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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. Edward C.

    All I want for Christmas is Freedom FROM Religion!!!!

    October 9, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  2. reality

    First of all, religion is man made. The word "religion" only appears in the bible about 4 times. It seems that Jesus wasn't a fan of the word or its meaning. Religion is a scratch on the surface of Salvation. You band wagon folks may want to study something before you discount it. If you are looking for man as an example with their "religion", you are making a terrible mistake.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  3. Douglas

    It was only a matter of time before we began to emerge from the dark ages. The whole God concept and it's inherent lack of plausibility will one day be looked upon as the flat-earth concept is today.

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

      I truly hope you are kidding. Anyone with an ounce of love in their heart knows that the gospel is real and will be around when we are gone from this earth.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ reality – your name – i do not think it means what you think it means

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

    I was raised without religion and as an atheist I can confidently tell you that religion is one of the most poisonous relics of our history that is tainting the world today.

    I treat other people the way I expect to be treated. When you don't corner yourself into a group, it's a lot easier to refrain from judging or condemning the actions of others.

    A world without religion would be far more peaceful and honest.

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

      why do i get the feeling that you spend a lot of time alone and down deep you are very selfish.

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

      Why do I get the feeling you are an idi-ot? :)

      October 9, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • noel

      "peaceful & honest" is not a reality in this world, with or without religion. Your looking for boogeymen & only fooling yourself :)

      October 9, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  5. WU

    Thank God ! :) its never too late to wake up and reject authority (which is always corrupt by its very nature) and embrace the truth (direct experience and natural law). We were much, much better off when we worshipped the Sun.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  6. Patrick

    "You can defend your specialness, but never will you hear the Voice for God beside it. They speak a different language and they fall on different ears. To every special one a different message, and one with different meaning, is the truth. Yet how can truth be different to each one? The special messages the special hear convince them they are different and apart; each in his special sins and "safe" from love, which does not see his specialness at all. Christ's vision is their "enemy," for it sees not what they would look upon, and it would show them that the specialness they think they see is an illusion.
    What would they see instead? The shining radiance of the Son of God, so like his Father that the memory of Him springs instantly to mind. And with this memory, the Son remembers his own creations, as like to him as he is to his Father. And all the world he made, and all his specialness, and all the sins he held in its defense against himself, will vanish as his mind accepts the truth about himself, as it returns to take their place. This is the only "cost" of truth: You will no longer see what never was, nor hear what makes no sound. Is it a sacrifice to give up nothing, and to receive the Love of God forever?
    You who have chained your savior to your specialness, and given it his place, remember this: He has not lost the power to forgive you all the sins you think you placed between him and the function of salvation given him for you." – A Course in Miracles

    October 9, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      Put a sock in it. Preaching to non-believers is whistling in the wind.

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

      You ever notice Jesus people run their mouth a lot, but really say nothing? You have once again proven this theory.

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

    Now, they feel a lot more comfortable just saying, ‘You know, I am really nothing.’ ”

    Nice how they dump this line in there, its actually wrong and an insult.
    I dont need your "god" to be something.

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

    @ true ass hole be told"
    "President George H W Bush said an atheist is not a patriot and should not be a citizen of America. We are one nation under God.
    October 9, 2012 at 5:03 am"

    we've been through this one before.
    i served from 2002 to 2009 in the UNITED STATES ARMY.
    went into iraq in 2004 in support of OIF3 stationed in mosul.
    had multiple times where the enemy attempted to kill me, and my fellow soldiers not once did i cry out to your invisible dead beat sky daddy.
    I SERVED PROUDLY AS AN ATHEIST IN THE UNITED STATES ARMY..................
    WHERE WERE YOU TRUTH?

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

      Thank you for your service. Thank you also for being a clear thinking individual. Should you have chosen to be a soldier for Jesus, you'd be just as bad as the clowns you are trying to kill.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  9. *The Wrath of Horvath

    Is THIS the hell that ye deny?
    Enter therein a chastisement most grievous ..
    -Holy Koran-

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

      Islam is a moon god cult. You worship the god "Sin". The same god that Muhammad worshiped.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  10. or

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1lFYO5zE-c&w=640&h=390]

    October 9, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  11. WORLD CITIZEN

    THE WORLD ORDER HAS CHANGED, THIS IS THE BEGINING

    October 9, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  12. LAIBACH

    It's about time huge swaths of Americans are finally becoming intelligent, rational, and logical. They are realists.

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

      Mitt Romney was raised to believe that AFrican -Americans bore the "mark of Cain". The Mormon Church, in the ld old days before 1978, forbid blacks from becoming priest.

      I hope with all the hand shaking at the debates that the mark of Cain does not rub off on Mitt

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

    Smart Atheists will be leaving in DROVES once the head Mormon in charge steals this election.

    South Pacific, here I come.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  14. JustMe

    It's about the Relationship with Christ.....it's not about religion. I believe you don't have to attend a church to be a Christian; however if you are involved with a group of Christians, it makes it easier to understand and you have people to keep you "in the word".

    October 9, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • Tex Bravery

      That is a religion.

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

      It is a myth that one can be Christian without church. Jesus founded the church, his bride. The church is mentioned many times in the New Testament and is important to Christian life. Christians are supposed to come together to support one another and their communities. Please don't fall for this atheist
      IC myth.

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

      When the disciples asked Jesus which commandment was the most important, He did not say anything about going to church. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. This commandment is found in the Jewish Bible in the Book of Leviticus. Google the Love Commandment. There are about 21 different faiths that teach, Love your neighbor as yourself.

      If you can try to love your neighbor I really don't think it matters whether you clebrate the bunny on Easter or the murder of innocent children on Passover.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • Veritas

      Is having a relationship with Napoleon a religion then?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  15. Particleman

    CNN needs to be renamed ANN, Atheist News Network. Their Belief Blog is haunted by Atheists and their stories are aimed at undermining or liberalizing religion. No Belief here in the Belief Blog. No point for the religious to even read. Next Atheists will be torturing People of religion, especially Christians. What has happened to my country? Liberals have turned it into a wasteland.

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

      YOUR COUNTRY? Its our country too. You POS.

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

      What has happened to my country?

      Its NOT "your" country.
      It belongs to all of us.
      Dont like it ?
      Leave.

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

      People who use vulgarities like you are the waste I'm referring to. The country I grew up in was one in which Christians were both Democrat and Republican, many more Democrat. However, the current liberal foundations make it impossible for Christians to be a part of it. Christ used to be in our schools and businesses and government. Liberals are ruining this country.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • Particleman

      Hammer, I'd much prefer it if you'd leave my country. It is the policies you follow that have changed it for the worse.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • reality

      they just want someone to acknowledge them. and argue with them. its their "atheist" nature.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • tmhale13

      Last I checked, the torturing of people that believe differently than you has been a very "religous" practice. Aetheists honestly don't care what believers believe. We are not interested in converting them. We have not been mandated to convert them by some ancient text. We simply exist. And in mine and many others cases, we live our life based on common sense. We treat others as we prefer to be treated. We do not do this because it was imposed on us by religion. We do it because it is the right thing. Organized religion has done many goo things in this world. Unfortunately, it has also ben the basis for far too many atrocities. More blood has been spilled in the name of God (or Allah, or any number of supreme beings) than for any other cause.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  16. Reality

    And globally, we have:

    http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html

    Religion………………………… Adherents

    Christianity ……………………..2.1 billion

    Islam…………………………… 1.5 billion

    Irreligious/agnostic/atheism…… 1.1 billion – here we come!!!

    Hinduism 900 million
    Chinese traditional religion 394 million
    Buddhism 376 million
    Animist religions 300 million
    African traditional/diasporic religions 100 million
    Sikhism 23 million
    Juche 19 million
    Spiritism 15 million

    Judaism…………………………………….. 14 million

    Baha'i 7 million
    Jainism 4.2 million
    Shinto 4 million
    Cao Dai 4 million
    Zoroastrianism 2.6 million
    Tenrikyo 2 million
    Neo-Paganism 1 million
    Unitarian Universalism 800,000
    Rastafari Movement 600,000

    October 9, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  17. Malibu123

    Ah, the Godless hoard: shiftless, self-absorbed, and utterly lost. And liberals are celebrating the news.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Tex Bravery

      It's funny you would say 'shiftless' – one thing CNN has politely refused to mention is that the non-religious are more likely to be employed, probably because of their higher level of average education.

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

      And liberals are celebrating the news.

      Yes we are !
      Lost ?
      Nope, i know right where i am.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • Veritas

      There is an inverse relationship between the level of education and the level of religiosity as numerous studies have shown.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  18. Alan

    Calling people without belief in unsubstantiated claims religious, is an oxymoron of the highest degree. Next they'll be telling us the largest group of Philly cheese Steak lovers are vegetarians.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  19. mark stello

    I pray for a return to God. I pray for those in need of God. Our country was founded One Nation Under God. Drifting away from God has resulted in ethical and moral decay.

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

      YOure an id i ot.

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

      is true!

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

      Why would you pray for something that contradicts your bible? Doesn't the world need to fall into moral decay and face many trials and tribulations before the second coming? Are you working against Gods plan? I was under the impression that most religious people were looking forward to Jesus coming to save them from the evils of the world and take them away. Wishing for the world to turn to God and be healed goes against the religious teachings of Christianity and Islam????

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

      @mark: "one nation under god" the truth.
      1) "The Pledge has been modified four times since its composition, with the most recent change adding the words "under God" in 1954."
      1a) "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
      1892 to 1923
      "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
      1923 to 1924
      "I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all."
      1924 to 1954
      "I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all."
      1954 to Present
      "I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

      this country was NEVER FOUNDED FOR GOD, BUT FOR ALL MANKIND.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Bayou Billy

      Our country was NOT founded under any principles of religion, and frankly it's time you read a book other than the bible and discovered that you've been lied to in that regard.

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

      Our nation was founded "one nation, indivisible."

      We didn't become "one nation, under god" until 1954.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Hammerdown

      Our country was founded One Nation Under God....

      WRONG.
      That was added in 1954 after the McCarthy Communist trials.
      Nice try.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • Veritas

      Too bad you are such an ignorant and gullible fool. I feel sorry for you.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • FSM - Ramen

      The Pledge of Allegiance of the United States is an expression of loyalty to the federal flag and the republic of the United States of America, originally composed by Francis Bellamy in 1892 and formally adopted by Congress as the pledge in 1942.[1] The Pledge has been modified four times since its composition, with the most recent change adding the words "under God" in 1954.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  20. itsme

    I am not affiliated with any specific religion but I sure as hell am not an atheist. The group who call themselves atheists is really quite small.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      Prove it. And so what. 99 % of the world once thought it was flat. They were all wrong.

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

      Americans have been indoctrinated to think that Atheism is a bad word. It is only the definition of someone who does not believe in god, nothing more and nothing less.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:14 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.