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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. Suedataji

    If religion causes barriers, feeds foolish ego, promotes violence and discriminates humanity what good is that? If anyone follow the religion thinks there is no greater religion than theirs and that is only the path that is fanaticism. There are many paths leads to the road..We all choose a path to get to our destination from where we start. The starting point is the life and a path we choose is the one that liberates if we exactly and sincerely follow the doctrines and practice them. LIve and let live.
    Innocent killings in the name of religion is the end product of our spirituality why belong to a religion? Simply no religion is better to be peaceful.We have all mixed religions in our family too.My kids share all religions so .They are pieces of all religions putting together. So we respect all.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  2. End Religion

    Religion is a manmade club like any other, with rules and perks to make the club feel special from other clubs. The club gets together periodically to reinforce the delusions of members. Many branches of this club have dues which most call a tithe.

    You've chosen the club that aligns best with your own fantasy concerning how to minimize your fears in life. You and others in the club are afraid so you've made up a god that soothes you by making decisions for you, helping you feel less alone in the universe, and promising you life everlasting. The various club gods offer perks to induce membership such as seeing dead relatives, virginal sex partners, planets to rule or even one's own god status.

    Jesus never existed, was and is king of nothing. You don't have to be afraid. You do not need religion.

    Deal with the lack of afterlife by celebrating life and family in the here and now. Be responsible for your own decisions. Be kind to the earth and others on it. Forge a path with determination, or "go with the flow" and let life determine the course if you're the lazy type. Either way, you don't need a god or a club for any of that.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • lightsource

      I find it interesting that the article equates non affiliated people to athiests. In reality, not participating in organized religion does not immediately categorize one as an athiest at all. Spirituality is a boundless quest, and is very possible outside organized religion.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • biff

      Well said, my friend. I have just a little to add.My mother was a Christian in the true sense of the word. It brought her a lot of comfort while raising eight little hell-raisers. She helped many people anonymously, as we found out at her funeral.She wouldn't have dreamed of forcing her views on anyone and she was truly a kind and noble person.So, I believe religion can be of use in the way it was intended to be with some people. However, it seems to be a construct of people that attracts more than its' share of frauds and thieves. With so many faiths claiming to be the one , true faith , what is a boy to do? I just try to live my life the best I can.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  3. Jesus Saves

    I am a born again Christian who believes you will either spend enternity in heaven or hell when you die. An athiest doesn't believe in heaven or hell. Let's suppose the athiest is right and there is no eternal life. When we die we will end up in the "same place". But suppose I am right and the athiest is wrong, then the athiest is in a pretty bad spot.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      Oh for god's sake. Look up Pascal's Wager, and learn something.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      Pascals Wager at its finest....

      October 9, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • Amistavia

      Your really should look into Pascal.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      And BTW, take a theology class. You don't "spend" anything "anywhere'. There is no spacetime in the spiritual realm. It's a "state of being". American are so fvcking ignorant of their own cults.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • Pascal's Wager

      "Suppose there is a god who is watching us and choosing which souls of the deceased to bring to heaven, and this god really does want only the morally good to populate heaven. He will probably select from only those who made a significant and responsible effort to discover the truth. . .Therefore, only such people can be sufficiently moral and trustworthy to deserve a place in heaven — unless God wishes to fill heaven with the morally lazy, irresponsible, or untrustworthy."

      The End of Pascal's Wager: Only Nontheists Go to Heaven

      October 9, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • Fernando

      What if God exists but He isn't an egomaniacal sociopath like your god and the only thing He hates is willful stupidity so He creates religion to identify those who practice it and then He creates a heck just for them where they have to pray and judge each other for eternity with never-ending background of chant music. You'd be in a pretty tight spot, wouldn't you?

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

      The "same place" is the same place you were for 4.6 billion years before you were born. What was that like?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • End Religion

      Known as Pascal's Wager, an inelegant and possibly immoral argument for conversion.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_Wager

      October 9, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • End Religion

      lol, looks like i was late to the party

      October 9, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • charles

      so you're 'believing' (or should I say pretending to believe) for selfish reasons?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • Brother Maynard

      Old arguemen JS .. called Pascal's Wager.
      BTW you forgot to admit that if you believe in Heaven / Hell you live a life of fear and anxiety. Every waking moment that you spend pondering god is wasted and drives you deeper into that fear.
      Don't cower to the fantasy that is god. Stand up and claim your place in life.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • To: "Jesus saves", from: "Me"

      What you just described is the REASON why you are a "BORN AGAIN" Christian and it is CALLED FEAR! I'm sorry for you, you do not see the fear that has been planted in you, the brainwashing is so thick that you can't see past it, Joining any organization just because you don't want to "end up in hell" doesn't seem like the right reasons... You just care about yourself.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:42 am |
  4. Fernando

    Many of the messages posted by religious people here suggest that the researchers should have included another category; the religion affiliated, yet unaffiliated with teachings of religion in conduct or lifestyle. Reading a lot of judgement, threats, pejoratives and arrogance here from self-identified religious folk all of which are diametrically opposed to the teachings of most religions.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  5. Ryan

    Thank God! [Whom I do not believe in] for the rise of reason!
    Critical thinking is finally replacing blind faith. Decades of investment in higher education is finally paying off!

    God's existence is certainly possible. But people who are certain of it, well I just can't trust them. That's too big a leap of faith to make with no evidence for me and it just doesn't seem wise.

    Voltaire famously wrote, "He who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities."

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

      And many of those atrocities throughout history committed by religious zealots were deemed moral acts, because they believed god commanded them to do it, or it was gods will.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:26 am |
  6. Dont Forget the UNICORNS!

    Beware of radical atheist suicide bombers!

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

    Arrogant bunch of idiots is what it amounts to. They think they are the center of the universe.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      The Believers? You are SO right! They actually believe that the Creator of the Universe – an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful, infinite being – actually listens to them and intervenes on their behalf!!!!!!! What arrogant insects those Believers are!

      October 9, 2012 at 7:26 am |
  8. Akilez

    God is actually the Sun. The lighten the earth to give life.

    Jesus Christ was like Martin Luther King in his life time. If the civil rights movement was the issue in the 50's and 60's. Religion was the issue during Christ's time but a religion already exist Islam and Judaism.

    The other religion UFOlogy when humanity created by Aliens.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Que??????

      October 9, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  9. Patrick

    Actually, Jesus did come back. Will you really realize it when you die? Does a man in a suit greet you with a warm handshake when you leave your body and explain that you passed on? Try reading A Course in MIracles. If you are interested in Truth and not the many versions of it that exist in this world, this is probably the book for you.. or don't read it and leave some rhetorical comment on this mindless website that helps you feel the illusion of being alive. Eternity is forever and always with no beginning and no ending.. which includes right now. We are in eternity. What God creates is eternal as Himself.. which means there must be a part of you that has lived and will live forever. If what you see dies, it was an illusion of life. There is One Truth. All roads here lead directly to It. : )

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

      Truth requires proof. I'm waiting.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      I thought it was the cat who came back, he couldn't stay away, the cat came back, the very next day

      October 9, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • UncleBenny

      At least the cat actually came back!

      October 9, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  10. Peter

    Andrew Carnegie was likely an atheist. He followed Sweedenborganism a well meaning but deeply flawed religion. He was really rich and the foundation he created is still working for his better image. Some people might even revere Andrew Carnegie.. However, Andrew Carnegie was a coward. He paid John Lindew $850 to fight in the civil war. Andrew Carnegie made most of his fortune from the civil war. There might not have been this big deadly war if not for this coward.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:19 am |
  11. Jeff

    Would someone tell me a novel was no good without reading it first? And, if they did would I trust that opinion? Do we ever judge a person without getting to know them first? I would challenge anyone to read God's word for what it is and prove it wrong. I would also challenge anyone to truly get to know Christ and then deny he ever existed. Most of the comments I am hearing seem to be from people who have not educated themselves about the validity and historical facts of God and Jesus Christ. I challenge you to do so. Then if you prove it wrong, at least you are touting an educated opinion.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:19 am |
    • Amistavia

      Read Leviticus, that's all that is required to turn a decent person against your religion.

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

      The bible was crafted by copying ancient myths from sumeria, babylon, and egypt. It is as fake and useless as every other piece of religious text ever written in all of human history. You are a fool and all followers of religion are fools. You are on the wrong side of history and I hope I see the day when you and your kind are a small minority.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • Chemack56

      I challenge YOU to pove there's one word of truth in the Bible. There's no denying there are some good (and bad) lessons to be had from reading the Bible, just as there is from reading ANY good work of fiction.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • Alejandro Delbrey

      Prove I don't have a gnome named Steven sitting on my desk. You can't. Just like nobody can prove there is a magical being(whom nobody can see), up in a magical place(where nobody has been and nobody knows where it is), pulling on the puppet strings of humanity. A lot of people have in fact read the bible. I think most people that actually read the bible(old and new testament) will realize these books were just myths made up thousands of years ago. Much of what's contained in the bible is archaic and barbaric(old testament).

      October 9, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      " would challenge anyone to read God's word for what it is and prove it wrong."

      I have read the book. I had to read it and study it. I went to a christian college. Fact is, that is not the word of god, but the word of MEN over a long period of time used to control populations. then later on, more men edited the book to fit their agenda of money, power and to convert more pagans to christianity. I would challenge you to look at the history of your religion with an open mind.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • kdm1

      Jeff, your argument and conviction could also be used for Zeus, Mars, Zoroaster, Thor, or any of the other gods you don't believe in. You easily dismiss hundreds of historical gods. Have you 'educated yourself about the validity and historical facts' of these gods? Of course not, because you would say that is ridiculous to believe in those stories. I only dismiss one more god than you do! Or wait, does the trinity make that three gods?

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

    Regardless of all your devilish comments GOD still loves you all and is waiting for you to come to HIM through HIS son JESUS.
    God bless you all

    October 9, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • religion is a fable

      Typical religious way of saying $%^# off. The other being I will pray for you.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • Amistavia

      Prove it.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      God is not "waiting", you fool. That means god exists in time, and requires time. If god requires time, there is something larger than your god who created Reality.

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

      is "GOD" or should I say "He" so concerned with us using capital letters with his name? seems a strange quirk for the omnipotent

      October 9, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  13. william

    Many folks find church nothing more than a social club with the most devout, or simply pious, the leaders, never missing an opportunity, to see that you tow the line, say the words, believe, as they do, that theirs is the only way to heaven. Show any doubt and it's judgement and ostracism for you, and questions about your morals, values, and worth as a human being. That and the threat, implied or bald, that you're on your way to hell. What a miserable way to live.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:17 am |
  14. StayinAlive

    I believe all religions have caused an unspeakable amount of damage to this world since the day man created religion. I personally watched how religion destroyed my marriage and resulted in the premature death of my wife. After that I ditched religion, including Christianity for good. I believe in Yeshua because of what he stood for and did. The religion that Christianity became was man-made and has nothing to do with Yeshua or what he founded. I would even go so far as to say 99.9% of all Christian denominations are an utter heap of rubbish.

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

      But then they trot out the names of Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler etc, but that just proves that the believers are just as bad as they were.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • derp

      Hitler was a christian and had the backing of the Pope.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:24 am |
  15. southernbelle

    That is what is wrong with atheists. They THINK they are so smart and educated, yet they are pitifully STUPID! These are your murderers, crackheads, alcoholics, pedophiles, etc. That's what's bringing down this country! Just wanted to let you know, whatever your reply, go ahead. I'm not EVEN going to read your comments. I have far too many things to do than listen to your STUPIDITY.

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

      Typical southern idiot, go read your bible in traffic.

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

      Judging by your name, you're from south of the Mason-Dixon Line... Nuff said.

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

      Please, do the world a favor and drown yourself back country redneck beauty queen

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

      If you look at a lot of these comments, these are from atheists who have nothing better to do than to get on news sites and comment about their atheism. Get a job!

      October 9, 2012 at 7:19 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      Funny, Christians make up more than 75% of the people in prisons, while atheists make up less than 1%. Your comment is without merit.

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

      @Southernbelle "I have far too many things to do than listen to your STUPIDITY." – Oh yeah?!! well your'e dumb and so are all your friends.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • religion is a fable

      Hey! I thought you weren't going to read these comments? A christian that is a liar, now that is a new one.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • Imajica

      Stupidity is believing in fairy tails like the invisible man in the sky.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • william

      Oh, I bet you'll read them. All the problems you listed are severe in our country, but reject the notion, as some believe, that it's the wrath of God causing them, or that our country "losing it's faith" is the reason. Religion may help some individuals refrain from committing crimes, or becomming addicted to booze or drugs, but it's clear that it doesn't protect all. Neither is the reverse true, that lack of religion directly causes many of our problems, or turns otherwise decent people into addicts or monsters.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  16. budgiegirl

    Fastest growing religion is no religion..... Thank God!!!

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

    You'll be dead a LOT longer than you'll be alive ... please be certain of your faith.

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

      You were dead the 4.6 billion years it took from the time the earth formed, until you were born. What was that like?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:17 am |
    • Marcin Nowysz

      I'm sure you know exactly what's gonna happen after death. I also bet you've got your information from a veeeeery old book that you literally believe in. Laughable.

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

      I wasnt alive for billions of yrs before I was born and i wasnt inconvenienced by it once

      October 9, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  18. opinionguru

    ...same group of people the get their "News" from CNN!

    October 9, 2012 at 7:14 am |
  19. saggyroy

    I don't think you can rule out the possibility that god does indeed exist. I prefer to think of myself not as an atheist, but as an "anti-theist" instead.

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

      How is that different from agnostic?

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

      I don't care about the existence of god.

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

      Ha ha – then I am an anti-theist too. I have often told that even "agnostic" is too strong a word to describe my views.
      Thanks! I really just don't care.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  20. spangler

    American Indians called their gays Two Spirits. They also sat around the campfire and debated if a TS was born that way or it came to them in a dream vision later in life.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:13 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.