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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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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. Female

    Well when people see all the many many years of heart ache and damage to the world has been done just from religious fights, it sort-of turns one off. Then of course there is science and the human mind. :D

    October 9, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • thewiz71

      Which brought us the atomic bomb and global climate change. Besides, atheists have no monopoly on reason, or on love for free scientific inquiry. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, lay some of the foundations for Western thought and reasoning, and are some of the most well known intellectuals of history. In terms of science, the field of genetics, which goes hand in hand with evolution, was pioneered by a Roman Catholic priest. There have been plenty of atrocities and abuses by atheists for the cause of atheism (Stalin, Mao who specifically targeted adherents of organized religion for eradication, resulting in more deaths than the Crusades or any Inquisition – Mao being responsible for 80 million deaths of his own citizens – in peacetime). So cut it out with the easy, and thoughtless generalizations.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  2. Stephen

    Hurray for godless democrats, America has a future after all.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  3. jonat

    Explains the rise of liberalism

    October 9, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  4. Bones466

    I think why these numbers are growing so rapidly is due to the fact that people are being more honest about their religious affiliations. How many people have heard the term non-practicing Catholic? Or a non-practicing Baptist? The entire non-practicing bit was because people in the past felt as though they would be stigmatized if they were not affiliated with some organized religion in some way. But I think that fear of being considered an outcast because you don’t believe in a religion has been removed and people realized they’re not non-practicing Catholics, they just not Catholic and in turn have no religious affiliation and this is okay.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  5. Eric R Palmer

    "No Religion" is not a religion!

    October 9, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • Bible Clown©

      ""No Religion" is not a religion!" Thank you for understanding that.

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

      Actually, belief in evolution IS a religion which requires more faith than most other religions, because it is all based on nonsense hypotheses and unprovable theories. So feel free to claim there are more atheists than ever before, but don't say they have no religion. Their religion is false science.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ Noo – unlike the "real" science in the Bible, right? rib women, talking snakes, 2 of each animal on a giant boat, earth 6000 years old, rabbits chew their cud, etc, etc etc. Great science, that!

      October 9, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  6. lesmoore

    Wanna wipe out the deficit? Tax Religion!

    October 9, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • Raoul Duke, Jr.

      Can a get a AMEN!

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

      Heck yeah. We'll pay off the national debt in 2 years with property taxes from churches, mosques, and the like.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Dr Gonzo

      Works for me. Make them pay land tax on those graveyards. Maybe they will leave us alone if we give them real problems to fight.

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

      Some of those ministers that want to preach politics from the pulpit may have to pay taxes once they loose their tax exception for becoming a political forum..

      October 9, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  7. Totoro0101

    I cannot seem to find a good fit in my new area, they seem to fall into four categories: filled with nice normal people in their 80's and 90's; comprising of smug upper-middle-class people who worship money; bearing an uncomfortable resemblence to Jonestown due to leadership that lacks discernment; making up their own rules to counter the Jonestown set only to be labeled weirdos along with them. I am a nice person who doesn't do bad things, so why do I feel as though I "simply won't do" or that I'm "not allowed" when I cross the threshhold into most of these places?

    October 9, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • NooYawkah

      Uh, because you're nuts?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • Totoro0101

      Not a problem at my college or philosophy club

      October 9, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  8. nomnom

    The worst part is some religous leaders are toxic. They tell you that women have to obey husbands, that gays are going to H-. Back in the day they even used to say that God required black people to be slaves. These types of people use religion as a weapon and if God really did exist they'd be the first ones to go to H-.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  9. miguel

    Well if the christians are wrong, the worst thing that will happen is mortality. If the atheists are wrong the worst is hell.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Pascal's wager, dumbazz

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

      That's not true. There are many of you who are destructive and use religion as a weapon against others. If it's all real you'll be the first ones in H-.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Dr Gonzo

      If it's true, so what? Not one single human being on this planet actually believes it. Watch their eyes and you can see; they all use it to gain advantage over others.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  10. GonzoinHouston

    "A Humanist is someone who believes in doing the right thing without fear of eternal punishment nor promise of eternal reward"
    – Kurt Vonnegut

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

      Man was sent to earth as sort of a prison for our rebellion & mutiny. For all intents & purposes we should have all been put to death. Instead God sent us here (Earth) which is a pretty darn good prison I must say. I could care less about eternal punishment or a reward, these are man made concepts. I however do care about showing respect to the Lord. Whom by the way has done more for each individual including yourself, than any man since the beginning of our time. In the end all of us will fall to our knees & be completely ashamed for our selfishness. We will realize how much he loves us regardless. Man is not capable of understanding this type of compassion & unconditional love.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  11. Free Man in the Republic of Texas

    He who believes in the Son has eternal life;
    but
    he who does not obey the Son will not see life,
    but
    the wrath of God abides on him.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • Tex Bravery

      As long as you leave me alone, you can believe whatever you want.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      Judge not, lest ye be judged.
      No one shall come to me, unless the Father draw him.
      Many are called, but few are chosen.

      You are no Christian.

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

      What are you – 5 years old?? Oooh, the boogie man is hiding under the bed and he's gonna get you unless you eat your veggies! How staggeringly immature

      October 9, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      Do YOU have a "choice" about whether there is a pink unicorn in your living room ?
      Fallacy of the False Analogy.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • DC

      Skydaddy is coming to get me. I'm shivering in my boots.

      /sarcasm

      October 9, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • Jebus saves

      If you're nice Santa will bring thee presents on Christmas eve. If yee is naughty a lump of coal for thee!

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

      That Republic of Texas crap gives us a clue to your mental state, which is not correct.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  12. Katie

    It's downright embarrassing to be a Christian these days, especially when religion is used to justify all manner of abusive, oppressive, and discriminatory acts. The extremists have co-opted the Catholic and Protestant religions in a very vocal manner, and are more than willing to use their faith as a weapon against tolerance, against equality, and against common sense. They would dictate to others what is "right", they would claim to have inside knowledge on what God wants, and they will twist the Bible and even lie to get their way. Why WOULD sane people want to be affiliated with that?

    October 9, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      It's downright embarrassing to be a Christian because such belief is the sign of a delusional mind

      October 9, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • Melanie

      Well put – I agree with you 100% !!!!!!!!!!!!

      October 9, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • Jebus saves

      Amen Katie. I was raised to be Christian but it was abusive Christians that started to make me question whether it was real in the first place.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  13. Meh

    Different name, same basic thing. Still a bunch of idiots trying to push their beliefs down your throat (obviously not all people in the group are like that but the ones who are are always the loudest anyways).

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

      You mean people like you, right?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  14. Joe

    The choice not to believe is a BELIEF as well. Their religion is no belief in a higher spiirt of any any kind. If Atheists are organizing to to get their belief to NOT believe message accross then that is an organiized NON belief. I would love courts to keep in mind next time someone fights to say remove a cross or plaque of the ten commandments from a building. I do not currently practice any religion myself; but I do beleive, and I always it ironic how many orgaized atheists groups fight the idea of religious beliefs being imposed on them but no problem fighting to impose thier Non-Belief onto others.

    The seperation of church and state was not meant to, nor does it prohibit, say a display of the Ten Commandments and such in one of our halls of justice. At the core of that is that no religious belief will be foreced onto the people, and that should include the beleif of atheists to not believe. A holiday display... is not the forcing of one to follow a religion of any kind. The founding fathers put that in there because of generations of being forced to follow the belief of a king, and persecuted otherwise. Our system of law should recognize atheism as yet another system of beleif, one that does not beleive in anything. As for many displays in our public buildings that are under attack. They have as much if not more historical and architectural significance than religious too, and are a part of the history of our country.

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

      Simply put: no. The courts correctly recognize that a lack of belief is not the same as a religion. You don't follow the organized religion of Non-Zeusism, do you? Yet you don't believe in Zeus.

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

      Joe, you must be a believer because you're not making any sense.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      False premises.
      Non-belief is not a choice.
      Absence of belief, is not belief in absence.
      Tell your Bible college you want your money back, and go take a class on critical thinking.

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

      You misunderstand. Failing to believe is no choice. Many of us were simply raised without religion. If it's not taught early, it often doesn't take hold. First time I heard the story of Jesus, it just didn't make sense to me. So there's a God (whom I've never met, seen, or heard) and he sends his son to earth to save us. And, it wasn't like if all of mankind was nice & helpful to his son (who himself might be one of those people who is difficult to be nice to), we'd be saved. If we killed his nice son, we'd be saved. And why would he care what we thought about this? It just didn't make sense but I didn't CHOOSE not to believe if anymore than I CHOOSE to believe that Sandusky is innocent.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • phil

      The fist ammanedment was designed to very specifically disallow a display of the commandments. That's why its called the "establishment clause". In other words, the gov't isn't to establish a state religion-like the church of england that they were fleeing. When you put the commandments up in a government building, while not putting up something to represent ALL other faiths, you are very specifically saying the US government supports christianity and not other religions. Thusly establishing a state religion. So since it would be very difficult and costly to put up something representing every religion, wouldn't it make more sense to just leave courthouses to be courthouses and leave the nativity scenes to churchyards?

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

      I am a physicist and history buff. Though many religions came and replaced prior ones, like Christians dismantling pagan temples…, I am still so glad that we still have some ancient buildings intact and the way they were under those prior religions. Religion is a cultural and historical part of history as well. I am glad some ancient structures still stand in a pre-conversion sense. That there are still statues of the Olympic Gods… Gee today you don’t hear people up in arms about something like that standing in a public forum as government forcing religion onto the people. I find it sad that people have nothing better to do that to fight to have something removed that is part of our history, both cultural and architectural. Something like the ten commandments displayed in a courthouse built at a time when faith was a big part of our history does nothing to force believe onto people today. Do you believe everything you read, if not then why is it a big deal. It’s the way the building was built and some of these places have great historical meaning. You wipe out more than just faith in a choice not to believe, you wipe out cultural history; a history that led to a freedom to choose. I do not practice in anything organized, but see the value in it very much so. Atheist lawsuits are just as much a waste of time as a prisoner suing cause not enough to eat. Items displayed on public building, be them a statue of Buddha or of Christ do not make me feel left out or that anything is imposed onto me. Get a life for those that think it does. Its as much about culture than anything else.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  15. spangler

    The earliest dieties were the Sun and Moon. They could be seen, they moved and changed and helped humans and the entire earth. Once ancient man determined they were not dieties, religion moved to the invisible kind.

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

      Today some indigeneous people worship the sun and the moon, but the reason is the sun and the moon position tell them when to plant a crop and when to harvest (Inkas, Mayan, etc..)

      October 9, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  16. revbates

    Sometimes the questions are not asked correctly in these polls. To not believe in religion or religious dogma does not necessarily mean people don't believe in God. And I don't mean the big guy in the sky God of religion but the God of Jesus, Buddha and Krishna who is closer to us than breathing.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  17. ViK100

    and then.. when catastrophe or calamity strikes... they're the first ones lighting up candles in the streets praying to a God they don't even know.. ONLY IN AMERICA!!

    October 9, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Bunsen Honeydew

      I doubt it.

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

      You are confusing grief and memorial with belief in God, and like far too many self-named Christians, you confuse religion with patriotism. When a catastrophe strikes and people come together in unity, it is not because they have turned to God. It is because they have turned to each other for consolation. If they light candles it is not to pray, but to remember. Those who become religious in hard times are those who can't help themselves – these are the same kind of people who sneer at the government for helping people and then stand with their hands out, waiting for that help when their own time of need has come around.

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

      Candles?? neah.... LEDs may be...

      October 9, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  18. Bob Rutre

    Listen first off. Atheism is not a religion ffs. We do not get together on Sundays and worship Charles Darwin. I mean seriously it is pathetic when you compare them. If atheism is a religion then so is capitalism, and Socialism! ffs then every belief system is a religion. Seriously get a life.

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

      If atheism is a religion, Off is a TV channel.

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

      Seriously, you're delusional.

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

      Atheism is a religion in the sense that one worships himself. Man makes himself a "god" if you will. He praises the accomplishments of his own hands and finds his "way" through science and logic. The atheist is very proud indeed.

      The most interesting thing I find about atheist is that they tend to model EXACTLY what the Bible says about a man who doesn't fear God (fear meaning both reverence and, well, fear; He is God after all). Even more interesting is that most athiest AND so called "christians", or Nicolaitans don't know much about the Bible and/or what they know has been perverted and/or taken out of context.

      All in all, it's kind of puzzling, the whole atheist thing. If man wrote the Bible, as in recorded things they saw, events, etc., just as a scientist records his/her findings, isn't a person making a choice as to whom he/she believes? Some may say "well you can do the experiment again". But most can't redo, or have the means to redo, the scientists work or much less do every last experiment one's self as proof just the same as a person can't go back in time and witness the events of the Bible.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  19. Mike

    If one wishes to deny the existence of God, that is certainly their right. I can only make one observation ..... If they're wrong (and I do believe they are), it will be Hell to pay.

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

      Yep. But for some reason, I'm not the least bit worried about that.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • thewiz71

      As a CHristian myself, I must ask you – who you are to presume on the state of anyone's soul? Instead of wishing perdition on people of no faith, you ought to be praying for their hearts and minds to be opened and transformed. Besides, Jesus Himself makes it very clear that, in the end, it does not matter so much whether or not one consciously professes faith, but rather, whether or not that one does the will of the Heavenly Father, by loving completely altruistically and charitably, and out of love, working for the good of others. I'm thinking of the parable of the sheep and goats, among others.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • Joe

      I thought the New Testament god was all-forgiving? So if I'm wrong, can't I just apologize and then gain entrance to the pearly gates?

      October 9, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • Kennedy

      Thank you, Mike, for showing us yet again why so many of us are atheist. No matter what, it always boils down to threats of hell.

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

      Hell to pay? How do you know? Did grandma came back and told you about it? See that is the problem.. You can't prove the existence of God other than someone told you so, primitive men believe thunder was a god, until they were proven wrong and found out thunder was only a atmospheric phenomenon..

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

      If there is a hell for those of who would condemn people to it for not agreeing with you, then you might consider there would be a place there for you who show such intolerance and who celebrate the punishment of other people for such an unremarkable thing as to not believe in your god.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • amigay

      Hell is just a contrivance by the 'church' to control the uneducated masses (and it was better for the church to keep them dumb and poor) through fear.
      Mike aren't you going to be surprised to find out that when you're dead there is no 'other?' When you're dead you're dead.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • The6thsense

      I am sure God wants for you and all of us to be good at heart and mean well to others. There is no need to follow old books written by people just like you and I. Not only there are plenty of different books for each religion, but a million interpretations of them....which one do you follow? which one is right?
      Just because one doesn't believe in God doesn't make one a bad or evil person

      October 9, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  20. Citizen

    Why do these posts always bash Christians or Jesus? There are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and a whole other bunch of "believers". Thus, I ask, are you really against the belief in a higher power – or just power brokering?

    October 9, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • ViK100

      Jesus was hated too.. for speaking the truth.. Without persecution, there is no cross, without the cross in your life there is no salvation.

      1 Peter 4:12-14
      Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.

      Hebrews 11:25-27
      Choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • Bobpitt

      At Vik100:

      Bla Bla Bla Bla... every single theocrat will quote a sacred book.. and it is all hog wash...no subtance just hear say..

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

      I bash only those Christians who clearly do not follow Jesus' teachings. Jesus loved ALL people and preached that the two most important commandments were to love God and to love each other. He preached tolerance and caring, forgiveness, and inclusion. He preached turning the other cheek. He preached acceptance. How many real Christians in this country really follow those tenets?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:04 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.