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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. S.R.

    People are finally realizing that religions are created by other people that lived thousands of years ago. There is a creator but no human was ever visited by an angel, god or special spirit that gave them special instructions, books, tablets or insight. This is what all religions are based on. Cleverly written fairy tells by human beings.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • JJ

      You're almost there. Now you just need to drop the "there is a creator" statement for which you know there is no evidence.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • common sense

      you forgot A LOT of OPIUM and other Drugs!

      October 9, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  2. tonyh110

    I'm not religous in any way at all but respect the rights of those who are – atheists want to destroy those rights – equally the radical elements in a lot of religions want to destroy anyone who does not follow their ideology. Pretty much a rock and a hard place for both extremes and I have no time for either. Oh and atheists stop ruining Christmas for kids you morons!

    October 9, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      "Oh and atheists stop ruining Christmas for kids you morons!"

      Stating christmas is a pagan holiday ruins christmas for kids? who is the moron here?

      October 9, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • I Am God

      How are we ruining Christmas for kids? My family and children celebrate Christmas all the time. The only thing is that my children don't believe in Santa Claus.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  3. blogo

    If you believe the earth is flat (the equivalent of believing in illusory god), you are an idiot, and you need to be made fun of!

    October 9, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Rob-Texas

      Posting moronic hateful comments on an internet message board = believing the world is flat.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • BigTaters

      People like Hitchens and blogo are no different than religious fundamentalist. They hate others for they do or do not believe. They seem to think that TODAY, everyone must be as INTELLIGENT as them TODAY. They don't seem to understand that there grandparents lived in a racist world, doing racist things and had to change. They simply are hateful people who find this the most appealing way to express their dissatisfaction with life. MAKE NO MISTAKE – there is no difference between the Anti-Koran Pastor in FL and the people like Hitchens/blogo who spread there hate.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  4. fender

    how could anyone still be religious? you'd think religion would be almost gone by now. hopefully in the next century!

    October 9, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Amniculi

      You underestimate the power of human stupidity.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  5. I Am God

    I am an Atheist because religion has just broken off from its true source. Religions across the world have turned it into a political debate on who is suppossed to exist. They fight Islam and other religious groups all the time on who is truly "God." I have been an Atheist all my life, because my church never convinced me about the existence of God and they never showed proof of his existence except the Bible. The Bible was written by men hundreds of years ago, that most likely never had any relation or affiliation with a so-called "Jesus" or "God." I am a proud Atheist because I would rather believe in humanity and not something that is make believe to hold groups of people together to control power across the world. Example? The massacre of the Illuminati and other scientists due to the Church fearing them.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Luv U

      Um, apparently they didn't get theology across to you either. They weren't supposed to prove anything to you. They were supposed to teach you about the importance of faith that is on nearly every page of the Bible. Sounds like you just didn't listen or didn't want to believe because too many things went against what you wanted.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • doughnuts

      Faith is the crutch used by those with no evidence. Religions make grandiose claims, so they need equally impressive proof to back it up.

      "Faith" is the refuge of small minds.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  6. KP

    Reblogged this on Odd Atheist Out and commented:
    Perhaps I'm not such the odd atheist out after all...

    October 9, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  7. MTP

    I'm a religiously unaffiliated person. I'm not all that spiritual. I think god may exist in some way shape or form somewhere. I'm not sure though. That's where the whole "faith thing" comes into play.

    So which faith should I subscribe to? IMO, it should the the one that god wants me to be a part of. Well that narrows it down to... all of them. They all say that this is god's religion in on way or another. Sooo are they all right? Does god feel that all these are suitable? Or is there one in particular that god prefers? Or maybe multiple religions = multiple gods and that religions IS the one that particular god wants you to subscribe to.

    And that's just the part that I just cannot come to grips with. I haven't received a sign from god about any of this. Or maybe I have and missed it. I'm not in a particular hurry to find a religion. Joining one just for the sake of it seems to defeat the purpose. Until then I suppose I'm in the religion of no religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  8. JOHN

    "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." – and 20 million have a belief system that is not dependent upon organized religion.

    This tells you two things -1. Atheism & agnosticism are growing and attractive to a large portion of society.
    2. Organized religion doesn't meet the needs of an even larger portion of our society.

    I find 2. to be more telling and agreeable to me. Too long have organized religions dominated spirituality.

    Organized religion is not synonymous with faith. It is no more a requirement to belong to a church to be spiritual than it is to belong to the library to read.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  9. Joe

    So glad to see that people are wising up. And none too late, either. Religions are on the brink of destroying what would otherwise be a wonderful world.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  10. Sharon

    Great news!
    Religion is organized mental illness.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  11. Americans are waking up from the lies and fairy tales.

    It shouldn't be called Athiesm, it should be called common sense and reason.

    God was made up by man to explain away the scary unexplainable things which 2000 year old man could not possibly comprehend. And somehow, fools through the ages continued to believe because it involved family.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • MichalS

      Not really true. God was made up by political leaders who wanted to consolidate their nations by creating some ideology that could effectively bind people together in groups larger than single families/clans/tribes. The historical truth is that the birth of modern statehood owes a lot to religion.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Rob-Texas

      The ancients were not stupid. We think we are so enlightened today, but we don't even know of all the technology ancient humans had or understood. Mankind's biggist weakness is that we can't seem to pass on knowledge very well. Even over one life time, much less thousands of years. So you can go on thinking that all ancient humans were stupid and had to make up explinations for what they encountered. Many times over, what knowledge has been gained has been lost.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  12. BDMorgan

    If the people are starting to lose faith, then it would be a good time for an inquisition. After all if a person doesn't believe in the religion you subcribe to...... Force it on them.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  13. fly on wall

    I just like how all the athiest say "I DONT NEED RELIGION TO BE A GOOD PERSON' while they belittle others and make fun of others beliefs...

    October 9, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Ned

      Exactly and they think we are the hypocrites.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Really?

      Hm. So in order for someone to be "good" they need to be sure your tender feelings are not hurt?

      October 9, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • therealpeace2all

      @fly on wall

      " I just like how all the athiest say "I DONT NEED RELIGION TO BE A GOOD PERSON' while they belittle others and make fun of others beliefs..."

      Making fun of a Theist's beliefs doesn't = nor mean that they are not a "good person."

      That would be a sweeping over-generalization.

      Peace...

      October 9, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • blogo

      If you believe the earth is flat (the equivalent of believing in illusory god), you are an idiot.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Joe

      I am an atheist who grew up Christian. All I ever heard my entire Christian life was how bad every non-Christian was. Looking back, it would even have amounted to hate speech....and thus a hate group. So, you can take your criticism of our criticism somewhere else. Because I know the truth.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • fintastic

      It's hard not to laugh at a religion that believes in talking snakes.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • bob

      I like how religious people try to make you believe the earth is flat, 6 million animals could be on a wooden boat and there is no evolution contrary to the findings of people who work for real answers, how lighting candles and singing kum bah ya causes magical things to happen and we are descendants of inbreeding. You deserve any remarks made about you trust me !!

      October 9, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      fly on wall: Yet if a christian comes back and says they'll pray for you to find the truth/god before it's too late, that's okay? Sounds more like christians are the hypocrites, especially given that they have NOTHING outside of their book to back up what they believe. Don't use the threat of hell or dictate how ANYONE should live their lives (ie; Homosexuals, women using birth control, what people do in the privacy of their own homes) and all will be good.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • LivinginVA

      There are hypocrites on both sides. Most atheists I know don't belittle those with faith, and most people of faith don't harass those without.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • fly on wall

      I'm not saying i'm a christain, but being a good person is a matter of opinion to that persons beliefs, so if i was an athiest and thought 'i dont kill people' therefore i am a good person. Making it hard to call athiest hipocytes because no one really knows what they believe, but for chirstains what they belive to be a good person is defined to the world so its very easy for athiest to call them out as soon as they slip up.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Rob-Texas

      Really?- No being civil would be nice.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • common sense

      Sure, as if religion never judged anyone or make fun of other religions or even killed anyone from other religions. At least Atheist will not kill for religion just like all you nut jobs. That includes, Christian, Catholic, Jews, Muslims. All those religions have killed THOUSANDs because of religion, and the Atheist is the bad person?

      October 9, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Rob-Texas

      bob- You really don't have a clue do you. What religion tells you the world is flat? I believe that was just a belief of all people during the dark ages when so much knowledge was lost from the fall of the Roman Empire. Exactly what will happen if western civiliztion fails.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Rob-Texas

      common sense – Athiest kill people as well. More people were killed in WWI and WWII than any previous religous war. Possibly more than all of them combined. Since the two world wars were not religous wars, and based on coverstions I have had with veterians of those two wars. There were plenty of Athiests on hand killing people.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • doughnuts

      There were plenty of religious people in those wars killing people too. You know what that means? Nothing. Nothing at all.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • common sense

      @Rob, sure atheist have killed people. However never for something so trivial as Religion. After all what is religion? If nothing more than your upbring! If i was born in the middle east i would be Muslim, if i was born in Tibet i would be Buddhist. However i was born in Europe than i was raised Catholic. Even though, religion is nothing more than your upbring and social-economical and geographical people still believe their religion is better than anyone else. Talking about Hypocrites!!!!

      October 9, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  14. ReasonableXX

    Who says all news is negative? Praise the Lord! Hopefully the number will be 1 in 2 within 10 years.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • common sense

      Now that's an Oxymoron! :)

      October 9, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  15. blogo

    Religion is stupidity. Stupidity has no place in today's world and must be stamped out. Nobody is helped by tolerating idiocy. The atheists believe in reason and logic. Is it so hard to understand why they are trying to impose their beliefs on everyone?

    October 9, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Rob-Texas

      And you sound so educated, tolerant and mature with your generalization. Please enlighten us more....

      October 9, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  16. Dyslexic doG

    enjoy it while it lasts Christians. Another 10 or 20 generations and the human race will look on your God and Jesus the same way as we look on Zeus and Thor and Ra (and santa claus and the tooth fairy) today. What a giggle!

    October 9, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Mel

      I do not feel threaten by what the rest of the world believes. For me, my religious believes are not a popularity contest.

      (But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.) -Joshua 24:15

      October 9, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Rob-Texas

      Maybe here in the United States, not worldwide. This is a poll of American's. Christanity is growing 3 times as fast in Africa, Asia and the Middle East as it is declining here. Here its all about me me me. Within 10 to 20 generations American's will no longer want to fight for our conuntry. The same thing that happened to Rome before the collapse.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • common sense

      Rob, Now your talking about patriotism. Patriotism and religion are very different. For Religion you need faith, for patriotism you need love for your country. Two very different things!

      October 9, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  17. Brickell Princess

    Religion is the root of all evil. Keep in mind that the creator knows no religion. Religions were created by man, designed to entrap your mind and keep you in line. To follow some mortal leader with the threat of eternal damnation. Get your mind out of the gutter and free yourself from religion. The creator knows no church, no book, no temple, no rituals. You are God, you are the temple, you are the image of the creator. You are here to serve one another not to serve some backwater perception of a God. You are traveling in space to get to the creator...and when you get there generations from now, you better have your house in order!

    October 9, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Brickell Princess

      " You are traveling in space to get to the creator...and when you get there generations from now, you better have your house in order! "

      Say what ?

      Peace...

      October 9, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • cigarlover6

      you sound awfully christian....masquerading?

      October 9, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Rob-Texas

      A Christian would not say you are God.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  18. blogo

    This is a great development. Religion is fraud, plain and simple, and needs to be eliminated – as any fraud. All it does is cause tremendous damage to the society. The church is the equivalent of a drug dealing organization that sells drugs (illusions) to the masses, and collects a huge amount of tax free money back, without any danger or scrutiny by the governments. What drug cartel wouldn't want that situation? No guns needed, no fear of imprisonment!

    October 9, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Rob-Texas

      You sure have allot of hate. Maybe you should see someone about that, or take something.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  19. William

    I am sure God exists... and I am also 100% sure he/she/it is NOT the God of the religious right or the bible. Whatever message he did send, or continues to send, has been overpowered by the noise of "church" and the powerbrokers who want to tell me how to live me life and slather me with a three inch layer of guilt... not because of sin, but because I am not like THEM. In the end, it is always about US and THEM. It's all a crock of crap.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Hoover23

      you are right FSM exists!!

      October 9, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • therealpeace2all

      @William

      " I am **sure** God exists "

      **Sure** that God exists how specifically ? And... what is this God of yours like ?

      Peace...

      October 9, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  20. Mat

    I personally, am a christian and the research does not surprise me. Each person has the freedom to choose what he believes or does not believe in. In this world when everything is measured against materialism and "proof", its inevitable. This was again mentioned in the bible. Please dont brush it under the carpet by saying enough research was done and found no proof. As the good book says (I am paraphrasing) "Search and you will find".

    October 9, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • blogo

      When it comes to reasing, no person has a right to choose to be an idiot.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      again, the book you refer to was written by many men over many years, then edited by more men to fit their agenda of money, power and to convert pagans. Research your religion and its history.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Really?

      Funny, the Koran says the same thing.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • cigarlover6

      Mat, you represent exactly what a brainwashed religion wants you to represent. Have you got any "self awareness"?
      The day you do, you would see the day of light. May be you won't because the brainwashing thingy is pretty deep. But if you ever do, you would realize just how absurd the religious minds are (though I would say not much fault of theirs, cause some family must have enforced it upon them when they were growing up)? it's a support system created for weak-minded to hold on the hope and in christianity especially hold on to the notion of sin (utter fabrication!). But if you want to cross over from all these non-sense, you would have to first understand what you are with a different metric, first.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:59 am |
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About this blog

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