THIS WEEK IN GOD…. First up from the God Machine this week is an interesting trend in American spirituality. While, historically, most Americans join a faith tradition through their families, and stay with it throughout their lives, we’re now seeing a surprising number of people switch their affiliations.

Catholics who leave their faith say they drifted away from the church because it did not meet their spiritual needs or they stopped believing in its teachings, according to a new study, while Protestants often tend to cite circumstantial factors, a move, a marriage, or a problem with a particular minister or congregation.

Altogether, Americans are switching in and out of churches at unprecedented rates, with about half of Americans today saying that they have changed their religious affiliation at some point during their lives, according to a study released yesterday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

“Americans change religious affiliation early and often and for varying reasons,” said John C. Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron who oversaw the study.

A growing number of Americans switch from one tradition to becoming unaffiliated — now 16% of U.S. adults — while many more transition from one tradition to another.

There’s no modern precedent for these kinds of changes in the nation’s spiritual landscape; its cultural and political implications remain to be seen.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* A new Florida program allows people to design custom license plates, and one of the new popular designs shows Jesus Christ on a cross. Having the state offer such a plate raises First Amendment issues, but Gov. Charlie Crist (R) has said he supports giving the public the option.

* 33 churches that deliberately broke federal tax law last year by endorsing political candidates are still waiting for the Internal Revenue Service to take action against them.

* While atheists in the U.S. have often been reluctant to publicly acknowledge their beliefs, a growing number are “coming out of the closet.” An NYT report noted this week, “The American Religious Identification Survey, a major study released last month, found that those who claimed ‘no religion’ were the only demographic group that grew in all 50 states in the last 18 years.”

* And TV preacher Pat Robertson, who heads a massive evangelical empire, will take off one of his hats next year, stepping down as president of Regent University, a private Christian college in Virginia he founded in 1978. He will, however, stay on as chancellor.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.