January 18, 2021

Religious Switching 2.0

ReligiousSwitching2014-legendWell, last week I promised you, the full Religious Switching in America Graph along with commentary. The graph is complete. Click on the image for a better view. The commentary and related data tables… well I guess I will have to discuss with Chaplain Mike when that will be coming. The graph took a little longer to finish than expected.

To understand that graph, 54,000 Americans were surveyed in 2014. The top of the graph represents what they said their faith group was in childhood. The bottom of the graph represents their faith group today. The lines between the top and the bottom represent the changes between childhood faith group and current faith group. The legend for the smaller faith groups is to the left. The blank space at the right of the graph represents those faith groups where not enough data was provided to determine changes. All data was derived from the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Study.

My apologies for not having the commentary ready. I will have it soon. Please contribute to the discussion my leaving your own thoughts and comments and I will answer them as best I can in my next post. For comparison purposes the 2007 graph is provided below.



  1. …crickets…

    Just noticed the top and bottom disclaimers: Childhood Faith Group, Current Faith Group. In that context, Nones could be actual converts.

    Cultural family believers (ex: “Irish Catholics”) could just be cradle to the grave, this is what we do attenders (anyone else see the movie Don Juan?).

    Clear evidence of the Evangelical into Mainline rush that’s happening, and apparently has been happening.

    Similar, Catholics who grew up in that church probably growing up and want something more exciting, drums and guitars and less guilt, so they head into Evangelicalism. A subset of those probably go superhard nose and head into Fundamentalism, or catch the wave and go Pentecostal. Or both.

    Unaffiliated keeps on growing. Without knowing the sample size/questions/methodology (I took a few stats courses in college, church leadership hated me when I showed how data could be twisted), it’s hard to say why, but I imagine just age and a changing cultural landscape is to blame. If a significant number of people polled were born pre 1980, just to grab a number, that’s largely before the evangelical mega-church model, so it’s statistically more likely they grew up Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc, which I believe are lumped into Mainline here.

    That’s kind of one of the caveats of all this…how do you define the start of something, a movement, etc? In 10-20 years, an entire new industry of churches could be built up, maybe even in the same buildings. A generation of Mainline churches changed/were bought out and became Evangelicals, and a sizable percentage kept on attending the same building with the same friends…just the paperwork changed largely. Are “Baptists” evangelical or mainline? I know of many evangelical church networks here in the Twin Cities that dropped the Baptist and switched to being Willow Creek affiliated rather than GBC or whatever.

    Michael, for giggles, have you considered stacking the two images with a filter in-between like “7 Year Tribulation”?

    • Rick Ro. says

      Regarding the crickets…
      Yeah, it seems like we all made our thoughts and opinions know a week or two ago. Mike, we now need your opinion and analysis to throw stones at! 😉

    • “Clear evidence of the Evangelical into Mainline rush that’s happening, and apparently has been happening.”

      Please explain. It looks to me like Unaffiliated and Evangelical are the only groups growing here.

      • Robert F says

        Yeah, I don’t understand that sentence, either.

        • Yeah, Stuart, explain.

          um…that was pre-coffee, and I may have been looking at the wrong graph. IDK, lol.

          I plead the fifth of something.

      • “Clear evidence of the Evangelical into Mainline rush that’s happening, and apparently has been happening.”

        I don’t think you read this right. The latest Pew Research on “the changing U.S. religious landscape” (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/12/5-key-findings-u-s-religious-landscape/) shows that from 2007 to 2014…

        Evangelicalism dropped -0.9%, 26.3% down to 25.4%.
        Mainline Protestantism dropped -3.4%, 18.1% down to 14.7%
        Roman Catholicism dropped -3.1%, 23.9% down to 20.8%

        The only gains were among…

        “Unaffiliated,” +6.7%, 16.1% up to 22.8%.
        Non-Christian faiths, +1.2%, 4.7% up to 5.9%.

        The losses in Evangelicalism are mostly to mainline and none but are being mostly replenished by none, Catholic and mainline.

        Lots of shifting going on.

  2. Thank you for all this work, Mike!

    Hard to get my head around most of it. Unaffiliated seems to keep growing. Catholic and Mainline Protestant seem to be bleeding into the Uns pretty heavily. Black Protestants and Mormons holding pretty steady. Evangelicals seem to be getting as many as they lose.

    I like Stuart’s last suggestion. 🙂

    • Rick Ro. says

      I, too, like Stuart’s last suggestion!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        DO IT
        DO IT
        DO IT…

      • I’m not sure it would be good data tho. Because of the childhood aspect, but it may be able to show migration in the past 7 years…

        I don’t know, would the data work?

        • You are correct Stuart. It would not show migration in the past 7 years. People who for example started Catholic, moved to unaffiliated, then back to Catholic would show in the line from Catholic to Catholic.

  3. Rick Ro. says

    Just comparing the charts for trends, it looks like the Nones grew in 2007, then even more in 2014. The Catholics and Mainlines lost in 2007, then again in 2014. So my analysis is that people that are going the None route aren’t finding that bad enough to jump back on any of the religious paths. Similarly, people leaving the Catholic and Mainline routes aren’t finding their new paths bad enough to go back.

  4. I find it hard to interact with because of the way they categorized things in the first place. LCMS is evangelical? American Baptists are mainline?

    Thanks for breaking down those of us in the far right column, btw!

    • Right? I was a little confused by that last time. I understand that the American Baptists (ABCUSA) are a “mainline” denomination, and they match up with the rest in terms of progressive theology, politics, and rapidly dwindling membership. But the LCMS (and confessional Lutheranism generally) doesn’t really fit in any of the categories very well. We’re often known as “the lonely way.” We’re too catholic for Protestants, too Protestant for catholics, to conservative for mainlines, and too traditional for Evangelicals. However, if you had to put us in one group, I suppose the one we’re in here is relatively fair, because too many of our churches are trying to be just like generic American Evangelicalism.

      • Miguel, you’d insult a lot of people in my ABCUSA church if you called us mainline. Although many ABC churches are liberal, ours is staunchly conservative evangelical and currently heading toward the right via the new-calvin fad-in-progress. Pray for us.

      • Actually the American Baptist Church might be the only ‘mainline’ denomination that increased its percentage of total US population from 1.2% to 1.5%. Also the percentage of the denomination that was young adult increased.

        BTW on the question of the unaffiliated

        total unaffiliated went from 16.1% to 22.8%
        atheist went from 1.6% to 3.1% of the US population
        agnostic went from 2.4% to 4.0%
        nothing in particular 12.1% to 15.8%
        For the nothing in 2014, the 15.8% broke down into 6.9% for whom religion was important (it was 5.8% in 2007) and 8.8% for whom it was not (from 6.3%)

        Note that some atheists/agnostics are affiliated and would show up under a particular denomination. In particular Judaism, Unitarian Universalism have no problem with atheists. The next Pew report on this survey will go into actual beliefs.

    • LCMS is evangelical, ELCA is mainline…in my understanding. But if I were to just take “Lutheran”, I’d put them all in Mainline.

      I’d also put all Baptists into Mainline, despite many being Evangelical.

      I’d almost say Evangelical should strictly be “E FREE”.

      • Parsing the Protestant Spectrum as Fr. Andrew Damick does so in Orthodoxy And Heterodoxy

        1. Creedal Protestants, also called Confessional Protestants. These are mostly the groups that were formed in North America by immigrants who brought their Constantinian churches with them. These groups underwent a traumatic schism in the period between 1890-1960 due to the impact of modernity that resulted in

        a) “Enlightenment” Protestants that embraced Modernity and loosely settled into a hermeneutic channel that interpreted an increase in human autonomy and comfort == work of the Holy Ghost
        b) Creedal Protestants, who fight a rearguard battle against Modernity and want to hold to an earlier hermeneutical framework. These Protestants, and they are few indeed, consider themselves True Protestants, beleaguered on two fronts between the Modernists and the more successful…

        2) …heirs of the Radical Reformation, usually outgrowths of the Pietist movements in Continental Protestantism and the English Dissenters; Anabaptists, Moravians (although they are actually older than Protestantism) and their Methodist offspring, Baptists of differing stripes, Mennonites, Quakers. These groups faced the same hermeneutical divide as the heirs of the state church Protestants between Modernism and an earlier hermeneutic. The traditional group became involved in the democratization of Protestantism that occurred on the American frontier and became

        3) …revivalistic bodies, that emphasized personal conversion and ‘change of life’ as the sine qua non of the Gospel. Here you would put the Restorationist churches, the Holiness churches and their most successful offspring

        4)…the Pentecostal and Charismatic bodies that emphasize a post-conversion ‘filling’ or ‘Baptism of the Holy Ghost’, which I have always considered sort of a democratization of theosis, with all the caveats that can be attached to that concept.

  5. Mike,

    I noticed that you changed the category name from “none” in your 2007 chart to “unaffiliated” in 2014.

    That in and of itself seems like a big part of the narrative. It’s clear that the none/unaffiliated group grew a lot. But it seems like relabeling it as “unaffiliated” acknowledges that “none” doesn’t tell the story.

    My understanding is that the “unaffiliated” category also includes “spiritual but not religious”, the “dones”, and perhaps those in some kind of murky post-religious institution wilderness who simply don’t know how to classify themselves. I wonder which group is really driving the category?

    Is it that “faith” itself has declined dramatically in a mere 7 years (growth of professing atheists/agnostics etc), or is the growth more from an increasing # of the disenfranchised (more of a signal about institutions than faith in general)?

  6. Sorry, but this provide the information needed to model a trend or analyze the numbers in any meaningful way. There are no controls for positive correlation, and no way to extrapolate meaning from affiliation (for example, there are many “nones” I know who are deeply religious, while John Crossan is presumably Catholic while probably being more accurately described as a none). As well, this is a measure of ethical mandate more than actual practice – people are much more likely to report what they think they should be than what they actually are. In the end, though, there are no extant analysis models that can look at a beginning state and an ending state and make any predictions, which is really the end game of all science. About the only thing I can say for sure is that Moore is dead wrong. There is no logical or scientific way of claiming, as he does, that the increase in the “nones” is a reflection of those who never really were Christians being more comfortable identifying as such. Although it is somewhat clever rhetoric to convince people that they cannot be “real” Christians unless they are attending church.

    • *”doesn’t provide” in the first sentence.

      • “There is no logical or scientific way of claiming, as he does, that the increase in the “nones” is a reflection of those who never really were Christians being more comfortable identifying as such.”

        The more who self-identify as anything, the more who feel comfortable self-identifying. I think there’s also a backlash against the religious intolerance and pandering of the Republican Party, and the actions of Islamic radicals.

    • I will provide commentary on the “unaffliliated” that will provide some insight here. About a third of the “unaffiliated” consider themselves religious.

      • About a third of the “unaffiliated” consider themselves religious.

        Thanks for that info, Mike.

        The term “none” suggests no faith in anything, but “unaffiliated” suggests that they may have faith but don’t go to any particular church at present.

  7. So which group or label are the “saved” ones?

    …lol, sorry…

    • Rick Ro. says

      LOL. Indeed.

      Reminds me of a joke a speaker made at a conference last year. “I know that maybe God has accepted you, but here at (insert your church name or denomination) our standards are a little higher.”

    • Christiane says

      who are the ‘saved’ ones? 🙂

      well, likely the ones who daily pray ” Lord have mercy on me, a sinner ”

      . . . the rest of the ‘we are glad we are not like that other sinner’ gang probably aren’t going to be seen in the same light by their Creator

      two very distinct groups . . . and they don’t ‘cross over’ into each other’s territory . . . there are no hybrids either

    • The ones who were predestined as such, of course.

  8. Am I reading this right, that more than half of those raised from birth as “nones” eventually choose an affiliation for their own? Overall, it seems that parents of any affiliation (or no affiliation) are not passing on a heritage to their children. The problem is not faith or lack of faith, but the loss of the family unit as the primary influence on children. Rather, media, advertising, organized religion, government, etc have the last say on the hearts and minds of children.

    • Robert F says

      “The problem is not faith or lack of faith, but the loss of the family unit as the primary influence on children.”

      I think this is a great insight!

    • The Finn says

      Indeed! I suspect it is that the nuclear [geographically isolated] family in the end just doesn’t have that much cultural gravity. The Ideal Family is ultimately not much family.

  9. cermak_rd says

    I was pleased to see Jews holding their own. And amused to see that it looks like there is a tiny stream of Catholics going into Judaism, Buddhism and, it’s hard to tell, given the tiny spaghetti strands, but even Hinduism.

  10. I think a poll indicating how many young adults remain in the faith of their own choosing later in life.

    Also, time will tell how desperate things are for the mainliners, who were the victim of the exodus from both urban and rural geographies to suburbs as well as the exodus of fundamentals to evangelical pastures. There is at least one generation of mainliners without significant numbers of young families and children to pass on a faith.

    Mainliners may benefit from a resurgence in urban areas by youth to lofts and condos, where work is close and mass transportation is available. If the new middle class can no longer afford the two-car garage in the suburbs nor able to afford to park anything there, then trends may rapidly reverse back to centralized, urban locations.

    • The Finn says

      I believe the population flows heavily favor the Nones. If I zoom in on my own region – neighborhoods with established multi-generational residents [a RARE THING in modern America] have flourishing institutions, included churches/parishes, etc… Other neighborhoods are very different – they either have collapsing institutions [which does not mean the neighborhood itself is collapsing, very different things] but have more groups of loose affiliations around interests and activities.

      The Nones are not unique to Religions – there is a decline in affiliation ACROSS THE BOARD – politically, ideologically, even down to the PTA and sports leagues. This is very well documented. Transient highly-mobile, and especially single, people do not affiliate in the same way as settled families do.

      In August 2014 America passed a milestone – more than 50% of American Adults are single, for possibly the first time in our history. And people move more often during their lives than ever before. This has profound impacts across the board. What do holidays mean to a majority single childless people? [and looping back around many Holidays have religious trappings and narratives].

      There is a lot swirling around in this aside from Religion. I know that zooming back into my own region and the surrounding neighborhoods there has been an incredible – really unbelievable – resurgence of associations related to neighborhoods, parks, and transit. Organs of civic life that were written off as defunct twenty to thirty years ago, you can now fill a ball-room and have benefactors eager to provide free food [meanwhile churches, especially CRC and Lutheran churches, are converted one after the other into apartment and office buildings]. The Nones are thick in these groups, often clearly trying to figure out this Affiliation thing. What happens next? Will this gel into new categories of Affiliation or slowly return to what was before? I have no idea, the process has already been too unexpected to try to predict tomorrow.

  11. Sorry for not completing my first sentence.

  12. Interesting to see that of those unaffiliated in childhood, only half have remained so.

    One should note also that this graph doesn’t show the changes in overall proportions of affiliation. Even without switching, we would find the unaffiliated growing and the mainline shrinking as the older generation dies and the new generation is added; there would also be changes due to immigration. Would also be interesting to see nominal v active Christians, but there is already so much squeezed in there.

  13. Christiane says

    Any in-depth info on how the ‘nones’ identify as such?

  14. MelissatheRagamuffin says

    It seems like the churches with the worst hemorrhaging of members are the liberal mainlines that no longer stand for anything. As for the Catholics, I suspect the ones leaving are the people who were raised nominally Catholic who only went to Mass on Christmas and Easter – if even then. Our local Catholic parish has four masses on any given Sunday morning and each one is well attended. The masses in our old parish were so well attended that you had to get their at least 15 minutes early or you weren’t going to get a seat – and that included the early morning mass.

    • Robert F says

      I think you’re being too optimistic about the amount of member loss occurring in the American RCC. Remember that the numbers as they stand are being significantly bolstered by immigration from historically Catholic countries; that the priest shortage creates situations in which Catholics attend Mass in parishes other than their own; and that Catholics in any case vote with their feet what parish they will attend, based on their personal preferences, rather than stick with the parish they are assigned to by the Church.

      Also, remember that among those who stay or return to the RCC a quiet revolution is going on in which regular participation in the Rite of Reconciliation (Confession) has become highly unusual. If this continues, it will significantly change the face of the American Catholic Church in the coming decades. Most American Catholics do not look to the Church’s Sacrament of Reconciliation for forgiveness of their sins, but trust that they, like their Protestant neighbors, need no intermediary beside Jesus Christ to be reconciled to God for their post-baptismal sins; this undermines the whole idea that a class of special priests must stand as brokers between the Kingdom of God and the people of God.

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