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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. TiredODaCrap

    I'm sorry, but when did "unaffiliated" and "atheist" ever mean the same thing? When did atheism become a "religion"? If it has become a religion unto itself, that basically spits in the face of what an atheist truly stands for, doesn't it?
    The great thing about the God i serve is that he does give each and every person a choice. You make your's and I'll make mine. I'll keep talking about mine, because I know you'll keep yelling about your's. In the end, enjoy your life and your choice. I know I will.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Tbay

      2nd definition of religion is "Details of belief as taught or discussed". And with the atheists pushing as hard as they are, they are becoming quite the aggressive religion. Not only are they discussing and teaching, they are now preaching as the signs in those pictures show.
      Atheists Witnesses lol

      October 9, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  2. tony

    People have a right to their beliefs but I believe in the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob. some of these people are right religion is not going to take us to heaven it will ultimately come down to your relationship with God and who you are as a person. Nothing is wrong with going to church and praise the Almighty in a group with one voice, but it is what you do after you leave church. you see church is like a place of worship/gaining knowledge, are you going to touch someone's life with the knowledge or look down or be judgemental of people who do not attend church or have a different belief. ladies and gentlemen and love goes out to you all have a bless day.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  3. JustPlainJoe

    Be nice. Don't hit. Share your food.
    Kindergarten 101. Religion not necessary.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • TiredODaCrap

      Who's definition of "nice"? What about kicking, or pushing? How much do I actually need to share?
      Not everything I need to know for life did I learn in Kindergarten.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  4. Randal

    Jesus Christ asked his followers to take care of Poor and Disabled and shun the Priestly Class.
    Now the followers and there leaders call them Moochers. Some make money out of them too. Predatory lending is one way they exploit them further.

    In sharp contrast an Atheist have no problems helping the poor and do not give there hard earned money to the Priestly Class.

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

      Interesting that you rely on those who use the 'name of religion' to further their own cause as your definition of what a religious person is.......If I chose to define atheists solely by the most hateful and hurtful, they'd look like a pretty bad group themselves, wouldn't they?
      Not every person who says, "I believe in God", truly believes. Just as many young who think it cool to belong to the newest group (athiests) honestly believe there is no God. I mean, you do realize that many people choose how they live their lives based solely on what others thing, right?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  5. Andrew

    Newflash: If you don't believe in God, you are an atheist. Atheism is not a religion nor a cult. Atheists are a group of people in search of truth.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • a dose of reality

      I completely agree except I might exchange the word 'truth' for 'facts' or 'knowledge'. Religions claim truth. Truth is relative to the believer. peace

      October 9, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  6. Vincent

    Ending religious tax exemption ... i wonder how much in tax revenue that would raise?
    "Religious" groups have been meddling in politics for a long time now. Its time to end their advantage. Tax them the same as any other business.

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

      What would Mitt Romney do? Virtually all of his so-called "charitable" giving is to the Moron Church.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  7. nodieties

    Hope springs eternal.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  8. epluribus

    Hey son no more money. You are off the will!

    October 9, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  9. jeff

    Yay! CNN. Owned and operated by a known Communist, that pushes for a godless society. Who supports a 1 child policy, while having 5 children with 2 seperate women and the largest private land owner (1.75 million acres) used as a preservation for bison. If this is an example of the company athiests keep, I'll be sticking with god.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • Kerry

      God who...if you're a Christian...impregnated a married woman to give birth to his son.

      Does it being immaculate make it any less of an obvious sin?

      That one always makes me laugh.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • Matt

      Love it!

      October 9, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • patrick harris

      “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that's getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time moves on.”
      ― Neil deGrasse Tyson

      October 9, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • TiredODaCrap

      Kerry – What part of being "promised" for marriage is actually being married? The act of adultery is the sin, not the product of it.

      Besides, if it's all just a fake story, why are you using it to try to make a point. Not heard of someone using something that they don't believe in as the basis of their argument...

      October 9, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • sam stone

      jeff: where do you get the idea that ted turner is a communist? seems like a capitalist to me. or, is this "knowledge" of turner being a communist of the same credibility as the "knowledge" of jesus being a savior?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • sam stone

      "In 2008, Turner explained he not only regretted these statements but said he had made peace with organized religion and had joined with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and the United Methodist Church to fight malaria.[18] In a 2008 MSNBC interview, Turner stated that he no longer considers himself atheist or agnostic, and prays for sick friends, but keeps it short because "I don't want to load up the wires."[19] – wikipedia

      watcha got to say about that, jeff?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  10. malik

    It's fine to be anti-religious and not to believe in any prophet, but it's total ignorance and arrogance not to believe in God. If your mind can entertain the concept that the universe created itself from nothing, then your mind should also entertain the belief that the universe has a creator.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      " but it's total ignorance and arrogance not to believe in God."

      Its total ignorance and arrogance to believe anyone has the answer. We dont know and we wont know. That is the truth.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Andrew

      I've entertained that. Unfortunately there is no proof for a God. What you are describing is deism.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Ed

      Arrogance doens't derive from denying something for which there is no proof, it derives from asserting an absolute even when there is no proof.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • TiredODaCrap

      there is no proof that there is other life in the universe...none. But every scientist who can get in front of a microphone will tell you that there has to be, so there is.......

      How is holding to something you can't prove is real, while others doing something similar is not anything but ignorant?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  11. dave

    Famous atheists Joseph Stalin Mao Tse tung

    October 9, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Stalin learned the discouse of dogmatic persuasion during his 5 years at a Russian orthodox seminary. Historians have noted his speaking and writing styles ape those of the Church in being 'declamatory and repet.itive, with liturgical overtones”.
      While they both sought to eliminate traditional religions from their kingdoms, they did so in order to divert the common man’s fervour to their own cults of personality.
      these leaders wielded their people’s predilection for faith like a weapon. Atheism is not the prime cause for these tragic regimes – the misdirection of faith is.
      Like religion, they demanded blind obedience and obsequious submission from their followers. They tolerated no free-thinkers and enforced dogmatism.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • Ed

      Even if true, it's meaningless. Show me any group of people and there will be a few bad apples. Christians have had many nefarious and malicious figures of their own.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  12. Bob

    Funny how the guy's name is Pew as a Pew in Church 5th paragraph.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  13. Badly-Bent

    So, there are others that think like me. I guess at 62, I can come out of the closet now.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:09 am |
  14. 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 8:08 am |
    • ViK100

      Without a cross and suffering there is no salvation.

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

      Jesus also stated quite specifically that if you don't hate your mother, father, siblings and others, you cannot be hid disciple.

      The Bible also said that people should pray in secret, rather than out in the open where his 'belief' looks vain.

      I'm glad nonaffiliated/nonreligious populations are on the rise. Maybe sometime in the next 20 years, the US will stop being the laughing-stock of the modern world.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • sam stone

      ViK: Free people do not need salvation. Only slaves do.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  15. mre2

    Given all the pain and suffering that, over the course of human history, has been inflicted by various groups on other people in the name of a religion, the disdain of religion shouldn't surprised anyone.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • noel

      I'm not religous, however this is an ignorant statement. Religous people have done some good things, but people always focus on the negative. No more religion does not equate to world peace!!

      October 9, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  16. Linden Atrocity

    I am a non-theist. I am not a criminal. I know humility, and empathy.

    I hope the leaders of this country start to recognize all citizens. Not just the religious, not just the rich and successful, but every living soul that lives in this great country.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • ^^^Knowledge is Power^^^

      Despite what organized religions would like us to believe, humility and empathy are human traits that have existed long before the creation of religion. If religion ruled the land, people would kill each other then go to confession for forgiveness. This is why rule of law and good parenting are still more important for maintaining a civil society.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  17. ViK100

    Jesus was hated too by many of his own people.. He was hated and was crucified for speaking the truth!!..The truth that the pagans/atheists cannot tolerate. Amerca's god is greed and money. That's all. Money won't save them from anything.

    Corinthians 6:8-10
    Through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.

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

      Yes, because the "Christians" in the US are so moral.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  18. EVN

    Really separate the state from the church and end tax exemptions, except for truly charitable work, and you'll see the ranks of organized religion drop even faster and the tax coffers swell. The kool-aide isn't selling like it used to.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • ViK100

      I hope "your" money, "your" tax dollars fit in your coffin when you die and you can enjoy them wherever you're going.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:09 am |
  19. Chef Sun

    Religion is the most dangerous and destructive force invented by man.

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

    I am CERTAIN that a god has not revealed himself/herself/itself to me.

    I am CERTAIN that if a god who revealed himself/herself/itself to others wanted anything from me, he/she/it could easily reveal himself/herself/itself to me directly.

    Since that hasn't happened, I am CERTAIN that I must proceed as if a god doesn't exist.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      And any honest psychologist would agree with you.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:10 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.