The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States

Nearly One-in-Four Latinos Are Former Catholics

Most Hispanics in the United States continue to belong to the Roman Catholic Church. But the Catholic share of the Hispanic population is declining, while rising numbers of Hispanics are Protestant or unaffiliated with any religion. Indeed, nearly one-in-four Hispanic adults (24%) are now former Catholics, according to a major, nationwide survey of more than 5,000 Hispanics by the Pew Research Center. Together, these trends suggest that some religious polarization is taking place in the Hispanic community, with the shrinking majority of Hispanic Catholics holding the middle ground between two growing groups (evangelical Protestants and the unaffiliated) that are at opposite ends of the U.S. religious spectrum.

The Pew Research Center’s 2013 National Survey of Latinos and Religion finds that a majority (55%) of the nation’s estimated 35.4 million Latino adults – or about 19.6 million Latinos – identify as Catholic today. 1 About 22% are Protestant (including 16% who describe themselves as born-again or evangelical) and 18% are religiously unaffiliated.

The share of Hispanics who are Catholic likely has been in decline for at least the last few decades.2 But as recently as 2010, Pew Research polling found that fully two-thirds of Hispanics (67%) were Catholic. That means the Catholic share has dropped by 12 percentage points in just the last four years, using Pew Research’s standard survey question about religious affiliation.

The long-term decline in the share of Catholics among Hispanics may partly reflect religious changes underway in Latin America, where evangelical churches have been gaining adherents and the share of those with no religious affiliation has been slowly rising in a region that historically has been overwhelmingly Catholic.4 But it also reflects religious changes taking place in the U.S., where Catholicism has had a net loss of adherents through religious switching (or conversion) and the share of the religiously unaffiliated has been growing rapidly in the general public.

Hispanics leaving Catholicism have tended to move in two directions. Some have become born-again or evangelical Protestants, a group that exhibits very high levels of religious commitment. On average, Hispanic evangelicals – many of whom also identify as either Pentecostal or charismatic Protestants – not only report higher rates of church attendance than Hispanic Catholics but also tend to be more engaged in other religious activities, including Scripture reading, Bible study groups and sharing their faith.

At the same time, other Hispanics have become religiously unaffiliated – that is, they describe themselves as having no particular religion or say they are atheist or agnostic. This group exhibits much lower levels of religious observance and involvement than Hispanic Catholics. In this respect, unaffiliated Hispanics roughly resemble the religiously unaffiliated segment of the general public.

Hispanic Catholics are somewhere in the middle. They fall in between evangelicals and the unaffiliated in terms of church attendance, frequency of prayer and the degree of importance they assign to religion in their lives, closely resembling white (non-Hispanic) Catholics in their moderate levels of religious observance and engagement.

These three Hispanic religious groups also have distinct social and political views, with evangelical Protestants at the conservative end of the spectrum, the unaffiliated at the liberal end and Hispanic Catholics in between.

These are among the key findings of the Pew Research Center’s 2013 National Survey of Latinos and Religion. The survey was conducted May 24-July 28, 2013, among a representative sample of 5,103 Hispanic adults (ages 18 and older) living in the United States. The survey was conducted in English and in Spanish on both cellular and landline telephones with a staff of bilingual interviewers. The margin of error for results based on all respondents is plus or minus 2.1 percentage points.
The remainder of this overview discusses the key findings in greater detail, beginning with a deeper look at changes in religious affiliation among Latinos in recent years, which have been concentrated among young and middle-aged adults (ages 18-49). While these shifts are complicated and defy any single, simple explanation, the report examines some potential factors, including patterns in religious switching since childhood, the reasons Latinos most frequently give for changing their religion, areas of agreement and disagreement with the Catholic Church, and the continuing appeal of Pentecostalism. The report also explores key differences between Latino religious groups, placing Latino Protestants, Catholics and religiously unaffiliated adults on a spectrum in terms of religious commitment, social attitudes and political views.

Broad-Based Changes in Religious Identity

The recent changes in religious affiliation are broad-based, occurring among Hispanic men and women, those born in the United States and those born abroad, and those who have attended college as well as those with less formal education. The changes are also occurring among Hispanics of Mexican origin (the largest single origin group) and those with other origins.
The change, however, has occurred primarily among Hispanic adults under the age of 50, and the patterns vary considerably among different age groups. Among the youngest cohort of Hispanic adults, those ages 18-29, virtually all of the net change has been away from Catholicism and toward no religious affiliation. Among those ages 30-49, the net movement has been away from Catholicism and toward both evangelical Protestantism and no religious affiliation. Among Hispanics ages 50 and older, the changes in religious identity are not statistically significant.

Latinos Make Up a Rising Share of Catholics

Even though the percentage of Hispanics who identify as Catholic has been declining, Hispanics continue to make up an increasingly large share of U.S. Catholics. Indeed, as of 2013, one-third (33%) of all U.S. Catholics were Hispanic, according to Pew Research surveys.
Both trends can occur at the same time because of the growing size of the Hispanic population, which has increased from 12.5% of the total U.S. population in 2000 to 16.9% in 2012. Indeed, if both trends continue, a day could come when a majority of Catholics in the United States will be Hispanic, even though the majority of Hispanics might no longer be Catholic.
While the decline in Catholic affiliation is occurring among multiple age groups, it is more pronounced among younger generations of Hispanics. Today, fewer than half of Hispanics under age 30 are Catholic (45%), compared with about two-thirds of those ages 50 and older (64%).
At the same time, Catholics under age 50 are much more likely to be Hispanic than those ages 50 and older (44% vs. 21%).

Religious Switching Since Childhood

The decline in Catholic affiliation among Latinos is due, at least in part, to changes in religious affiliation since childhood.6 Three-quarters of Latino adults in the new survey (77%) say they were raised as Catholics, while just over half (55%) currently describe themselves as Catholics. Roughly a quarter of Latinos were raised Catholic and have left the faith (24%), while just 2% were raised in some other faith and have converted to Catholicism, for a net decline of 22 percentage points.

Catholicism is the only major religious tradition among Latinos that has seen a net loss in adherents due to religious switching. Net gains have occurred among the religiously unaffiliated (up 12 percentage points) and among Protestants (up eight points).
For complete story visit:  http://www.pewforum.org/2014/05/07/the-shifting-religious-identity-of-latinos-in-the-united-states/

Panorama Hispano is the regional news and information newspaper for Hispanic and other diverse communities.

US Hispanics are now the largest ethnic minority in the United States numbering 54.2 million as of July 2014. Serving: Buffalo, Rochester, Fredonia, Niagara Falls, NY and Erie, PA. Outside our Market area: Visit our affiliate at: http://www.impremedia.com/

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