Sunday, March 25, 2007

Switching religions: Which religions best retain their adherents, and when people exit, where do they most often go? As usual, the General Social Survey provides answers when we get curious. Respondents were asked about the religion of their childhood, and about their current choice. Below I list the childhood religion and below that the percent distributions of their current status:

Current Religion (%)--Protestant at 16

Protestant 88.3
Catholic 3.2
Jewish .1
None 6.7
Other 1.1
Buddhist .1
Christian .2
Interdenominational .2

Current Religion (%)--Catholic at 16

Protestant 10.7
Catholic 78.7
Jewish .3
None 8.4
Other 1.1
Christian .4
Interdenominational .2

Current Religion (%)--Jewish at 16

Protestant 3.0
Catholic 1.6
Jewish 84.0
None 10.1
Other .9
Buddhist .3

Current Religion (%)--None at 16

Protestant 36.3
Catholic 7.4
Jewish 1.3
None 51.1
Other 2.4
Buddhist .2
Hindu .1
Other Eastern .2
Muslim .1
Orthodox .1
Christian .9
Interdenominational .2

Current religion (%)--Buddhist at 16

Protestant 13.7
Catholic 7.8
Jewish 2.0
None 17.6
Other 2.0
Buddhist 52.9
Other Eastern 2.0
Christian 2.0

Current religion (%)--Hindu at 16

Protestant 3.8
None 15.4
Hindu 76.9
Muslim 3.8

Current religion (%)--Muslim at 16

Catholic 1.8
None 14.5
Hindu 5.5
Other Eastern 1.8
Muslim 74.5
Christian 1.8

Current religion (%)--Orthodox at 16

Protestant 12.5
Catholic 4.7
None 10.9
Orthodox 71.9

Current religion (%)--Christian at 16

Protestant 18.3
Catholic 2.5
None 18.3
Other 1.7
Buddhist .8
Orthodox .8
Christian 56.7
Interdenominational .8

Current religion (%)--Mormon at 16

Mormon 97
None 3

Current religion (%)--Jehovah's Witness at 16

Jehovah's Witness 50
None 50

Current religion (%)--Seventh-Day Adventist at 16

Seventh-Day Adventist 88
Catholic 6
None 6

Current religion (%)--Pentecostal at 16

Pentecostal 96
None 4

Whew, that was a lot of typing. So what conclusions can we draw here? Well, the percent remaining Protestant exaggerates stability since some are changing from one Protestant denomination to another. On the other hand, even if there is some movement these numbers don't show, it is not usually movement to a completely different religion. (I'm sure most of the movement is from mainline to evangelical). It looks to me like Jews hold onto their own better than any other faith (84%) with Catholics coming in second (79%). Now, you might respond that Mormons are at 97% and some of these other small, new religions seem to have very high rates of retention. The problem is that sample sizes are so small, we simply can't conclude anything with confidence. I do think it's very interesting, however, that Jehovah's Witnesses lose half according to these numbers. If I grew up not celebrating my birthday or Christmas, I might want to make a change too. (Another reason to proceed with caution is that when respondents were asked about their current religion, only Protestant was given as a response choice for all these different groups, so I had to assume, for example, that someone who was a Mormon at 16 and a "Protestant" now had not changed religions. Is that clear as mud?) It's also interesting that among these small, intense religions, if someone does exit the faith, they usually don't replace it with something else. I suspect that being raised in this kind of religion convinces you that all other religions are unattractive.

More than others, Jews become people with no religion--a function of high IQ, I imagine. (The number might be higher for Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Orthodox, and Christians if we trust the small samples). About half of those raised with no religion join some church, a plurality becoming Protestant. This is probably due to numbers: if people usually convert through the influence of friends and significant others (I wince at the use of that term) and you form these relationships through proximity, well you bump into Protestants more often than anyone else.

There are other interesting patterns here, but this post is getting long, so sniff around if you feel like it, and let me know if you'd like me to look at related questions.


  1. What about all those dudes who become Muslims in jail? Lots of American black convicts go that route.

  2. I'm skeptical of the huge difference in retention rates between Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. Despite vast doctrinal differences both are so-called "totalizing" religions, which become the main part of their followers' whole identities and affect their daily lives in a way that most religions do not. One would think that both would do about the same when it comes to holding on to followers. The big differences may be, as suggested, the result of small sample sizes.

    Catholicism's rigid stand on divorce and remarriage may be a large part of the reason why its retention rate is lower than that of Protestantism.

  3. beaj: Of course you right, but the GSS doesn't sample jailbirds. I do know that, according to the GSS, 40% of American Muslims are black, not counting those locked up during the survey.

  4. I do know that, according to the GSS, 40% of American Muslims are black, not counting those locked up during the survey

    Undoubtedly some of them are ex-cons who converted behind bars. Not all, of course; many blacks convert in non-prison settings, and then there are immigrants from West Africa.

  5. Anonymous2:31 PM


    This website summarizes 300 United States court cases and lawsuits affecting children of Jehovah's Witnesses, including dozens of cases where the Parents refused to consent to life-saving blood transfusions:


    This website summarizes 160 United States court cases and lawsuits filed by Jehovah's Witnesses against Employers:



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