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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. Aniel

    I'm Christian (believed and accepted Christ, non denominational). I believe in respect all people, even when I disagree based on Christian principles. Therefore, speaking from that perspective, Atheism is invalid to me because for one to lay claim on disbelief in God, one would have to in essence BE God. I often hear "you can't prove" or "it's all delusion". But I think about "from what perspective?" We can only as humans in the natural/physical/scientific world judge matters from a natural/physical/scientific perspective. If God is the creator of the natural and supernatural, wouldn't trying to prove him require us to also be well aware of the spiritual/unscientific world. If he is omniscient, omnipresent, all powerfull etc, wouldn't we need to also be omniscient, omnipresent, completely powerfull etc. We often say "God doesn't exist because no one can prove it, it's all a fairy tale", Well what would we use to scientifically test his existence, do we know where to begin. So my conclusion is, One must either BE God to say he doesn't exist, or one just simply chooses to deny his existence without any ability to test God's existence. From a Christian perspective, the natural can't test the spiritual, we have authority in the physical, scientific world of the five senses. Beyond that our authority ends, our senses can't perceive the spiritual because they were made for the natural. So it's either faith, or denial. Everyone chooses, that's everyone's right. God-given right actually.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:46 am |
    • ^Knowledge is Power^

      What you believe is your choice, however...

      The problem with your side of the debate is that while the Atheist can't disprove your belief in god, you can't disprove the validity of their disbelief, either.

      Have a nice day.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:48 am |
    • sam stone

      "Atheism is invalid to me because for one to lay claim on disbelief in God, one would have to in essence BE God."

      Not true. You would not have to BE god to claim a disbelief in god. You may have to BE god to state as a fact that god does or does not exist

      October 9, 2012 at 5:52 am |
    • EMcK

      "or one to lay claim on disbelief in God, one would have to in essence BE God." – Using that criteria, to lay claim to a disbelief in unicorns would men you'd have to BE a unicorn right? To deny belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster (bless his noodly appendage), you' have to BE the Flying Spaghetti Monster. That's some pretty ridiculous reasoning you have there.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:02 am |
    • Matt R.

      If you truly do have faith in god, you should know that he, she, or it, or his, her, or its all-knowing wisdom, will do what needs to be done. So don’t worry yourself about it. It’s not your problem. Personally, I wouldn’t be so bold and egotistical as to claim I know what God’s will is. What if God changed his mind? You don’t know. He didn’t sent you a memo. Deal with it. The only thing I can say about the bible is that the Ten Commandments is a pretty good list of "do"s and "don't"s, people should take into consideration.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:04 am |
    • SnYGuY

      Our reasons for not believing the existence of God is from the evidence available to disprove the teachings of the Bible.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  2. Gaunt

    GOGOP, another pathalogical liar pretending to be Christian.

    How do I explain the completely fabricated stats you just made up, you pathalogical liar?

    Firstly, the article you are commenting on explicitly states that atheists make up far more than 2% of the population of the US: 12% in fact. LIAR.

    Secondly, you are too stupid to keep your own lies staright. On this very page you just claimed atheists were less than 1% of the US. Now you claim they are 2%. Pick a lie and stick to it, ok kid?

    Lastly, according to the 2007 Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics (available online) the percentage of atheists in federal prisons is 0.21% of the prison population. One-quarter of one percent. Not 38%, as you just pulled out of your sphincter. In fact Christians are VASTLY over-represented in prison and on death row. Look it up for yourself.

    Stop LYING every time you post!

    October 9, 2012 at 5:45 am |
  3. thedarkelf

    I think the only reason for these people to be proud of having no faith is that they were raised with no beliefs. Im sad to say if I had no faith I dont think there would be much stopping me from robbing ,murdering and stealing anything I wanted. And I dont believe that everything in the Bible is 100% true. But never the less I find peace in believing in God and that is something they will never have. Also I have heard with my own ears many people with no faith pray to god under life threatening situations. There are no Atheist in a fox hole. People are just fed up with the perverted aspects of religion,Like the extremist from Catholics,Muslims etc etc. Not many seem to understand that a fundamental belief in God is a good thing. There are no rules saying tthat you cant choose to follow the parts of the Bible you believe in. Like treat your brother like you treat yourself,or love thy neighbor, The 10 commandments are simple rules for living together in harmony. How can anyone not believe in that

    October 9, 2012 at 5:45 am |
    • Sick of crazy people

      Many of us were previously religious, so how do you explain that? Hm? I've read the Bible. I used to believe. Now I know better.
      I am no longer delusional. And I like that. I would not have it any other way. Why don't you try to understand me, instead?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:49 am |
    • sam stone

      so, your belief is what keeps you from being a sociopath?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:54 am |
    • jungleboo

      You make the mistake of thinking that your 10 commandments are the root cause of all that is good in the world, as if every other society and culture pre-10 was cravenly animalistic. How do you get to be so myopic? The world is a very big place, and the Eastern Mediterranean Monotheism BS that erupted 4000 years ago is essentially the cancer that has wrecked the world in the first place. Spread the Word, Increase and Multiply, Condemn All Who Do Not Hear. Off With Their Heads. ETC.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:55 am |
    • Matt R.

      I was born and raised Catholic. I've been baptized, received first communion, and confirmed. I went to Catholic schools for elementary, junior, and high school. I have a Pagan mother, a Baptist father, a Catholic grandmother / extended family. I voluntarily studied Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism in college, and I attended Episcopalian and Pentecostal services for purposes of research. They are all the same – believe in a higher power, follow their doctrine. The only one that breaks ranks largely is Buddhism.

      Please tell me again how I was never before a believer of any kind, I insist.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:58 am |
  4. Charlie

    There is no place for religion in the New World Order. Sad.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:45 am |
  5. East Coast

    Now see, the sign up above, using Christian words as a derogatory statement, is very disrespectful to both those who believe in God and the atheists who do. I don't care who you worship, who you love or what color you are, but I don't expect to be mocked, ridiculed or made fun of for my beliefs or any other facet of my life. This photo is insulting and in poor taste. Would you run the photo if it pictured Mohommad eating bacon?

    October 9, 2012 at 5:44 am |
    • thedarkelf

      Lucky for them we are not Muslim because they would be beheaded. And riots would be going on everywhere

      October 9, 2012 at 5:47 am |
    • Wally

      You are exactly like the Muslims demading that we cannot exercise freedom of speech because their religion say it can't be done.

      Keep your Christian sharia to yourself, and do remember that your religion killed and oppressed atheists for centuries, so you have richly earned the blowback you are getting.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:48 am |
    • Sick of crazy people

      Yes, aren't you the sort that believes you can be guilty of something someone else did in the past? Right?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:52 am |
    • sam stone

      Well, when christians stop using their faith to deny other citizens their civil rights, come back and talk to us. Until then, expect to be mocked, ridiculed, etc

      October 9, 2012 at 5:58 am |
    • East Coast

      No actually, my point is that you should have all that freedom of speech intends, but that as kind and compassionate individuals, despite a faith, lack of, or belief that differs from ours, that we express it with dignity and respecting others. In your uneducated haste to spew the usual internet vitriol, you completely missed the point, but that's expected here.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:14 am |
  6. ^Knowledge is Power^

    Watching Atheists and religious zealots posture in a manner that makes the other look the fool is ridiculous.

    They just don't see it.

    The bottom line is that despite all of their efforts, neither can disprove the other's belief in the existence of God.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:44 am |
    • Meh

      Uh, right, but the secular movement doesn't have to "prove" that a God does not exist, since the burden of proof lies on the one making the claim that a deity exists. In that case, I suggest you to provide proof that Big Foot doesn't exist, because you are clearly ignorant of the fact that He does. You got it all wrong, by the way.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:50 am |
    • ^Knowledge is Power^

      But religion is based on faith. You have no right to question another's faith. And since it's faith, they don't have to prove anything. They believe in the ancient scripts. Go ahead and try to prove them wrong.

      The reason you won't... is because you can't.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:54 am |
    • Sick of crazy people

      Oh, another wacky agnostic. Great.
      Ignorant much?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:58 am |
    • sam stone

      if it were just that their religion were based on faith, that is fine. but, they feel the need to evangelize. and they use EMPTY proxy threats to scare people into believing such as they do

      October 9, 2012 at 6:01 am |
    • ^Knowledge is Power^

      Logic > Personal Attacks

      Every single time.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:02 am |
    • Pete

      You can certainly prove that god, as presented in the bible, does not exist.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  7. jas

    Religious faith is nothing more than vanity disguised as virtue and piousness.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:43 am |
    • Old Rugged Cross

      Atheism is nothing new- Psalm 14:1

      October 9, 2012 at 5:46 am |
    • thedarkelf

      This is a very ignorant statment. Sorry Kid but not all believers need for others to know their good deeds or be recognized for them.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:49 am |
    • Doug Lynn

      The fool says in his heart there is no God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. The highway to Hell is broad. These words were written thousands of years ago and continue to be as true as saying that the sun rises in the east.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:56 am |
    • Matt R.

      > the sun rises in the east

      Yes, and I suppose it's still pulled across the sky by Apollo and his chariot.

      Sorry. You can't combine religion and proven science. Especially not in the same post. They just don't mesh. Religion should be subject to no less strict scrutiny as hypotheses in the scientific process, and just like hypotheses, if they have no solid and repeatable evidence, they must be discarded.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:12 am |
  8. I'm One

    I am one of those in the article that has no religion but believes in God, I will not tie myself to any religion. I consider myself spiritual. Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestanism all turn me off. I do like some aspects of Eastern Religions. I am not an atheist. I see what Christianism has been high jacked in the USA by the GOP and their goons. But what is the biggest turn off is religious intolerance and bigotry prevalent in all religions.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:43 am |
    • jungleboo

      That's because religion is rooting in the deepest, most cravenly selfish aspect of man's condition: the need to feel superior and to live forever. It satisfies both yearnings, and the ignorance from which we came provided fertile ground. Religion can be likened to an invasive vine, like Virginia Creeper, that crawls over even the most elegant trees and plant life, dragging it down and suffocating it for lack of light and nutrition. The Internet is the scythe that will eventually cut it all back. It's taken science a few hundred years to get this far, but the future looks very bright. Curiosity is not the "devil's child".

      October 9, 2012 at 5:49 am |
    • John

      You atheist prove the existence of GOD by your slander. You Take Gods name in vain, well if there is no GOD you say words that do not exist making you all Mentally challenged at the very least. Think about it. I believe you all have no brains. Why? Cause I have not seen them. Prove you have one, remember I have to physically see it. Come on Homer I know you can do it. DUHHHHHHHHHH.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:53 am |
    • thedarkelf

      I to feel this way and have chooen to believe in the parts of the bible I think are important. The only problem I have is I constantly ask mtself if im being arrogant in my picking the right parts.lol I love god and I love people so I is hurtful and makes me angry to see the bad things people do to each other in the name of god. When Im angry I think and say things that I later regret.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:54 am |
    • vonn

      So true..

      October 9, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  9. slumberjack

    Arguing with theism is like attempting to convince a child that there is nothing scary beneath the bed or in the closet. But then if a parent is successful in convincing the child, a theist will will come along and argue that there is, and that the child is right to be afraid of the dark. Theism is essentially the scared little mind of a child inhabiting a grown up body, but one who still sticks fingers in their ears while chanting 'la, la, la,' so as to screen out all contrary evidence in opposition to their childhood fears that have now grown beyond all proportion into a full blown tantrum. Since its often the case that childhood tantrums can't be reasoned with, especially for adults that still act them out such as creationists , they simply must be put in their place so that they don't wind up making a nusiance of themselves in adult company.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:42 am |
    • Milton

      I love debates between different religions. It reminds me of two kids that get in a fight on the playground over who is stronger-Superman or the Hulk. Usually a grown up has to break it up and remind the kids that Superman and the Hulk aren't real so there is no point fighting about it.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:51 am |
  10. ^Knowledge is Power^

    Scientology and cults are examples of how gullible human belief systems can be. They illustrate how anyone can be brainwashed - especially those who've been exposed since birth.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:42 am |
  11. Jeremy

    Well, it's not about me, it's about God...and God's love for us. Jesus said in the bible to tell others the good news....so I want to do that. Somebody here needs to hear it....

    October 9, 2012 at 5:40 am |
    • jungleboo

      "Jesus said in the bible..." And that very idea doesn't give you pause for thought?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:44 am |
    • Wally

      Someone here needs his meds, and it's Jeremy.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:44 am |
    • Sick of crazy people

      No, you need to make a comment, not come in here mumbling religious dogma. Make a COMMENT on the ARTICLE, or gtfo.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:46 am |
  12. ^Knowledge is Power^

    CNN:

    On behalf of everyone here, please stop censoring legitimate responses.

    Censoring opinions you don't agree with is going overboard. If you don't like intelligent debate, then why in the world would you have readers leave comments on subjects such as religion?

    October 9, 2012 at 5:40 am |
  13. Sick of crazy people

    As an atheist, I can only say that I do not believe in any gods.
    As someone who refuses to allow crazy people to determine what is right or wrong for society, I say that these crazy people should be treated as humanely as possible as we strive to remove all insanity from society.
    And by "we" I mean anyone who agrees with me that we need to remove all insanity from our societies throughout the world.
    Then, once we have rational people doing things instead of crazy people, things would be looking better as far as I am concerned.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:39 am |
  14. Chris

    Mark 13:29-31

    "The most important commandment is this: 'Listen, O Israel ! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your strength.' The second is equally important: ' Love your neighbor as yourself.' No other Commandment is greater than these."

    This was said by a man who died on a cross for us all. This man was our Lord and savior Jesus Christ and if you put into you mind the pain he endured for us all as he was whipped and beaten and then nails drove into his hands and feet, imagine being there that day watching this happen to him. Imagine the Love he must have had for All of us.

    Thank You Jesus for the Love that you have shown us all.

    God bless all those who are not chosen to follow the gift of Love you have given.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:39 am |
    • jungleboo

      Are you scoring points, as in a basketball or tennis game? Are you keeping a tally? Does it make you feel good about yourself to do it in public? Is this really necessary?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:42 am |
    • Matt R.

      You are missing the main takeaway – the non-believers simply consider you a sheep and discount your claims. The fact that you quote someone from a book and claim that he or she died on the cross for us all is of zero value to someone who does not believe in him or her at all. It is akin to proclaiming the words of Professor Dumbledore are 100% factual because they are referenced in Rowling's books and followed by you.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:46 am |
    • Milton

      Can't you just love thy neighbor as yourself without the believing in the one true god stuff? I mean, this god sounds pretty petty and jealous–hardly what I would expect from an omnipotent, benevolent omnipresent being wouldn't you say? And far from perfect too. But seriously, if you just follow the golden rule, doesn't that pretty much cover it? Isn't the rest superfluous?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:55 am |
    • EMcK

      Quick – if God is omnipotent and can do anything at any time, why would he need a physical catalyst to be tortured and executed in order to gain his forgiveness.

      If, as you would have us believe, God is all-powerful and God makes the rules, why would "forgiveness" for humanity require anything that God saying "I forgive you"?

      It doesn't make sense that an omnipotent being would require such convoluted methods to exercise his alleged power. If he is all powerful, he wouldn't need to jump through hoops.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:08 am |
  15. spangler

    Religious interest has fallen off in each generation where teachings of religious texts are shown to be wrong (shape of the earth, age of the cosmos, slavery, submission of women). The church presently teaches that all gay people are really straight people acting gay for kicks. This causes many to question all the other teachings. In generations without such new information, religious interest rises as some claim the Bible is 'true again.'

    October 9, 2012 at 5:39 am |
  16. mike_nnh

    i am a recovering catholic, i just wish yhose sucked in by a religion would practice its tenets. being tolerant of others would be a start

    October 9, 2012 at 5:38 am |
  17. mld

    Can we please stop flogging the dead horse of religion and move on? Really, if you're still considering god as an option then the evolution of the human species is about to pass you by. Just dig a hole, lie down in it, and tell yourself that god is waiting for your arrival. The rest of us will be in the lounge having martinis with satan...

    October 9, 2012 at 5:37 am |
  18. Reality

    And globally:

    http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html

    Religion………………………… Adherents

    Christianity ……………………..2.1 billion

    Islam…………………………… 1.5 billion

    Irreligious/agnostic/atheism…… 1.1 billion – here we come!!!

    Hinduism 900 million
    Chinese traditional religion 394 million
    Buddhism 376 million
    Animist religions 300 million
    African traditional/diasporic religions 100 million
    Sikhism 23 million
    Juche 19 million
    Spiritism 15 million

    Judaism…………………………………….. 14 million

    Baha'i 7 million
    Jainism 4.2 million
    Shinto 4 million
    Cao Dai 4 million
    Zoroastrianism 2.6 million
    Tenrikyo 2 million
    Neo-Paganism 1 million
    Unitarian Universalism 800,000
    Rastafari Movement 600,000

    October 9, 2012 at 5:35 am |
  19. Kenny Romano

    In twenty years or less, believers will be the minority in America. I look forward to the day when people face reality and stop believing in fairy tales.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:34 am |
    • Akkkkuyt

      Keep dreaming mr egg. Just because people don't expree it outwardly mean they,re lost like you

      October 9, 2012 at 5:42 am |
    • Matt R.

      @Akkkkuyt
      ...wut

      October 9, 2012 at 6:07 am |
  20. Mike S.

    unleash cnn's hired trolls

    October 9, 2012 at 5:33 am |
    • Mike S.

      ITZ A KONSPEERASEA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      October 9, 2012 at 5:35 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.