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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. achepotlex

    The Xtians try hard to keep people stupid by destroying the education system and having "Honey Boo Boo" on every channel, but they can't keep America down!

    October 9, 2012 at 7:00 am |
  2. Bob

    What about food and gas prices? To millions of Americans, that is the most important thing on their minds. How about some headlines? Afraid Obama will take a hit?

    October 9, 2012 at 6:59 am |
  3. Acodechoi

    like or not America is going doing the path of the USSR. Sometimes life is strange; what we seek to avoid is what turns up in our life. And with the growing atheistic belief there is none else but a future downfall of the US just like the soviets in the 90's.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • sam stone

      "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!"

      October 9, 2012 at 7:15 am |
  4. Abraham Medina

    There will ALWAYS be DEOMONIZED people in the world. Just look at current events where YOUNG AMERICANS shoot people like we kill mosquitoes....What has become of this supposedly "nation under God?" Too many wisecracks who don't belong?

    October 9, 2012 at 6:58 am |
  5. Grey

    My imaginary friend is better than your imaginary friend. Now lets go to war after war after war to prove who's right. The wealthy love the ignorance of the masses in this regard because they keep going to the bank to deposit more of the sheeps money.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:57 am |
  6. Minesa99

    Just to be clear, the article does not say atheism is the fastest group, it says no religious affiliation is. It reads 68% of these people believe in god, but do not associate themselves with any formal religious group.

    To those of you trying to spread the word of god to non-believers, you come off like a chain letter. "Pass this on to ten people or they will be damned to eternal hell"

    October 9, 2012 at 6:57 am |
  7. Grey

    not being affiliated with a religion does not make one an athiest. Not beliving in god does. When I was in my teens I separated my belief in God from the conformist and cultlike atmosphere surrounding most organized religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:56 am |
  8. uhm, no

    I believe in Creationism; Man created god

    October 9, 2012 at 6:56 am |
  9. John

    It's about time the human race wake up and understand when you die you simply die. There is no "God". The bible was made up by men to simply control other men.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:55 am |
  10. Barry from Wisconsin

    The USA was founded by people fleeing religious persecution. We are free to believe in any religion or none at all. It is about time that people who are not religious are not castigated (as one post does) for a lack of religious belief.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:55 am |
  11. Jeff

    It was nice and peaceful belonging to a "group" that was ignored by the politicians looking for votes. I guess the honeymoon is over.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:55 am |
  12. sid

    This is the basis of most all hatred. Don't feed into it. Keep your opinions to yourselves and be happy. Live your life.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:54 am |
    • It's like this

      You do realize that it is profoundly hypocritical to post your opinion that people should keep their opinions to themselves, don't you?

      Got a problem with freedom of speech?

      October 9, 2012 at 6:56 am |
  13. P Ness

    CHRISTIANITY: The belief that some cosmic Jewish Zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master,so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

    Makes perfect sense

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

      lol

      October 9, 2012 at 6:56 am |
    • Danny

      So Jesus never lived? Never died on a cross for sinners like you an I? Never rose and won't come back? Reports are positive – He did conquer sin and death. He will conquer "an evil force in humanity" (as you say) and He shares that victory to all who will humble themselves and allign themself w Him. Paul was a persecutor but was graciously stopped by divine revelation. What might help you?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • sam stone

      Jesus lived. He pi$$ed off the Jewish establishment and was whacked by the Romans. The rest is an amalgamation of earlier mythology. Why do you feel that mankind are "sinners"?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:18 am |
  14. Bob Balderston

    interesting...have a great and blessed day....have you ever thought, maybe i don't don't want to have a blessed day? maybe i don't want your choice of a god, to bless me. being atheist doesn't so much mean we don't want god, per se, but sometimes, the pure fact we don't want YOUR god. instead of worshiping the easter bunny, the tooth fairy and other dieties,, open your own eyes and let your faith be in ones own self. the pictures the old, wise leaders of the faith, hold no bonds to the future; if one is truely evil or pious, that is the nature of the person, not a doctrine of ones lack of faith

    October 9, 2012 at 6:53 am |
  15. End Religion

    For those who must believe in a god, what if there is indeed a god but his true test, which hasn't been revealed in any faith/book, is whether or not you exercised your free will during your time on the planet to believe in any of the various faiths/books of hate and intolerance that man created? What if the true test were something like: "Here are many versions of false religions to believe in, all of which purport to be based in love yet are clearly awash in hate and violence. Will you blindly follow the men who've told you their religion/book is holy, or will you use your mind to determine that in reality none of them are good? Can you realize that real, virtuous good only comes from your personal decision to practice love without threat of pain? Everyone who is deceived by a "holy book" will be punished for eternity simply by not being allowed into the afterlife extravaganza."

    October 9, 2012 at 6:53 am |
  16. Gaunt

    Hey Christians:

    God is all good, and loves all people. Yet he seems to have no difficulty intervening to slaughter people by the thousands, burn cities to the ground, massacre firstborn children, testing people by ordering them to murder their own kids or even drown an entire planet in Noah's time. Why are all of god's interventions about mass slaughter and evil? Why doesn’t this good god intervene from time to time to do something good?

    What was god doing, exactly, while that whole 'holocaust' thing was going on?

    October 9, 2012 at 6:53 am |
    • John Gault

      Hell, what's he doing now in Darfur or Syria?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:01 am |
    • Morris

      In response to where was he in the holocaust. HE always wanted to help the Jews but they rejected HIM so you tell me what do you do when you try to help or to be nice to someone and that someone rejects your help, do you keep pushing or do you leave them alone? well GOD is a gentleman and HE moved away from the Jews to let them do their own thing and the "holocaust" happened which is the same that will one day happen to all of you who reject HIS word (The Bible) and his persona (JESUS the cosmic Jew p.ness is talking about).

      October 9, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • cooper

      A little ironic that you are using the Holocaust in you argument since it was run by atheists. Also I would like to hear you defense of soviet/communist Russia and Communist China since they were/are explicitly Atheist governments. Where were you, oh "holy" atheist when these groups advocated and carried out whole-scale slaughter of people?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • GO_GOP

      Gaunt boy: Back with your nonsense? Have you forgotten how I crushed you and your silly arguments in the earlier pages? Do I copy paste that here? Would be a little embarrassing for you don't you think?!!

      October 9, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • GO_GOP

      Gaunt boy: Coward much? Don't worry I won't copy paste that; I am not in the habit of embarrassing kids in front of adults. Grow up, get rid of your silly atheism and we will one day talk like adults. Am waiting!!

      Once there was a Gaunt
      Atheism on him did haunt
      The times I crushed him I lost count
      But yes he is beneath my taunt!!

      October 9, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  17. Gaunt

    Hey Christians:

    If the bible is infallable and exactly correct (a position even the vatican has abandoned) then please explain why the four gospels have three different and contradictory versions of Christ's last words on the cross? This isnt a small detail either, its the dying proclamation of your savior, and they cant even get their stories straight on that.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • realbuckyball

      How about "why are there even 4 gospels". Because Irenaeus said there had to be as there were 4 winds, and 4 pillars of the earth. Why did some gospels say he was silent at the trial, and one has him giving a speech ?
      Why ? Because they literally made it up. Google "pious fraud". They did not think lying for god was evil. St. Paul admits he lied, as did many of the church Fathers. There is a whole chapter on how to do it in St John Chrysostom.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:59 am |
  18. Gaunt

    Hey Christians:
    God sits back and eats celestial popcorn while listening to the screams of the dying of genocides, plagues, wars and the holocaust. You justify this incredibly evil act by saying it has something to do with 'free will'.

    But if God is omniscient, and knows everything you are going to do before you do it and is never wrong, then there is no such thing as free will.

    Please explain both the contraditction of your faith and the evil of your diety.

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

      Once there was a Gaunt
      Atheism on him did haunt
      The times I crushed him I lost count
      But yes he is beneath my taunt!

      October 9, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  19. Irwin Graulich

    I feel sorry for all these so called "atheists." To brag that you don't believe in religion is the epitome of arrogance and stupidity. These are lost souls who are bored with their lives and have nothing better to do than join a protest about nothing. How sad.

    October 9, 2012 at 6:51 am |
    • End Religion

      I could scream at the altar of a church, with a crucifix stuck deep up my asshole, that I fuck Jesus Christ hard through the hand holes and cream on his crown of thorns, and I will never hit the level of blasphemy that’s required for someone to pray to god for their family’s pet dog to return home. The idea that someone can claim that they know there’s a god because they feel it, because they trust a book that they were raised with, because they had an epiphany, and then ask this god to change its mind about its plan for the universe is arrogant. Once you say you have the answer to everything, but you can’t prove it to anyone else, I don’t think you can accuse anyone else of being arrogant. I think you are the king of kings of the arrogant assholes.

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

      @Irwin - Feeling sorry for us is just another way of saying you are superior. You can blow that out your exhaust pipe. And secondly, atheists don't "brag." It is simply a life where we, not some mysterious sky god or his zombie son, are personally responsible for our own acts and accomplishments. Gods simply don't exist in our lives.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • checi

      When god-believers start stepping on the rights of others through their manipulation of politics, then it's time to take up the banners. Or do you not believe in free speech anymore? I think the Bill of Rights is as close to religion as we want to be.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:59 am |
    • Morris

      Sad indeed.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • Jim Duley

      While I find End Religion's comments to be (a tad) crass, he is dead right about the arrogance of some Christians about the power of prayer. My seriously Christian sister just recently told me she has stopped praying for sports teams to win, for people to be healed of diseases and for her car keys to magically show up under the sofa cushions for that very reason...God doesn't need our backseat driving to run the universe.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • sam stone

      To state that you do believe in religion is the epitome of subservience

      October 9, 2012 at 7:19 am |
  20. Gaunt

    Hey Christians.

    Jesus was the Son of God, right? But according to the principle of the Trinity (and to avoid polytheism) he also WAS God himself. Separate yet the same: also a ghost, who is also separate but still the same god. Makes no sense at all, and is fundamentally silly, but whatever.

    So why did Jesus proclaim on the Cross "Dear God, why have you forsaken me?" Was he talking to himself?

    October 9, 2012 at 6:50 am |
    • StayinAlive

      Jesus was both the Son of God and a human being. God, the Father, is his father. They are both separate yet one, just like a wife and husband should be. God did in fact forsake his own son for a moment in time in order that Yeshua should bear the entire sins of the world on himself. God, the Father, cannot look upon sin and therefore forsook His son. Whether that makes sense or not is irrelevant. Either you believe it or not. Your choice. That's the whole point of free will.

      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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.