Benefits of Changing Religions in the US? (SS#17)

In the June 2015 edition of Social Currents, Jennifer L. Glass (et al) published “Leaving the Faith: How Religious Switching Changes Pathways to Adulthood among Conservative Protestant Youth.” Glass and her team—after reviewing the literature—noticed an interesting trend; white conservative Protestants “experience consistent disadvantage in the transition to adulthood…” (p. 126). Following this realization, they were left with two contrasting possibilities. 1) Does religious participation motivate conservative Protestants “to order their lives in certain ways”? or 2) “are those who order their lives by the early assumption of adult roles simply more attracted to the message and resources of Conservative Protestant organizations?” (p. 126).

These questions are the basis of their research. They test these questions by looking at religious switching. That is, they looked at adolescents who switched religions “and observe[d] their transition to adulthood using four crucial markers—completed educational attainment, age at first marriage, age at first birth, and current income” (p. 127). The results are somewhat interesting. They find that those who switch religions can mitigate some of the negative consequences of being raised in a conservative Protestant home. The results, however, were somewhat marginal.


Marriage and Children

Both men and women who switched religions from conservative Protestant to mainline Protestant, Catholic, or secular were more likely to wait longer to get married and have a first child. Women who switched waited significantly longer to get married and start a family. Men who switched also waited significantly longer. Men who switched to secular (that is, no religious affiliation) waited the longest to get married and have children.

Education and Earnings

Conversely, there appears to be no advantage in education or earnings by switching from conservative Protestant to any other religion, with one exception. Men who switched earned significantly more than those who remained in a conservative Protestant religion. Within this exception, there also appears to be no distinction in education attainment for those who switched to mainline Protestantism or non-religion.

The researchers then looked at geographical distribution and noticed another exception. Non-Southern women who switch to no religion make more money than their Southern secular counterparts. Glass, et al, put it thusly: “[I]t appears that women’s earnings do benefit from religious disaffiliation, but only for those raised outside the South” (p. 138).


The findings are weaker in some areas and stronger in others. The strongest correlations appeared in marriage and having children. Switching from a conservative Protestant religion to something else correlates with a delay in getting married and having kids. On the other hand, the correlation was weaker in education and income. Switching—mostly—had no positive impacts on education and earning.


These results seem to have surprised the research team. They were expecting more upward mobility among those who switched religions, especially for the women. They attempt to explain this and set the stage for future research by hypothesizing that choosing to get married and start a family is much easier than choosing to finish a four year degree. Therefore, “Because schooling advantages and disadvantages accumulate over time…the opportunities a student has for upward mobility narrow over the high school career…” (p. 138).

Of particular note to me was the statistically significant correlations of advantage of switching religions in some cases. For example, why are women in non-Southern states more likely to earn more money if they switch from conservative Protestant to no religion than those women in the South? An easy hypothesis would be that switching to no religion in the South carries with it social stigma that might hinder upward mobility. Of course, I don’t know the answer to this question, so that’s only a guess.

At the very end of the study the researchers point out that their findings “do not address whether other forms of religious switching produce similar delays in the assumption of adult roles or whether the results for Conservative Protestant switching are unique” (p. 140). Well, wouldn’t that be interesting to find out? While there are dozens of directions this research team or others could go in the future (and they do address several of those in their discussion), this one, to me, seems the most interesting question.

Finally and furthermore, how do these findings apply to other societies? I think it would be really neat to apply their methodology to studies that examine Europe and Oceania (more secular regions) and Africa and the Middle East (more religious regions). I don’t think we’d get results comparable to the US, and that would allow us to build stronger theoretical frameworks of how religions shape societies—and the individuals within them—and how societies shape religions.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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