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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Conversion: Most American adults have changed faith

Published: Friday, Nov. 4 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Michael Zimmerman (left) received the Shiho Dharma Transmission in 2006. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Michael Zimmerman (left) received the Shiho Dharma Transmission in 2006. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

The little red church David Hansen and his wife attended when they moved to Virginia was an obvious choice, at first.

The church was Presbyterian — a faith they were raised in — they had family in the congregation and the man who married them was still the pastor. But as time passed, their children grew, and irreconcilable differences with the youth pastor arose. Reluctantly, they decided it was time to leave.

"It was hard," Hansen says from his home in Lexington, Va., about leaving the church. "And it was kind of painful, but it was one of those things where that was the best result for all parties involved."

As tough as it was for Hansen and his wife to leave their congregation and eventually join an Episcopal church across town, Hansen's story is not an unusual one.

Michael Zimmerman (left) received the Shiho Dharma Transmission in 2006. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Michael Zimmerman (left) received the Shiho Dharma Transmission in 2006. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

As many as 59 percent of adults in America have changed their religious practice at some point in their life, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The fastest growing group among those who have changed religion are those who still believe in God, but no longer affiliate with any church — although that population does not have a high retention rate, according to the Pew study.

As the variety of religions in the United States flourishes, so too does the rate of conversion — but the churning in America's religious landscape doesn't mean sincere faith is waning, scholars say. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

The more, the merrier

When Michael Zimmerman started meditating to cope with the loss of his wife to cancer, he wasn't necessarily looking to convert to something. The former chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court had been raised Presbyterian, and he and his wife attended an Episcopal church in Salt Lake City until she died.

Michael Zimmerman (left) received the Shiho Dharma Transmission in 2006. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Michael Zimmerman (left) received the Shiho Dharma Transmission in 2006. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

As Zimmerman meditated more and learned about Zen Buddhism, he discovered the similarities between his own worldview and the principles of Buddhism. He eventually became a Sensei — a Buddhist teacher — of his own right. That's something Zimmerman says wouldn't have been easy in a different time, a different society.

"It just seems to me that … there is a proliferation of acceptance in this culture of diversity in religious tradition," Zimmerman says. "It isn't just about being (Catholic or Methodist). Now I encounter Hindus, I encounter Buddhists, I encounter all sorts of varieties."

America's emphasis on religious freedom has contributed to a proliferation of religious choice, says Rachel McCleary, a senior research fellow at Harvard who studies the political economy of religion. The more varieties of religion there are, the more people convert, or change religions. Countries with higher rates of conversion generally have higher levels of education and a higher Gross Domestic Product. This is in part because churches typically invest in human capital — for example, building schools and hospitals, McCleary says.

Michael Zimmerman received the Shiho Dharma Transmission in 2006. This transmission signifies his inheritance of the Soto-Zen lineage, to become a teacher and priest. During the ceremony various gifts were presented to Zimmerman by Genpo Roshi who officiated the ceremony.  (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Michael Zimmerman received the Shiho Dharma Transmission in 2006. This transmission signifies his inheritance of the Soto-Zen lineage, to become a teacher and priest. During the ceremony various gifts were presented to Zimmerman by Genpo Roshi who officiated the ceremony. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

A wide variety of religion also dampens religious violence, says Roger Finke, renowned professor of sociology and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University.

"Levels of religious persecution are far higher in countries where they deny religious freedom," Finke says. "The more pluralistic the culture is as a whole, the more important those freedoms become."

Apart from conversion, 44 percent of adults in America have changed their affiliation within a religion — such as switching from Methodist to Presbyterian within Christianity — at least once, according to the Pew study. But the churn between faiths doesn't mean Americans are losing interest in church. If anything, they're gaining more interest, says Rodney Stark, a scholar of religious history and co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.

 (Shutterstock) (Shutterstock)

"Church membership has never been higher," Stark says. "People like to think that in Pilgrim days, everybody lived in church — but hardly anybody went to church in colonial America because hardly anybody went to church in Europe. Somewhere around 1776, 16 percent belonged to church, now it's about 70 (percent)."

Religious marketplace vs. religious 'ecosphere'

America's religious landscape could easily be called a marketplace. There is competition, success and failure and there are many choices, but David Campbell, co-author of "American Grace: How religion Divides and Unites Us," says the undulations in American theology are more organic.

"In a biological world, you find lots of different niches," Campbell says from his office at the University of Notre Dame. "Depending on your own preferences and beliefs, you will find a religion in America to match what you are looking for."

The reasons people leave their church, even if it's the church they were raised in, vary from losing a belief in God or the church's teachings to disliking the practice and people at their church.

People are most likely to change their religion based on what their friends and family are doing. The most successful churches in America keep that in mind as they proselytize.

"I can move into a neighborhood and after a year being there, I can tell you what churches are growing and what ones aren't," Stark says. "The ones that are growing will have contacted me, and the others that aren't will not."

Successful churches also hold true to their core teachings, but they innovate "everywhere else," Finke says. Megachurches, like Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston, which draws an average weekly attendance of about 40,000 people and broadcasts a weekly live sermon on television, innovate in the way they include music, organize socially or incorporate social media. LifeChurch.tv, based in Edmond, Okla., reaches almost 30,000 people weekly through transmissions to satellite locations and through the Internet.

In one upstart church in Seattle, Stark says, the congregation grew exponentially over the course of a decade because of the way they marketed their church activities. For a Saturday night sermon, the giant billboard outside the church said, "Take her to church, and then to dinner." Bible camp advertised horseback riding, reading and Karate.

For the Hansens, the Episcopalian church across town appealed to them most through its balance between teaching and worship. You'll find them there on Sunday mornings; happy, holding leadership positions and teaching Sunday School. They don't plan on going anywhere else any time soon, but if they had to, they know they've got options.

"I don't know that we felt liberated (affiliating with a different church)," Hansen says. "But we knew there were enough choices out there that worrying about where we might end up didn't keep us from trying to do the right thing where we were."

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