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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. florence

    religion has turned many good people away when they should not have but such is life..so many people are angry and its because people and church have let them down big time and I am one of them that got let down but it didnt turn me from God

    October 9, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • End Religion

      so, you still worship Poseidon? Zeus? Thor? Which one?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:16 am |
  2. agnostic

    Religion is a mental illness that causes murder, hate, intolerance, discrimination, bigotry, racism, terrorism, and violence. It's been the cause of more death & destruction than any other reason since the creature that eventually evolved into man crawled out of the primordial muck. I hope one day our species will throw away the fairy tales and heal the brain damage that cuases religion, so we can live up to our full potential.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • meyouthem

      That's not true. It's the "idiots" that interpt the religious beliefs and other writings to give themselves permission to inflict all kinds of misery on everyone else but themselves. Thet think they are martyrs but they are actually just "MORE IDIOT MEN".

      October 9, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  3. Deb

    Religion is a set of belief systems. Therefor atheism is a religion. Like it or not. Do you know how many atheists had near death experiences and found out they were "wrong" when they met God? Every single one is no longer atheist anymore.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • Alyssa

      Atheism is a religion in the way that baldness is a hairstyle. Also, why don't we ask all those people who died and didn't see god. Oh wait.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • End Religion

      @deb: "Religion is a set of belief systems."

      One definition is close: "a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith"
      As close as it is, atheism is based on fact and not faith.

      ***
      "Therefor atheism is a religion. Like it or not."

      It's not a matter of liking or not. It's a matter of fact, and the facts do not support your view.

      ***
      "Do you know how many atheists had near death experiences and found out they were "wrong" when they met God? Every single one is no longer atheist anymore."

      I think even you understand how absurd this is... Deb, all religion is a fraud. If you suffer from a brand of this delusion, it is no less crazy than any other.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • Orso

      Interesting point of view Deb, funny, but interesting. ;)

      October 9, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  4. terry

    If you believe in God, and it all turns out to be falsehood, oh well–silly you. If you dont believe, and it all turns out to be true, it probably wont be so funny. Choose wisely...

    October 9, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • Praise Jupiter

      Oh yes, fear based belief, a staple of, well, every religion. So get to back ofthe line you religious poser

      October 9, 2012 at 7:13 am |
    • Alexk

      Just because someone doesn't believe in God doesn't mean they do not lead a good and honest life. Some of the most morale, charitable people that I know are non-religious. If God is truly all knowing and all understanding these people will most definitely get in to heaven. Believing in God is not about hedging your bets to get into heaven and believing and worshiping God is not a golden ticket into heaven regardless of your life's actions.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:14 am |
    • myway

      I disagree. I think God will have a good laugh with the non-believers in afterlife. They're more fun to hang out with.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • Orso

      If there was a god, and god was omnipotent, then my atheism was his will, and you should not challenge it. Otherwise, your god is not omnipotent, and you will have to go back to the drawing board and rethink what god is.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • UncleBenny

      Oh, how very original. Pascal's Wager, warmed over. Do you suppose that God is going to be impressed by someone who believes in him because it's a safe bet?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:43 am |
  5. meyouthem

    I believe in aGod of some sort. The bible is a good read if you are inclined toward the boring. Reminds me of trying to figure out what the idea was of someone's writing about those things when I was in high school.. Think about it, the BIBLE states the beginning of life was Adam and Eve (who named them?) and they had children. Their children had wives and children. If Adam and Eve were the first humans, where did their children's wives come from????

    October 9, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • Amistavia

      Inbreeding has always been a Christian specialty.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:14 am |
    • End Religion

      it is full of sex and violence if that's what you consider a good read. You are onto something about the children's wives, and here's a hint: it's all bullshit!

      October 9, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • Deb

      there has been and will always be 2 schools of thought regarding the interpretation of the Bible. Literal and allegorical.
      Most people who feel like you and had & have near death experiences go to hell. They're given a second chance. When they come back from being dead for those moments, they change their lives abruptly and don't think like you anymore.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • Deb

      Ignorance is bliss for you. Adam and eve were the first humans created in God's image. There were others, like when cain killed Able he was sent to live with them.

      You obviously still won't get it. Why? Even the devil and demons acknowledge God. But I had to teach you this because Satan has you right where he wants you. Too bad for you.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • biff

      No, Deb, there are three schools of interpretation concerning the Bible. As you say, allegorical and literal , and as I say, BS.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • End Religion

      @deb: you are needlessly fear mongering but that is why religion has lasted so long. If the bible is allegoric than it is freely open to any interpretation without fear of reprisal, and that includes interpreting it as complete bullshit entirely.

      Religious "moderation" or the interpreting and cherry picking of certain bible verses is proof of your atheism. God has commanded you through the bible. To defy his commandments is to deny him since you do not fear reprisal. Denying him is the one sin he doesn't forgive, and that means eternal damnation. What arrogance to assume you can decide which parts of his word to obey!

      Near death is simply death from which someone managed to survive. There is nothing religious about it. There is "second chance" for these people to take a crack at a religion, and they certainly don't all miraculously change their ways. There are posts from people on this article attesting to that. You're simply chalking your fear and ignorance up to a god.

      Adam and Eve never existed. There was no garden. There is no satan. There is only your fear of life and afterlife, and your ignorance of science, so you substitute a god in place of all the scary unknown things in your life.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  6. shelbs

    Satan just smiled on this report....Read the bible.. it says this exact thing would happen....

    October 9, 2012 at 7:09 am |
    • Dennis

      Neptune hear our prayers.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • Praise Jupiter

      It's Jupiter you ignoramus!! >:-O

      October 9, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • Amistavia

      Satan, although as fictional as the rest of your religion, reads as a lot less evil than your god does.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • meyouthem

      The bible is just another book, written by only God knows who. Adam and Eve weren't the first humans. Their sons didn't procreate with Eve to make grandkids. Think about it please.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • Logic?

      Where in the bible does it mention Satan smiling about a Pew report showing a growing number of unaffiliated religious people in the USA? Chapter and verse, please. That is quite the claim.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • myway

      How do you know what satan is doing? Are you standing next to him?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:17 am |
    • j791

      The bible says everything will happen according to Christians. I could say the world is ending today and there would be a Christian that says the bible predicted it. Did you see Albert Eienstein's God letter recently? The smartest man to ever live also thought the bible, while well intended, was nothing more than childish myths. Look at Halloween, Christians were so childish they wore masks on their faces so spirits going to the next level would not recognize them. Look at the Sumarian writings, they have the flood story, creation story etc... almost word for word as the bible only they left Jesus out. Funny how a civilization that existed 4 thousand years before Christ has the exact same stories. Also, rising from the dead in 3 days was nothing new during the time of Jesus...in fact...Jesus was well aware of this tradition well before his death. People talk about satin, 666 sign of the devel and the "Beast". The numbers 666 were part of the Roman numerical alphabet that meant Nero. Nero was the emperior at the time that fed Christians to the lions so they called him the "Beast". The bible is nothing more than history written by man with a few magical powers thrown in.

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

      Yeah, and Hitler said that the Jews would be the cause of a great war and it would lead to their ruin. Circular reasoning. Religious Charlatan 101 teaches that you must say believers will be doubted and attacked and when that happens, as it invariably does, well then there is your proof that what I have spoken is magically divine. My religion tells me that the Sun will rise in the Eastern sky tomorrow and that Bible thumpers are among the world's most gullible and narrow-minded people. Does the eventuality of one make the other true? Better consult your Bible on that one.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:22 am |
  7. HeartsOf2

    About frickin time! I am so excited for the future of this Country (if we don't kill everyone off first). Hopefully one day we will know peace & love & equallity for all.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:08 am |
  8. Jim Duley

    If only 20% of America is atheist or unaffiliated, why do at least half of the comments on the Belief Blog seem to be written by them?

    October 9, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • Amistavia

      Could the high illiteracy rate of evangelicals have anything to do with it?

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

      fastest growing and that's with Mormons breeding like rabbits.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • Logic?

      Perhaps there are more atheists that simply haven't gone public about it.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • abcdxyz

      Cause they're intelligent enough to read.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:22 am |
  9. robert

    No matter what any poll says or what any confused young or old person says the truth remains true. The Bible says very clearly that everyone deep in their heart, soul, mind, etc... knows there is a God. They simply suppress the truth, push it away and continue to try and fill the void they all know is there with all sorts of things. Good luck but I guarantee you will always come up empty if not today, eventually.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • william

      Always the implied threat of damnation if we don't believe as you do. That's a big reason many have left the church.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • Q

      Hey, please keep your needs of getting your "void" filled to yourself TMI

      October 9, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • meyouthem

      Incest is not an option, so where did Cain, Abel and Seth's spouses come from in order to make children?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • pam

      The Quran says very clearly that you are misguided.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • Logic?

      "No matter what any poll says or what any confused young or old person says the truth remains true."
      That is part of the reason you guys are losing members. Arrogance.

      "The Bible says very clearly that everyone deep in their heart, soul, mind, etc... knows there is a God."
      If that's what it says, then it is clearly illogical. One cannot *know* anything. Furthermore, if one claims to know, and one cannot show with evidence, we call that "lying". That's another reason you guys are losing members. Lying.

      "They simply suppress the truth, push it away and continue to try and fill the void they all know is there with all sorts of things."
      By all means, show us credible evidence for you what you claim to be true. Give us something we can test and verify. If your evidence holds, then there will be no denying.

      "Good luck but I guarantee you will always come up empty if not today, eventually."
      Ahh, yes. What's a religious belief without some kind of "you'll be sorry" threat?

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

      No I won'T.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  10. seriously123

    About time people come out of the shadows and let their true Athiest beliefs be known! Those numbers will continue to grow at an increasing rate too. Let's hope the theists don't kill everyone first!
    I dont care what you believe in as long as you/they don't force it on me and my children. Alsp please don't kill me or my offspring because you believe and I don't. Just leave me out of your fantasy world of myth, legend and tall tales and I will try not to shove reality down your throat.
    40+ Latinos on the side of the road with "Praise Jesus" signs this past Sunday just about put me over the edge...

    October 9, 2012 at 7:07 am |
    • meyouthem

      I agree with you. I just hope those religious zealots will leave you and yours alone and mine too. These people don't need to try to push their screwed up beliefs on any of us.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:26 am |
  11. redlace

    It's always a good thing when people turn from their primitive religions and embrace reality. Faithers have had a lock on the politics of this country for far too long. We can see it in the bitter, divisive campaigns and policies that they pursue. It is time for enlightened leadership, rather than more of the same ignorance-based lunacy that we've had for so much of the world's history.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:06 am |
    • meyouthem

      We need some young blood in the race, but the TRIBUNAL (rich folks heavily invested) will not let that happen. They will make sure that the candidate of their choice will get in office.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:31 am |
  12. Joanie

    No religion....I am not religious but I am spiritual....no religion does not mean, at least, some of these same folks aren't spiritual. Religion has caused alot of grief from the Catholic priests to Christians that only practice their "religion" for an hour a week at that. So maybe the tide changing will bring about people who do the right thing, decent thing or human thing because they should. I do think we are at a time that religious dogma is being questioned. Some of us that are spiritual have realized that we don't have to have a particular "religion" to guide us. THIS ARTICLE DOESN'T ASK ALL THE QUESTIONS

    October 9, 2012 at 7:05 am |
  13. Amistavia

    Now the religion that worships a zombie has itself become the walking dead. How apropos!

    October 9, 2012 at 7:05 am |
  14. combroker

    Wasn't it about a year ago that a report was written about how spiritual more and more people were becoming?

    October 9, 2012 at 7:04 am |
  15. JP

    Right in line and right on time with the satanic believers. . . Those insane ancient believers of Babylon non-sense have gotten what they wanted . . .

    October 9, 2012 at 7:04 am |
  16. serdich

    Farewell and thank you for the fish...

    October 9, 2012 at 7:04 am |
    • agnostic

      dont forget your towel...

      October 9, 2012 at 7:15 am |
  17. fiftyfive55

    To the people like myself who believe in God, You know the comfort our beliefs bring us.People who dont believe,well thats up to you,but please dont knock the belief in God around.Dont blame religion for war and violence when it is men who create war under the guise of religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:04 am |
    • serdich

      I do blame religion for all the evils on this world..but we are growing up.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:05 am |
    • sam stone

      if folks want to believe in god, that is fine

      if they want to evangelize, there is a problem

      if they want to deny other citizens their civil rights, there is a problem

      October 9, 2012 at 7:09 am |
    • Hender46

      That's true...but an Atheist would say that it's is men (and women) who create the religion too. That's the funky thing about Atheism. There are no Gods to hide behind or rationalize bad behavior.

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

      so, if men do good under the "guise of religion", it is religion that inspires it, but if man does bad under the sam guise, it is not religion that inspires it?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • hb

      You can have your religion, but keep it to yourself. Think of your religion as a penis. It's great to have one but it is best kept private and not shoved down the throats of children.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • topperG

      Didn't you take history in High School, religion has been smack dab in the middle of all wars......the bible references religous wars....come on, get over yourself (or get better educated)....christian religions are the main cause for most wars......

      October 9, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • Hutch

      Nah. I think religion is the root of all war and evil.. Its a pretty clear thing when looking into the history books.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • pam

      It's also comforting to believe in Santa Claus, tooth fairy and all that, but we expect young people to grow out of it and be able to face the world eventually. Believing for the sake of comfort is self delusion and unhealthy for adults.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • biff

      If anything bad happens , that was man straying from god. If anything good happens, well that was god doing his thing. He works in such mysterious ways, that's why we have Stalins and Hitlers. We couldn't possibly understand his plan. Just keep those checks rolling in .

      October 9, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  18. Dave R

    I would not say it's a growing percentage of Atheists, only a growing number of those willing to admit it freely.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:03 am |
  19. Ian

    Both Christians and atheists believe intelligence came from nothing – unless Christians claim to know what created God. Even if god exists, don't you want to know more? About the nature of how god came into being? Most Christians don't seem interested in this. They have their bible and their Fox News and they're done thinking. Very lazy minds.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:03 am |
    • Chris

      Ian, regardless of what you believe, neither story has a good beginning, yet to the religious, if you don't believe in God, then your story is beyond irrational. How can all this stuff just come from nowhere?? But, where did God come from? God just always has been here! Same lack of a beginning....

      October 9, 2012 at 7:16 am |
  20. The T.O

    As I read my scriptures in todays world I know now what David means in Ps 32:7. The fundamenalist believe in all this hope, share , lovie lovie God stuff. My scriptures say that He is a God of vengenance, Full of wrath, and shall cut them off in their own wickedness (ps. 94:23) We are getting closer , God help you people. Even so come Lord Jesus.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:02 am |
    • Ian

      They said Jesus would return in the 19th century. Jesus is very unreliable and can't keep appointments.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:04 am |
    • realbuckyball

      Ya ya ya. Jesus said "this generation shall not pass away bla bla bla". He lied too.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:05 am |
    • realbuckyball

      David didn't write the psalms. Take a bible class.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:06 am |
    • serdich

      Ju Ju of the Jungle disagrees with you...coconut 5:12

      October 9, 2012 at 7:07 am |
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About this blog

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.