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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. Biggster

    I could do so much more, like sport activities, on a sunday, than running into a church and wasting my time sitting on my butt and listening to some boring stories. I started feeling that way with the age of 12 and now so so so many (lol) years later it hasn't changed. I guess it is not my fault.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • tiimetogrowup

      Sounds like you're stuck on 12 if all you got out of church is boring stories. Or maybe the church you chose (or your parents chose) sucked...

      October 9, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • Biggster

      It was the lutheran church. Maybe I should have went to a catholic church??? LOL. I really don't want to go to hell, what can I do to end up in heaven???

      October 9, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  2. dnick47

    Given the fact that more and more men of the cloth are more interested in money, fame and power – including political power – this is not a wonder. Once again the sheep are left without a shepherd.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Carl

      We are not "sheep", desert hobos with beards don't have magic powers, and snakes don't talk.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  3. Fence Sitter

    I think we can all understand that the existence of God cannot be proven or disproven, so each of us seeks their own comfortable place. Your conscience is your own best friend. Although there's no atheist in a foxhole, I sure am glad I looked into the matter for myself. I feel much better now.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      The "no atheist in a foxhole" saying is complete BS

      October 9, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Chris

      You're out of your mind if you believe that stvpid saying. Pat Tillman was an atheist in a fox hole...there's even a website for them.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • Carl

      "each of us seeks their own comfortable place"

      For some of us, that does NOT mean making up BS.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • falcon7453

      So Christians can get critisized for people "making up" stuff in a magical fairy book, but yet we have to be forced to beleive that a man in the 1800's determined that we came from monkeys by digging up bones and drawing a few pictures of birds. yeah, no thanks.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Fence Sitter

      Oh dear, uncomfortable people running up and down the fence...

      October 9, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  4. nomnom

    One of the jews I know said they're required to pay money in order to go to temple and that it's rather expensive. Religion is big business.

    I can't imagine why someone would tell you what you want to hear (you're going to heaven) in exchange for money.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • falcon7453

      You just generalized an entire religion. That was actually probably a break off of a jewish temple. Donations are always accepted ina church/temple whatever. I ahve yet to hear someone say "You wuill go to paradise for the price of 3 payments of 19.99!". Another person commenting on soemthing he has never experienced.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  5. Ellen Savelli

    It is so much easier to believe in nothing then to believe in something......this country just gets lazier and lazier!!!

    October 9, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      So, Ellen, you believe in the Easter Bunny and Santa? Or are you too lazy to believe in them?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • nomnom

      Santa rides allover the world in a sleigh on Christmas eve and delivers presents to everyone who's been nice. Believe. NOW.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Chris

      It's not about believing in nothing. Belief requires faith....faith is beielving without proof. Sorry, but I don't live my life by faith and you don't either. Only when it comes to the big question do you throw your logic out the window.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • Carl

      Ellen, there's a REASON why it takes so much work to believe these things, and it's not because sky wizards are a complicated concept. It's obvious nonsense, and people who are afraid of changing their mind about their childhood indoctrination will put their brains into overdrive to invent contorted fallacies to justify their beliefs.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • falcon7453

      Yes Carl, because we know you travelled the world, visited every island, then got on a spaceship and visited every galaxy to the ends of expanding space and came to that conclusion. We dont even know for 100% sure if water even existed on Mars. So unless we can open up the big book of everything and point to page "God doesnt exist", you can credit some things science, but there still things unexplained.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  6. LifeLongStudent

    This really is some of the best news I've heard in a long time. We are growing as a species and our understanding of the universe is showing it. We no longer believe that diseases are caused by witchcraft, we don't think that drough is the result of an angry diety, and we don't sacrafice animals to keep an invisible man happy. Hopefully we will soon, as a society, admit that the fairy tales of our human past are just that...fairy tales.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Malibu123

      As a life long student, try learning how to spell.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  7. Obamabus

    The godless identify with the left. There's a shocker.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      That's because they're not idiots, like those on the right. And believers.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • Obamabus

      Ah, yes. Then the expressions of hatred and name calling ensue. Right on cue. Great job.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Thank you. Dumbazz

      October 9, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • Carl

      No, 50-footer, it's because humans are imperfect mammals, and having managed to figure out the correct answer to one question they will latch onto whichever power structure offers the slightest pandering to it. People are hasty associaters, and will assume that any group which offers this appeal to one logical issue must have the logical answers to other issues.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  8. cobe

    ...so according to this survay, it means that there are still 10 belivers for only 2 nonbelivers !
    Beliving in God gives you at least 5 times better odds !

    October 9, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      5 times better odds of being a delusional t-wat

      October 9, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      No that just means 5x the people are r3tard3d and believe in something with zero proof that was obviously made by men.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  9. rla

    To not believe anything is a loss

    October 9, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  10. Dennis

    The gods of Kolob disapprove of this message.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  11. Luis Wu

    "Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence; it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines." – Bertrand Russell

    A man before his time.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  12. Jeremy

    This is fantastic news.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  13. Syd

    The sooner we can get away from believing in and fighting over invisible giants in the sky, the better chance we have of surviving as a species.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • falcon7453

      That worked real well for Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Alexander the Great etc. The Crusades may have happened Hundreds of years ago, but these happened recently under the atheists watch. Oh wait..they are still happening in China...go grab a peace flag and tell all the Atheists to band together in China, to stop the violence and live in harmony.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • falcon7453

      Disregard Alexander the great example

      October 9, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Oh, and disregard Hitler the Catholic. And Stalin who utilized the machinery of the Russian Orthodox Church

      October 9, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • Laer

      Will definitely get right on that, as soon as all you religious people rush to Uganda, Iran, Iraq, Northern Ireland, Norway and Peru to stop the killings there. What? Iran and Iraq aren't your type of fairy tale? Sorry, I get all the fairy tales mixed up these days.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_terrorism

      October 9, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      "but these happened recently under the atheists watch."

      Hitler was a christian. Stalin killed in the name of his political system, not his lack of religion. China is not an atheist country, Buddhism remains a main popular religion in China since its introduction in the 1st century. Get your facts straight before spouting off false statements.

      The KKK is a christian group filled with hate and bigotry, not unlike the church.

      There were also many christian leaders who turned their backs to these atrocities and only did something when it was too late. What do you say to those people?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Carl

      "Through your oath you bind yourselves to a man who — that is our faith — was sent to us by higher powers."

      ...Nazi leader Rudolf Hess in 1934, literally praising Hitler as God's gift to Germany.

      "Because he is the instrument of the will of a higher power."

      ...Hess 6 months later, once again affirming his belief that Hitler was a holy messenger in case you or anyone else forgot.

      "Gott mit uns"

      How about googling that one on your own?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • falcon7453

      I dont know what history book you read, but Hitler was not Catholic himself...his parents were. There are testimonilas from his inmates when he was arrested about his distaste for Christianity.Stalin,ahh yes...the only thing he had to do with the Russian Orthodox church was shooting the clergy and sending them to labor camps and is known in history as launching one of the largest anti-religious campaigns in history. He made anyone dance the way he wanted or he killed them. I think you need to retake that history class you failed during summer school.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • falcon7453

      Ill correct a typo, His inmates stated he had a distaste for christianity.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  14. christina knight

    This is not exactly a surprise. The same trend has already happened in Europe. America is just more backward than Europe, and it is just starting to catch up. Within 30 years the nonreligious will probably make up at least 50 % of the population in this country, and that can only be a good thing.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • ^Knowledge is Power^

      Future man will be mostly non-religious. People of 2012 will be looked at as fanatics worshiping religions that will be categorized with Greek Mythology.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • falcon7453

      And which "trend" are you referring to? have a source? Europe is still Majority christian, look up evry country in Europe and you will see 90%+ of the population being a Christian Denomination or Catholic.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • Carl

      falcon7453:

      That's because European countries have theocratic roots and label babies with the religion of their parents from birth.

      They also don't like to declare themselves to be "atheists", mostly due to religious propaganda.

      But if you ask them whether or not religion is important to them, and you start to get very high numbers of people who clearly don't believe in it:
      wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Europe

      October 9, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • falcon7453

      According to that article, the decline typically shows more in countries where Communist rule was present. But still looking at the section below that 52% beleive in God, 27% beleive in some sort of life force or spirit, and 18% didnt hold any beleifs (atheists)

      October 9, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  15. ^Knowledge is Power^

    "Mike wrote,

    Greed, Malice, Hate, Lust, and the will to indulge these traits has also been around since time began. Empathy, guilt and regret do NOT stop them or trump them. They don't even curb them in most cases.
    A good question was asked earlier...where are the aid/help organizations of the Atheists? Where are the food banks and soup kitchens of the Atheists?
    Believing that this is all that there is helps people justify doing nothing for others. It helps people feel better when they turn away from those in need. It helps people feel better when they do things they KNOW to be wrong."

    Mike,

    The last time I checked, Greed (Televangelism), Malice (Terrorism), Hate (Crusades), and Lust (Priests) haven't exactly disappeared thanks to religion.

    In fact, religious fanaticism is the modern plague.

    What holds society together is the rule of law and the fact that some of us were raised the right way. Crediting religion in place of good parenting is just a cop out.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • Farooq The Great

      The crusades were started to help pilgrims reach the holy land. MUSLIMS started the crusades.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • falcon7453

      Yup, rule of law. The people of Detroit REALLY care abiout the rule of law. I beleive the homicides grew by 11% and a travel advisory was issued, Someone got shot over an argument over kool-aid. This is beyond the chicago gang violence and the least of there worries is religion. Your rule of law only exists only exists in Utopia...oh wait..

      October 9, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • ^Knowledge is Power^

      Detroit's crime rate is simply unacceptable. Obviously, the correct model to follow is the one used by the religious "safe havens" in the Middle East.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • Tex Bravery

      There are plenty of secular charities and aid organizations. Atheists give to those, just like Christians. Your argument makes no sense.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • ^Knowledge is Power^

      Mike's argument is the one in quotations.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  16. religionisfake

    Religion most likely is not real. When I bring up to religous people the fact that there's no proof that their deity of choice exists they readily admit it and say it's something that can never be proven. Yet despite that, they believe their deity must be real. It's ridiculous that so many people are willing to believe something that there's no evidence for.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • myway

      Or against. Undoubtedly, religion has shaped our society. For over 1,000 years religion and churches dominated politics in Europe until the reformation began the process of separating chuch and politics. We're still in that process in most monotheistic regions throughout the world today, which also includes Islam. The pendulum could easily swing back in favor of religions and put the churches back in bed with politics. That's probably the most significant battle line in our cultural evolution today.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  17. Tom Baker

    "Pew found that those who are religiously unaffiliated are strikingly less religious than the public at large."
    youdontsay.jpg

    October 9, 2012 at 7:42 am |
  18. Flying Spaghetti Monster

    Are people actually gaining some common sense? By "God"...

    October 9, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  19. Matt

    I have a question for all the non-religious people. We as Christians are always asked to prove that there is a God. I would like for someone to prove to me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is NO God.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Luis Wu

      The burden of proof is on the people who make claims that the supernatural exists.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • Tom Baker

      You're asking us to prove a negative, which is a trap. Let me give an example: Prove to me that you're NOT thinking about polar bears right now.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • ja-coffalotte

      Uh, don't have to, none of your business, I can believe what I want, you go on and keep believing in your little fairy tale. Sorry Joseph, somebody tapped that.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • religionisfake

      Prove to me that we aren't being secretly controlled by aliens from the planet Xunacareboop. If you can't disprove any crazy half witted claim someone makes then it must be true.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      Take a Logic class.
      No one can prove a negative.
      Please make an appointment. I am busty today proving there is no 1957 Chevy orbiting Pluto.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      Please prove to me that there are no leprechauns, no tooth fairy, no easter bunny, no santa claus, no zombies, no gobllins, no monsters hiding under your bed.

      Then I will prove there is no god.

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

      This is why I'm an agnostic humanist :)

      I accept the possibility that anything can be out there, but don't live my life based on much that I can't really see for myself. Of course, my perception could be based on lies, too, but at least those lies are more tangible to me than simply saying "there is/isn't a God!"

      October 9, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Syd

      Prove YOU'RE not God. Prove we're not all just batteries in the Matrix. Prove a pink bunny in a tux didn't poop out the planets. Don't ask the rational to prove the insane that they're insane. It won't work .. they're INSANE.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • rr

      The basssssssssic tenant of Science is that you must prove an assertion for it to be true, You can't prove a negative, and those that say it's true just trust me, echo the same sentiments as Con Artists, Used Car salesmen, etc...

      October 9, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • Mike in Indy

      Kids often fear a monster under the bed, or in the closet, maybe the damp basement.. But one day, over time, these kids grow up and realize there is no such thing as hidden monsters, unicorns, magic, etc. When other kids try to tell them they are real, they don't have proof otherwise, so they try to explain but can't, so they just shrug their shoulders. Why try to explain simple logic learned from life experiences to them if you have moved past that stage of youth?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • Kevin

      Matt, if I may anticipate the typical answer from our atheist friends, they will say the burden of proof is on the believer. If someone asserts the existence of something, they have the burden to back it up. This is true.

      But notice, just like theism, atheism is a claim to know something. Atheism, in the most accepted definition, is the belief that there is no God. It falls under the heading of Naturalism, a view which makes truth claims about life and the universe. All views makes truth claims. All truth claims bear the burden of proof. Therefore, Naturalism shares the burden of proof with Theism.

      It comes down to this: of all the worldview options, which has the superior evidence and/or explains the most data of the universe? I say it's Theism, and I'm quite prepared to back up that belief.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • Chris

      You have to be a troll. Hey Matt!! I want you to prove to me that unicorns don't exist...I mean there wouldn't be pictures of them if they never existed. That you Matt...that's your thought process...and it's wrong. You are trying to answer the biggest question possible and you are selling yourself short.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • Bobby

      So what is your question matt? See how I asked a question? The question mark at the end of the sentence was a clue. You don't have any question marks.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • Laer

      Just as soon as you prove to me that Zeus, Odin, Shiva and Anubis don't exist either, since you don't believe in them for some reason. Thousands if not millions of people have believed in these deities over the course of human history, why don't you?

      We differ from you Xtians in that we believe in one less god than you do. That's it, really.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Up for a thought?

      Sorry Matt, prove to us there is not a floating celestial teapot around the sun first. Or rather, YOU must prove the non-existence of every other religions god. The lack of evidence for your god does not prove the existence of your god.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • F. Bacon

      If you define "God" you can show what it is or what it does. As long as it remains undefined it is not possible to even consider it...better to dismiss such a phoneme from mind. Trouble is, that if you limit it by definition, it is no longer omnipotent nor omnipresent, so does it even meet the parameters of the proposal?

      October 9, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  20. kenb

    religion is truly a waste of time.
    religion is for sheep.

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

      Religion is a business. They sell you a sense of purpose, belonging and a solution for the death problem and you give them your money.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • falcon7453

      Never once have I been denied entry to a church because I refused to give money. This isnt the mob running churches. Clearly you ahve never been in one. And no, I havent just been in one. ive been in multiple of various denominations.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:54 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.