Religious Defections
June 10, 2008 6:37 PM   Subscribe

How many people after being brought up in one religion, eventually choose another?

I'm aware that it's almost common to find someone who has been brought up in a religious environment to eventually become an atheist, with that change happening even during childhood.

But how often does that happen between religions? If a person grows up in a religious environment and retains the belief in a higher power, how often do they change to a entirely different religion, purely for religious reasons. (e.g. I'd ideally be excluding converting to religion X to get married, or similar)

Have their been studies done? Or more generally, what are your thoughts on it happening?

I'm assuming the defection rate (for want of a better term) would be near zero, unless its a subtle change, e.g. following Anglicanism vs. Protestantism under the Christian umbrella, and even in that case, would that change be more for comfort reasons then religious ones (moving to a town with only Protestant churchs).

Thoughts? (Numbers?!)
posted by Static Vagabond to Religion & Philosophy (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I personally know three people who have been "born again" - switching from relatively mainstream Roman Catholicism to much more conservative fundamentalist churches, so the rate can't be anywhere near zero.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:49 PM on June 10, 2008

In America its 44%.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:54 PM on June 10, 2008

Best answer: I'm assuming the defection rate (for want of a better term) would be near zero,

That's a terrible assumption, and the word you're looking for is 'conversion' rather than 'defection'.
A couple of links: - a study of conversions in 40 countries, but apparently costing $5

- some statistics, of unknown provenance. The domain and the cited 'World Christian Encyclopedia, 2001' don't give me a lot of confidence in the impartiality of the figures... but what do I know? Might be a jumping-off point.

just my search terms.
posted by pompomtom at 6:57 PM on June 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't know about studies, but, at least in the context I've observed (converts to Judaism), such folks are often given a lot of prominence in their new religious communities. Yisrael Campbell is one (Catholic --> Orthodox Jewish); John Scalamonti is another (Catholic priest --> Orthodox Jew). I saw signs around town last year advertising a lecture by Mr. Scalamonti, and remember hearing a lot about him as a youngster in New York City. I'm sure the conversion rate for this particular pair of religions, as well as others, is significantly non-negligible.
posted by greatgefilte at 7:03 PM on June 10, 2008

For a sample size of one: I went to a Soka Gakai temple once. My wife was doing grad school research and I went along. During that one service (not sure exactly what to call a group meditation session) about 4 people got up and introduced themselves to the congregation (again, not really the right word for a group of Buddhists) and discussed why they liked Buddhism so much better than Catholicism/Judaism which they were brought up in.

I have no way to know if this was their annual "meet the converts" session (we went pretty much at random) or whether they got four converts per week.

Overall there are significant numbers of Buddhist "converts" on North America. Wikipedia gives a range of numbers that are as good as any: anywhere from one million to six million Buddhists in the US where approximately 75% are Asian (mostly immigrants, but we're just spit-balling here). The remaining 25% would be non-Asians who would be mostly converts from Christianity and Judaism. That would give you anywhere from a quarter-million to one and a half million Buddhist "converts".

The major issue in this study is determining who is or isn't a Buddhist. Depending on where you draw the lines the numbers vary (as the Wikipedia article also mentions). So how you define a Buddhist also determines who is or isn't a "convert".

As to why they convert - I dunno. You might want to check the works of Robert Thurman (Uma's dad!) or Charles Prebish.

And I still remember from a minor flame skirmish many years ago on AskMe that a lot of people don't like the Soka Gakai, which is fine. From a social demographics point of view, they're Buddhists which is all that matters for the question at hand. Hi languagehat!
posted by GuyZero at 7:03 PM on June 10, 2008

I think the difficulty in quantifying this would be excluding inter-religion denominational changes. "unless its a subtle change, e.g. following Anglicanism vs. Protestantism under the Christian umbrella"

The USA Today report's statistic of 44% includes these changes, as well as including those becoming atheists and those becoming religious for the first time. "They've changed religions or denominations, adopted a faith for the first time or abandoned any affiliation altogether. "
posted by Hargrimm at 7:04 PM on June 10, 2008

Re Hargrimm, the differences between Anglicism and Protestantism are not exactly subtle, on either a philosophical level (hierarchical vs congregational) or a practical one (they still use Latin in High Anglican services, don't they?). So don't discount those sort of changes as subtle.
posted by GuyZero at 7:12 PM on June 10, 2008

Response by poster: Looking at the link damn dirty ape put up (and Hargrimm commented on) it does seem like the conversion rate would have to be far less then 44%, since the stats on the left-hand side state only 4.9% of people are of different religions in the USA, so a very great deal of that 44% would be Christians changing denominations within the Christian faith.
posted by Static Vagabond at 7:12 PM on June 10, 2008

Everyone in the religion I belong to is a convert (although that term doesn't really apply, as it is a monotheistic concept not useful for polytheists).

In my experience, there are a number of folks who go from religion to religion, getting excited, converting, becoming disillusioned, then moving to the next. What that number is, I don't know.
posted by QIbHom at 7:13 PM on June 10, 2008

Damn Dirty Ape, the stat you quoted includes converting from religion to a lack of, which is not what the poster is looking for. They want to know what the rate is of people changing from one belief to another belief (not to lack of belief).

The other problem, as hargrimm points out, is that this also includes denominational changes. Some of these are pretty miniscule. Others not as much. But Static, what's your thought on that? Are you including, for instance, changing from Catholic to protestant? What about evangelical protestant to something like Lutheran or Anglican? Or similar changes within other major religions? Or are you only looking for changes between quite separately delineated religions, like Christian to Buddhist, or Muslim to Ba'Hai, for example?
posted by gauchodaspampas at 7:20 PM on June 10, 2008

If you're a reader, there's a book called Soul Searching by Christian Smith. It's the results of a national survey about teenagers and religion. It contains a bunch of stats on different denominations and their retention rates.
posted by shopefowler at 7:29 PM on June 10, 2008

Response by poster: pompomtom: - a study of conversions in 40 countries, but apparently costing $5

Seems to open fine, five dollars still in wallet, the table on page 36 seems to be the kind of information I'm interested in, although I'll have to read through the lot to see what it's all based on. Seems at first glance 338 conversions from one religion to another (including catholic to protestant) out of a sample of 15,119 (I'm excluding people who went from none to a religion or the other way around). Which is 2.2%, or 1.75% if you count protestant and catholic under the same religious umbrella.

Thanks a million. Something to read tomorrow for lunch, lots of references to country specific studies too if I want to wander down the rabbit hole.
posted by Static Vagabond at 7:32 PM on June 10, 2008

As someone who converted from Catholicism to a Protestant denomination and have a sister-in-law who did the reverse, I can tell you from experience that the difference between the two isn't subtle or casual in practice. I see as many similarities as differences, but some don't. And there are some (on both sides) who even harbor animosity towards the others. As a neighbor remarked to me once, "They aren't Christian. They're Catholic." I had a long and complex conversation with him in the wake of that. I get what you are implying and even agree (Jesus = Jesus, right?) but there are many in both camps who don't see it that way. Just saying.
posted by jeanmari at 9:03 PM on June 10, 2008

I think John Green and Pew did some research on this recently. Look around on this site for more.
posted by mccxxiii at 10:02 PM on June 10, 2008

For some religious groups, influx of converts is definitely significant.

Most mosques in the US have people walking in the door asking to convert on a regular basis. Introducing new converts is a regular event after friday prayers. There aren't great numbers on it, but about 1/3 of muslims in America are either converts or children of converts. Given a total muslim population of 3-5 mill, that leaves over a million muslim converts or children of converts.

I understand the Mormons also have pretty high conversion rates, though I'll leave it up to the Christians to decide if that is inter-demoninational or not. Unitarian-Universalist congregations are famous for being made up of great numbers of disaffected Catholics.
posted by BinGregory at 11:14 PM on June 10, 2008

If a person grows up in a religious environment and retains the belief in a higher power, how often do they change to a entirely different religion, purely for religious reasons.

I think most muslim converts in the US convert for religious reasons, the ones you meet in the mosque anyway. Nominal conversion solely for the sake of marriage takes place too I'm sure, but most converts to Islam are unlikely to 'fess up to this, even if true. There's a bit of stigma attached to somebody who converts "just" for marriage, unfortunately.

If a person grows up in a religious environment and retains the belief in a higher power, how often do they change to a entirely different religion, purely for religious reasons.

This part of your question is really tough, since it is hard to quantify how deeply into their birth religion a person was, and since a person is likely to fall out of faith with their birth religion somewhere along the process to a new faith, unless they have a struck-off-their-horse moment. No numbers, sorry, but I've met plenty of muslim converts who were devout christians once upon a time.
posted by BinGregory at 11:59 PM on June 10, 2008

A fascinating question.

I find the idea so intensely peculiar, to convert from one religion to another. If you were raised a Christian and then decided 'No, this Jesus stuff is all made up. Vishnu seems like a far more likely deity.' Or the other way around. I can understand enjoying the practices of one religion more than another, but I can't imagine a person converting to a new religion because of practices. Seems like marrying someone because they're wearing nice trousers.

Muhahahahah - You say paganism could 'be fun'. Are you definitely goin to have a religion, but you're not sure which is the right one for you? Going to keep investigating different religions unto you stumble onto one that hits the centre of your brain and makes you think 'Yes - there are spirits in all the rocks. This is genuinely true and I feel it in my bones'? I find the idea of 'deciding' to believe in a religion, then looking for the most appropriate one to be a singularly peculiar thing. Which is just my approach to religion.

My SO's dad has recently upgraded the fundamentalness of the church he attends.

(Disclosure: Was raised Catholic, never really believed, totally a-religious now, but am fascinated in a lot of the history and culture and stories of different religions.)

If there's a good book on complete religion change among adults, anecdotal or anthropological or discursive, I'd love to hear of it.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 4:18 AM on June 11, 2008

a very great deal of that 44% would be Christians changing denominations within the Christian faith.

A Quaker is not of the same faith as a Catholic. I'm not quite sure why you're trying to lump them all together.
posted by sondrialiac at 5:49 AM on June 11, 2008

I don't know about studies, but, at least in the context I've observed (converts to Judaism), such folks are often given a lot of prominence in their new religious communities.

This is very true in the Christian denominations as well, though I wouldn't say it's that they're "given" prominence so much as that conversion is a very conscious affirmation of the tenets of a faith and converts are naturally going to be more enthusiastic on average than people who were born into a church.

I imagine the Catholic church has a good deal of information on RCIA, candidates, and catechumens. Whether they publish it, I don't know.
posted by kittyprecious at 6:55 AM on June 11, 2008

I also think you're mistaken in discounting converting between denominations. It can certainly mean a fundamental change in belief - my mother's nuclear family (all 17 of em) converted from Catholicism to fundy pentecostalism, and now believe that that the Catholic church is evil (claiming to be the 'catholic' church, as they follow an ostensibly pre-Nicene dogma) and the Pope is the anti-Christ (claiming infallibility).

I also know quite a few Christians who converted to Islam - and I also think you could lose some subtlety in your analysis by wholly discounting conversion for marriage or other community reasons. A lot of people who initially become open to the notion of converting for these reasons come to wholly believe the doctrine of their new faith, and it's disingenuous to exclude them when I think your question is 'how many people change their fundamental religious belief?' (please correct me if I'm wrong).

A lot is made of 'new brethren' in the evangelical group in which I was raised. There was a section of the Sunday communion meeting where they could stand and testify, and they were always profusely welcomed and fussed over in the other meetings (Wednesday meeting, prayer group, men's and women's groups, youngie's group [for singles of all ages], and on, and on...).
posted by goo at 8:01 AM on June 11, 2008

Ack - somehow lost a sentence there. Add "...and the Pope is the anti-Christ (claiming infallibility). Their whole relationship to God has changed."
posted by goo at 8:06 AM on June 11, 2008

I did. I was raised in a Primitive Southern Baptist Church, I've been saved and baptized. I attended church camps and revivals as a child and even co-led a youth Sunday school group in my early teens.

Sometime around 13, the hypocrisy and judgemental nature of the church started to really bother me. I discussed it with my parents and they supported my exploration of my faith. I tried Methodists, Catholics, and Episcopalian. I read as much as I could about Taoism and Buddism. I read the Koran and the Torah. I basically shopped religions. I felt in my heart that there was someone or something in charge, but I needed a faith that did not justify doing horrible things to other or yourself in order to appease the thing in charge. Eventually in my late teens I began to embrace paganism, specifically Celtic paganism. It seemed to me, that the faith was much more about a personal relationship with the gods and how you interacted with them and nature. I did have some issues with certain aspects of the pagan faith, specifically the more feminist versions of wicca seemed excessive to me. But overall, I was a devout practicing pagan for over a decade.

Then I had a major personal drama and began to question my faith. Now I belong to the Church of Me. I believe in me, I've rarely let me down, and if I screw up, I'm the only one who can forgive me. I still think there may be someone or something in charge, but I'm no longer convinced that humans can really connect to that on a regular basis, or that what is in charge cares all that much about us.

So yeah, you can go from being raised and devout in a specific faith, lose your faith, shop around, find a new one, be devout in that faith, lose that new faith, and end up just vaguely agnostic.

Oh and for the record, almost everyone I know who is a practicing pagan is a convert. Very, very few pagans are raised in the faith, at least in my generation.
posted by teleri025 at 9:11 AM on June 11, 2008

I was raised in a United Church of Christ church (not Church of Christ, very different), and the number one most common occupation of members was "retired clergy" -- none of them from UCC churches. Very few members had been raised UCC. The director of religious education when I was in high school was a Jewish woman -- not a convert, but her husband was ordained UCC and was the youth minister.

As an adult, I attended a few Unitarian Universalist congregations regularly, and all three of them were filled with converts. My kids' Sunday School teacher at the last one told them that very few kids raised UU stayed UU as adults, but it was fine since it was about exploring spirituality and finding your own path.
posted by notashroom at 7:52 AM on June 12, 2008

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