wanting to express their faith outside of church; and searching for a new faith or wanting to experience other religions.
Among those who were shifting toward Christianity, the most common motivations were going through difficult life events (such as divorce, a health crisis or death of a loved one); getting older and seeing life differently; wanting to connect with a church and grow spiritually; discovering Christ; or wanting to know what was in the Bible.
Age and Change
Most of the people who have made these changes did so as a teenager or young adult. The study discovered that the median age at the time they changed faiths or significantly altered their faith perspective was 22.
One-third of those who experienced a significant faith shift did so during their twenties and another one-third did so before age 20. In total, two-thirds of people who had a major faith change experienced that outcome before the age of 30 (68%). In fact, among respondents over 40, only 5% of them reported making a major shift in their religious affiliation after the age of 40.
David Kinnaman, who directed the research, pointed out: “It is difficult for many faith leaders to relate fully to the spiritual lives of people who struggle with their faith, particularly those who are younger. Clergy are typically older than those going through significant questions about their faith and are less likely to have personally experienced a period of major faith re-orientation themselves. What’s more, not every person goes through a crisis of faith, so individuals who are going through spiritual transitions often go unnoticed. Staying in tune with people’s questions and doubts—at whatever age they occur—is an increasingly important part of being an influential faith leader.”
Kinnaman, the president of Barna Group, also indicated that despite the fluctuations of faith among millions of Americans, “the study underscores that the spiritual allegiances of childhood are remarkably sustainable in our society. Nearly three out of every four American adults said they are the same religious faith today as they were during their childhood. That means the most common faith journey that people take is to form spiritual commitments as children and teenagers that typically last for the duration of their life.”
About the Research
This Barna Update article is based upon a nationwide tracking study, called OmniPollSM, conducted by the Barna Group. The telephone interviews were derived from a random sample of 2,004 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, conducted in the fall of 2008 and summer of 2009. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±2.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The total number of respondents who had changed faith was 517, with an associated sampling error of ±4.3 percentage points. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that conducts primary research on a wide range of issues and products, produces resources pertaining to cultural change, leadership and spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources, both free and at discounted prices, are also available through that website.
© Barna Group 2010.
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