US survey sheds light on Church exodus

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The results of a comprehensive survey into the religious experiences of American adults have been released, offering some sobering food for thought to religious and faith organisations.

Surveying 5,600 adults in 2023, the report by PRRI contains their responses to questions spanning the effectiveness of major faith traditions in retaining their members, why people leave their church, and the reasons that those who remain attend religious services.

The survey also asked questions about the relationship between respondents' political ideologies and faith, as well as the role that factors like sexual orientation or upbringing affect their relation to the church.

While almost a fifth of Americans who grew up in the church reported that they no longer felt affiliated with any faith tradition (19%), less than 5% of those who grew up without any religious background joined a faith tradition as an adult.

Perhaps even more worrying was that very few respondents who identified with the unaffiliated category were looking for a new faith to call their own, with less than one in ten (9%) agreeing with the statement "I am looking for a religion that would be right for me".

The greatest loss of believers occurred in "mainstream" denominations, such as the Roman Catholic Church and mainline Protestant churches. Out of the 18% of white Americans who grew up as Catholics, only 12% continue to identify as members of their childhood faith. However, the retention rate among Hispanic Catholics was somewhat higher.

One demographic bucking the trend, though, was that of white evangelical Protestants, with the net loss of members declining since 2016. Enjoying one of the highest retention rates of all religious groups at 76%, this has jumped 10% since 2016, when they were only holding on to two in three members.

When asked why they had stopped identifying with their faith tradition, the overwhelming majority answered that they had simply stopped believing in the teachings of their church, a number that continues to grow (up to 67% from 60% in 2016). However, LGBTQ issues continue to hold a prominent role in forming American attitudes to their faith, with almost half of those (47%) who had left their church citing negative teachings about, or treatment of, gay and lesbian people as an important factor in their choice to leave their childhood religion.

Increasing public awareness of sexual abuse scandals among clergy also appears to be a significant factor, with the number of respondents mentioning these issues increasing from just under a fifth to almost a third since 2016. And while a growing number criticised their church or congregations for becoming too focused on politics (20%), unaffiliated Americans were more likely to cite negative impacts on their mental health as a reason why they left (32%).

Despite the growing numbers of Americans identifying as unaffiliated with any religion, there is some good news to be found in the report. A slim majority of Americans still say that religion is the most important thing in their lives (15%), or one of the most important things (38%). However, with this number significantly lower than in 2013 (27% and 45%) there is clearly no room for complacency among faith communities.

Other data collected offered an insight into what is keeping believers in church, with respondents reporting that they attended regular services to feel closer to God (90%), a desire to experience religion in a community (79%), and to instil positive values in their children (79%).