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More Hispanic Catholics Losing Their Religion

By Janet Kornblum

January 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003 USA TODAY. All rights reserved. 

The Catholic Church appears to be losing its steadfast grip on Hispanics in the USA. And while some are joining other churches, the fastest-growing religion among Hispanics is no religion at all, reflecting the same secular trend seen in the general population.

Latin America has been overwhelmingly Catholic since colonial times, and Hispanics in the USA have traditionally held to that religion, says Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, a professor at Brooklyn College and co-founder and director of the Program for the Analysis of Religion Among Latinos.

But in the USA, that is changing, according to a study out today based on findings from the American Religious Identification Survey 2001 (ARIS). The research was commissioned by Stevens-Arroyo's program. The ARIS authors, from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, looked at how religious identification has changed in the Hispanic community from 1990 to 2001.

The U.S. Hispanic adult population nearly doubled from 1990 to 2000, to 23 million from 14.6 million. And while the majority still call themselves Catholic, and raw numbers are up, the percentage is dropping. It's down from 66% (9.6 million) in 1990 to 57% (13.1 million) in 2001. At the same time, the percentage who said they had no religion more than doubled over the same period -- to 13% (2.9 million) from 6% (926,000). Of the 2.9 million who cited no religion, 38% were women, 62% men.

But just because more Hispanics are turning away from organized religion doesn't mean they are shunning faith; 53% of those who said they have no religion also said they ''strongly believe'' in God. Only 4% professed a strong disbelief in God.

''You may call the Hispanic community unchurched, but they're definitely believers,'' report co-author Ariela Keysar says. ''It just confirms in many ways that Hispanics follow the general trends of the American population.''

Americans who cite no religion now account for 14% of the USA, up from 8% in 1990, the study shows.

Felipe Chavez, who came to the USA from Mexico at age 10, grew up devoutly Catholic. But when Chavez, a government analyst who now lives in Southgate, Calif., went to college, his beliefs began shifting. He still attends church for traditional ceremonies such as weddings, baptisms and funerals, but he no longer considers himself Catholic.

''I'm still spiritual,'' says Chavez, 31. ''I definitely believe there is a higher power. It's the church I distance myself from. I don't go by the book.''

But many Hispanics -- especially those living in areas without traditional Hispanic communities -- responded ''no religion'' because they don't have a church they can attend, says Stevens-Arroyo.

Burgeoning Hispanic communities are hungry for churches that can provide community and social services as well as religious guidance. ''Our people are very religious. It's just that the Catholic Church hasn't caught up with the people,'' he says.

Other findings on the shifting religious beliefs in the Hispanic community:

    * The number of Pentecostals increased by one percentage point, despite a widely held belief that large numbers of Hispanics are turning to the Pentecostal church. ''The common claim was that people are leaving the Catholic Church and becoming Pentecostal,'' Keysar says. The 2001 numbers show 918,000 Hispanics are Pentecostal (4%, down from 3% in 1990), and 1.1 million are Baptists (5%, down from 7%).

    * Hispanics born in the USA are more likely than their foreign-born counterparts to belong to a church. Forty eight percent of U.S.-born Hispanics belong to a church, compared with 37% of foreign born.

    * More than two-thirds of Hispanic Protestants, 69%, said they were born into their religion. Traditionally, nearly all had converted, because most were born into Catholic families, says Stevens-Arroyo. ''There's a new face to the Hispanic Protestant.''

    * Among U.S. Hispanics, 47% live in a household where they or someone else belongs to a house of worship. That's lower than among Americans overall; more than half (54%) of U.S. adults live in a home where they or someone else belongs to a church, temple, synagogue or mosque.

The ARIS study was based on a randomly dialed telephone survey of 50,281 American adults from February through June 2001. The study included nearly 4,900 respondents in 1990 and 3,000 in 2001 who defined themselves as Hispanic. The survey has a sampling error of plus or minus 1 percentage point.

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