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How Many People Leave Their Childhood Religion?

childhood religion

(ANALYSIS) Being an academic is an exercise in the absurd. That’s what I’ve realized after doing this for the better part of two decades.

For instance, I have devoted thousands upon thousands of hours to trying to untangle a very difficult puzzle: When people are asked about their current religion on surveys, what is the mental process they go through to arrive at an answer?

For some, it’s pretty straightforward. They go to Mass every Sunday and have for years. They are a Catholic. On to the next question.

But what about the person who was raised Southern Baptist and used to go twice a week as a kid, but now hasn’t darkened the church door in a few years? Are they still a Southern Baptist or are they a none? I mean, it’s up to them to decide, not anyone else. And, my basic premise in social science is simply this: When people tell you who they are, you have to believe them.

That’s what makes religious switching such a fascinating topic. It’s happening every single day, thousands of times. Without any fanfare or big declarations, people leave religion behind or chose a different faith when taking a survey. And yet we only have a very basic understanding of the mechanisms that make all that happen.

Just how often is switching happening? And are there certain traditions that seem to be more porous than others? I used the General Social Survey to answer those questions. Luckily, since the very beginning of the GSS in 1973, they have been asking, “In what religion were you raised?” That means that we can track switching over nearly the last 50 years.

In the 1970s and 1980s, switching was pretty rare. Nearly 85% of folks who were raised Catholic were still a member of that faith group when they were interviewed. For Protestants it was even higher – over 90%. Christians just didn’t move around a whole lot back in those days. However, among those who were raised without religion, the vast majority picked a faith tradition as they moved into adulthood. That was the case for two-thirds of those raised nones in the 1970s.

However, those trends lines have not stayed flat over the last five decades. Retention is down for all Christians, but at different rates. For Catholics, it dropped below 80% somewhere in the early 1990s, and it fell below 70% in the early 2010s. For Protestants, it’s still fairly high but is clearly down from the 90% reported in the 1970s. Today, about 80% of folks raised Protestant are still Protestant as adults.

The nones are a different story entirely, though. It used to be that two-thirds of those raised nones identified with a religion as adults. Now, about two-thirds of those raised with no faith group are still nones into adulthood. In other words, most people raised none are still a none now. That wasn’t the case 40 years ago.

Let’s get a bit finer grained, though. I broke Protestants up into three traditions (evangelical, mainline and Black) and then calculated the retentions rates of several other major groups from the 1970s through the 2010s. Retention here is defined as being in the same tradition. So, someone who was born evangelical but became mainline would not be retained in this definition, despite the fact that they are still Protestant.

Evangelicals have very good retention rates — even in the last decade nearly three quarters were still part of the same faith tradition as adults. The overall retention decline for evangelicals is just five percentage points. For mainline it’s much worse. They started right around the same level as evangelicals (76%), but now it’s just 58%. That means that if you found five people who were raised in the mainline, two of them would no longer be mainline today.