The “Zeal of the Convert”: Is It the Real Deal?
A common perception about individuals who switch religions is that they are very fervent about their new faith. A new analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life provides quantitative support for this piece of conventional wisdom often referred to as the “zeal of the convert.” The analysis finds that people who have switched faiths (or joined a faith after being raised unaffiliated with a religion) are indeed slightly more religious than those who have remained in their childhood faith, as measured by the importance of religion in their lives, frequency with which they attend religious services and other measures of religious commitment. However, the analysis also finds that the differences in religious commitment between converts1 and nonconverts are generally very small and are more apparent among some religious groups2 than others.
One of the most striking findings of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Forum in 2007, was the large number of people who have left their childhood faith. According to the survey, roughly half of all Americans say they have left the faith in which they were raised to adopt another faith or no faith at all, or if they were not raised in a religion, they have since joined one.
The new analysis finds that, overall, people who have switched religions consistently exhibit higher levels of religious commitment than those who still belong to their childhood faith, but the differences are relatively modest. For example, among people currently affiliated with a religion:
- Slightly more than two-thirds of converts (69%) say religion is very important to them, compared with 62% of nonconverts.
- Half of converts (51%) attend worship services at least once a week, compared with 44% of nonconverts.
- More than eight-in-ten converts (82%) believe in God with absolute certainty, compared with 77% of nonconverts.
- Seven-in-ten converts (70%) pray every day, compared with 62% of nonconverts.
- About three-in-ten converts (29%) say they share their views on God with others at least once a week, compared with two-in-ten nonconverts (20%).
- And slightly more than one-quarter of converts (27%) say theirs is the one true faith, compared with 22% of nonconverts.
Differences Between Converts and Nonconverts Within Specific Christian Faiths
Methodists stand out as a group in which converts consistently evince higher levels of religious commitment compared with nonconverts. Converts to Methodism are more likely than those who were raised in the faith to say religion is very important in their lives (65% vs. 55%), to attend religious services at least once a week (48% vs. 38%), to believe in God with absolute certainty (82% vs. 77%), to pray every day (64% vs. 57%), to share their views on God with others at least once a week (20% vs. 16%) and to believe theirs is the one true faith (14% vs. 11%).
In other Christian faiths with sample sizes large enough to be examined in the analysis, converts also exhibit higher levels of religious commitment compared with lifelong members, though this is true on fewer measures. Converts to Congregationalist, Lutheran and Presbyterian denominations, for instance, report higher levels of religious commitment compared with lifelong members of their faiths on a majority of these measures. Converts to Catholicism are slightly more likely than lifelong Catholics to believe in God with absolute certainty (75% vs. 71%) and to share their views on God with others at least once a week (18% vs. 13%), though differences are smaller on other measures.
The analysis reveals only one striking exception to this pattern: Lifelong Mormons are significantly more religious than converts to the faith on two measures. Nonconverts are, for instance, more likely to attend church regularly and to believe that theirs is the one true faith than are converts to the Mormon faith. Outside of Mormonism, however, the analysis finds no instances where lifelong members of a particular faith exhibit significantly higher levels of religious commitment than converts on any of the six measures.
1 The terms “convert” and “conversion” can have various meanings in different contexts. Throughout this analysis, the term “convert” includes people who are currently affiliated with a religion and who were raised in a different religion or in no religion. The term “nonconvert” includes people who are affiliated with a religion and who currently belong to the same faith in which they were raised, including those who may have switched faiths and then returned to their childhood faith.
2 The analysis includes only those religious groups for which a sufficient sample size of converts could be analyzed.
This report was written by Allison Pond, Research Associate, and Greg Smith, Senior Researcher, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
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