Feb. 26, 2008, 1:27AM
As Americans change, so does their religion
Survey finds nearly half of adults didn't keep the faith they grew up with
By JEANNIE KEVER
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
American religion is becoming increasingly reflective of society's changing demographics and lifestyles, with nearly half of adults practicing a religion that is different from the one in which they were raised, according to a new survey, which also shows the percentage of those affiliated with Protestant churches is shrinking.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life on Monday offered a picture of the nation's religious life, one shaped by choice, immigration and a growing number of people who don't identify with any faith.
"There's just a great deal of flux in religion in America," said John Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum. "I don't think it's going to change life in America overnight, but it will bring new voices to the public square, whether in politics or the broader culture."
Houston reflects the trend.
"This is where the American future is going to be worked out," said Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg, who has found similar results in his annual studies of Houston but was not involved in the Pew survey.
The 143-page U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, based on interviews with more than 35,000 adults, shows the reach of various religious groups and reveals how religious life has changed. Among the findings:
• 44 percent of American adults have changed religious affiliation since childhood. That includes people who don't belong to any religious group and those raised outside a religious tradition who later joined a particular faith.
• 16 percent of Americans don't identify with any religion, including 24 percent of those ages 18-29. The percentage is far lower than in other industrialized countries, experts say, meaning the United States remains a strongly religious country.
• 24 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, a percentage that hasn't changed in recent decades. Almost one-third of those raised as Catholics have left the faith, but immigration — especially from Latin America — has kept the denomination's numbers steady.
• 37 percent of married people are married outside their faith.
The key finding, Green said, was change.
"Religions may be about the eternal, but in temporal affairs, it is constantly changing," he said.
The survey also looked at demographic details — age, marital status and education levels.
Houston an example
"Those things are worth knowing. They tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of these groups, and also about the resources they can bring into public discussions," Green said.
For example, the survey shows Hindus, Jews and Buddhists have far higher levels of post-graduate education than the general population. It also shows Hindus and Mormons are the most likely to be married to someone of the same religion, and Mormons and Muslims have the largest families.
The changing religious landscape reflects a changing U.S. population, a trend Klineberg reported locally in his 2004 Houston Area Survey.
Houston is "now one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country. ... You can't have multi-ethnic societies that aren't also multi-religious," he said.
As with most shifts, this one is fueled by the young. "The baby boom is Anglo and Protestant," Klineberg said, noting that the oldest boomers turn 62 this year. "(Many of) the young people across America and Houston are the children of immigrants. They're much more likely to represent these new religions."
What this all means remains unclear.
"I anticipate that American public life will look different," said D. Newell Williams, president of Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. "I think the number of perspectives which are given voice in the public square changes the character of the conversation."
A market culture
"It's the working out of the religious marketplace," Green said. "People have lots of options, and they can find the religious place that makes the most sense to them. As people's lives change, their religious needs may change."
The number of religious options is American in nature. While many countries have a dominant faith — Anglican in Britain; Catholic in Mexico and Italy; Islam in Saudi Arabia — the United States offers a smorgasbord of denominations.
"People shop for churches the way they shop for the restaurant they like, the clothing they like," said Randall Smith, a University of St. Thomas theology professor who converted to Catholicism as an adult. "Are people shopping for something which is deep and fundamental, or are they merely shopping to find the kind of people who live like they do, look like they do, listen to the same kind of music?"
Churches, in effect, are competing for members.
So, as Hispanic immigrants fill Catholic parishes, seminaries push prospective priests to learn Spanish. "Not to speak Spanish is to be unable to communicate with your parishioners," Smith said.
As other religions grow, the percentage of Protestants — historically, the dominant U.S. religious group — is dropping.
There's little danger of Protestants disappearing, but their numbers will drop below 50 percent, Green said. That already has happened in Harris County, according to Klineberg.
"That will be a major symbol," Green said. "Some people will see it as positive, some as negative."
He said the influence of evangelical Christians may wane as the overall number of Protestants slips.
"This means other religious perspectives are going to play a bigger role in shaping our public life. Over time, that represents a very significant shift," Green said.