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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. kyphi

    By the deeds and words of "devoted" religious people, who can blame them?

    October 9, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  2. mikrik13

    Now that's a religion I can get behind. 10% of my wages stay in my pocket and I don't need to fight in no win wars over which fairy tale is the TRUE fairy tale, while all the guys with the funny hats count their gold. God bless atheism!

    October 9, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  3. Anne112

    Encouraging news. While I don't care if people believe in a god or don't it depresses me when I read things like "More Americans believe in angels than in evolution".

    October 9, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Solitairedog

      Americans have been deliberately "dumbed down" and reprogrammed by television to believe in some pretty silly stuff. I think it's a sad state of affairs to think you live in a world of ghosts watching your every move. No wonder the right to privacy means so little to so many.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  4. WASP

    best saying i learned in the army " common sense isn't so common." guess that's why atheists are still out numbered. lmfao

    October 9, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  5. DK

    Atheists always sound really dumb and self-indulged on these posts. Religious affiliations at least teach morals.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Horus

      ...subjective morality, that is......

      October 9, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • lamb of dog

      You are an idiot.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      It's the morality of those morals that are in doubt.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • WASP

      @DK: yeah religion teaches it's ok to giev your daughter to an angry mob to save your visitors.
      it teaches it's ok to hate people not like yourself. the whole US vs. THEM mentality.
      it teaches whatever the preacher/holyman wants to say it saids.

      morals are set up by the people not by any god.
      bible said it's ok to beat slaves, thus it's ok to own slaves. humans decided it was a barbaric practice and made it illegal to own another human being.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • NoTheism

      @DK, like how to stone your wife to death if she cheated on you, how to select and treat slaves, or how to know when to blow yourself up because "infidels" don't agree with your worldview?
      Lovely.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • sam stone

      so, do you think that religious folk are the only moral ones?

      October 9, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  6. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    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 10:39 am |
    • lamb of dog

      Moving on up.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Solitairedog

      Now...isn't that interesting. I have been told repeatedly that Muslims have the most adherents globally by far. And yet on this list, Christianity is shown as the world's largest religion. Why is that?

      October 9, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  7. waitasec

    to malibu123:

    now that was a typical self defeating passive aggressive remark....

    lame.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  8. Mick

    I've never understood how you can believe in God but say you're not religious. Where did your god come from if not religion? Unless, of course, you've seen him in person and had a chit-chat with him. If not, you've bought into religion hook, line, and sinker.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • mkar

      Concept of god is there before Jesus, even before Abraham. It was not invented by them.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  9. PTBA

    Just because I am an atheist doesn't mean that I don't live by similar teachings as a Christian. We ALL have a moral compass whether religious or not. I don't need a religion to teach what is right and what is wrong. As a human and a member of this earth I can figure it out on my own.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      """ I don't need a religion to teach what is right and what is wrong."""

      The Golden Rule is non-denominational. No one needs a god to understand (and live by) such a simple concept.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  10. FROST

    u mean people are not so gullible any more to just buy anything.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  11. jil

    Believing in a magical guy in the sky is completely silly. My life is great, I don't need a fairy tale to guide me.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Julio

      The time will come when we all get faced with a hard dose of reality check, in that point you will either decide that you make a change or mascarade it all with anti depresants...

      October 9, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • waitasec

      to Julio

      you seem to believe in an insecure god...

      wonder what that says about you....

      October 9, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Julio

      What the fvck ?

      Peace...

      October 9, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • sam stone

      mascarade?

      October 9, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • sam stone

      as opposed to masquerading it with jeebus, julio?

      October 9, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  12. Scott

    II used to call my belief "Atheism" but now I just call it "common sense".

    October 9, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Marcus Prien

      Exactly, well put.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  13. wyoforester

    Common sense tells us that matter cannot organize itself. It needs information to do that, and information is a manifestation of intelligence (God).

    October 9, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • jil

      Information is just an arrangement of atoms. If (when) the right ones happen to come together, it creates a self-replicating chemical that evolves into things like dogs and bears and people. Easy cheesy.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • JeramieH

      A mix of oil and water will separate itself into two organized strata. Did God do that?

      October 9, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • NoTheism

      "matter cannot organize itself"
      do you have an example?

      October 9, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Angele

      Very true.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • OldSchool

      What I think you are referring to are natural laws, which all matter must abide by. You can personify this concept as "intelligence" if it helps you sleep at night, but I suspect this deist-like view you espouse is far more generic than what your actual religious views are...

      October 9, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Angele

      God designed science, it did not create itself. Mankind only discovered it.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • NoTheism

      @Angele, of course science didn't "create itself", we did.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • mucopurulent

      God did a marvelous job misfolding the proteins responsible for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • OldSchool

      Of course the easiest and most effective way of silencing those who make this assertion is: If you require "intelligence" for creation, then who/what created the creator you are suggesting?

      Don't worry, I'll wait for you to finish cycling through this infinite loop...

      October 9, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Marcus Prien

      By saying God, you mean us humans, the God creator?

      October 9, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • mrjackson777

      @Old School. You have pointed out the very point in believing in God. We ALL were created by somone greater than us. God has NO creator, He has NO begining, He has NO end. That is what makes Him God. If man could completly understand and explain God, then he really wouldn't be God. Even if you believe in Evolution, we must admitt it was Started By Something/Someone. And the GREAT part about God is that He wants to have a peraonal relationship with YOU. Forget this religion, that religion, God wants to have a perosnla relationship with you.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • JeramieH

      So it's ok for God to exist without a creator, but it's lunacy to think that anything else can exist without one? Interesting doublethink there.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • sam stone

      how do you make the logical leap from an intelligent creator to a god?

      October 9, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • sam stone

      angele: pure speculation on your part

      October 9, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • sam stone

      mrjackson: how do you make the logical leap from a creator (who creates) to a god (who judges human interaction)?

      October 9, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • sam stone

      "God wants to have a perosnla relationship with you."

      Based on what?

      October 9, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • sam stone

      wyoforester: why do you feel that an intelligence is synonymous with God?

      October 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • George

      Angele,
      The world needs more people like you. Thank you.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  14. poiman

    Very interesting discussion. To me it's quite simple. Religion is a fabrication based on the concept of spirituality. The problem with religion is that it is largely man-made and therefore subject to the self-serving nature of man-made things. Spiritaulity, on the other hand, exists as a vast potential within each and every one of us to connect not only to our selves but to life as a whole in a way that brings us a profound sense of oneness with life as well as with each other. This oneness is at the heart of it all. Religion divides, spirituality unites. A modern day prophet predicted an end to the word of God and a return to an "age of reason," Nothing could sound more beautiful to me since I see an end to the wod of God as an end to the deceiptful word of man and a return to an age of reason as a return to our sacred, spiritual roots.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Marcus Prien

      Wow, what an insightful piece of writing! You should have been a preacher, no kidding.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  15. Lee

    Maybe there is hope for the human race after all. The challenge is getting religious people to be as tolerant of non-religious citizens as we are of them. Getting them to stop saying this is a Christian nation, for example...

    October 9, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Angele

      I am tolerant of non-religious people and I am religious :)

      October 9, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  16. Roto

    It's about time. This is a good thing. This religion thing has been way out of hand for millenia. Even worse are all the organizations that have harnessed religion in the name of power. Some of the worst events in history have been precipated by religion. The Inquisition, etc. This is still going on. There is tremendous corruption in the largest churches. The fact is we are human and we can not cause to exist that which we only wish for.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • mrjackson777

      Mankind had a selfish,destructive lust for power. We will use any organization of groups to dominate another group. Religion is just a conveinet scapegoat used by dictators to unify people. Man kind used well meaing ideas and twist them to his end. Whether Christinaty or Communism, Islam or "States Rights", when it leads to blood shed and brutality the blame lies at the feet of man.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  17. George

    I would like to agree with all those (athiests and agnostics) who feel their beliefs should be recognized by the politicians. Since 22% identify themselves as Catholic and 48% identify themselves as Protestant, the overwhelming majority of Americans (70%) are Christian. If a presidential candidate won 70% of the vote, would call that a clear mandate for change. Thank God most Christians (like myself) are more tolerant than our bothers and sisters who have no belief in God. If we were as insistent on imposing our belief system on you as you are in preventing us from expressing our beliefs, you would be in a terrible position. God Bless America!!

    October 9, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • lamb of dog

      You really believe that?

      October 9, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Angele

      Amen.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      A terrible position wherein the private acts of consenting adults are deemed illegal?
      Or where loving couples are denied the basic civil rights that come along with having their relationship legalyl recognized?

      October 9, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • irock

      I`m not overly religious but I dont deny Jesus Christ. I dont deny someone elses right to be a non believer as well. It`s you life live it as you please. But what I do dislike is someone who goes through life preaching \ spreading atheism then on their death bed asking forgiveness from the lord,

      October 9, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • LinCA

      @George

      You said, "Thank God most Christians (like myself) are more tolerant than our bothers and sisters who have no belief in God."
      You call forcing your delusions of your imaginary friend on the rest of society "tolerant"? If most christians were tolerant, we wouldn't have any references to your imaginary friend on our currency or the pledge of allegiance, or in or on public buildings. If most christians were tolerant, they would accept that not everyone believes in imaginary friends, and would keep their gods out of public places.

      You said, "If we were as insistent on imposing our belief system on you as you are in preventing us from expressing our beliefs, you would be in a terrible position."
      You are free to believe whatever nonsense you want. You are free to believe in whatever imaginary friend you feel like. You are free to worship any creature you fancy. But you are not free to expect anyone else to do the same. You are not entitled to force it on anyone else.

      Not wanting any part of your delusion isn't preventing you from expressing your beliefs. All I ask is that you do it with your own resources. Keep your delusion out of my life, and out of the lives of my children. Keep your nonsense in your private home and houses of worship.

      The fact that we still have references to your imaginary friend on public property is clear evidence that christians are still forcing their beliefs on the sane part of society.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Solitairedog

      You are a perfect example of someone who believes that not being able to shove your religion down the throats of other people is an infringement of your religious rights.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • waitasec

      "Thank God most Christians (like myself) are more tolerant than our bothers and sisters who have no belief in God."

      you're kidding right....

      religion = intolerance

      October 9, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  18. felix el gato

    Tax all churches and, so-called, non-profits.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  19. suncoinc

    I would rather have explanations that make sense, instead of nonsensical explanations such as deities knowing everything before there was anything to know.
    I would rather live in a world of sensible people than religious people.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Silly1

      So, you would rather live alone? That shouldn't be that hard.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Solitairedog

      Amen brother.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Angele

      Faith and reason do exist together, as one.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  20. bacon and coffee

    apatheism – does god exist? don't know, don't care

    October 9, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • NoTheism

      granted you either believe or don't..

      October 9, 2012 at 10:35 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.