Changing Your Religious Affiliation April 28, 2009

Changing Your Religious Affiliation

Yesterday, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released the results of a survey on religious affiliation. Here’s what they found:

Americans change religious affiliation early and often. In total, about half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once during their lives. Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24, and many of those who change religion do so more than once.

They focused on people who were raised as Catholics and Protestants. I was most interested in the ones who later became “unaffiliated.”

For Catholics, the top reasons for leaving the faith include no longer believing in the Church’s teachings and the Church’s stance on homosexuality/abortion:


For Protestants, the top reasons for leaving the faith include no longer believing in the Church’s teachings and problems with church services themselves:


What does this mean for atheists?

For one, it means one of our main areas of criticism should continue to be attacking religious teachings — pointing out the myriad ways that priests/pastors are misinformed about what they talk about, liberal with their use of facts, and hypocritical. Also, we need to keep pointing out where the Bible gets it wrong.

We need to continue to provide alternatives for people who want to leave their church — a place for community and family and personal/emotional/”spiritual” growth, that doesn’t involve religion.

If you’re rolling your eyes, you should look at the graphic for why people who were raised without religion later became religious:


The biggest reasons for switching to a faith included not having spiritual needs met, finding a religion worth crossing over to, and moving to a new community.

If we can offer the benefits of religion, without the supernatural mythology, we would be addressing these issues directly.

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  • Kate

    Maybe they addressed this, but I wonder how many of the non-religious that adapted a “religion” joined a UU congregation. That’s what I did – I’m still atheist! – but it gave me a wonderful community.

  • AnonyMouse

    Hmm… 7% of ex-Catholics left the faith because someone close to them had died. 9% of Protestants did the same.

    Not only is the turnover actually higher from non-religious to religious (10%), but it’s as I suspected: the actual number of people who become disenchanted with God over a loved one’s death is much lower than portrayed in the movies. Guys, we have to stop this. We need to start portraying atheists in media who actually had a good reason to leave and do not reconvert before the credits roll.

  • I think the elephant in the room here is “spiritual needs not being met.” I am curious. How do you think Atheists should tackle that?

  • Kate

    Good point, Matt. Personally, I think there’s a difference between spiritual and religious, although I know a lot of atheists would not agree with me. Which is fine!

  • Guffey

    Matt – *IMO* step 1 is to stop the bickering and negative connotations about the word spiritual. Seems like a lot of atheists cringe at that word as if it *really* means that deep down inside one believes in the supernatural.

    It’s kinda absurd to ignore the fact the humans need to think about intangible things… yet I see folks slammed (even on this forum) for saying they are “spiritual but not religious” as if that’s impossible, or worse, that means they are “new age”.

    So my wish would be for atheism/atheists to come to an agreement that humans have minds and think about life’s mysteries and that does *not* mean that there is a supernatural being but it may mean that there are things that we don’t understand yet. How to do that? I don’t know.

    Just my .02

  • I think the elephant in the room here is “spiritual needs not being met.” I am curious. How do you think Atheists should tackle that?

    I notice that on many atheist blogs, readers who mention that they are spiritual or that they are interested in spirituality are criticized or ridiculed by the majority of people in the comments. (That happens less on this blog than on others, from my observations.) We need to stop doing this. It’s true that some, maybe most, atheists do not feel any need for the “spiritual” or hate the use of that word because of its religious baggage. But there are many, probably most, people in general who feel that spirituality is very important.

    To use popular authors as examples, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, and Eric Maisel have written about this and fit into the latter category. Dawkins fits into the first category, and does not seem to understand the need for spirituality at all.

    This is a topic I think about, and have written about, a lot. I hope that more people begin to discuss this topic in a way that does not ridicule those who have the desire for spirituality without religion and without gods. I especially look forward to more from Harris on this topic. I found the last chapter of The End of Faith to be one of the most interesting, but just a teaser.

  • David D.G.

    I have to say that I’ve never grasped the whole “spiritual needs” concept. As far as I can tell, I don’t even have any spiritual needs. The closest thing that I can think of would be aesthetic needs — things and activities that provide or stimulate good emotional feedback: appreciating a colorful sunset or a great song, feeling the “gee whiz” factor from a really good sci-fi book or movie (or, for that matter, from some incredible scientific discoveries), or enjoying a rousing conversation with my friends.

    Maybe some people do have a “god-shaped hole” in their psyches. But I just don’t seem to have one, or even a sense of “spiritual needs.”

    ~David D.G.

  • I don’t think feeling drawn to spirituality indicates a “god shaped” hole. It’s not quite the same as having aesthetic needs either, although this is closely related. I think it’s something in the psychological makeup that some people have and others don’t. Some people have a need for creativity and others don’t. I am not sure the spiritual desire/drive is very different. I don’t think people are better with or without these different needs. We are all different. If we can accept that, we will be far ahead of where we are now. My biggest beef with believers and atheists and everyone else and myself is that we too often fall into the trap of fearing — or even demonizing — those who are different.

  • GullWatcher

    Ok, I’ll bite – what ARE ‘spiritual needs’? Like David D.G., I don’t think I have them, but beyond that, I truly don’t know what people mean by the phrase.

    Of course, I don’t think a bunch of (mostly) atheists are going to define it the exact same way as the people switching religions in the survey do, but it would be nice to have something to go on.

  • Todd

    I am very anxiously awaiting a response to GullWatcher’s post.

    I also don’t think that I have spiritual needs, while, of course, having only the most vague idea of what that means. Previous posts seem to indicate that having spiritual needs is totally independent from religion and the supernatural. While I don’t entirely see how that will work out, I remain open to the possibility that it may.

    Definitions anyone?

  • Kate

    David – I think it’s an issue of labeling. I’d label those things as spiritual needs, and you wouldn’t. Which is fine, but it really drives at the fact that this is all a definitional issue.

    And I *loathe* the expression “god-shaped hole”…

  • Ron in Houston

    I think trying to reach all the “closet” atheists out there is the way to go. These studies clearly show that folks simply aren’t buying the BS that religious groups are selling.

    I suspect that people long for connection without all the dogma of religion.

  • Polly

    The religious tend to spiritualize common, everyday things. I see this a lot. There’s no difference except in the labeling.
    I’m moved by a piece of music, the Christian is “blessed” or the “[Holy] Spirit moved me through music” or whatever.

    I feel sudden inexplicable transcendant peace now and then for no reason. I don’t attribute it to anything divine but I do enjoy it while it lasts. If I were a Xian, I’d say it’s the Holy Spirit.

    Edit: I didn’t even see Kate’s comment when I wrote this.

  • Aj

    We have three kinds of “spirituality” secular, psychobabble, and religious.

    Secular spirituality is religion as practiced but not believed, an attempt to separate actions from beliefs. Meditation, ritual, synchronized communal ritual etc… I don’t think anyone has a problem with the suggestion that people might benefit from this. It can be empiritically researched. Connected are the feelings people get when they’re doing these activities, like has been mentioned aesthetics, feelings of “awe” etc…

    Psychobabble is using jargon in a meaningless way, sometimes explaining it with trivial or vague sentences. Often it is used to hide bullshit, in this case religious spirituality. From wikipedia: “give an impression of plausibility through mystification, misdirection, and obfuscation”. So saying that there are “unknowns” or “things we don’t understand” would be an example of mystification. Who doesn’t think there are unknowns and things we don’t understand? Why is that relevant? It’s implication is that unknowns justify belief in bullshit.

    Religious spirituality, people who believe in magic and call this spiritual. Belief in the supernatural, so if you ward off ghosts with incense then you are percieved as “spiritual”. This is usually suggestive on “new age” or “primative” religion because it ignores or rejects the revelation of prophet authority for a so-called “spiritual” connection, something the monotheisms reserve for a connection with their gods.

  • David D.G.

    Kate and Polly (and others), thanks for your input. The definitional angle makes a great deal of sense to me.

    ~David D.G.

  • AnonyMouse

    I believe that I have what one might label “spiritual needs”, and I think that they are a largely social phenomenon. You see, when people gather in a church, what you have is an enormous group of like-minded people who have all come together to do exactly the same thing – a hive, if you will. For some people, being part of that group engenders a deep feeling of spirituality – of social acceptance, cooperation, and most importantly, unity. It causes them to feel that they are a part of something much bigger than themselves. In a way, it makes them feel like they are part of a family. If they are particularly spiritual, they will begin to feel an aura of warm, fuzzy togetherness that seems to fill the room and uplifts their spirits. It is a beautiful, comforting thing to feel.

  • I agree with Kate. A UU congregation is a good community home for atheists. I enjoy visiting the local UU services in my hometown, and I don’t have to give up any of my views on reality.

  • Deviating from the comment theme a bit here, but while I think a group of atheist could provide elements such as community and belonging… it would be difficult to address spiritual needs — because “Going to Heaven” sounds a lot better than cessation of life. In the emotionally distraught mind set, an immeadiate demand for proof may not arise.

    It seems to me that the Atheist perspective suggest that everyone makes decisions by logic — however emotion, and passion factor in. Many people (of all faiths and non-faiths) are void of Logic, that is because logic can sometimes be cruel, and often lacks mercy.

    People will continue to switch from one belief to another, as long as they continue to experience being dissatisfied.

  • I actually wrote a blog post last month on addressing those “spiritual” needs.
    Creating a Humanist Culture
    I don’t like the word “spiritual” when it is referring to non-metaphysical things. So if the shortcoming is a lack of meaning, direction, or community, then I wouldn’t consider it a “spiritual” shortcoming.

  • GG

    I tend to nitpick on the word “spiritual” simply because I do not believe in a spiritual realm. So I do need to re-word it in order to feel more comfortable.

    When it comes to “needs not being met” I tend to think of emotional needs we all have that are best found in communities: being supported by others, socialized, learning and being heard, enjoying company, making friends, and being an involved member of a society.

    The number one thing I miss from my Christian days is the comfort and security of a community of like-minded people. These are what I think of as my “needs”.

  • Mathew Wilder

    I feel the same way as David D.G. In his first comment. I don’t really see the difference between emotional needs and spiritual needs, if spirituality does not involve anything supernatural. I think Aj’s three types helps clarify things, but unless it’s clear which type he’s talking about in any given case, and unless his three part definition catches on, I think talk of spirituality can obfuscate things.

  • Desert Son

    Others have touched on the semantic problem of this question, and I think it’s difficult in part because of the related semantic issue of post-acceptance translation of “spiritual needs” into temporal and phenomenological understanding.

    That is, the recognition that “spiritual needs” aren’t spiritual at all (in the sense that they’re separate from our consciousness, our physical being, the mechanisms of the universe, and so forth), but just components of the human experience, grounded in our biology, time, and brain processes.

    It doesn’t make the beauty of a Bach cello concerto any less beautiful, it seems to me, to realize that the sounds I’m enjoying appeal to those facets, both biological and experiential, of my being that gravitates toward music (especially since not everyone likes Bach, or cello music, or classical music, etc). The same with the music of The Who, or Thelonious Monk, or with the spectacle of a sunset in the desert, or great sex, or deep space imagery captured on film, or collective joy in a social setting like a concert or a ball game victory, or whatever.

    But the profound experience of those things is not evidence of spirituality, whether spirituality implies mind/body dualism, “powers” beyond space and time, angels and/or demons, psychic powers, coincidence as anything other than coincidence, intricately devised divine plans, etc. In other words, are “spirit seekers” really seeking community in which to share their enjoyment of the phenomenal common to us all, or are they really seeking actual spirits (Who ya gonna call?)?

    If they’re seeking community (and associated rituals, and there are all kinds of secular rituals), that can certainly be found outside a church or other religiously-affiliated circumstance. If they’re really seeking spirits, though, the real trick seems to be connecting those individuals back to the physical world without the need for dualism.

    How to make “spirit seekers” realize that the beautiful, uplifting, awe-inspiring moments in life are no less beautiful, uplifting, and awe-inspiring just because there’s no supernatural “counterpart” component out there? Another way of saying, how to make “spirit seekers” realize that it’s o.k. that there are no spirits (or at least, no evidence to suggest there are spirits at this point, so don’t worry about it).

    No kings,


  • Brooks

    I agree with what others have said about the difficulty of defining what spiritual but not religious means. Like do they mean what other comments have said about finding communities and rituals or is it like people who are Buddhist atheists that might not believe in God but believe in reincarnation or atheists who believe in tarot cards? I have to admit that even though I’m an atheist and don’t believe there’s a god answering my prayers, sometimes I still “pray” as a form of meditation. I don’t expect anything to happen and I know I’m just talking to myself, but I just do it out of habit from my days as a Christian and because it’s the way I’m most used to meditating. Does this make me hypocritical to use prayer as a form of meditation when I know it doesn’t actually do anything supernatural?

  • This is the first time I have ever been on this site and it is the first time that I have seen these specific numbers about the Church and people leaving it. I think the talk about “spirituality” being real or not real depends on experience. For myself I have encountered the supernatural with my own two eyes and for me I cannot discredit that. Jesus has changed my life in so many ways I cant help but believe in Him and the spirituality. I really do respect everyone’s comments and I look forward to hopefully learn more about how friendly atheists view life.

  • Hmmmmm, we thought about UU, but you had to be a democrat to join — OK, there were a few token Republicans there but everyone whispered as they pointed them out to us.
    I am libertarian, I am sure we are consider even more looney.

  • Travis,

    You will find that, if you hang out here, that atheists represent a large swath of opinion related to the nature of “spirituality”. Some hold that there is actually no such thing as spirituality… any such feelings are all just in our heads. Others hold that there is a part of reality that is forever beyond the scope of science, but this is also something quite different than the supernatural stories listed in the world’s holy books. Many fall somewhere in-between. Almost all of us who hang out at this site simply want to be an equal player at the table of life and live in harmony with others.

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