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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. Syd

    I don't think there are more atheists, I just think more of us are no longer afraid to say it out loud.

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

      hear hear

      October 9, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • MCR

      Its hard to measure the exact numbers, but certainly at my college 25 years ago surveys found the majority of students ( over 75%) were non-theists. That's why I feel if you're in your 20s and whining about being surrounded by religious people you've clearly been too lazy to find the millions of non religious folks in much saner communities around the country (and world).

      October 9, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • CS

      I believe you're correct. I teach at a University (in the south), and I frequently have students who find it frustrating and frightening to admit their atheism/agnosticism. Far too many of them tell me stories about being marginalized by Christian friends and family members. Christians, I think, see atheism as an attack on their belief system rather than an exercise of one's choice to simply not believe.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • fintastic

      @CS Well put.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  2. Kafoodie

    Still way too few rational people. That there are adults that believe in talking donkeys, virgin births and dudes rising from the dead boggles the mind.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  3. Georges

    Religion is like Santa Clause... we can only hope people will grow up and realize that like Mr Clause god isn't real either.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Misfit

      Wait, hold up... What do you mean, Santa Claus isn't real?

      October 9, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • sam stone

      "You can't fool me, there is no such thing as a sanity clause" – Chico Marx

      October 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • *

      * It's "Santa Claus", not "Clause" - dang that Tim Allen, sheesh!

      October 9, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  4. correctlycenter

    Darwinism: Man came from apes? Really? Why are there still apes around? Sounds like monkey business to me.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Sour Diesel

      There's a place called library which contains all the answers. Stop being a cretin.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • David Stone

      Sort of like saying...."reptiles evolved from fish, but why are fish still around?"

      October 9, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • blogo

      What, are you home schooled?

      October 9, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • erin

      wow

      October 9, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • snowboarder

      center – i'm invoking poe's law. you're just trying to make christians look bad now. no way that post is real.

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

      lol – I assume that's a joke. The kind of bad logic you hear, though.

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

      no no no
      you have it all wrong....

      we didn't come from apes dear...they are our cousins.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Idjit

      Wow ... what infallible logic ... you just made me a believer again ..

      October 9, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Madtown

      Troll. Lots of unimaginative trolling here today. Peeps: don't feed.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • ME II

      Species evolve in groups, but not necessarily in whole populations.
      For example, Britain colonized the Americas, but there are still British.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Mike

      The fact that you're LYING that you do not know the answer is what irks me the most. You *KNOW* that we did not come from monkeys, but that monkey and humans share a common ancestor, which are two completely different things. But the question is that WHY are you LYING ?

      October 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • OOPS!

      Christianity: Woman came from a mans rib, why are there still ribs around?

      October 9, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • dave

      Really the "why are there still apes" question? Gt yourself an education and know what evolution is. Until then you're not even remotely experienced enough to speak on this matter.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • sam stone

      Really, correctly center? That is your argument? Either you are being intentionally obtuse, or you have no idea of what you speak.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • sam stone

      "All dogs came from wolves? It can't be, we still have wolves".....

      Get a clue

      October 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • ron

      actually man is classified as a "great ape"

      October 9, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • JJ

      I bet you can rattle off numerous bible verses but never cracked open a science text book. How pathetic.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  5. blogo

    How do you eliminate religion and belief in God? Don't even bring up religion until the person is 18 years old.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  6. David Stone

    The day of imaginary sky fairies and invisible horned devils is coming to a close.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • blogo

      They will be missed. Maybe J. K. Rowling will write something up for little children?

      October 9, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  7. Beam

    And of course they have to turn this into a political thing. :/ I find it very sad though. Reminds me of this verse: Luke 18:
    ..."Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” Apparently not..but shows the bible is right again...

    October 9, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Amniculi

      Nope.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • David Stone

      Tip: When you quote verses from the invisible sky daddy guide book, people ignore your post.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • sam stone

      Beam: How is that Jesus-coming-back thing going?

      October 9, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • imABeliever

      just keep scoffing, scoffers. Someday you'll wake up in hell and realize the Bible was true.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • fintastic

      Hell = no such place..... Time for YOU to wake up.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  8. erin

    This is a good thing. Religious people like to think that religion = morality. Some of the kindest, most moral people I know are decidedly non-religious. Less religion in this country means less intolerance and ignorance, IMO.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • blogo

      Morality comes from oxytocin, a brain hormone.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  9. polemicist

    It's not illogical to say the universe has a creator, and PLENTY of scientists believe in a creator whom they refer to as God.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • David Stone

      I keep up on quantum physics and have only seen ONE guy honestly in that field who believes in the invisible sky daddy theory.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • niknak

      And until those who profess of a creator have some proof to back it up, then it is considered false.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • ME II

      It's not illogical to hypothesize such, but it is illogical to claim it as true, without evidence.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • sam stone

      it is not illogical to think that the universe has a creator, but it is illogical to think that a creator implies a heaven or a hell

      October 9, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • imABeliever

      There's sufficient evidence to show that the universe has a creator. A big bank needed something to cause it. The information content in DNA and biological systems require an intelligent designer. The fine tuning of the laws of physicals also point to a creator.

      If not that you scoffers can't believe, but that you WILL not believe.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Momof3

      @imabeliver – "A big bank needed something to cause it." Maybe that's where you're understanding is weak, the Universe wasn't withdrawn from some god's account...

      October 9, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • fintastic

      " A big bank needed something to cause it."

      Lots and lots of money!!!! LOL

      October 9, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  10. stu

    Amen.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  11. correctlycenter

    Can anyone answer the question about Isaiah 66: 6-8? Predicting that Israel would become a nation in one day? God revealed this to Isaiah in 690 BC. Israel became a nation on May 14, 1948. How can an atheist explain this?

    October 9, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • your to phunny

      It wasnt a secret genius. People made it happen. It wasnt magic. Get a grip.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • snowboarder

      center – men made israel. its called holocaust guilt.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • pat

      Dogma. They hung in long enough untill it was true.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Ricky

      I don't see the prediction at all. You see what you want to see, but there is no mention there about Israel becoming a nation-state. I can predict the same, "in the next 2000 years or more, a nation will be born in the American continent." Oh man, I must be a prophet.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • waitasec

      are you seriously thinking that the creator to of the universe is that concerned about a small piece of real estate and a group of nomadic people?

      October 9, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Jonathan Swift

      You can replace that with Egypt, Palestine, Iran take your biblical pick.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Mike

      cc: there, it's now been explained to you. Will this change you mind? Of course it won't. No amount of information is going to change your opinions of the doctrine you're subscribing to. And that is because you were BRAINWASHED ! You're in fact, suffering from a mental illness, a DELUSION !

      October 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • ron

      actually israel was re-established in 164 BC after the successful maccabees rebellion. but that doesnt prove anything since its possible that "prophecy" was added after the fact.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Momof3

      Isaiah 66:6-8
      New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

      6 Hear that uproar from the city,
      hear that noise from the temple!
      It is the sound of the Lord
      repaying his enemies all they deserve.

      7 ‘Before she goes into labour,
      she gives birth;
      before the pains come upon her,
      she delivers a son.
      8 Who has ever heard of such things?
      Who has ever seen things like this?
      Can a country be born in a day
      or a nation be brought forth in a moment?
      Yet no sooner is Zion in labour
      than she gives birth to her children.

      I don't see a reference to the nation of Isreal in this passage.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  12. pat

    So when can we remove under god and in god we trust?

    October 9, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Reload

      Never

      October 9, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Sour Diesel

      A lot of people already removed it and simply ignore it.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • snowboarder

      reload – never say never

      October 9, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • David Stone

      How about believing in one's self? What a concept.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • OOPS!

      Not soon enough.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • QS

      When we vote in more rational people and vote out all religious nuts.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • blogo

      It will be changed to "In Gay We Trust" soon.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • pat

      "One Nation, guided by reason..."

      October 9, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Momof3

      How about we go back to the original motto: E pluribus unum – meaning: from many, one.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  13. mike alameda

    look the truth is that we have no option about believing or not, we all just believe because there is no way of knowing the truth so is good that the people are finally realizing that religion has no relevance in our lifes and the sooner we get rid of it the sooner we can achieve real long lasting peace all around the wordl!

    October 9, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  14. snowboarder

    one fact is certain, with the innumerable deities, religions, and doctrines today and throughout history, man is very adept at creating god.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • QS

      Logic is fun, isn't it? :-)

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

      We are adept at finding our own truth and sadly ignoring God's.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • snowboarder

      angele – thank you for reinforcing my point about your god, too. whichever one that might be.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • sam stone

      Angele: Man created "god". And men in different cultures created different gods. Accordingly, mans's truth IS god's truth

      October 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  15. Misfit

    We are only one species among billions. The gods don't love us any more than they love spiders or bears or water lillies. Our kin are not thrones, principalities, and powers. They are mayflies, lemurs, snakes, and badgers. We no longer imagine that the gods botched their work when it came to us. We no longer believe that suffering is the lot the gods had in mind for us, and that death is sweet release to our true destiny.

    We are straying from the path of salvation, exactly as it was always feared we might. But we're not straying from the path of salvation for the sake of sin and corruption, as it was always imagined we might. We're straying from the path of salvation because we remember that we once belonged to and loved the world, and were content in that belonging.

    The evangelist John wrote "You must not love the world or the things of the world, for those who love the world are strangers to the love of the Father." John knew what he was talking about. He was right to warn his followers against those who love the world. We are the ones that he was talking about, and the final hour that John prophesized is at hand. But it is their final hour, not ours. They've had their day, and this is indeed the final hour of that day.

    Now our day begins.

    -Daniel Quinn

    October 9, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • snowboarder

      fit – that is some mighty wacky stuff.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Misfit

      Snowboarder- It's what I believe. And IMHO it's no more wacky that the earth being created in seven days.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • QS

      One could also easily argue that we are straying from this so-called "path of salvation" offered by religion because we've finally realized that that path being offered is a false one.

      Religion and morality are not synonymous.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Misfit

      qs- Tsk tsk... Two hundred years ago you would have been burned alive for saying that.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • snowboarder

      fit – it is wonderful how far we have come in just a few hundred years, isn't it.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • QS

      And like I keep trying to explain to conservatives....it's not 200 years ago! LOL!

      October 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  16. Ricky

    Isn't that good news!! I guess humans continue to evolve after all. I was afraid that the morons had a higher birth rate, but this is good news.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  17. ron

    how reliable is this since evangelical christians are known to say they have no religion too.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  18. deputydog

    I do not beleive in or participate in any religion, but I beleive that people have the right to practice religion if they want to. When I eat with people who pray I show respect and remain quiet while they pray. Im not offended by Christmas of the Ten Commandments. When people try to preach to me about God or Jesus I politely tell them im not interested. Its just not for me but if other people need it go for it. Athiests need to stop attacking people for their beleifs.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • TrueBlue42

      You have it backwards; Christians need to stop attacking Atheists for our views.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • tr

      And what, we should just take it quietly while the religious attack us and repress us for our LACK of belief?

      October 9, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • MCR

      I agree that mindlessly attacking people's harmless views is rude and pointless. But religion influences voting patterns, and when that means nullifying my marriage and the legal rights that go with it, I feel I should be able to criticize the belief system that is harming me. A religion is no different from a system of political belief, and should be equally open to critique.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Mike

      dp, "Atheists" (but also Agnostics, or people that simply lead lives without giving any or it any thought), are frustrated to see organized religion exert power that's not appropriate. In government, public messages, court ("so help you god"), schools (creationism coined by too many as if on equal footing with evolution), etc.
      That is what "we" are frustrated with and *that* is what we are fighting against.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • CS

      I feel much the way you do, but more often than not, the religious types refuse to take no for an answer and insist on "saving" and/or "educating" me. Anecdotally, I've found that religious types are far more condescending and judgmental than most (but certainly not all) of the atheists I know. There are exceptions, as I have a number of very religious friends and family members who are completely comfortable with "live and let live." I just wish there were more of them. I have absolutely no problem with anyone practicing religion, and like you, politely wait while they pray or say grace. I don't take offense at their rites, either. Many are charming. In fact, I think many religions have a wonderful message (at least part of their message), but far too many of "them" refuse to show me the same respect. I don't take offense when Christians tell me to have a "blessed" day, I thank them and drop it. I do get offended, however, when I politely tell a Christian that I don't want to talk about my beliefs and they respond by saying "they'll pray for my salvation," or they pointedly tell me that I'm heading to some mythological place of eternal torment because I don't (and can't) have faith in the mythical man in the clouds. Tolerance a two-way street.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  19. steelerguin

    It's all REM's fault. They should have never recorded the song "Losing my Religion". Look what a mess we are all in now.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  20. bear79

    most people agree that the idea of many gods is simply asinine. Well, if the notion of many gods is silly, isn't the notion of just "god" just as silly?

    October 9, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • David Stone

      Of course, but people are scare to take responsibility for their own lives.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • your to phunny

      Lol david that makes no sense as a response to bear79.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • David Stone

      Allow me to explain...people are TERRIFIED to face the fact that THEY ALONE are responsible for what happens to them in life. God gives them a hope that maybe someone else is actually in control.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Dan

      Thank you! You can never get a straight answer when you ask somebody who believes in a single god. It is silly.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • Madtown

      There are many gods, because there are many cultures. Humans created religions in an attempt to answer questions, questions that we may just be unable to answer.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
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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.