NEW YORK (AP) — Catholics remain the largest religious group among Latinos in the United States, but the number of Latinos who identify as religiously unaffiliated continues to grow.
Those are among the key findings in a comprehensive report released Thursday by the Pew Research Center that surveyed 7,647 U.S. adults in Aug. 1-14 of last year.
The report, which uses the terms Latino and Hispanic interchangeably, found that Catholicism remains the largest faith among Latinos in the U.S., even as the number of Latino adults who identify as Catholic steadily declined over the past decade. The number went from 67% in 2010 to 43% last year.
Still, the survey said Latinos remain about twice as likely as U.S. adults overall to identify as Catholic, and less likely to be Protestant.
“Latinos, especially here in the U.S., are still very faith-centered,” said the Rev. Carlos Velasquez, pastor at St. Brigid, a majority Latino Catholic church in an area straddling Brooklyn and Queens in New York City.
“Faith is a big part of all of people’s lives in Latin America … and when they come here, faith is what grounds them,” he said. The church helps with the difficult transition of emigration, when many are starting from scratch, he added.
Latinos who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – are now about 30% of the overall Latino population. That’s up from 18% a decade ago and 10% in 2010. The numbers of Latinos who are religiously unaffiliated is in line with U.S. adults overall, the report said.
The religiously unaffiliated — commonly known as the “nones” – are the fastest-growing group in surveys asking Americans about their religious identity.
“Even though Latinx Americans may be, like all other Americans, increasingly unaffiliated, that certainly doesn’t mean they’re non-religious,” said Elizabeth Drescher, an adjunct professor at Santa Clara University who wrote a book about the spiritual lives of the nones.
“They may not be engaged in institutional religion for a variety of reasons, but they may still have the kind of classic of religious measures of religiosity — like belief in God or a higher power,” she said.
The poll says the “demographic forces shaping the nation’s Latino population also have impacted religious affiliation trends.”
Among U.S. Latinos ages 18 to 29, 79% were born in the U.S. Nearly half (49%) in this age group now identify as religiously unaffiliated. But only about one-in-five Latinos 50 and older are unaffiliated. Most of these older Latinos (56%) were born outside the U.S.
Overall, 52% of Latino immigrants identify as Catholic and 21% are unaffiliated. U.S.-born Latinos are less likely to be Catholic (36%) and more likely to be unaffiliated (39%), according to a 2022 Pew survey of Latino adults.
Hispanic Americans are also strikingly underrepresented in Catholic schools and in the priesthood.
Nearly a quarter of all U.S. Hispanics are former Catholics: While about two-thirds of Hispanic adults (65%) say they were raised Catholic, 43% say they are currently Catholic, according to the survey.
“What’s happening to Catholic Latinos (in the U.S.) is what’s happening to Catholics across the world,” said the Rev. Felix Sanchez, pastor of St. Pius V, a majority Latino parish in New York City’s Jamaica, Queens.
“People are attending church less,” he said. Young people are participating less in their parishes. He cautioned against presenting Latinos as a monolithic group, though.
“It’s not the same to talk about an Argentine than an Ecuadorean, or a Mexican. And it’s not the same a first generation versus a third generation,” Sanchez said. “They all have different histories, traditions. What unites us is that we understand each other because we share the same language, but each one has its own cultural richness. — and we have to respect that.”
Protestants are the second-largest faith group after Catholics, the report says. They account for 21% of Hispanic adults — a number that has remained relatively stable since 2010 — with 15% of Latinos identifying as evangelical Protestants.
“Latino evangelicals have received national attention recently due to the political activism of some evangelical churches,” the survey says.
“The interest in Latino evangelicals comes as white evangelicals have become a bulwark of support for Republican candidates in U.S. presidential elections, and after elections in which a rising share of Latino voters have supported Republican candidates.”
Republican candidates across the U.S. are seeking to expand recent gains the party has made with Hispanic voters from Florida to California. What seems to be driving them are bread-and-butter issues, including crime, struggling schools, as well as food and gas prices creeping beyond their paychecks’ reach.
The report says 28% of Hispanic Republicans identify as evangelical Protestants compared to 10% who identify as Democrats.
Latino immigrants are slightly more likely than U.S.-born Latinos to be evangelical (19% vs. 12%). “Evangelicalism is especially prevalent among Latinos with Central American origins, mirroring a pattern seen in those countries. Roughly three-in-ten Central Americans (31%) say they are evangelical Protestants,” the report says.
Among evangelical Protestants who are Latino, half identify with the Republican Party or are independents who lean toward the GOP; and 44% are Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents.
Among Latino Catholics, by contrast, 72% identify as Democrats.
Religiously unaffiliated Latinos are also mostly Democratic (66%).
Most U.S. Latinos (65%) also say they were raised Catholic. Far fewer say they were raised Protestant (18%) or religiously unaffiliated (13%).
Older Latinos and those born outside the U.S. are especially likely to say they were raised Catholic, the report says.
“Like all Americans, many Latinos switch away from their childhood religion,” it says, adding that one-third of Latino adults said their current religion is different from their childhood faith.
The poll’s margin of error, for the full sample of respondents, is plus or minus 1.7 percentage points.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.