.- A new survey provides detailed information about the one in ten American adults who are former Catholics, showing that most left the faith before the age of 24. Those who became Protestant most often said their spiritual needs were not being met, while those who became unaffiliated most often said they just gradually drifted away.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which conducted the survey, released the results on Monday in a report titled “Faith in Flux: Religious Conversion Statistics and Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.”
The survey, a follow-up to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey published in February 2008, polled all Americans who had left their childhood religion. The survey used 973 follow-up interviews and claims a margin of error among the entire U.S. population of plus or minus five percentage points.
The survey also distinguished between those Catholics who were now Protestant and those who were now unaffiliated. It claims a margin of error of plus or minus 6.5 percentage points for the first group and plus or minus 7 percentage points for the latter group.
Why Catholics Leave the Church
Catholicism tends to retain childhood members at a rate of 68 percent, which the Pew Forum says is “far greater” than the retention rate of the unaffiliated and is comparable with or better than the retention rates of other religious groups. Former Catholics compose 10.1 percent of the overall U.S. population, while converts to Catholicism make up 2.6 percent.
Of all those raised Catholic, 15 percent have become Protestant, with nine percent now belonging to evangelical denominations and five percent belonging to mainline Protestant denominations. About 14 percent of those raised Catholic are now unaffiliated.
Almost half of Catholics who are now unaffiliated left Catholicism before the age of eighteen, while one-third who are now Protestant did the same. Most in this group said it was their own decision rather than their parent’s decision, the Pew Forum says.
The survey also found few differences in religious commitment between former Catholics and those who have remained Catholic concerning their participation in youth groups or religious education classes.
Regular worship, however, was correlated with continued faith.
Reasons for Leaving
The Pew Forum survey asked respondents to name their own reasons why they left their faith.
About half cited religious and moral beliefs. About 21 percent of the unaffiliated professed non-belief in Catholicism or any religion, 11 percent cited moral or social teachings, and another seven percent cited disbelief in God or a loss of faith as their motive. Eighteen percent of Protestants named a biblical or scriptural reason as a cause.
The survey then asked people to respond to a specific list of issues which they believe made them leave the faith of their upbringing.
Among Protestants who were raised Catholic, 71 percent said that their spiritual needs were not being met. Another 70 percent said they found a religion they liked more, while 54 percent said they just gradually drifted away. About half said they stopped believing in Catholic teachings, while 43 percent professed unhappiness with teachings about the Bible and 32 percent professed dissatisfaction with the atmosphere at worship services.
About 71 percent of unaffiliated former Catholics said they just drifted away from the religion, while about two-thirds said they stopped believing in the religion’s teachings. About 56 percent said they were unhappy with teachings on “abortion/homosexuality,” but the Pew Forum survey did not distinguish between the two issues. Another 48 percent professed unhappiness with Catholic teaching on birth control, while 43 percent said their spiritual needs were not being met. About 39 percent said they were unhappy with the way Catholicism treated women.
Fewer than three in ten former Catholics said the clerical sexual abuse scandal factored into their decision to abandon Catholicism, the Pew Forum reports, with Protestants slightly less likely than the unaffiliated to say so.
“While the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown the most due to changes in religious affiliation, the Catholic Church has lost the most members in the same process,” the Pew Forum survey report said. “Many former Catholics who are now unaffiliated, however, remain open to the possibility that they could some day find a religion that suits them; one-third say they just have not found the right religion yet.”
Archbishop of Washington Donald W. Wuerl, past chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Catechesis and next chairman of the Committee on Doctrine, said the report highlights the importance of Mass attendance among children and teenagers.
“Adolescence is a critical time in religious development and, as the poll shows, what happens in the teen years has a long-lasting affect. We have to help young people and their parents appreciate the importance of going to weekly Mass so teenagers know Jesus is there for them now and always.“
He also noted that only about two to three percent of former Catholic respondents named clerical sexual abuse as a factor when asked generic questions about why they left.
“Catholics can separate the sins and human failings of individuals from the substance of the faith,” he said. “Sexual abuse of a child is a terrible sin and crime, but most Catholic people, because of good personal experience with their priests in their parishes, recognize sex abuse by clergy as the aberration it is.”