Washington, May 7, 2014 — Although most Hispanics in the United States continue to belong to the Roman Catholic Church, the Catholic share of the Hispanic population is declining, while rising numbers of Hispanics say they 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 among U.S. Latinos – the nation’s largest minority group – 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. 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. 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.
Hispanics leaving Catholicism have tended to move in two directions, according to the new study. Some have become born-again or evangelical Protestants, a group that exhibits very high levels of religious commitment. 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.
“One of the most striking recent trends in the American religious landscape has been the growing share of the unaffiliated, and this study allows us to see where Latinos fit into that story,” said Cary Funk, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center and one of the co-authors of the study. “At the same time, understanding religious change among Latinos is important for understanding how this growing group may be reshaping the American religious landscape more broadly.”
Among the survey’s other findings:
Hispanic Evangelicals Report Higher Rates of Religious Engagement. On average, Hispanic evangelicals 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 and sharing their faith, compared with other Hispanic religious groups.
Among Latino Immigrants, Religious Switching Happens Before and After Coming to U.S. Among Latino immigrants who have switched religions, about half – 16% of all foreign-born Latinos – say they made the switch after coming to the U.S. But nearly as many – 13% of all foreign-born Latinos – switched religions before moving to the U.S. This may reflect some of the religious changes taking place in Latin America, where the shares of Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated have been growing.
Two-Thirds of Latino Protestants, About Half of Latino Catholics Are Renewalist Christians. About three-in-ten (29%) Latino Protestants belong to traditional Pentecostal denominations. An additional 38% describe themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic Christians even though they do not belong to a Pentecostal denomination. Among Hispanic Catholics, 52% say they are either charismatic or Pentecostal Catholics.
On Social and Political Views, Hispanics Fall Into Distinct Groups Along Religious Lines. When it comes to social and political views, the survey finds evangelical Protestants at the conservative end of the spectrum, the unaffiliated at the liberal end and Hispanic Catholics in between. For example, religiously unaffiliated Hispanics favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally by a roughly four-to-one margin (67% to 16%). Hispanic evangelical Protestants tilt in the opposite direction and are much more inclined to oppose same-sex marriage (66% opposed, 19% in favor). Hispanic Catholics fall in between (49% opposed, 30% in favor). Mainline Protestants are closely divided on the issue, with nearly four-in-ten (37%) opposed and 44% in favor. These differences are largely in keeping with patterns found among the same religious groups in the general public.
“Just Gradually Drifted Away” Is Among Most Commonly Cited Reasons for Changing Religions. The survey finds 55% of those who switched say they just gradually “drifted away” from the religion in which they were raised, and 52% of those who switched say they stopped believing in the teachings of their childhood religion.
Some Latinos Take Part in Forms of Spiritual Expression That May Reflect a Mix of Christian and Indigenous Influences. For instance, a majority of Latinos say they believe people can be possessed by spirits, and about three-in-ten say they have made offerings to spiritual beings or saints.
The report further explores Hispanics’ religious beliefs and practices; views of Pope Francis and the Catholic Church; and characteristics of the churches Hispanics attend, such as having Hispanic clergy and offering Spanish-language services.
The survey was conducted May 24-July 28, 2013, among a representative sample of 5,103 Hispanic adults 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 full survey report, “The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States,” is available on the website of the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. The report is accompanied by two interactive online resources. One interactive shows how many U.S. Latinos have remained in the religious group in which they were raised and how many have switched to other religious groups. A second interactive shows religious, political and social views for the U.S. general population and the U.S. Hispanic population, as well as for four Hispanic religious subgroups.
Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. Its Religion & Public Life Project seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.