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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. selfevolved

    I was raised to believe in a magic man in the sky. But by age 8, I could already see that it was a stupid cult with no basis in reality. It's scary to think that there's a lot of full grown adults who don't.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  2. Syd

    Every day when i read news about people killing each other over religion, I thank god he made me an atheist.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:33 am |
  3. Lets think

    Top Ten Signs You’re a Christian (sadly)
    10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.
    9 – You feel insulted and “dehumanized” when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
    8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.
    7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the “atrocities” attributed to Allah, but you don’t even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in “Exodus” and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in “Joshua” including women, children, and trees!
    6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
    5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.
    4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs – though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most “tolerant” and “loving.”
    3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in “tongues” may be all the evidence you need to “prove” Christianity.
    2 – You define 0.01% as a “high success rate” when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.
    1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history – but still call yourself a Christian.

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

      I bet you will shake in your panties if you say about the same about Islam

      I am an athiest and I'm sickened when people talk about xtians and not have the guts to say about Islam

      In a few years when you live in a Muslim countries you will look back and say huummm those xtians were not bad after all.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • popseal

      Considering the nihilistic self destruction of lives in the world of pop culture, I gladly accept the slander of Christianity by it. When I became a Christian, I discovered the anger nurtured against Christ among the faithless. That's how the world treated Jesus and I can expect no less. God gives the world grace, for alimited time. I avoid the catagories of people that crucified Christ. Those would be religious professionals, self serving politicians, and emotion driven mobs.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  4. janejb

    this article is WRONG. you can not say that aethiests have NO religion. i am a buddhist, and all buddhists are aethiests. being an aethiest simply means you don't believe in god, not that you don't have a "religion". hinduism? taoism? buddhism? to name a few. the author of this article did not do his due diligence

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

      Buddhists are not atheists. Get your head on straight and look up the word in the dictionary.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • doughnuts

      Your statement is wrong. I am an atheist. I have no religion.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • doughnuts

      JJ, you don't really know anything about Buddhism. You can be a Christian Buddhist, and Jewish Buddhist, or an atheist Buddhist.
      The Buddha isn't a god. He was just a man. He isn't worshipped; he is honored.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • phil

      Aethist: a person who denies the existance of a deity or deities.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:42 am |
  5. Jt_flyer

    Religion has 2 purposes:
    1). To allow humans to control other humans
    2). As a narcotic to to endure the pain of the moment for the rewards of the afterlife.

    Religion is the root of much of the world's pain and hatred. Without religion we'd have our paradise here on earth. .

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

      There's no such thing as a genuine athiest just folks who want to worship liberalism and have their Sundays off. Trouble is, they don't have the stones to admit it.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • Jt_flyer

      The imaginary friend in the sky doesn't like when you make accusations. Shame on you.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  6. Alfredo

    "Thank God" people are finally waking up from their religious slumber to understand the truth. The truth that only you determine your future and that this life is the only one....

    October 9, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      "The truth that only you determine your future and that this life is the only one...."

      Please explain how you KNOW this to be true?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  7. John

    Do not push your non religion on me, I do not push my religion on you!. Claiming to have no religion is still having a religion. Oh, those of you that clame to have no religion, If you were born into a religion, You have that religion for life, For example, if you were baptized, you cant unbaptise someone, I once had a person tell me he was an athiest, He was born Catholic, his father died, He said he blamed God for his fathers death and that he now was an athiest. I told him, you cannot blame god, if you at first dont believe in God. He just looked at me and said, I am still an athiest......

    October 9, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      Fool. I was born a Catholic. I an now an atheist.
      Atheism is the absence of theism. If everything you don't believe is a belief, then you also "believe" there is no 1957 Chevy orbiting Pluto, and THAT is equivalent to your "faith". Nope. "Dismissing" religious claims, is not a religion.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • JJ

      LMAO! NO ONE is born into any religion, and idiotic religious rituals are just that, idiotic religious rituals.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • blah

      Claiming to have no religion is still having a religion.

      No it isn't.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  8. Rick

    What if you're all wrong?

    October 9, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • Andrew

      What if we're not?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      What if we are? It doesn't mean that you are right. There are an infinite number of possibilities.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • Jason

      hopefully god isn't the petty creature he is in the old testament. And he would understand why I didn't believe in him. If I had a long lost son find me after years of not showing my face, I wouldn't punish him for not believing I still existed.. That would be ungodly.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  9. JJ

    Any news showing organized religion losing its grip on our society is GREAT news. I can think of few things that would have as positive an impact on our quality of life as doing away with the #1 source of the majority of our hatred, discrimination, child abuse and immorality.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:30 am |
  10. southexas

    God yes but religion no. You don't need a religion to have faith.

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

      You just need to abandon reason.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      St. Paul says faith is a gift of the Spirit. Guess he didn't give it to many. Guess your god is a capricious god.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • Howdy Ho

      Actually, one who keeps her/his faith & tosses the man-made tripe of religion aside has welcomed reason. Mocking someone for embracing the idea of a power/being higher than humans is not only close-minded, it's flat-out arrogant.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • Suzanne

      Good to see this artiicle, as atheists have really gotten a bad wrap.... but, agree, its a little misleading. Lot of people don't have a specific religion, but, do believe in some type of God/Higher power, whatever you want to call it.. That doesnt make them an atheist. Also doesnt make them a Christian.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  11. Ken

    Just because a group of people come together and have a book doesn't make them right. One can believe in a million things, do we need a corrupt group to rely on? no. When Humans form groups they become corrupt. Trust those that seek truth, doubt those that claim to have found it.....

    October 9, 2012 at 7:29 am |
  12. happyprimate

    In the age of information and the internet one can find out easily how fictional the holy books are and in the face of science the abrahamic god is obviously as man made as the thousands who preceded it. While republican theocrats are getting more absurd with their biblical rantings, people are seeing just how utterly horrible life would be living according to bronze age myths. Faith is believe things without evidence and is pure guillibilty. Faith is in no way a virtue. Questioning what is true and actually demanding evidence for what one accepts as true and real is the virtue worth having. The only rule humans need to live by is to be kind and helpful to others but watch your back. Believe what you like, but realize that you have no rights to insist others believe it too or must abide by it. You have every right to free speech but no right not to be offended if your speech or beliefs are challengened as absurd. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Carl Sagan.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:28 am |
  13. MollyBee

    I believe the Christian church in America has become its own worst enemy by allowing hate and vitriole in the name of Christianity to go unchallenged from the pulpit. It appears to me that the most basic tenant of the Christian faith...love the Lord with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself...has been largely ignored as Christian "leaders" become engaged in the politics of exclusion, blame, intolerance and bigotry. I believe in Jesus Christ and his teachings. It pains me to see hateful words and acts said and committed in His name. Nothing good has ever been accomplished in this mannner. Men and women who put themselves forward as judge, jury and executioner in the name of Christ as they demean other human beings have caused many people to turn away. "Judge not or you will be judged". "Vengence is Mine said the Lord".

    October 9, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  14. Frank

    That this group is largely made up of the so-called "Millenials" is no surprise to me at all. To me it's a form of intellectual laziness. Like everything else, they want stuff handed to them on a silver platter. In this case, it's "proof" that there is a God and they also don't want to get off their duffs and DO something (e.g. go to a church), so the easy way out (which is always THEIR way out) is to just toss it aside and say "I'm an atheist. End of problem. Go buy me some nachos".

    October 9, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • Amistavia

      What are you talking about? There is nothing more intellectually lazy than faith.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Troll patrol

      Now you are definitely trolling frank

      October 9, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      "Proof" that there is a god? And it's handed to them on a silver platter???? And just what proof would that be?
      A – the Bible
      B – trees and mountains and nature
      C – because atheists are idiots

      Or do you have something other than A, B, or C?

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

      You must be out of your mind, fool. Fideism is itself the most dangerous and intellectually dishonest practice on this planet. Believing that something is true even though you know its büllsh|t is idiotic.

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

      Intellectual laziness? You want to see intellectual laziness? Listen to a bunch of religious folks talk about science:
      "God did it! Anything else is a liberal conspiracy." Yeah, that's intellectual laziness. Or the way they approach political issues, boiling things down to laughably absurd talking points and voting for whoever their preacher said to vote for. Religious folks WALLOW in intellectual laziness. They accept whatever they're told about their gods and mythologies (Christianity is just abother mythology) without applying any sort of critical thought.

      And you call agnostics, atheists, and skeptics intellectually lazy? Yet another lie you tell yourself so you can sleep at night.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      " "I'm an atheist. End of problem. Go buy me some nachos""

      As opposed to "Im a christian. I would rather let child mo..le.....st....ers tell me what the truth is than seek it on my own"

      Talk about intellectually LAZY

      October 9, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • happyprimate

      A lot of baseless assumptions and assertions in your post. As an atheist who is 60 yrs old, I disagree with your assessment. While it is true that younger folks are coming out in droves due to better critical thinking skills being instilled in education and the availability of information being its highest ever in history, it is not just the young who are coming out of the religious closet. However arguments from ignorance are used quite often by the faithful.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • UncleBenny

      I think you would find (if you really cared to investigate) that most real atheists (as opposed to the indifferent, which is another large and growing segment of the population) have put a great deal more effort into their beliefs than most believers have. Atheism is often arrived at after a great deal of study, contemplation, and rational thought. Believers for the most part accept what is handed to them without question. Their knowledge of their own scriptures is often pathetically low.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  15. Graphite Jones

    this article make me "YEA!"

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

    religion is to blame for more death than anything else on earth!!!

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

      @mike – no, actually, infectious disease is to blame for more death than anything else in this world. Check your facts before you make a statement in public.

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

      Frank, wrong again, religion is the #1 cause of untimely death on our planet. Period. No possibility of argument.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • popseal

      Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot, Ghengis Khan, etc. were atheists like yourself. The Black Plague killed one third of Europe. Mike, your pop culture bitterness likes to believe things that it makes up in support its willful ignorance. It's not unlike the 'hope and change' thing that put George Soros' sock puppet in the White House.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  17. sid

    Leave it to the Media. Why worry about it.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:26 am |
  18. clarke

    this is of no big surprise. I am a Christian, I believe in God, I do not attend or am a member of a church. I have even read the Bible. It works for me.

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

      Amen Clarke. GO FOR IT.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • snowday99

      Thousands of years ago the Egyptians believed that a spider was their god. Thousands of years from now, people will say that this generation believed in a cross. Do you wanna believe in a cross?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  19. Dl

    I'd be more worried if my son said he's joined Scientology or Mormonism...

    October 9, 2012 at 7:26 am |
  20. topperG

    I would venture to say more people are becoming convinced that believing in God is like believing in Santa Claus. It's a place to escape to when you can't handle life. Personally I am a Karma kind of person. I just believe in doing the right things and being a good and helpful person. People don't want to except the fact that the bible was written by man, just a book, just a story. As time goes on science uncovers more and more truths about our past that discredit the bible (of course there are small serious holes already in it that have been overlooked for decades).

    October 9, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • charles

      that's exactly how I got around to not believing (the santa claus realization)! I realized that when I was little I believed in something completely untrue because that's all I was taught, and then I thought, isn't religion/god kinda the same thing (propoganda)?

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

      I disagree! Science, history and time demonstrate that the Word of God is true. The problem is that many reject the Word of God. Therefore making them to be fools like the Psalmist said, "the fool says in his heart there is no God"

      October 9, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • Mrs Time

      Bravo. Well said.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Mrs Time

      Just to clarify, that Bravo is for topperG. Carlos, science does not prove the word of "God".

      October 9, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • popseal

      Other than the popular opinions around you, exactly what moral plumb line do you have? Words like 'right and wrong' are value judgemnets of your own construction. I might believe for example that it's 'right' for your wife to seduce me. Or I might live by P.T. Barnum's principle, "There's a sucker born every minute!". Why is it wrong to steal if God has not said "Thou shall not steal"? When I accepted Christ as Savior, He regenerated my life into something of sobriety and ministry to the weak. What atheist ever started a rescue mission, hospital, or orphanage where it didn't lead to his own pride or aggrandizement.(like Hollywood types singing for the children of the world)?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      "history and time demonstrate that the Word of God is true"

      Actually if you looked at the history of the bible and Christianity, you would see that it is far from the truth. The bible was written by many human beings over a very long period of time to control populations. Then other men came along and edited the book to fit their agenda of money, power and to convert pagans to christianity. Research.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:42 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.