A landmark Pew study on religion was released today and is being discussed far and wide. A couple things leap out of it to me that may have been downplayed elsewhere.
1. Religion is a very competitive marketplace. One in three Americans have changed faiths. And if you count switching denominations within Christianity, nearly HALF OF AMERICANS have changed religions. Forty-four percent, and the number grows if you get into the guts of the survey. This confirms something I’ve been soapboxing about for a while now: Denomination is dying in America. Religion is no longer something that’s passed down from our parents, like genes. Religions must compete, the same as political parties, television networks, hospitals, and laundry detergent. Americans are making their own faith, as they make up their minds about everything else. This is good news for citizens and bad news for ossified religious institutions, but make no mistake: It will change the nature of religion, making it more user-friendly, and perhaps more watered-down, but ultimately more flexibile and practical. It’s die or adapt.
Consider just a few facts from the survey: Half of Protestants have changed denominations or left their faith entirely. Half. Twelve percent of adults describe themselves as religious but having no affiliation whatsoever.
2. Protestants make up only half of the United State population now. That’s down from nearly 100% of Americans in 1776 and around 80% of Americans just a century ago. And they’re dying out at faster rates. In the next decade, the United States will become a minority Protestant country.
Meanwhile, Catholics have a different challenge. One-third of Catholics have left the Church in recent years. The Catholic population has dipped from 25% to 24%. Why such a small dip? The browning of the Catholic church. Hispanic immigrants have filled the pews. Thirty million Americans are now Catholics. The largest bloc of religious people in California, for example, is Catholic. Seems odd on the surface, but makes sense when you think about it — fewer Italian and Irish as the East Coast and Midwest. If you’re a Catholic priest today, hope you like the sun.
3. Finally, and this is the least-reported stat in the survey, from my early scanning. Twenty-seven percent of Americans are married to someone of a different faith. If you count different denominations of Christianity, the number rises to 37%. Nearly forty percent of American adults are in an interfaith marriage. That means in more than a third of U.S. households, the dinner table converation involves balancing interfaith tensions and opportunities. Considering the number of people in their 20’s who are unafffiliated — more than a third — and that that process begins in the teenage years, the number of interfaith conversations at dinner easily exceeds half the tables. This is a major development, and to me a very positive one. These American dinner table conversations, while tense, are preparing Americans to deal with an interfaith world and allowing us to be pioneers in the next great religious evolution: the acceptance of different faiths into the religious landscape.
We are now officially in the age of Interfaith America.
PS: I’ll be in CNN American Morning on Tuesday, April 26th to discuss the survey. I hope to post a YouTube.