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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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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 • Politics • Polls

soundoff (7,763 Responses)
  1. Luis Wu

    Cool. People are finally waking up from the fairytale world of religion and THINKING for themselves instead of blindly accepting ancient mythology and primitive superst!tions.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:04 am |
  2. skytag

    It's downright sad that the vast majority of Americans need to believe in myths for which there is no proof whatsoever.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:02 am |
  3. dogmandg

    There's no proof God exists. There's no proof God doesn't exist. So either way, it's a matter of faith. In other words, atheists have faith that there's no God, without any real proof to back that up. That makes atheism a a type of religion. I'll respect their religion if they respect mine.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:00 am |
    • Wally

      So you have faith that Zeus doesn't exist? Leprechauns and unicorns too?

      No, it's not equal. The total lack of evidence on every level does indeed STRONGLY assert that there is no reason to believe. The lack of evidence is indeed evidence of the non-existence of any supernatural being

      And non-faith is not faith.

      Why is it so important to religious people to pervert the definitions of faith and religion to apply to atheists? That won't drag us down to your level.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:07 am |
    • GO_GOP

      Wally: You and your best friend Gaunt could not answer any of my questions and still you are shameless enough to keep posting. Way to go atheists.. ha ha

      October 9, 2012 at 6:32 am |
  4. Amanda

    The reason atheists don't believe is John 6:44 No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. There will be some that God will choose to draw near simply by reading all these replies. I pray He does.
    Isaiah 55:11 So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:00 am |
    • ron

      How unbelievably infantile ..
      really..

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

      Actually the reason I don't believe in God is that there is no evidence of one. At least to me, you would think an all mighty being would leave real evidence of his existence if he wants to be worshiped.

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

      If you say so...

      October 9, 2012 at 6:03 am |
    • Sparky

      ... and the world is flat too.. Careful you don't fall off the edge !!

      October 9, 2012 at 6:10 am |
    • Chip

      Garbage.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:25 am |
  5. Rob

    Now if only we can get some political leaders that represent those of us that don't believe in fairy tales.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:54 am |
  6. Mike

    The modern church has lost it's ability to be relevant in people's lives. The church used to be about helping people find meaning their live - "why am I here." It used to be that the church as a beacon of hope for those who had lost their rudder in life. The church was a place where the hungry could be fed, those without shelter could find comfort, and those who are along could find someone who cares.

    Now the church is about politics, and making sure everyone understands that, to belong, you must be like them. Instead of helping people find meaning, the chuch beats people over the head with doctrine and a rulebook which doesn't really relate to the problems of the real world. That's why the church is losing ground, and why religion holds no value to more and more people.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:54 am |
    • Old Rugged Cross

      I agree. It all started when "the Church" went along with the New Deal. Prior to 1933, there were very few "Mega churches". The New Deal freed up churches to spend money on big buildings and programs instead of caring for "the least of these my brothers and sisters". Now Government practices the Golden Rule- he who has the gold makes the rules.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:58 am |
    • ron

      religion has always been about power at its core.. It has ZERO to do with faith (in whatever you believe it) and 100% to do about brainwashing people to have control over their lives so they can extract more from their wallets..
      Face it, the church, all the bit buildings and nonsensical fairy tails.. Its all a wonderful show .. It is their product.. Without it, there wouldn't be any religion cause the people that preach it wouldn't have any income.. Its basically a tax sheltered business that sells nonsense (unbelieveable nonsense really) .. It is A GREAT thing for all of humanity that they are slowing dying..

      October 9, 2012 at 5:59 am |
    • Samuels

      I'd take it farther and not just say that the church has lost relevancy, but hopefully it's a deeper movement that shows increasing intelligence and critical thinking.

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

      Chruch has always be a place to worship together not to provide you a home... Everyone today looking for some place that's has a hand out. The chruch I attended and grew up in was 30 miles from my home and not likly open for a soup kitchen on Monday – Saturday. Chruch going people have always helped each other out within their communities. Also the chruch is there to tell the word of God and does not put meaning into your life, make you rich, free of heartache and sadness. The word of God shows us how we should live , treat one another and their within the words of life you will find meaning and love... You don't just walk into church on Sunday, and Monday you have nothing in life to worry about... You don't have to visit chruch to have God in your life, but when you don't have his word of wisdom and love there's you empty life and the empty life of atheist... The smart one in the picture above who curse the Lord God shall one day weep for the Lord... There are more people in world with a religion than there are atheists at the end of the day and I wonder why or maybe you should wonder why.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:15 am |
    • Chip

      I do wonder why.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:36 am |
  7. new orleans

    Who Care?

    October 9, 2012 at 5:53 am |
    • new orleans

      WHO CARES?

      I hate when anyone feels the right to impose their views.
      These non-believers are just as attention seeking whacked as their crazed faith counterparts.

      BTW, OK City Bomber, Tim McVeigh? Avid Atheist. (People always use him as a 'christian' terrorist example when answering to anti muslim posts)

      October 9, 2012 at 5:56 am |
    • Gaunt

      Avid atheist? is that why Timothy Mcveigh asked for a priest and took the sacrements before his execution?

      Silly liar.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:58 am |
    • GO_GOP

      Agree completely with New Orleans. Tim was one of the most well known atheists and even now most atheist websites have his name and picture prominently displayed. Now who is a liar Gaunt boy? It is two (me and New Orleans) against one (you).

      October 9, 2012 at 6:01 am |
    • Shane

      McVeigh raised Catholic, was Catholic most of his life even though he "lost touch" with it. In the end, he said he was Agnostic, but this does not say whether it was pre bombing or post bombing.

      But he also took some Catholic rituals the day before his execution, so it really doesn't give much depth on his actual beliefs.

      But you have to ask yourself this. Did he bomb the building because he didn't or did believe in God? No, he did it because he had extremists views on politics.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:06 am |
    • Gaunt

      Of course you agree GOGOP, you pathalogical liars stick together.

      I DARE you to cite me ONE 'atheist webside' that has his picture. just ONE. But we both know you will squirm away like a dickless coward without answering again, wont you?

      Mcveigh was raised religious. In his book he said he had doubts and was 'halfway to agnostic', however in prison he reaffirmed his religion, and before his execution asked for a priest and performed the sacrements and confession. Which means, that Timothy Mcveigh is currently in heaven, according to your silly doctrine.

      Please stop LYING every time you post.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:07 am |
    • GO_GOP

      Gaunt boy gone quiet in face of my logic. Ha ha ha ha ha..true nature of atheists.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:11 am |
    • Gaunt

      GOGOP: I'll add 'illiterate' to your list of demonstrated personality flaws, along with coward, liar, hypocrite.

      You dont know what 'logic' is little boy, and as for your silly lies, I easily demolished them three minutes before your post above.

      When you get old enough to go to grade school, you will be taught how to read. Maybe you will also be taught some self-respect.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:13 am |
    • GO_GOP

      The enlightened Gaunt boy (our resident atheist) cannot spell website and claims to know everything about the universe (like all arrogant atheists) ha ha ha ha I will surely die of laughter today!!

      October 9, 2012 at 6:13 am |
    • Gaunt

      I see, like most lying dickless cowards, you have stopped even trying to defend your lies. i DARED you to post a single website supporting your lies, you fled like a coward. I cited specific facts and dared you to challenge them, you fled like a coward.

      Now, having been humiliated by your betters on every single one of your lies, you are not even trying to debate on point anymore, just [posting whimpering, self-hating one-liners.

      You are so boring.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:20 am |
    • GO_GOP

      I am actually running away from your horrible spelling of website. Just proves my theory that atheists have a very very low level of education. I have 3 degrees from the best universities and a great job.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:24 am |
    • GO_GOP

      Gaunt boy absolutely quiet. Proves if you challenge atheists with facts and figures they just give up and vanish.

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

      (laughter)

      Three degrees? In what? Yeah, I bet you are an astronaut and a fireman and a submariner and a ballerina too. Your fantasies of what you will be when you grow up dont count kid.

      You are a limp-dicked coward, a proven liar and a nausiatingly un-Christian hypocrite. These are demonstrated facts.

      Still you cower away from simple challenges and debating on point, throwing up whimpering distractions to try and hide your total public humiliation.

      You are so boring.

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

      The "true nature" (funny) of atheists is to fight.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:42 am |
  8. Jorge Sedano

    Being non affiliated does not equal atheist.....

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

      And being able to click on a link doesn't give you the ability to read does it? Now in the article it says...

      '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.'

      October 9, 2012 at 6:00 am |
    • Chip

      It's a good start.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:44 am |
  9. DC

    Labels are pointless if you don't follow their tenets.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:51 am |
  10. Kevin

    And we didn't have to go door-to-door to get anyone.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:50 am |
  11. Jeremy

    Well, I have to get ready for work....I've told you all what God wants us all to know. God love us all. He is willing to accept you just as you are if you will turn away from sin, sinful life, and turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness. He gave his son, Jesus as a sacrifice to pay the punishment for ALL sin. And we can accept Jesus and what he has done for us and he will accept us.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:50 am |
    • ron

      I wonder if you realize somewhere deep down how stupid that all sounds..

      October 9, 2012 at 5:51 am |
    • Wally

      Glad to meet you, Mr "I Am The Voice Of God." Funny how he agrees with you exactly . . almost as if he is you.

      Anyway, have a great day as a condiment application technician and Chick Fil-A.

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

      Good for you; stay true to yourself.

      Don't give the smug, arrogant, and intolerant haters reason to hate.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:58 am |
    • Jeremy

      You know the Bible has a comment to make what I'm telling you ...."The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God."

      October 9, 2012 at 6:00 am |
    • jungleboo

      What would He ever do without you by His side?

      October 9, 2012 at 6:00 am |
    • sam stone

      Ooooh, THE BIBLE said that.....how impressive, a iron age comic book.

      Jeremy: Free people do not need to be saved. Slaves do, however.....now, b1tch, get back on your knees

      October 9, 2012 at 6:05 am |
  12. Mark Yelka

    I'm "out" at work as an Atheist. No big deal. In fact, some people tend to look up to me: Hey, this guy has a working brain! Others, typically with some baggage, are religious and need me to be wrong. Trolls. Most... the majority, just don't care.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:50 am |
  13. Gaunt

    Ah, Go-Gop, another patghalogical lying adolescent posing as a christian.

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

    Firstlym, 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. LIAR!

    Stop LYING every time you post.

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

      Feel sad for people like Gaunt, those hate filled sorry souls, unbalanced, product of a bad childhood. How else can a grown up man be a hate filled atheist like him. And yes my stats about the prison population is 100% correct. It is all over the net. Just rise above your hatred Gaunt boy and learn the truth. Jesus loves you

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

      hate filled? You are the lying child who is insulting everyone here, sobbing in frustration when your silly and obvious lies are easily demolished by your betters. You want to see hate-filled, go look in a mirror. Oh, but you cant stand the sight of yourself in the mirror, can you, you little coward?

      I dont hate anyone kid, even you. Sure I feel incredibly sorry for you, but thats not the same.

      I gave you specific stats and citations you LIAR. The priosn population of athiests in federal prison is 0.21%. less than one-quarter of one percent. Look it up. And stop LYING every time you post.

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

      Dah – If you're in prison don't think you have much religion... That's why when people end up in prison for a long time they turn to religion... You're full of bull and pretty simple I might say Jonathan. Just think before you speak and use the brain God gave you for a change, and maybe you'll find a happy life... To bad you're part of the dark side of life.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:55 am |
  14. GO_GOP

    Feel sad for people like Gaunt, those hate filled sorry souls, unbalanced, product of a bad childhood. How else can a grown up man be a hate filled atheist like him. And yes my stats about the prison population is 100% correct. It is all over the net. Just rise above your hatred Gaunt boy and learn the truth. Jesus loves you.

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

      You are hilarious! You are lying all over the place, and angrily calling everyone else angry!

      Thanks for the laugh. I will have an even better laugh thinking of you on November 7.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:51 am |
    • Gaunt

      hate filled? You are the lying child who is insulting everyone here, sobbing in frustration when your silly and obvious lies are easily demolished by your betters. You want to see hate-filled, go look in a mirror. Oh, but you cant stand the sight of yourself in the mirror, can you, you little coward?

      I gave you specific stats and citations you LIAR. The priosn population of athiests in federal prison is 0.21%. less than one-quarter of one percent. Look it up. And stop LYING every time you post.

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

      Wally: Am laughing at you right now thinking of the terrible tortures you will endure in hell. Ha ha ha ha

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

      I bet you are. I bet you are imagining a man being tortured for all eternity, and you are laughing with joy at the idea. How very christian of you.

      The best thing about repulsive creatures like you, is that even if there IS a god, you are never going to see him.

      Go away you lying hypocrite.

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

      Gaunt: I have zero tolerance for non believers. They are the biggest hypocrites and ungrateful people on earth. And yes, make sure you don't meet me ever (face to face). You would have a bad time – a very bad time.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:58 am |
    • Wally

      That's because it is all your imagination, dingbat. You get to imagine all sort of things for your magic invisible superbuddy Jesus, and if you want him to be the ultimate hater, torturing people you disagree with in the worst way imaginable forever, you can!

      You see, a real god of love wouldn't have a concentration camp, and a real god that judges fairly would judge you dimly for wanting people to suffer horrifically.

      But thanks for the hate-thoughts!

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

      (Laughter)

      Seriously? Now the big bad loser is threatening to 'beat me up? man, you are just such a loathesome steriotype kid, its hilarious.

      Firstly, we both know that if we did meet, you would flee like the whimpering, dickless coward you are. Coward here, and coward in real life. Dont even try and deny it.

      Secondly, the lowest form of desperate loser 'know-you-lost' tactic of the adolescent internet troll is to threaten violence. Especially amusing considering how 'christian' you clam to be.

      lastly, You lie like a cheap rug, though lying is a sin. You threaten violencve when Christianity says be peaceful. You claim to have no tolerance when jesus said be tolerant.

      I'm an Atheist, and I'm STILL more of a christian than you are, you lying, cowardly, hypocritical loser.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:03 am |
    • Sparky

      .. and I am sad for you.. The hate coming from those preaching from their bible.. yet at the same time being Hypocritical about choosing which parts of their bible they wish to ignore. Why aren't these so called Christian's pushing to out law divorce which is clearly not allowed in their bible? Or against eating ham? or promoting slavery which is clearly supported in their bible? Rather, the so called Christian's are showing their hate with their open discrimination while not following all of their bible's teaching. It is hatred which will lead them to their own downfall.

      It would make sense rather to become educated with issues and science.. rather than relying upon the propaganda of your hate group.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:03 am |
    • Shane

      Wow, GOP is intolerant, way to be like Jesus there.

      Threatening violence, you are sounding more and more like a religious zealot that would kill someone because they don't share the same beliefs.

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

    I'll take my chances and continue to trust in the one true God, Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:49 am |
  16. Believer

    The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God

    Ps 14:1

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

      No, the fools are those who proclaim that they speak for god

      October 9, 2012 at 6:19 am |
    • Chip

      Fool #1 here.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:51 am |
    • Pete

      A real fool would read that part of the bible and be like " man since people don't believe in the bible I guess the bible is true." That fool is Believer.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  17. slumberjack

    If anyone wishes to observe in real time an example of how religion acts as an albatross around the neck of humanity, weighing down human existence everywhere, they have only to observe the USA to get a full measure.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:48 am |
  18. ron

    Excellent!! Maybe people are finally waking up and evolving? Seems too good to be true, but its certainly a start. Maybe in centuries to come we can finally put all this religious nonsense to bed!!

    October 9, 2012 at 5:47 am |
  19. myway

    If God is an all seeing, almighty transcendental power whose existence can't be captured by using human imagination, he’d be surely able to deal with people who are “misguided”, namely the atheists amongst us. He’s probably thinking, thank god, at least they’re not Muslim radicals. On the other hand, if God is totally invented by human imagination, well, then we’re even wasting energy to discuss it. Then again, how can we prove it one way or another? Keep in mind, according to the more savvy religious teachings our brains are too limited to understand the concept of our God. Pretty clever, if it’s all a hoax.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:46 am |
  20. Jonathan N

    YOu know why that is the case? Crazy Christians and their BS being forced on others. Within 100 years Christianity will be virtually extinct because you couldn't listen to what Jesus taught. He never taught forcing your religion on others. He never taught looking down on others. He never taught forcing your morals and ethics on others. He taught leading by example. He taught the golden rule. He taught not being and ***hat.

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

      Don't know where you're from, but I don't see religion being forced on anyone. I've been an atheist for quite some years, but this country does support freedom of religion. I don't much like folks criticizing my beliefs, so, to be fair, why should I criticize theirs? My thoughts are, as idealistic as they may seem, is that we on both sides of this issue just accept our differences. Name calling and belittling someone's beliefs just furthers the divide.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:00 am |
    • jungleboo

      But Frank, you have missed the crux. Religious types are not content to keep their funny thoughts about The Meaning Of Life inside their heads. They are instructed to go out and save the world from itself, and that are dangerously close to becoming a Taliban right here in the good old USA. That is enough to make me raise my voice. And I will raise it, whether you intuit that as me being "angry". Truth be told, left to my own devices, I am a thoughtful and creative heart who enjoys every minute of every day, just like I was born to do.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:11 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.