It’s been three years since Alicia Martinez, a Los Angeles college graduate, left the Catholic Church and still is on the search for a church that will “complete her”.
“I have been going to Catholic churches my entire life but it never clicked with me. Time is too short to just go through the motions and not feel connected to the religion you’re attached to. Now that I’m older, I choose not to be associated with a religion until I know it’s right in my heart,” says Martinez.
Martinez is one of the growing thousands of Latinos not choosing to identify with a specific religion.
A Pew Hispanic Center’s National Survey in April 2012 shows Latinos have become increasingly less religious with newer generations. The survey explains while only about one in ten foreign-born Latinos are religiously unaffiliated (9 percent), twice as many native-born Latinos are unaffiliated (20 percent). The trend continues to increase in third-generation Latinos, with 24 percent saying they are unaffiliated.
Juhem Navarro-Rivera, a research associate at the Public Religion Research Institute, says his data shows 18 percent of young Latinos claim to have no religious affiliation, and he thinks that number will grow. “This has accelerated since 2008. The difference was not so large,” says Navarro-Rivera.
Catholicism still remains a cultural mark among the Latino culture with more than three in five Latinos claiming to be Catholic in the U.S. according to Pew Hispanic Center. Norma Montenegro Flynn, Assistant Director of Media Relations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, says while some Latinos are leaving the church, it’s not in large numbers.
“Out of more than 77.7 million Catholics in the United States, it is estimated that less than 100,000 (or less than 1percent) Latinos per year go and explore other religions or no religion,” she says sourcing the 2012 Catholic Almanac. “The U.S. bishops are still concerned about those leaving, and that is why they are continually looking at new evangelization alternatives,” she adds.
The Pew Hispanic Center reports one-in-five (19 percent) Latino adults say they are Protestant, and 14 percent say they are unaffiliated with any religion.
Timothy Matovina, a leading expert on Catholicism, says Latinos’ attitudes toward religion mirror the rest of the population, since the 19 percent say they are unaffiliated. “We need to see the state of Latino religious affiliation as in flux, just like everyone else in the USA. So if Catholics are losing percentage and Protestants are leveling out, what is growing?”
While experts believe there is a growing number of Latinos who are not identifying with any one tradition, it is not the same as being “not religious” or atheist. More Latinos are practicing their own take of multiple religious traditions, but may not be necessarily active in a particular religious institution.
“The increase has been in the numbers of those who have withdrawn from identifying with clergy-led parishes, but who remain Catholic at home,” says Orlando O. Espin, Professor for the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego.
Hosffman Ospino, Director of Graduate Programs in Hispanic Ministry at Boston College, explains that the access to the media and contemporary trends in education are exposing Latinos more and more to non-traditional religious experiences. Moreover, college is for many an opportunity to “explore” beyond one’s religious tradition.
That was the case for Martinez. “College opened my eyes. Learning about the experiences from other students finding themselves ‘spiritually’ inspired me to do the same. But it started out with my parents making the first move to reach out to other religions,” she says.
It’s not just Latinos; the 2012 Millennial Values Survey indicates many young Americans aged 18 to 24—identified in the survey as “millennials”—are leaving their childhood faith and ending up mostly unaffiliated. Overall, college-age millennials are more likely than the general population to have no claim to a religion.
“We live in a religious culture of choice and tend to perceive religion as a choice that the individual makes for himself or herself. This affects our young people across the board,” explains Matovina. “The hardest ‘switch’ for Latinos or people of any other background is usually the first one. But once you have switched, you establish a certain freedom to switch again.”
All religions in the United States face the challenge of retaining their young people into the adult practice of their faith tradition, concludes Matovina.
“Latinos are changing the way we understand race in America. But America is also changing Latinos,” says Navarro-Rivera. “While we cannot predict how the future of religion in America will look like, given their increasing numbers and their growing impact in the culture, it is certain that Latinos will play a major role in it.”