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People say they're leaving religion due to anti-LGBTQ teachings and sexual abuse

The PRRI poll found that the vast majority of those who are unaffiliated are content to stay that way. Just 9% of respondents say they're looking for a religion that would be right for them.
Hanan Isachar
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The PRRI poll found that the vast majority of those who are unaffiliated are content to stay that way. Just 9% of respondents say they're looking for a religion that would be right for them.

People in the U.S. are leaving and switching faith traditions in large numbers. The idea of "religious churning" is very common in America, according to a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).

It finds that around one-quarter (26%) of Americans now identify as religiously unaffiliated, a number that has risen over the last decade and is now the largest single religious group in the U.S. That's similar to what other surveys and polls have also found, including Pew Research.

PRRI found that the number of those who describe themselves as "nothing in particular" has held steady since 2013, but those who identify as atheists have doubled (from 2% to 4%) and those who say they're agnostic has more than doubled (from 2% to 5%).

This study looks at which faith traditions those unaffiliated people are coming from.

"Thirty-five percent were former Catholics, 35% were former mainline Protestants, only about 16% were former evangelicals," says Melissa Deckman, PRRI's chief executive officer. "And really not many of those Americans are, in fact, looking for an organized religion that would be right for them. We just found it was 9%."

That these people are not looking for a religion has, Deckman says, implications for how and even whether houses of worship should try to attract new people.

Among other findings: The Catholic Church is losing more members than it's gaining, though the numbers are slightly better for retention among Hispanic Catholics.

There is much lower religious churn among Black Protestants and among Jews who seem overall happy in their faith traditions and tend to stay there.

As for why people leave their religions, PRRI found that about two-thirds (67%) of people who leave a faith tradition say they did so because they simply stopped believing in that religion's teachings.

And nearly half (47%) of respondents who left cited negative teaching about the treatment of LGBTQ people.

Those numbers were especially high with one group in particular.

"Religion's negative teaching about LGBTQ people are driving younger Americans to leave church," Deckman says. "We found that about 60% of Americans who are under the age of 30 who have left religion say they left because of their religious traditions teaching, which is a much higher rate than for older Americans."

Hispanic Americans are also more likely to say they've left a religion over LGBTQ issues. Other reasons cited for leaving: clergy sexual abuse and over-involvement in politics.

The new PRRI report is based on a survey of more than 5,600 adults late last year.

About one-third of religiously unaffiliated Americans say they no longer identify with their childhood religion because the religion was bad for their mental health. That response was strongest among LGBTQ respondents.

The survey also asked about the prevalence of the so-called "prosperity Gospel." It found that 31% of respondents agreed with the statement "God always rewards those who have good faith with good health, financial success, and fulfilling personal relationships."

Black Americans tend to agree more with these theological beliefs than other racial or ethnic groups. And Republicans are more likely than independents and Democrats to hold such beliefs.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.