Pew Revisited Print
Written by Sherry   
Wednesday, 19 March 2008 06:13
Warning: long post ahead.

I spent a good deal of yesterday pouring over the Pew Survey results and the CARA response in preparation for several upcoming events.

Since the Pew Survey gives percentages (23.9% of US Adults identify as Catholics, for instance) but never tells you their starting figure, trying to work out exact numbers is difficult. (Exactly how many adults are there in the US and what year are you using as your standard? The Census Bureau estimated 217 million Americans 18 and older in 2004 but was that the figure that Pew used?)

But as I talked it over with The Other Sherry last night, it became clear that the really important implications didn't require that I be able to come up with reliable numbers.

First of all, we must remember that all the Pew asked of those 35,000+ interviewees was which religious tradition (or none) they identified with. Not "do you ever darken the door of a church or synagogue?" Not "do you attend a worship service every week"? And certainly not "are you an intentional disciple?" This was about self-concept, not deeds.

So this does not address at all the issue of the millions of Americans who self-identify as Catholic but haven't been to Mass in months or years. It was strictly a "what religious tradition do I identify with?" question. An important question certainly. But a limited one.

The findings:

1) Religious change, spiritual seeking, conversion, and religious self-definition is normative for many, even the majority of American adults. And this includes conversion from belief to disbelief and disbelief to belief. Nothing, not even lack of faith, is set in stone in America.

" If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether."


And listen to this:

"If anything, these figures may understate the extent of religious movement taking place in the U.S. For instance, they do not include individuals who have changed affiliation within a particular denominational family, say from the American Baptist Churches in the USA to the Southern Baptist Convention. Nor do they include people who changed religious affiliation at some point in their lives but then returned to their childhood affiliation. Moreover, these figures do not capture multiple changes in affiliation on the part of individuals."

So the 44% does not include "reverts" which is a huge factor in Catholic circles. I have blogged before on the fact that although I've been searching for years, I've only met 20 or so cradle Catholics who have never had a family member leave the practice of their faith for a period of time. During that period, did many of them cease to think of themselves as a Catholic? What would they have answered the Pew surveyer during that period of their lives? If the goal is to grasp the extremely fluid nature of religious commitment in the US, the whole "in and out" phenomena is huge,

If you consider that factor, it is pretty clear that a majority of Americans have changed religious affiliation at some point in their lives.

And note:

To illustrate this point, one need only look at the biggest gainer in this religious competition - the unaffiliated group. People moving into the unaffiliated category outnumber those moving out of the unaffiliated group by more than a three-to-one margin. At the same time, however, a substantial number of people (nearly 4% of the overall adult population) say that as children they were unaffiliated with any particular religion but have since come to identify with a religious group. This means that more than half of people who were unaffiliated with any particular religion as a child now say that they are associated with a religious group. In short, the Landscape Survey shows that the unaffiliated population has grown despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all "religious" groups.


We'll return to the whole "retention" issue in a moment.

2. Therefore, constant change in religious affiliation is to be expected for all faiths, Christian or not, in the US.

"The survey finds that constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace, as every major religious group is simultaneously gaining and losing adherents. Those that are growing as a result of religious change are simply gaining new members at a faster rate than they are losing members. Conversely, those that are declining in number because of religious change simply are not attracting enough new members to offset the number of adherents who are leaving those particular faiths."

So the question is not "will people enter and leave our congregations?" but how many will leave and enter?" and "Will more enter than leave?"

I have written before about the clash between the the common Catholic assumption that religious identity is inherited, constant, and very difficult to change, and the reality that significant and rapid change in religious identity is, in fact, a long standing global phenomena. From my series on Independent Christianity.

"We tend to regard the three basic “types” of Christianity - Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy - as essentially stable and fixed. Given the long histories and long memories of these faiths, it is only natural to think of religious affiliation as a deeply-rooted identity that changes only with difficulty and very slowly. We don’t expect to wake up tomorrow and find that Protestants have decided en masse that the Reformation was not a good idea or that the Orthodox have jettisoned their icons in favor of store-front missions. Our ecumenical dialogue is founded upon this presumed stability.

David Barrett, however, has a fascinating sidebar in his World Christian Encyclopedia indicating that a surprising amount of religious change is, in fact, the norm. As Barrett puts it, “Every year, millions of people are changing their religious profession or their Christian affiliation. Mass defections are occurring from stagnant majority religions to newer religions” (World Christian Encyclopedia, p. 5). It is imperative for us to understand that a significant part of this change is the result of personal choices, and not just natural birth and death. Evangelicals have a saying: “God has no grandchildren”. Although Catholics don’t usually think in these terms, the Church’s recent experience in the West should give us pause.

Christianity has experienced massive losses in the Western world over the last 60 years...every year, some 2,7655,100 church attenders in Europe and North America cease to be practicing Christians within the 12-month period, an average loss of 7,500 every day. At the global level, these losses from Christianity in the Western World slightly outweigh the gains in the Third world. (World Christian Encyclopedia, p. 5).


Most thoughtful Catholics are already aware of the grim situation of the Church in the West which, in part, spurred Pope John Paul II to call for a new evangelization.

On the other hand, Christianity has experienced massive gains across the Third World throughout the 20th century... The present net increase (in Africa) is 8.4 million new Christians a year (23,000 a day) of which 1.5 million are net new converts (converts minus defections or apostasies). Sizeable net conversions are also taking place in Asia (2.4 million/year). (World Christian Encyclopedia, p. 5).


Looking at the global scene as a whole, one must conclude that the mission ad gentes has been the great success story of the 20th century. It is the pastoral care and on-going evangelization of established Christian peoples – especially in historic European denominations - that has “collapsed”.


What the Pew Survey seems to be telling us is that the US is an exceptionally dynamic local example of a larger world-wide phenomena. If there is any place in the world where "God has no grandchildren", it is here.

3. "Retention":

The CARA response to the Pew survey rather sharply pointed out that the Pew results indicated that the Catholic Church has one of the better "retention" rates. Meaning, in this case, that 68% of those raised Catholic in the US still regarded themselves as Catholic when asked. (Again, this has nothing to do with practice of the faith.)

Those groups that presently doing better at "retention"?

Hinduism 84% retention
Judaism 76% retention
Orthodoxy 72% retention
Mormonism 70% retention

At the bottom, interestingly is "unaffiliated" . 54% of American adults who grew up without a faith choose one as an adult. So as I noted above, the fastest growing "religious" group in American also has the worst "retention". But since the numbers of religious drop-outs are growing so much faster that this group continues to expand at a brisk clip.

But notice this:

"the majority of the unaffiliated population (12.1% of the adult population overall) is made up of people who simply describe their religion as "nothing in particular." This group, in turn, is fairly evenly divided between the "secular unaffiliated," that is, those who say that religion is not important in their lives (6.3% of the adult population), and the "religious unaffiliated," that is, those who say that religion is either somewhat important or very important in their lives (5.8% of the overall adult population)."

This should tell us two things: focusing purely on retention is not the solution, and even unbelievers are remarkably open to changing their mind in the US - if we reach out to them.

If the Catholic Church is doing a reasonably fair job of retention, why all the angst?

Because we are doing one of the poorest jobs of evangelizing adults in the US and therefore, have, by far, the largest "net loss". Nearly four times as many American adults have left the Church (10.1%) as have entered her (2.6%),

The interesting thing is that Protestantism (taken as a whole) actually has a slightly larger drop=out rate than we do (11% vs our 10.1%) but our overall "net loss" is 266% larger than theirs. Because proportionately, 300% more American adults become Protestant than become Catholic. There is continual action on both sides of the equation.

On the far positive side of the spectrum lies non-denominational Protestantism. Nearly five times as many adults have entered non-denominational Protestant churches as have left them. While nearly four times as many adults have left the Catholic faith as enter it. Those two sentences sum up the profoundly different experiences which have colored our respective pastoral assumptions and practice.

What is fascinating is that Catholic theology has been way ahead of the curve in this area. All the debates about evangelization at the Vatican Council, John Paul's constant emphasis on the "new evangelization", the US Bishops in Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us stating that the formation of adults, rather than children, is the "preferential option" in catechesis. The Holy Spirit has been trying to tell us something for decades.

The development of universal childhood catechesis hand-in-hand with universal education was a huge breakthrough in the late 16th and 17th centuries, It was a dramatic, radical, innovation developed to respond to the challenge of the Reformation in the midst of a world where most adults were still illiterate. But four centuries later, it is time to get innovative again,

We are still putting the vast majority of our formation energy into the catechesis of our children without taking in the fact that we live in a culture where it is normative to revisit the whole religion thing again as adults. Where "retention" of one's childhood faith cannot be assumed, where it is not considered legitimate to simply accept and profess the faith your parents tried to pass on to you. Where it is considered not only normal but proper, fitting, and mature, to investigate various options and choose one for oneself. Where it just isn't true anymore to say a la The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie "give me a child when they are young and they will be mine for life"

Where we have to put as much or more energy into reaching out to, evangelizing, and forming adults as disciples as we do catechizing children. Because if we don't evangelize adults, there is a very good chance that we will lose our children as well.

Because if there is any place in the world where it is true that "God has no grandchildren", it is here.