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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. Dyslexic doG

    We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes.
    – Roddenberry

    October 9, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • CARLOS

      To question "logic", to have faults, even to be worthy of "blame' are aspects of being human, of exercising our free will.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  2. Dyslexic doG

    We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes.

    – Roddenberry

    October 9, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • anna

      man was created in the image of god. his personality may be as unpredictable as ours.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  3. CARLOS

    "n 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".

    Assuming the "Unaffiliated" will vote. One out of two Americans will not bother to vote. Traditionally the right wing religious do vote. That is why they are catered to by the GOP. The young, unaffiliated,traditionally do not vote. So no one cares what they think.

    October 9, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  4. Dyslexic doG

    It is surely harmful to souls to make it a heresy to believe what is proved.

    – Galileo 12:16

    October 9, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  5. Dyslexic doG

    I'm all in favor of the democratic principle that one idiot is as good as one genius, but I draw the line when someone takes the next step and concludes that two idiots are better than one genius.

    – Szilard 88:16

    October 9, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  6. Dyslexic doG

    Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.

    – Isaac Asimov

    October 9, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  7. poiman

    I find it curious that some of the more contentious and mean spirited blogs are being posted in defense of religion. Should I rest my case?

    October 9, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Angele

      There is no perfect human being. How you may perceive something may different than how someone else perceives it. There are posts out there from religious people that are not ranting, raving, and judgey. Those are probably the ones you want to pay attention to.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  8. Dyslexic doG

    if you are wondering why athiests and agnostics comment as vitriolically as they do on this site, check out au . org which is a site devoted to the first amendment and the separation of church and state.

    many christians (but by no means all) in this country are behaving like the taliban and trying to change the laws and education to force the christian religion down everyone's throats. this has got to stop.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Angele

      This country was founded by those whose religious beliefs were being quelled so, that 1st amendment is a pretty important one.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  9. Gryla2

    Thank God people are finally getting rid of religion!

    rimshot!

    October 9, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  10. Gryla2

    Thank God people are finally getting rid of religion!

    October 9, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  11. Gill Bates

    "No Religion" can be very misleading. No ORGANIZED religion yet spiritual people would fall into that category. As far as I can tell organized religions are very good at starting wars, excluding people and a bunch of other things they, supposedly, preach against,

    October 9, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • ME II

      Correct, for the most part, and the article says so.
      "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."

      Please read the article first.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • lamb of dog

      True. But unaffiliated is the step before atheism. People brainwashed from a young age don't change their beliefs easily.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  12. Ellie

    I identify myself as "spiritual" and belong to no religion. I find most Christian religions to be judgemental and exclusive. I also don't need anyone to tell me right from wrong and use fear to control me. I think fear opposes God. I think some people do need religion, I'm just not one of them. I feel very united with the God of my understanding, pray every day and try to be a good and loving person that passes no judgement on any one that doesn't believe my way. I think there are "many roads".

    October 9, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • mk

      They only need religion if someone tells them they do.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  13. Ben

    Since LBJ, the government decided to take over the role of both religion and family for various jaded and political reasons. Need food, don't go to the church anymore, the government will provide (and with a credit card like system so no more embarassing standing at the church pantry). Old and didn't plan for retirement, get government checks for food, rent and bills and don't move in with your family who should be taking care of you. Unwed mom, you don't have to get married and provide a stable environment for the kid, the government will do it (and this is not a commentary on moms who decide they can support a kid on their own, you know exactly what this point is). All of this and more to take the place of importance in people's lives from family and church and we see the moral decay that comes with it and what it has done to us as a society. I await, with baited breath, the commens about pedophile priests as a "counter" to this sweeping issue that affects society.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • William Demuth

      Ben

      How about bigotry instead? Or mysoginy? Or fraud? Or war?

      Your cult is evil, and you empower the evil.

      Luckily, people are waking up and rejecting your imaginary Franken-savior, as mankind has rejected the 3000 previous Gods from who you plagerized your dogma

      Christianity is dying, and I intend to do all I can to add another nail to its coffin.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Acolyte of Sagan

      Wow, Ben, your Christian charity, love, and compassion for your fellow man just shines through. Tell me, are all Christians as nice as you? Did it never occur to you that the governments supply assistance to the poor and needy precisely because your God so clearly doesn't?

      October 9, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Angele

      @Acolyte: It is the selfishness of man that does not to provide what God has given us to provide for mankind. What are you doing to make the world better? What are giving?

      October 9, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Angele

      Ben, very well put.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  14. yukon

    And here it is it's finally happened and every Christian in America can take the credit or the blame. For years many have been telling you that your constant badgering would backfire. When you won't be quiet and just live your life and constantly try to get others to live like you you drive them away. Now here is the proof. Anyone could see this happening for years. It is no great prophecy just common sense. Congratulations! If you had only shut up it may not have ended this way.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  15. TruthHurts

    It's about time. It's the Info Age.. people can easily study such matters as religions and their history and there eyes are opening to the bull#. But in the end, many still need to believe something. Because otherwise you have to come to the conclusion that we are just animals, life is meaningless, and when you die, you're dead... no rewards, no life with your other dead relatives, no taking your toys with you. And history shows that people can't handle that. As people get older, mortality becomes an issue, and suddenly they become interested in such things.

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

      I'm not religious but I find life anything but meaningless. I get that alot from religious friends...the whole "you have an empty life without god".....no, I don't. I have a great life, two wonderful children, and spend every second I can living this one moment in time rather than dwelling on mystic creations like "heaven" conjured up by men.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  16. m

    I just believe in a higher power, nothing organized. I mean, what created this universe and how did this all come to be? There is something out there... I mean, what's beyond space? Organized religion is about power and money. Most of the leaders of organized religion go into it to make money and probably don't even really believe in the religion. Organized religion is simply a business with a very high profit margin! Look at Catholic churches, Muslim Sheiks, the Pope. They have gobs of cash while people suffer all around them BECAUSE OF THEM! Where is the good in that? What about just being a good person and doing the right thing?

    October 9, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • tallulah13

      Yours is exactly the reasoning that created gods in the first place: You don't understand. Therefore it must be a higher power.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • NoTheism

      @m, yours is called an argument from ignorance: don't know, therefore anything

      October 9, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Acolyte of Sagan

      "I don't know, therefore God".
      Alternatively, try science.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • m

      Why are you saying people like me created religion- I don't think that's true, I'm just saying that even if we find out what's out of space, what created that, and what created that, and what created that? Something did and it's really big. Right? I am not creating anything or asking anything of anyone like religion.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Madtown

      Alternatively, try science.
      -----
      Maybe he/she has. Science doesn't definitively provide all the answers either. Granted, MANY more than religion, as religion answers nothing, but still not all the answers. At least not yet.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • m

      Also- yes I am ignorant! Everyone is, because no one knows! Right. Yes, we are all ignorant on some things.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • tallulah13

      Perhaps it's your use of the phrase "higher power". "Higher power" is simply a euphemism for "god". That sort of thinking is the breeding ground for religion.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      "I'm just saying that even if we find out what's out of space, what created that, and what created that, and what created that?"

      That's a loaded statement. Why must it have been "created" at all? Clearly believers have no issue with declaring that their God has always existed so why is it so difficult to propose that the entirety of the multiverse always existed?

      October 9, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  17. mk

    The truth about why people are no longer interested in going to church...they are becoming enlightened and evolved enough to think for themselves and no longer interested in being bullied by fear.

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

      If you are in a place of fear, you are in the wrong place. God is for unconditional love

      October 9, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • William Demuth

      Duane

      Unconditional Love, Sandusky style.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      God's love is not unconditional.
      The very first Commandment is a call for submission to His ego because He is a jealous God.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Joe

      Fear? You are right, we would have nothing to fear about God if we were all good, pure and righteous.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Madtown

      if we were all good, pure and righteous
      ----–
      Which we are not, but not because we've "chosen sin". It's just who we are as a people, imperfect. Human. We are as we have been created.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • mk

      Duane, I am not in a place of fear, so I'm good.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Joe

      Madtown,

      So when i go kill people for fun, that's okay because I'm just an imperfect human being. It's not my fault. I didn't "choose" sin. Right?

      October 9, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Madtown

      No Joe, when you go kill people for fun, they'll just lock you up.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Joe

      You Wrote to @Madtown: " So when i go kill people for fun, that's okay because I'm just an imperfect human being. It's not my fault. I didn't "choose" sin. Right? "

      How do you come to that conclusion, -Joe ???

      Curious in California.

      Peace...

      October 9, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Joe

      Madtown,

      Lock me up in prison? Oh, no. Now you are just bullying me with the fear of prison. I am "no longer interested in being bullied by fear."

      October 9, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  18. FROST

    most famous wars are fought over what you call religion other then politics . maybe there is a problem with both of these fields. .

    October 9, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  19. Gregory L. Faith

    As a young boy, looking up at the night sky on a few camping trips I convinced my self that sitting in a church with a bunch of people whom I did'nt know, listening to the priest taking of Jesus and God made no scence to me at all. I see the pyramids of Geza and I see the mountiains of Tibet, but what I do not see is peace on this world. People starve each day and the religious allow it. The catholic church is one of the most wealthiest on the planet and yet miles from the Vatican, childdren live in poverty. There is no God and Jesus was just a man who was betrayed and died along side thieves.

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

      There is a God. He is how we all came to be. Please know that the bad in this world exists for the purpose of seeing the good. Otherwise the good would be taken for granted. The Catholic church and the people within it do care for the poor, the sick, the hungry in their communities and throughout the world and are one of the largest organizations to do so. Perhaps you could be part of that outreach as well.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • tallulah13

      You chose to believe in a god. That is your right. However, there is no proof that any god exists. Bad things happen because bad things happen, and humans are innately selfish. In many cases, religion is used to camouflage that selfishness.

      You find comfort in the belief that a supernatural super-being is looking out for you. I find comfort in what can be verified as true, even if it isn't pretty or kind.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • mk

      Angele, I'll believe that the catholic church cares about the poor when they sell their gold-lined possessions to feed them. BTW, where do you think the church gets all of it's money?

      October 9, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Acolyte of Sagan

      Angele, you said "Please know that the bad in this world exists for the purpose of seeing the good. Otherwise the good would be taken for granted.".
      Do you have any idea how psychotically sadistic that sounds. "It's fine for millions of children to suffer pain and hunger, 'cos it makes me appreciate not starving!" By your logic, I would be justified in burning one of my childrens arms with cigarettes just so the other child will love and appreciate me more because I'm not burning her.
      Sick, sick, sick. And you just don't get it.

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

      @tallulah 13: Faith and reason exist together. Seek it.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Angele

      @mk: The church get's it's money from the folks that sit in the pews. The beauty that all of your senses perceive is to honor God as best we can. There are Catholic churches all over the world that do not even have physical buildings they are so poor yet, it is the people and the hearts of those people that make up the Church because the truth of God lies within it.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Tallulah13

      Angele, you confuse your emotion with reason. There is not a single logical reason to believe in god. There are many emotional ones.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  20. CMW

    I am one of those one-in-five. I was brought up in church, and I was required to attend three times a week. Once I was free and could ask the big questions, and after marrying and divorcing a minister and seeing the "man behind the curtain" for myself, I realized that organized religion is a business like any other. The money in that offering plate goes to salaries and bonuses and stained glass windows - it doesn't magically evaporate and wind up in God's hands. God doesn't need money. I give money to charities that help others - like St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital and a local homeless shelter. I sat in on meetings where the music to be played prior to and during the offertory was rated according to how much money was taken in. Where ministers in the meeting admitted to being atheists, but said they were making good money, and what harm was there in giving people hope? I find the Divine in the natural world around me. I feel peace and solace there. So yes - I am spiritual but not religious, because religion is man's device - and the spiritual comes from an open mind and an open heart.

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

      @CMW
      Good post, mature and well written. The reason I never caught on was I was more like the school yard bully, if you don't do what I say I will beat the snot out of you. I should of used the carrot and stick approach seems to have worked for the time being anyway.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Madtown

      Excellent CMW, very well said.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:59 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.