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October 9th, 2012
12:01 AM ET

Survey: One in five Americans has no religion

Editor's note: CNN recently won four first-place reporting awards from the Religion Newswriters Association. Read more about the awards here.

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN) – The fastest growing "religious" group in America is made up of people with no religion at all, according to a Pew survey showing that one in five Americans is not affiliated with any religion.

The number of these Americans has grown by 25% just in the past five years, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The survey found that the ranks of the unaffiliated are growing even faster among younger Americans.

Thirty-three million Americans now have no religious affiliation, with 13 million in that group identifying as either atheist or agnostic, according to the new survey.

Pew found that those who are religiously unaffiliated are strikingly less religious than the public at large. They attend church infrequently, if at all, are largely not seeking out religion and say that the lack of it in their lives is of little importance.

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And yet Pew found that 68% of the religiously unaffiliated say they believe in God, while 37% describe themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.” One in five said that they even pray every day.

John Green, a senior research adviser at Pew, breaks the religiously unaffiliated into three groups. First, he says, are those who were raised totally outside organized religion.

Survey: Protestants no longer majority in U.S.

Second are groups of people who were unhappy with their religions and left.

The third group, Green says, comprises Americans who were never really engaged with religion in the first place, even though they were raised in religious households.

“In the past, we would describe those people as nominally affiliated. They might say, 'I am Catholic; I am a Baptist,' but they never went" to services, Green says of this last group. “Now, they feel a lot more comfortable just saying, ‘You know, I am really nothing.’ ”

According to the poll, 88% of religiously unaffiliated people are not looking for religion.

“There is much less of a stigma attached" to not being religious, Green said. “Part of what is fueling this growth is that a lot of people who were never very religious now feel comfortable saying that they don't have an affiliation.”

Demographically, the growth among the religiously unaffiliated has been most notable among people who are 18 to 29 years old.

According to the poll, 34% of “younger millennials” - those born between 1990 and 1994 - are religiously unaffiliated. Among “older millennials,” born between 1981 and 1989, 30% are religiously unaffiliated: 4 percentage points higher than in 2007.

Poll respondents 18-29 were also more likely to identify as atheist or agnostic. Nearly 42% religious unaffiliated people from that age group identified as atheist or agnostic, a number far greater than the number who identified as Christian (18%) of Catholic (18%).

Green says that these numbers are “part of a broader change in American society.”

“The unaffiliated have become a more distinct group,” he said.

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Pew's numbers were met with elation among atheist and secular leaders. Jesse Galef, communications director for the Secular Student Alliance, said that the growth of the unaffiliated should translate into greater political representation for secular interests.

“We would love to see the political leaders lead on this issue, but we are perfectly content with them following these demographic trends, following the voters,” Galef said.

“As more of the voters are unaffiliated and identifying as atheist and agnostics, I think the politicians will follow that for votes.

“We won’t be dismissed or ignored anymore,” Galef said.

The Pew survey suggested that the Democratic Party would do well to recognize the growth of the unaffiliated, since 63% of them identify with or lean toward that political group. Only 26% of the unaffiliated do the same with the Republican Party.

"In the near future, if not this year, the unaffiliated voters will be as important as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party collation,” Green predicted.

Green points to the 2008 exit polls as evidence for that prediction. That year, Republican presidential nominee John McCain beat President Barack Obama by 47 points among white evangelical voters, while Obama had a 52-point margin of victory over McCain among the religiously unaffiliated.

According to exit polls, the proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans who supported the Democratic presidential candidate grew 14 points from 2000 to 2008.

In announcing the survey’s findings at the Religion Newswriters Association conference in Bethesda, Maryland, Green said the growing political power of the unaffiliated within the Democratic Party could become similar to the power the Religious Right acquired in the GOP in the 1980s.

“Given the growing numbers of the unaffiliated, there is the potential that that could be harnessed,” he said.

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Faith Now • Politics • Polls

soundoff (7,763 Responses)
  1. Jeremy

    And I'm letting the people here who are looking for God, and know they are an immoral person, a sinner, that God will forgive them. God has made it possible through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.....

    October 9, 2012 at 5:06 am |
    • Gaunt

      How DARE you? I dont need your forgiveness, nor the forgiveness of your make believe sky santa. How dare you try and lay unfathomable guilt upon people you do not know and have never met?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:10 am |
    • Truthy be busted

      You are very simple-minded. If you asked yourself why god would do something like that instead of just removing sin in the first place, well red flags would go up. And there is no sacrifice at all, because a real god does not die – it is only an inconvenience, free of the fear and dread and uncertainty humans undergo. It is an empty sacrifice, the most meaningless non-sacrifice imaginable. And it was a set up to force indebtedness on the human race?

      Get real. It's a contradictory story from your contradictory Bible.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:12 am |
    • sam stone

      You know nothing of us, you pompous bible sucking cvnt

      October 9, 2012 at 6:30 am |
    • Seth

      Jeremy, great witness, brother! Keep the faith, realizing you are blessed when you are reviled because of your belief. They condemn what they do not understand, and in professing to be wise they become fools. In the end, every knee will bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord. We worship the risen Savior! Hallelujah!

      October 9, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • OTOH

      Seth,
      " in professing to be wise they become fools."

      – And yet I'll bet that you think yourself to be wise to believe this, huh?

      It's turtles all the way down...

      – and –

      "In the end, every knee will bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord."

      – This sounds more like something that your "Satan" character would desire, yea, demand.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  2. maxbianco

    And what about de ath?
    you cant deny it, we all will meet it, noone can avoid it and not one person alive knows "whats on the other side" but it is for certain we all will die.
    what if athiest are wrong? what if there is a God? (for the record im a believer) what if ??? and for those of you who think removing "religion" is the answer to the worlds problems please explain... for starters, north korea. no religion there, and china... no religion allowed there.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:06 am |
    • Gaunt

      What if there is? There are over 40,000 known religions out there, and countless others that have disapeared into time. Even if there IS a god (for which there is not the slightest evidence), how can you be so myopic as to believe it will HAPPEN to be your version of your interpretation of your god standing there? What happens if the Norse were right, and you are sent to hel because you did not die in battle surrounded by your slain foes? What if in reality, God just sentences everyone with brown hair to hell, and everyone else to heaven?

      You cannot live your life by assuming knowledge of the impossible and unguessable. So even if there IS a god, who cares? live your life.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:09 am |
    • slupdawg

      So your big answer is to lie to yourself into believing?? ?? ?? Just??

      October 9, 2012 at 5:09 am |
    • the AnViL

      when you die, the neurons that you use to "know" things with and store memories and all – decays and disintegrates. the biochemical energy which powers all nerve impulses ceases to be held coherent by a neuronal structure – and dissipates out into the surrounding system. it's called thermodynamics – they don't teach it in churches.

      when you die – you don't know about it – because you've nothing to know things with. you meet oblivion – and rest in peace... forever.

      it's actually quite comforting when you really wrap your head around it.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:14 am |
    • Drock

      Anvil im really confused by your statement "you rest in peace" there is no such thing at peace if you feel nothing. Please clarify.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:46 am |
  3. snookers

    I view religion as just another political power tool to control the masses.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:05 am |
  4. truth be told

    President George H W Bush said an atheist is not a patriot and should not be a citizen of America. We are one nation under God.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:03 am |
    • Knowledge is Power

      The United States is a secular society that sometimes forgets the importance of separation of church and state.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:05 am |
    • nope

      @ K no ...
      nope

      October 9, 2012 at 5:06 am |
    • Julian

      The fact that he said it discredits the entire statement.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:07 am |
    • Truthy be busted

      Thank you for reminding us what sh!theads the Bush's are.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:07 am |
    • Azhar

      If Bush said it, it must be true. Use your own head for once.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:10 am |
  5. Azhar

    All powerful, All knowing, but he always need money.– George Carlin

    October 9, 2012 at 5:02 am |
    • Old Rugged Cross

      Atheism isn't some new, enlightened belief system. Read Psalm 14:1. Atheism says "There is no God". Atheists cannot empirically prove that God does not exist, just as I cannot empirically prove that God does exist. I start with the premise, "In the beginning God..." From there I find order, not chaos. From there, I find God, who is loving and faithful in spite of my selfishness. My faith is in God, the Creator. My belief is that God, the Creator is Faithful, even when I am not (Hab 2:4). Atheists choose not to believe in God. So be it. The message is the ship is sinking. God is pleading from the lifeboat. Jump in or stay on the sinking ship. God loves you.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:34 am |
  6. Knowledge is Power

    In the not too distant future, all modern religions will be categorized with their cousin, Greek Mythology.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:01 am |
    • nope

      @kno...
      nope

      October 9, 2012 at 5:06 am |
    • Knowledge is Power

      The key is education. Educate the masses and the decline is simultaneous.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:09 am |
  7. Jeremy

    Why do I know these things? I've read the Bible :) I saying these things because they are true!

    October 9, 2012 at 5:00 am |
    • Wakey Wakey

      First of all, the smileys make you look like a fluff-brain.

      Second of all, there are many other scriptures in the world, all of equal validity many much older and better written,, all of which say yours is wrong. You need to supply evidence that it is true, or you are a fool.

      Third, there is a reply button. Use it.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:05 am |
  8. Jim McDonald

    There is an old joke about Santa Claus: There are three ages of Santa Claus in our lives, first we believe in Santa, then we don't believe in Santa, then we become Santa.

    Many young people have doubts about God, and go thru often long peroids where they feel they don't have any faith. Sadly, this normal progression is exploited by some people to talk folks into supporting very weakminded lib ideas. The normal life progression is about the time we have Children, we begin again to see wonder in the world, and are drawn back to God.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:00 am |
  9. Using your brain

    Go to youtube and listen to George Carlin's Religion segments. They're awesome.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:59 am |
    • truth be told

      You mean the dead guy that used to think he was funny? That guy?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:04 am |
    • Using your brain

      No, the dead guy who WAS funny and a great philosopher without doubt.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:12 am |
    • Pete

      He died so that means he was wrong? You are a moron.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  10. spangler

    Having 10 billion years to plan the revelation between the Big Bang and the earliest humans, the diety has determined that each tribe and culture can come up with their own religion and change it whenever they feel like it.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:59 am |
  11. Jeremy

    People seem to be amazed that God would forgive bad people. Well guess what, we are all bad. Ever told a lie? Ever did a "five finger discount"? Ever hated anyone? Ever been jealous of other people's stuff? Read the 10 commandments.....

    October 9, 2012 at 4:58 am |
    • Gaunt

      Do you see any measurable difference at all between, say stealing some candy from the store or lying, and say, mass genocide? I have no problem with god forgiving the former, and huge problems with your god forgiving the latter.

      If Adolf Hitler repented genuinely on his deathbed, he is in heaven right now. same with every other member of the Nazi heirarchy. Does that sound reasonable to you?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:01 am |
    • Wakey Wakey

      You are telling lies. You are saying god exists. You are saying what he does. But you have no proof, and you never did. You only obeyed mommy and daddy. Everything you peddle as god is in fact just you imagination. It's you imterpreting coincidence as god, ignorring all the negative coincidence.

      THe numbers are with us. You and yours are fading into their long overdue obscurity, with the followers of Zeus and Quetzcoatl, who were equally certain they were right.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:03 am |
  12. wonder

    Just currious, all this talk of "doing good" is my religion seems a bit odd. What is good? And if helping an old lady across the street is any different than robbing her I would like to know why. Your born, you live, you die, that's it. I think robbing the old lady is good if in the end my brief moment in the sun is a little warmer. So for my athiest friends who want to judge me, I would like to know on what grounds? Christians need not reply.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:57 am |
    • Shane

      Which decision benefits society most?

      Robbing the old lady increases crime, breaks laws, and is detrimental to society as a whole, therefore it would be considered bad by myself.

      The entire concept of religion is to have someone over your shoulder to make sure you do "good". Most atheists are to the point where they don't need somebody looking over their shoulder to make sure they aren't doing something that is detrimental to society.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:00 am |
    • Gaunt

      This truly is the stypidest of all theist arguments. because what they are saying is that they would be happy to rob the old woman, that they have no moral problem with robbing the old woman, but they do NOT do so because their holy book says it is wrong.

      Guess what my friend: ALL your morals, every single one, are all secular humanist morals. ALL came from the evolution and growth of society. Thats why morals have changed COMPLETELY in the last 1800 years, while your holy book has not. Thats why slavery is illegal though your holy book says its fine. Thats why women are considered equals when your holy book says they are inferior.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:03 am |
    • Jim McDonald

      By asking your question, you answered it.

      A great deal of this specific knowledge is waht the Greeks called 'a pirori' in our lives- knowledge that we are born with. You don't rob little old ladies, because you know it is wrong in your heart.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:05 am |
    • RThomas

      Wow...umm...you REALLY give atheists a bad name...and you kinda scare me. (and you completely justify the comment that atheism threatens america...in fact – the statement you made threatens pretty much every old person who could be robbed).

      October 9, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  13. IhaveID

    It's about time people are coming to their senses and thinking for themselves.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:57 am |
  14. John

    Atheism threatens America.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:56 am |
    • IslandAtheist

      Better get to prayin'.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:59 am |
    • Shane

      How so

      October 9, 2012 at 5:00 am |
    • John

      I pray every night, for my family, nation and for reverence to God. I am humble and thankful. God has given me life.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:01 am |
  15. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    October 9, 2012 at 4:56 am |
    • the AnViL

      there's actually precisely zero evidence that prayer works. you've been lied to – and you're fooling yourself.

      you can never ever substantiate this claim. it will bend to science – like all religious claims.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:10 am |
  16. RThomas

    An atheist has a religious belief – they specifically believe that no higher power exists – thus – they have a belief. An agnostic does not. They don't actually reject or accept any ideas – they are the undecideds...so it's very frustrating and misleading to group together people with a belief and people without a belief. I wouldn't call atheists a religious group...but they definitely have a religious belief....

    October 9, 2012 at 4:56 am |
    • Lolesio Lui

      Religion has Faith!!!! ...............Atheists Don't!!!!

      October 9, 2012 at 4:58 am |
  17. Debster

    Atheism, the religion of self.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:55 am |
    • Knowledge is Power

      The religion of self is called Satanism.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:58 am |
  18. Lolesio Lui

    The Government has to look and think a lot about this, and then react as quick as possible!!!!!
    If they (Atheists) do not believe in any Religion then the founders of this society will be nothing more but a myth. This is when your belief in a free world exist where nothing, and I mean nothing controls them or their beliefs. For example, the placing of the hand on the Bible and swear that you will only tell the truth will not mean a thing will no longer mean anything. Then we might as well all go back to the days of cavemen where we will all only be doing things just for ourselves. Think this through and realize this is where they are going. For a human without GOD in their faith has no directions. All Christianity Belief is fine with my belief. As long as they do this one thing,.... "Keep Thy Religious Belief To Thyself" ...... Then all should be at peace.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:53 am |
    • Gaunt

      Yes, because no 'Christian; who placed his hand on the bible in coyurt has EVER lied afterwards!

      (facepalm)

      October 9, 2012 at 4:58 am |
    • slupdawg

      It;s apparent you believe what you say, but that's completely wrong. There has never been any indication that religion increases order or the lack of it, disorder. If the idea is to subjugate and instill fear in people because of the threat of death from above is imminent for sinners, or to have the church identify and burn heretics and encourage neighbor to bear false witness against neighbor, if this is your idea of restoring order, you can keep it.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:00 am |
    • Lolesio Lui

      Hello Slupdawg, Thank you for your comment.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:07 am |
    • Unnamed

      Such nonsense, at the height of the Christian Religious dominance in the world was also the time of some of the most horrific events in human history. It was also Christianity that actually regressed societies advancement for 200 years. You should thank those who think outside the box that is religion who brought us out of the dark ages and advance society. Being religious does not instill morality as we see many many times over, it does seem to instill a lot of bigotry and hypocrisy.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:13 am |
  19. Knowledge is Power

    The average religious follower lacks the ability to discern fact from fiction.

    For example: Bible parables.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:53 am |
  20. Jeremy

    I think why I got blocked was because I listed the kind of people God is willing to forgive.........basically ALL immoral people, which I have been one.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:50 am |
    • slupdawg

      You sound like a nice guy, Jeremy. Now say your prayers and got to bed.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:54 am |
    • Oh come on

      No, dumb-dumb. Two of us told you why, and instead you go for conspiracy.

      There is no god, and your list and god's behavior is just your imagination at work. You are supremely arrogant for believing you could know those things.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:56 am |
    • A Frayed Knot

      No, Jeremy, you have been given the real reason for your posts being blocked - twice now. I think that you are just thick.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:57 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.