The simple reason why people really change churches, switch faiths, or leave religion altogether

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Forty percent of Americans change faiths during their lives. Some changes are relatively minor–moving from a conservative Baptist church to a more liberal Methodist church. Others are more substantial, such as converting from Christianity to Judaism or dropping religion altogether.

Most of like to think of such religious changes as an individual choice. Even if we continue in the faith in which we were raised, we see this as a conscious decision.  And the reason we made this choice is, of course, reasonable and thought-out.

Sociologists find such claims to be dubious. Religion may be a choice, but this choice is shaped by forces outside of our control. Without realizing it, our religious choices are constrained by our families, our ethnicities, our neighborhoods, and our occupations.

Darren Sherkat’s Changing Faith deals in-depth with the impact of demographics on our religious choices. He offers a simple but powerful explanation for why Americans change their religious choices. I’ll call it “Sherkat’s First Law of Religious Motion”

A person’s faith will remain at rest unless acted upon by outside forces.

What are these outside forces?  Put simply: changes in demographics.

  • Changes in education. People who obtain more education than those in their childhood faith are 18% more likely to leave religion.
  • Changes in marital status. People are more likely to switch their religious choices when they marry, when they divorce, or when a spouse dies.
  • Changes in geography. Change your location, change your religion. Even those who move within the same region of the country are more likely to make some type of religious change.
  • Changes in assimilation (or the continuity of recent immigrant communities). First and second generation immigrants are more likely to stick with their religion than are other Americans whose families immigrated earlier in history.

Sherkat is emphatic about the effect of immigration on religious identification.

Immigrant religion is not merely a sideline. “Real America” is not western European sectarian Protestantism. Real America is defined, produced, and reproduced by waves of diverse immigrant groups assimilating into or accommodating with a dominant Anglo-dominated culture. (88)

Bottom line: Immigration and other changes shape Americans’ religious choices. We still choose our religion. We still choose whether or not be religious. We choose which local congregation to join. But this choice is constrained by those around us, our families, neighborhoods, and communities. Demography, it seems, may be destiny.

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