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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. FloydZepp

    Atheists face the same problem Evangelical Christians face and they become just as militantly angry over it – they can no more disprove the existence of God than the Evangelicals can prove the existence of God.

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

      You couldn't be more wrong. I have never met any atheist who is angry about that fact. We are angry because we have someone like Mitt Romney running for president, who basically believes that you can't be a real American if you don't believe in God. We are angry because we are forced to subsidize beliefs we find inherently offensive with our tax dollars. We are angry because we are treated as second class citizens.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:31 am |
    • Gaunt

      prove the non-existence of the tooth fairy. I dare you.

      So, since you cant, does that make it real?

      October 9, 2012 at 6:31 am |
    • End Religion

      @PinkFloydLedZeppelinFan: "Atheists face the same problem Evangelical Christians face and they become just as militantly angry over it – they can no more disprove the existence of God than the Evangelicals can prove the existence of God."

      We face no such problem. We have no desire to disprove a creator, but rather are continually seeking answers, whatever they may be. We simply see no evidence pointing to any god's existence. And there is certainly proof an Abrahamic god, and very likely jesus as well, did not exist.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:32 am |
  2. Joshua Z

    Islam is the most growing religion in America, get ur facts straight!

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

      No, but its kicking the crap of of wimpy "christianity" all over the world.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:25 am |
    • End Religion

      just look at the divisiveness over whose delusion is the correct one. End all religion now!

      October 9, 2012 at 6:34 am |
  3. Al

    All i have to say is many religions are lucky that Harry Potter was not written 2000 years ago or else people would have broomsticks over their door entrances and around their neck....

    October 9, 2012 at 6:22 am |
    • End Religion

      wasn't it george carlin who said if jesus had been put to death in the 20th century all those morbid christians would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks?

      October 9, 2012 at 6:36 am |
  4. Geoff

    I feel sorry for athiests. I feel sorry for anyone who cannot be more wrong on an issue but think he is right. Penguins like to mate for life.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:22 am |
    • Al

      it is just hard for me to believe in a book 2000 years old book...it is a science fiction novel that people took literally...and people have "faith" as their answer to why they don't see prophesies or proof for the existence of God...seen any resurrections lately?

      October 9, 2012 at 6:25 am |
    • Maya

      Right, because YOU couldn't possibly be wrong, despite the fact that you have no evidence at all to support your beliefs. We don't need your smug arrogance masked as pious pity, and we don't need your psychopathic deity.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:25 am |
    • P Ness

      Yea, You are Sooooooo right. You believe in a book of fairy tales written 700 years after the fact that believed the World is flat,the Earth is the center of the universe and two of every species of animals were put on a freakin' boat

      October 9, 2012 at 6:33 am |
    • End Religion

      geoff, it's nice you feel for us. You don't need religion for that. You know right from wrong. You don't need a fear of hell to tell you that. You're a nice guy. Can't you just be nice for the sake of it, and not be extorted by the church to do so?

      October 9, 2012 at 6:39 am |
    • It's like this

      Penguins?

      October 9, 2012 at 6:54 am |
    • Al

      if harry potter was written 2000 years ago and everyone started believing it, you would have a broomstick over your hearth and a pendant around your neck and you would swear upon Dumbledore return....how is there and difference between that scifi novel and the best selling scifi novel of all time? the bible...

      October 9, 2012 at 6:55 am |
  5. Phaerisee

    That surprises me, because all I hear about lately is about how we are descended from extra terresterials. I thought it was en vogue for the pretentious types to believe in that for the moment.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:21 am |
    • Wally

      Your god is, by definition, an extra-terrestrial. You just mocked yourself.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:22 am |
    • End Religion

      there are still a couple of theories about it that various groups are trying to study. One is that earth had the elements to begin life but needed an extreme heat jump-start such as heavy lightening or thermal vents. Another theory is the initial building blocks rode to earth on an icy comet – this would be the ET theory.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:42 am |
  6. correctlycenter

    In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1:1. Richard Dawkins or your mind and reason didn't...

    October 9, 2012 at 6:18 am |
    • ^^Knowledge is Power^^

      Religion is about having faith. However, one can have faith in many things, but that doesn't make them true.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:21 am |
    • max_headroom

      You keep believing your fairy tales and I will believe in science. Your fairy tales will accomplish nothing but science helps humanity every day.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:25 am |
  7. Michele B

    Due to the fact that I grew up in a totally non-religious household, where religion was basically never spoken of in any way, I grew up and formed my own beliefs about God, and organized religion. I do believe in God, I do pray, I do believe God has spoken directly to me. And yet I cannot bring myself to join any religious group. Viewing religious affiliation from an outsider's viewpoint, I see most religions as a form of brainwashing. Most people feel a deep desire to belong to something, and most people seem to have a deep desire for guidance, and, unfortunately, they seem to be able to find both of these things in churches. While many churches to practice their religions in positive ways, there are too many churches and organized religions that influence people in ways that are negative. In my eyes, God equals love and forgiveness. And yet I don't see a whole love of love and forgiveness being taught, consistently, in many churches. What I've seen is that many organized religions teach people to feel like they are "better" than others, teach people that they can judge others, and teach people that they can control others. And as a result, I view organized religion as a negative thing.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:16 am |
    • Locrian

      Spoke to you, eh? I have some medication for sale. It's been blessed by Billy Graham.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:22 am |
    • Serve Him

      I think there are good and bad churches. Some managed like a business. You should belong to a church that has a true sense of who God is because you are called to serve. We cannot say we love God while remaining internal. God calls us to be a servant, and however you do that, it is fine.

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

      And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:26 am |
    • Shawn

      I like you view, I am a Catholic but do not go to church anymore. I feel that I can have a relationship with God outside the walls of a church building. I believe that anyone's relationship with God is a personal one. I feel more that organized religion is the church of man and not God.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:36 am |
  8. janet

    Back to the feudal days? As families get smaller–and this will happen–and people continue to be mobile, this really doesn't work well. The government needs to provide for basic needs and have individuas who are healthy and able provide all the extras.

    Religion may have been helpful for society at one point in time, but that time is past. At present, it appear to do more harm than good.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:16 am |
    • JD

      WHAT! "The government needs to provide for basic needs..." Seriously?! Great, another Communist who clearly votes Democrat. If a person doesn't work they should go hungry that day. Unless they are truly not able to work, then CHARITY, not the government should help that person. Trust me, I would be SO much more efficient at giving my money away than the government would be. Think of all the middle men that are between me and my neighbor who gets disability. I'm not blind. I can see that they cannot work because of an injured back. I would love to help him and his family out more, but alas I cannot bcause the government is taking more of my money away so that they can pay 8 different people so that my money can go to helping him. Of course this process takes weeks if not months. How much cooler would it be for me to just hand him a wad of cash as needed or a warm meal once a day or to provide some labor around his house. Instead I'm working 14 hours a day trying to pay all of the middle men involved.

      The government should provide for infrastructure and defense (via taxes) and that's it! All this extra stuff is unnecessary fluff and gets in the way!

      October 9, 2012 at 6:38 am |
  9. sid

    I feel sorry for you lost , confused souls.Open your hearts. You'll be surprised. <

    October 9, 2012 at 6:16 am |
    • End Religion

      All religion is a fraud. If you suffer from a brand of this delusion, it is no less crazy than any other.
      (say hi to Marty Kroft for me!)

      October 9, 2012 at 6:17 am |
    • slupdawg

      Awww...thanks Sid. Save your sorrow for someone else. I'm not lost or confused at all, but thanks for your concern.

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

      Typical arrogance. If people don't agree with you, it must be because they haven't tried your way. Can you even fathom how conceited and smug you sound? Is that what God encourages in his followers?

      October 9, 2012 at 6:22 am |
    • LakeRat1

      I hate to let you down, but I am not lost or confused, and my heart is open. however, you sound like you may be a bit lost and confused.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:27 am |
  10. ^^Knowledge is Power^^

    "sam stone said,

    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"

    Sam,

    One must remember that the belief in God and organized religion are actually separate from one another. For example, one can believe in God while disregarding religion entirely.

    That said, using great rewards and threats to recruit followers is part of their model for success, because without those tactics, they wouldn't be anywhere near as successful.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:15 am |
  11. david esmay

    This is good news for modern man.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:14 am |
    • Tally

      Great, now show me an atheist group that brings our communities together, provides food and shelter to those in need, and has highly accredited schools for our kids.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:25 am |
    • Ben

      1-in-5 and yet God is still a major platform component for Dems and Republicans again this year.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:33 am |
    • Gaunt

      There are thousands of secular charities out there, and by and large all the most effective charities are secular, given the well known propensity of religious leaders and televangelists to steal from their own 'charities'.

      And religious charities ACTUALLY help people, as opposed to helping religiously appropriate people, or helping people as long as you follow that religion's rules.

      The best religious charities, like the salvation army, are the few that put NO restrictions on aid, but they are uncommon.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:35 am |
    • P Ness

      Tally

      "Great, now show me an atheist group that brings our communities together, provides food and shelter to those in need, and has highly accredited schools for our kids."

      Tally,Show me an Athiest group that steals millions of dollars every year to fund the Cadillacs and vacation homes for their "cause". Show me an Athiest group that is the main reason for starting Wars througout history. Show me an Athiest group who flies airplanes into buildings and fires missles into neighboring countries because they don't believe in the same "God". Way to bring the community together

      October 9, 2012 at 6:45 am |
  12. OldMo

    If only these crazy people who believe in God were eliminated we could have peace and evolve as a species. Leaders such as Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot didn't need God and look what wonderful things they did. Paradise awaits atheists, all we have to do is realize that we are our own gods and mother earth is our goddess. Of course there is the little issue of the UN's sustainable population goals but let's not get into that because I'm sure they'd only meet those goals by purely innocent and natural means.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:13 am |
    • Hitler was a Catholic.

      And he got to be buried on what the Church designates as "holy ground," i.e., reserved for members in good standing... even after an alleged murder-suicide.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:17 am |
    • Gaunt

      Ah, the usual lies from uneducated thesists.

      Hitler was extremely religious,. he was raised religious, went to church, was baptised and confirmed, and spoke of god in almost all of his speeches, he made every Germanswear an oath to god, and made every soldier wear a belt buckle that said 'Got mit uns' on it.

      Stalin was raised Christian and spent his childhood in a seminary trainin to be a priest. he reversed most of lenin's anti-clerical stances, and between 1930 and 1950, the number of open churches in Rusia went up by a factor of 6.

      Pol Pot was deeply religious, he just wasnt Christian. The Kmer temples and priests were the ONLY people immune to his purges and his killing fields.

      The only true atheists among the mass murdering dictators wer Mao and Lenin.

      You people need to learn some history rather than just making it up.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:17 am |
    • Wally

      Hitler was not an atheist. Atheists were one of the very first groups he targetted.

      The others did not kill for anti-religious reasons, and the vast vast majority of their victims were not religious either. And I could rattle off the names of religious murderous tyrrants like Franco and Trujillo, and such charmers as Torquemada, all of whom DID mass-murder for religious reasons.

      But don't let facts get in the way of your lies.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:18 am |
    • End Religion

      Debunked and refuted about 10 times a day...
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reductio_ad_Hitlerum
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law

      October 9, 2012 at 6:25 am |
    • Bruce

      The human species is evolving by natural selection, with our without religion, but under surely under the influence of modern medicine. The thing to worry about is religion injecting some artificial selection into the process. If only blonde blue-eyed males are allowed to reproduce because some shaman issues a fatwah or whatever, the species will evolve in that unnatural direction.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:48 am |
    • david esmay

      How many millions died as a result of Vatican edicts, Czarist oppression, the crusades( 40,000+ perished in Constantinople, a christian city), hell Bush killed a million Iraqis. Quite a legacy. Not to mention all the native cultures destroyed.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  13. correctlycenter

    Look mom, I'm god now? The heavens and the earth just magically appeared some day a long time ago, right? Atheists are in denial...

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

      Mad about something?

      October 9, 2012 at 6:12 am |
    • End Religion

      Atheists are correctly in the center of fact.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:12 am |
    • Wally

      Yes, it makes so much more sense that god just suddenly appeared out of nothing, then made the universe.

      Nice thunking there, dingbat.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:14 am |
    • Maureen

      When you say "magically," do you mean by some other means than a mystical being spontaneously appearing out of the ether and creating a universe for the heck of it?

      October 9, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  14. Gaunt

    Atheists like to claim Timothy Mcveigh was an atheist. he wasnt of course, but we dont really know his real views on religion, since in various sources he claimed to be evangelical christian, and in other he said he was 'halfway to agnostic'.

    What we DO know for certain, is that before he was executed, McVeigh asked for a priest, and performed the sacrements including confession.

    So, Christians: I guess that means Timothy Mcveigh is in heaven. Right?

    October 9, 2012 at 6:10 am |
  15. Walter

    This is a good thing. People have to learn to rely on themselves, and their family and friends. Not a god, and most definitely not the government.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:10 am |
  16. Craig

    "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ."
    - Gandhi

    October 9, 2012 at 6:08 am |
    • JD

      This of course is NOT proof against the existence of God. It only tells us that I am not the Savior of the world. Neither is my wife, my father or my pastor. We are all sinful people who try to learn abide by the teachings of Christ.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:28 am |
    • Ben

      Wow, defensive JD?
      Face the fact. American Christians are the polar opposite of what Christ taught. In every single way.
      "Pray in private. Don't trust anyone who prays openly because they're trying to use you." American Christians give millions to megachurch pastors and call for public prayer and tributes to God at every turn.
      "Judge not lest ye be judged" "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" but we all know who the most judgmental people in this country are. We know who cheered on Rick Perry when he said Texas had the highest execution rate in the country.
      Christians attempting to follow Christ are an extreme minority in this country. The vast, vast majority are bigots and haters acting directly contrary to Christ's teachings because they're not concerned with Christ or reading the Bible. They listen to what their pastor regurgitates at them and build their world view off of that.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:37 am |
  17. Geo

    Claiming atheism is a religion is like saying NOT collecting stamps is a hobby.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:08 am |
    • Drock

      What if you were finding new a creative ways to get rid of them? Then yes it would be a hobby.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:12 am |
    • correctlycenter

      Atheism is replacing God with your own mind and reason. Gee, did your mind and reason create everything in the universe then?

      October 9, 2012 at 6:14 am |
    • jimmyb

      Are you saying that religion is like collecting stamps?

      October 9, 2012 at 6:16 am |
    • Drock

      That actually is a possibility. Because everything you view in the universe is just a signal to your brain. Your brain creates and interprets everything you understand

      October 9, 2012 at 6:17 am |
    • Gaunt

      No, religion is nothing like collecting stamps.

      After a lifetime of collecting stamps, you have a lot of stamps.

      After a lifetime of prayer and religion, you have nothing whatsoever except a wasted life.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:22 am |
  18. jim1729

    Message to people of faith: Religion had a long run, but faith just doesn't cut it anymore. Have some dignity in decline. It'll be okay.

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

      Jim, we're taking about eternity here if you are wrong (and you are, prove me incorrect). If a person messes this one up, they are in for a loooong, understanding of how wrong they are. Belief in no God has been around for almost as long as God has been around Himself. Stop acting like it's a new thing, "Religion has had a long run". To believe that atheism is a new fad or something is pretty naive and audacious.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:26 am |
    • Gary

      This pretty much sums it up best. Religion had its chance to show us something solid. But it didn't.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:05 am |
  19. Paul

    When will people learn that atheism is not a religion?... its the very opposite of one! and please no dumb responses like "well there's an "ism" at the end" because then your stupidity will really shine!

    October 9, 2012 at 6:05 am |
    • Frank

      I find it interesting that when some people can't intelligently defend their argument, they turn to insults.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:08 am |
    • jungleboo

      Frank, at some point, arguing with a child strapped into a high chair is ludicrous. Am I insulting you? No I am making a keen observation.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:14 am |
  20. Frank

    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 6:04 am |
    • End Religion

      Some atheists will be moderate, others not. Religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right.
      @4:10

      October 9, 2012 at 6:16 am |
    • Steve Montgomery

      Frank: Well said. The problem is not religion in and of itself, although quite often I believe the truly religious cause more of the problems. I think fear drives a lot of that, and articles like this one are behind my point. But the bigger problem, at least as I see it, is the inability of people to simply respect others. We've lost respect for one another in this country. Too many people believe they can say and do whatever they want and if anyone doesn't like it they can go to hell. Our society is divided in many ways, religious and political divides being the biggest, but the absolute lack of respect is destroying us. I believe we're on a downward slope and the end of our society as we know it is nearing. I hope I'm proven wrong but I don't think I have enough time left in this world to see any change.

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

      It matters Frank, when religious zealots push their beliefs into the public secular government. Everyone may have their own beliefs, but mixing religion and politics is sign someone hasn't read enough history. You don't p1ss into the wind do you? At least the second time, spare the learning curve.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:10 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.