A massive study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has found that the religious landscape of the U.S. is shifting beneath our feet. The results should not be surprising to those who keep an eye on religious trends, but they provide valuable empirical documentation that could spark further study (a nice interactive version of the report is available here).

The study shows that America is becoming less Protestant than in earlier days. Protestants once claimed two-thirds of the population, but now hold a bare majority at 51 percent. Still, Protestants remain the largest group by far, with Catholics next at 24 percent.

The study did not show a marked increase in atheism or agnosticism, but it did reveal an increase in the number of people who consider themselves to be religious, but unaffiliated. While 16 percent of the population said they had no religious affiliation, only a quarter of those claimed to be agnostics or atheists.

The most notable learning is the increasing fluidity of faith expressions: 28 percent of Americans are no longer associated with the denominational church of their childhood. If movement between Protestant denominations is figured in, a whopping 44 percent of Americans no longer practice the faith of their fathers and mothers, opting for a different denomination or no religion at all.

It’s not my purpose in this space to analyze the significance of these trends, though I’m confident the findings will give rise to lots of denominational head-scratching and newly commissioned studies.

While one may or may not be happy with the change in popularity of his or her preferred denomination, I am reminded that Americans are blessedly free to make faith decisions without interference or recriminations from the government.

That is something for which we can be 100 percent thankful.

[Image from the Pew Forum’s “Religious Landscape” study homepage.]

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