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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 • Politics • Polls

soundoff (7,763 Responses)
  1. Christian

    THEY WILL FRY IN HELL

    October 9, 2012 at 6:37 am |
    • Bobby Ricky

      Jesus loves humans so much that he has the worst concentration imaginable, and intends to torture the majority of humans forever in it.

      Hitler would be jealous, because Jesus is even worse than he was!

      October 9, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • sam stone

      Remember to get down on your knees and open your mouth for jesus is coming again!

      October 9, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Nii

      Christian
      Seems u r not very much in tune with your Bible. My guess is based on the length of your post that u r an Atheist.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  2. Shawn

    And Romney claimed "all" Americans believe in one God during his debate. Reminds me of his 47% remark.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:36 am |
  3. JerPell

    It doesn't matter who or what religion anyone chooses...In this country majority rules!

    October 9, 2012 at 6:36 am |
    • Bobby Ricky

      Actually, that is not true. The majority of votes went to Gore, but Bush won – not the first time that has happened. You see, the Founding Fathers feared the tyranny of the majority and it's destructive impact on their beloved liberty. That's why there is an electoral college, and why you do not vote on issues but on representative. They actually so feared the majority that only white landed/wealthy adult males could vote. And of course, the Constitution was specifically written to put many checks and balances in place to bar the majority from ruining the country.

      You might try to understand your country first before you start making assertions about what it is.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:41 am |
    • sam stone

      Not so, JerPell

      October 9, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  4. Robert

    This is just a sad story. Eventually all do believe in god, of course (when they die). For them, I pray it is not too late.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:34 am |
    • myway

      If dying results in automatically meeting your maker, it doesn't matter what you believe now. If you only get to meet your maker by attending your chruch and supporting it, then we have a problem. That means some humans are regulating who gets to meet the maker and who doesn't. I assume the non-believers are destined for hell according to this concept. Scary idea that some humans have that much power over our afterlife.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • sam stone

      robert: your empty proxy warnings are insane

      October 9, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  5. myway

    The non-religious group this piece is covering is a little confusing in terms of categorization. If we’re talking about atheist agnostics, the group seems to be relatively minor. The rest appear to be without specific religion but still with some type of spiritual belief. Kind of like what political independents are to the major parties, eventually they’ll probably vote one way or another. Therefore they’re uncommitted, but not a complete loss to the system. If joining a religion is like signing up for a magazine subscription, it doesn’t mean you’ll never read a magazine if you’re not a subscriber. If you look up the term atheist, it translates “without god”, which technically is a belief in itself. No one can prove God doesn’t exist therefore it’s a belief. Since the Judea-Christian and Muslim God’s existence supposedly can’t be proven intellectually, it wouldn’t matter if you believe in God or not. The overriding question is, are we talking about a biblical and religious God, a God who sits on a throne, somewhere out there, commanding legions of angels while worrying about lost souls? Or, are we talking about the more modern metaphysical version, a Being that transcendents all existence, matter, and particles that make up matter? Even some scientists studying this stuff all their lives are beginning to believe there’s something manipulating these particles that can’t be explained. Now, there’s some food for thought and opportunity for new religions.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:34 am |
    • vonn

      This is because God made you to believe.. It is in every one of us.. You can NOT believe in nothing it is impossible .. You may say you don't believe in God but that is what you Believe!.. It is called a well of your own... other words a choice!... So you can NOT believe in nothing!... God made you that way.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • realbuckyball

      No vonn. That's what YOU believe, and you are wrong. Athsism is absence of theism. If atheism is a belif, then off is a TV channel.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:51 am |
  6. Tally

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

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

      In fact, 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 6:37 am |
    • paul

      Show mw an atheist group that protests soldiers funerals.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:38 am |
    • crazeelegs

      Nobody has said that those who do believe are not "good" people. Those without religious beliefs are also "good" people, despite what you want to believe and hear. 99% of those in prison believe in God. People should not be bribed into believing God with the promise of Heaven and should not be threatened with being cast into a "Hell" by not believing.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • Bubba

      Ever heard of Goodwill Industries. They are a quarter million people strong, and help millions of people every day. I would never bash God, because He is God, but Christians are more concerned about their Tax Cuts recently, than making a real difference. God blesses Righteousness with Growth, thus this article is a wake up call for Christians everywhere. Jesus never fought for tax cuts, He gave it ALL away.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  7. dubrats

    kinda weird that they feel the need to hit the streets,carry signs,invite media,etc......really who cares??

    October 9, 2012 at 6:32 am |
  8. Atheism = No gods. (That's not McVeigh.)

    In addition to denying Christian extremism, Farah and his blogging buddies are distorting the record regarding the beliefs of Timothy McVeigh. They contend that McVeigh distanced himself from Christianity in an interview he gave to Time magazine in 2001.

    Did he? Here's what he said:

    Time: Are you religious?

    McVeigh: I was raised Catholic. I was confirmed Catholic (received the sacrament of confirmation). Through my military years, I sort of lost touch with the religion. I never really picked it up, however I do maintain core beliefs.

    Time: Do you believe in God?

    McVeigh: I do believe in a God, yes. But that's as far as I want to discuss. If I get too detailed on some things that are personal like that, it gives people an easier way [to] alienate themselves from me and that's all they are looking for now.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:32 am |
  9. indep3

    Agnosticism is intellectually defensible, but Atheism appears not to be. If someone asks me to demonstrate the existence of God, I have no empirical, verifiable, and replicable evidence of God. Rather, I believe God exists based on my life experiences. When, however, I ask an Atheist to demonstrate the non-existence of God, there is no empirical, verifiable and replicable evidence to contradict God's existence. To doubt is intellectually defensible: to assert that God does not exist is intellectually questionable.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:32 am |
    • Bobby Ricky

      Then you are saying that saying leprechauns don't exist is intellectually indefensible? Big Foot? Pixies? Do you see the ridiculousness of your assertion now?

      The total and absolute lack of evidence is very very very strong evidence that the claimed being does not exist. We are saying there is no evidence, and like Harvey the invisible rabbit, that is truly enough to reject the notion the gods and harvey don't exist. That is not even remotely the equal of saying there is absolutely no evidence, therefore god DOES exist.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:36 am |
    • Nathan

      The burden of proof is on the person making the unverifiable claim. Saying atheists can't prove god doesn't exist, is the equivalent of saying "I believe unicorns exist, they're invisible and I feel there presence, but I have no verifiable evidence of their existence. Can you show proof unicorns do not exist? No? Well then clearly unicorns exist." Completely absurd.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:49 am |
    • crazeelegs

      The Earth is 4.5 BILLION yrs. old–not millions–billions. It is a scientific fact that cannot be denied. Religions say that man is around 4,000-6,000 yrs. old. Science tells us more accurately that man is hundreds of thousands & maybe a million yrs. or more old. Then, if you believe in God, why would that "God" wait for billions of yrs. of Earth's existence to "make" man? Or, did "God" decide when he made Earth that he would wait for billions of yrs. to make man? It is illogical on any level. And please don't give me the old saying that "God does what he does in his time" or "Man does not know what God does", or similar. That doesn't work anymore. There is far more evidence of a lack of a "God" than there is to prove an existence of one.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:51 am |
    • sam stone

      to assert that god does exist is as intellectually questionable as to assert god does not exist

      October 9, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  10. crazeelegs

    "The more the fruits of knowledge become accessible to men, the more widespread is the decline of religious beliefs." Freud

    "The word "God" is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can, for me, change this." Einstein

    October 9, 2012 at 6:32 am |
  11. J Smith

    No surprises here.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:31 am |
  12. William

    And in a very angry way. Just look at the sign in the picture above. Why be that way? They know it offensive and they think its cute but its shows that the intolerance, hatred and bigotry they accuse others of is within themselves.
    I dont care what religion you are. I dont care if you have no religion. Keep it to yourself, live your life how you see fit and let others do the same.

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

      I'm with ya on that, William.

      October 10, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  13. Joshua Z

    1000's of Americans enter Islam each month!

    October 9, 2012 at 6:29 am |
    • paul

      Any facts to back that up? I call BS

      October 9, 2012 at 6:37 am |
    • It's like this

      They are babies born to Muslims.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:44 am |
    • Dale

      Prove it!

      October 9, 2012 at 6:47 am |
  14. Joey Isotta-Fraschini ©™

    I am happy about the honesty and rationality of these religiously unaffiliated human beings.

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

      I don't know it but I am going to hell DAMNIT!.. Just have to read into the signs..

      October 9, 2012 at 6:35 am |
  15. cecil

    I never understood why Atheists are so angry. If they were so confident in their beliefs, why do they constantly feel the need to tell you about it every second? hmmmm!

    October 9, 2012 at 6:27 am |
    • rmtaks

      Atheists aren't the ones known for knocking on your door, or traveling to different continents to tell you about their beliefs.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:29 am |
    • Bobby Ricky

      I see you shop at Stereotypes R Us.

      Maybe if your side actually had the slightest bit of evidence, they wouldn't have to resort to these abusive lies. You could try arguing facts instead of just throwing hate around . . . if you had and facts!

      But thanks for the laugh!

      October 9, 2012 at 6:31 am |
    • Sane Person

      Atheists arent the ones lobbying congress to force others to do things in the name of invisible bearded cloud people. If "religious" people dont want to take contraceptives, then they shouldnt. If they dont want to gay marrry, then, they shouldn't get gay married. If they want to avoid pork, take sundays off, be free of alcohol, spend sunday every week chanting with friends, they are allowed to do all of that. It is the religious people that want OTHERS to do what THIER ideology wants. When will you get it through your head, that your belief is not universal, and there are a lot of us that are not interested in what you are selling and also want to be free to do as we wish.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:34 am |
    • crazeelegs

      You must be paranoid since I never hear those coming from an atheist, but only from those who seek to force their religious beliefs upon someone. That I can tolerate, but don't force religion with laws that affect everyone.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:36 am |
    • Ashley

      It's from stereotypes like that! I'm an atheist, and I'm completely content with my life, relationships, morals, world views, etc. If religion was never discussed, you'd never think me angry or probably even know I am an atheist. But what does get under my skin are stereotypes, being told I'm morally inferior or just following a trend, and general disrespect and ignorance frequently displayed from those who do identify with certain religions. When faced with things like that, regardless of religious ideology or affiliation, I think most of us tend to get frustrated.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:38 am |
    • sam stone

      Like evangelists, cecil?

      atheists are tired of theists using their beliefs to influence our secular laws and to deny other citizens their civil rights.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  16. joe

    One in five Americans have no religion. Why have a religion when you have no reason to believe in God. Our lives are filled with TV, iphones, and mind control marketing. Most Universities require students to take an Ethics class because there is a large portion of young Americans who have no concept of right and wrong. I do believe a person who is an atheist can still be a good person. I also believe there is a portion of our society that needs to believe in God for moralities sake if anything.

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

      Too bad you didn't take a Philosophy class with your Ethics class. That's called Utilitarianism. And Neuro-science, and Evolutionary Biology knows where human morality comes from. Also take an Anthropology class. YOU may need god to make YOU moral. Others do not. And anyway, it's YOU people that say that god gave man Natural Law. Try harder.
      .......
      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnXmDaI8IEo&w=640&h=390]

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

      Glad to get you fired up. That was my intention. Go use your iphone now.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:38 am |
    • realbuckyball

      Nope. Got you idiots on speed dial. I pasted it in. Took 5 seconds. And BTW, we just happened to notice you didn't reply to the arguments. So much for THAT education. I hope you didn't pay for it.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:53 am |
  17. Seethroughu

    Atheists believe in evolution. A thinly veiled faith based religion. While they scoff at Christians for believing God created everything(life coming from life). They don't understand how rediculous it sounds when they try to get people to believe all this complex life came from a rock. Something that takes a lot of self delusion.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:26 am |
    • Bobby Ricky

      We atheists thank people like you from driving people away from your insane refusal to accept the real world as it is. You are doing a wonderful job, as this poll clearly shows.

      Now get out on the street corners with your signs and howling!

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

      Yes, it's delusional to think our origins came from something other than a magic space daddy.

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

      Sure, just continue to ignore reality. Pretending evolution doesn't occur will not change things. Hiding in your closet and shouting "NANANANA I CAN'T HEAR YOU" does not make the rest of the world go away. I suggest you take a few science courses and try to understand how things work. This is not the 15th century any more.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:32 am |
    • Gaunt

      Actually, Evolution has been proven in every conceivable manner, in a dozen related disciplines, in hundreds of thousands of universities and laboratories, independently, across every first world nation on earth. It has been proven through observation, through fossil and geochronology, through human genome mapping, through experimentation and through laboratory trials. very few theories have been as utterly and conclusively proven so frequently and independently as evolution.

      Grow up and get an education.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:41 am |
    • sam stone

      how do you make the logical leap from a creator to a god?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • sam stone

      Seriously, seethroughu....i have asked this of everyone i have heard come up with statements such as yours and none have ever answered. How does the concept of a creator imply a heaven or a hell?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  18. Doc Magnus

    I talk to God all the time and pray, not for success but strength and for everyone who needs help and justice. But I firmly believe in getting religion out of politics and this is the best way. Thank God for secularism.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:26 am |
  19. OldMo

    GAUNT, Tim McVeigh said science was his religion but that's neither here nor there. Now that we're on the topic, go to youtube for news coverage of that day because they found more bombs planted in the building. Who could plant bombs inside a federal building? Only people who had help from the inside. It was a false flag operation and McVeigh was the fall guy. Google "A Noble Lie" and check things out. Or just believe what you're fed on the news, it's quicker and requires less energy.

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

      yes, because everything in the world is just a giant conspiracy theory that only you have managed to figure out.

      (facepalm)

      October 9, 2012 at 6:39 am |
  20. Religion and Government Do Not Mix

    I don't mind if people kneel to their God. What gets me all riled is when they insist I must kneel to their God. That is why I am a life member of an organization that fights for a secular government. Freedom From Religion Foundation. ffrf.org

    Keep Church and State separate.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:25 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.