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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. Keith A. Sillsbury

    This is such GOOD news for the human species. To finally step up and out of the shadows of fear created by our own minds. In another twenty years we can see an end to this man created myth.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • blogo

      Still, the U.S. is about 50 years behind Europe (except for England, but they are not a part of Europe anyway).

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

      You will live forever wether you want to our not....always remember that

      October 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Lenhardt Saxton

      Keith A. Sillsbury... now there is a fake name.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Russell

      In another 50 or so you may be faced with reality that will bring you to your knees.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Ohwaityouareseriousletmelaughevenharder

      'Yup! Just like Russel says, better make sure you've got your God Insurance card in your pocket for the day when you kick the bucket! I mean, why not right? It's really scary to think of what might happen if you don't have God Insurance!'

      – The vast majority of self-proclaimed 'religious' people

      October 9, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  2. Wow I can Post here on CNN without registering and be Anonymous

    Demographic studies have shown several times that atheists and unreligious people have far fewer children than people of faith.

    I predict that within the next 50 years this faithless, self-centered and morally corrupt generation will die out. True, not everyone follows the same religion as their parents, but most do.

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

      The rational people will always prevail, regardless of the number of religious morons.

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

      Whew! You were worried there for a second that religious brainwashing might die out, weren't you?

      Good thing you've reassured yourself that what's happening doesn't mean anything. Dodged a bullet there.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • pat

      My parents were both athiests when I was born in the 1950's. My children, who now have children, were raised to be freethinkers, and as such, embrace atheism. We are not "self-centered and morally corrupt" but we do not believe in the supernatural.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Elopez4024

      Let me spin those numbers in this direction: The number of "unafiliated" is growing in part, like the article said, by being born in religious households and dropping out of it. So our increasing numbers isnt based of mere reproduction.

      ANother point: Yes, there is a direct correlation between education level and average of babies. I will gladly take one, maybe two kids, and make my six figure income in addition to my wifes 6 figure income, give our kids the best we can, travel, have a great house, and save up for retirement. I don't need, want or plan to have 6 kids. This isnt the agricultural age or sub-saharan africa. I actually want to provide the best for my kids, and still be able to enjoy life. TO go right ahead and have at it, octo-mom! Whats another three or five kids on welfare?

      October 9, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • pat

      Intelligent people have fewer children.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  3. blahblahblah

    Man created love.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  4. pat

    I am the one-fifth.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  5. Joe Mama

    No one is asking you to change, Art. Life does not have to be one extreme or the other. Things should exist in balance. People who do not have a religion and people who do. No biggie. Honestly, like the article says, a lot of these people are just happy admitting it now. Nothing is really different. Do you really think it's that important to have someone who does not believe in God lie and say that they do? At least now they are being honest.

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

      Balance: like irrational people and rational people?

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

      I can think of no benefit that believing in the fiction can offer that can't also be had by thinking rationally.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  6. blogo

    Morality chemical:

    October 9, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Sour Diesel

      This cannot be truth, it wasn't written about in the bible!

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

      That doesn't mean the chemical wasn't created.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  7. no reg

    man created god, man crated religion, man created war, man created greed. all man needs is love!

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

      true dat!

      October 9, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  8. HeidiC

    I live in the south and not to be affiliated with any religion is like being a devil worshiper for some folks around here. I basically have to be quiet about being a non believer and suffer the office prayers and the remarks that go with it. I am glad to hear this is changing, its a long time coming. Practice what you want but don't impose it on anyone.

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

      I'm in the same boat as you. People can be very petty when you don't cater to their little tribal behaviors. Lots of hostility and insecurity there.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • blogo

      Move to Sweden. About 85% atheist.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • LiveFromATX

      OFFICE prayers? *shudder*

      October 9, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • MCR

      I've lived in the South and found the non- believers more inclined to declare themselves Unitarian. It does make life simpler. That or joining a tight academic community...but I experienced academics in the South who espoused 'Marxist' beliefs and then went to church on Sunday! A very odd place.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Lefty Coaster

      Office prayers? wow. Props to you for not exploding.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • fintastic

      Yup, here too Heidi.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  9. Heinz Doofenshmirtz

    Thank God for that!!

    October 9, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  10. John Bear

    Nothing corrupts more than organized religion. Spirituality should be a personal thing. Best kept to oneself. Your beliefs can't be forced on others. Keep them to yourself.

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

      Spirituality shouldn't be at all, because there is no such thing as spirits. Discarding the ridiculous fables of organized religion only to start believing in ghosts and chi and acupuncture and psychic phenomena, it's just as preposterous and damaging to society's scientific growth. There is enough amazement and wonder in the world that we should not have to invent it.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  11. Nick Smith

    I will NEVER give up my belief in god. but that does not mean i push away everything that science says.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Sour Diesel

      Whatever dude, you're still delusional.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Nick Smith

      tell me how i am delusional.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Kafoodie

      Nick,

      It's simple. You're delusional because you believe in something for which there is no evidence and which is phenomenally unlikely. That's delusional. It's kinda like believing you're being watched by aliens.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  12. David Stone

    "Oh great invisible sky daddy, please protect me from the invisible horned devil that lives in the invisible fire pit below, and save me from myself since I lack the self control to run my own life".

    Signed – Loyal Christian

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

      You're so clever.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  13. Sour Diesel

    When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Dave R

      SPOT ON !

      October 9, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • How is this EVIL?

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVco8t-R8KU&w=640&h=390]

      October 9, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Ohwaityouareseriousletmelaughevenharder

      Religion and insanity are mentioned, and someone posts a video about kirk cameron in defense of religion.

      Why can't I hold all this irony? haha

      October 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  14. NorthVanCan

    Ahhh. Finally some good news!

    October 9, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  15. blogo

    The research shows that the civility doesn't come from god, by Oxytocin – a chemical in the brain. Only mammals have it. The fish and the lizzards don't. It enables us to be concerned about each other, with or without god.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  16. Dl

    Shame! It's better to belong to some religion that was created by a King 500 yeras ago because he wanted to divorce his wives and then act self righteous & indignant at the unbelievers.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  17. correctlycenter

    Gee, if we atheists/humanists can only reconstruct that Tower of Babel, we can be god again?
    And, if we can destract kids with santa claus and the easter bunny and make them think the holidays are all about them instead of Christ...
    And maybe since they took bibles out of the schools, maybe just maybe, we can stop people from believing in God. You people are using a lot of effort to fight and resist against something that supposedly doesn't exist...

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

      More like refusing to waste time and resources on something that doesn't exist.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      First off...Christians stole Christmas from the pagans.
      Second...Bibles/prayer can be used in schools by the students themselves...Teacher led prayer or instruction can't be!

      You are proving yourself to be an uneducated puppet!! Do a little research before sounding like the ass you sound like!!! The buybull is not the only source of info in this world nor are your preachers who spew exactly the delusions they want you to believe in order to keep you coming back and putting hard earned cash in to their pockets. Now run along back to the sand box or the asylum..only children and schizophrenics have imaginary friends (and you are sounding more like the latter with each post you make)

      October 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Elopez4024

      Distract people with Santa and Easter? Are you serious? The fact that those dates are when they are speaks of paganism. I could care less what imaginary totem you want to pray or what book of fairy tales you want to grant omnipresence. Just keep it away from me, and dont interfere in my life. I deal with enough nut jobs as it is.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  18. hINDUISM RACISM OF hINDU'S, CRIMINALS BY FAITH EXPOSED

    Atheism is hinduism, illegality borne out of frustration with hinduism corruption of truth absolute called religion's, take hindu Judaism, criminal self center ism, denial of truth absolute in hinduism, deception or hindu Mithra ism, savior ism labeled as Christianity, but bigamy, infidelity to truth absolute, constant GOD in reality along with Suni ism and Shea ism, all hindu criminal work of hindu Jew's, criminal self centered of Egypt and Persia by corruption of truth absolute to promote hinduism, racism and divide humanity on hindu fabricated lines with help of hindu criminal King's and their hindu corrupt Prophets, fortune tellers to make humanity their gentile, slave. By La. truth of Quantum Physics and teaching's of truth absolute, GOD there are no races nor classes of people but by hinduism, illegality of hindu atheist's, self centered, denier of truth absolute constant GOD in life. Human have to look deep in to hinduism, fabrication of hinduism, religion's before making any choice, Only choice for humanity is to make a Choice in following of truth absolute, constant GOD or face mayhem for hinduism, denial of truth absolute by hinduism, ignorance or by hindu, criminal choice.
    Word hindu is based on Latin word hindered, Hun, great, Han, to be in greatness, hin, to be negative to both of them, hindu, a noun in negativity, hinduism, way of negativity. for more visit limitisthetruth.com

    October 9, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • John Bear

      Take your meds. Now.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Ohwaityouareseriousletmelaughevenharder

      hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

      October 9, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • DKDC

      wow! I think you forgot to take your meds today

      October 9, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • fintastic

      Wow... what a load...

      October 9, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  19. steelerguin

    You folks got it all wrong. I can't imagine life without God. My faith gives meaning to my life. I hope someday you'll understand. Peace.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • your to phunny

      Many find meaning without religion. When will you understand?

      October 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • sam stone

      Not all of us need god to have meaning in our lives

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

      what in the world makes you think we don't understand?

      incredible logic you got there chief.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • T-Max73

      The fact that you can't "imagine life without God" or that your "faith gives (your) life meaning" are not arguments in favor of the existence of such a deity. Muslims say the same thing about Allah and Native Americans say the same things about their gods. The most likely conclusion is that your religion acts as a placebo and makes you feel this way. Peace.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • David Stone

      If the "meaning of your life" comes from invisible sky spirits, I truly pity you.

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

      If you truly want peace, then let everyone live their lives in the way that makes them happy. Do not interfere with my beliefs and I won't interfere with yours.

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

      We find peace because there is a God. We do not find it on our own. Let me say this. We are all on our own spiritual journies with our own stories to live and tell so who are we to judge each other in this forum? How boring this world would be if we were all alike and all lived and perceived things in the same way? We all have our roles to play.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  20. Art

    Satan is smiling. More people to join him in Hell. If I am the only one on the planet Earth that believe in Jesus so be it.! I will never change because of what people say or think!

    October 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • your to phunny

      Thatd a sick guess as to what will happen.

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

      I said that for 30 years. Never say never.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • sam stone

      Good for you, Art! Believe what you want. Believe in Jeebus, Satan, Santa, FSM, Baal, Jah, etc etc etc

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

      then what makes what you say and think would influence me?

      get over your undue self importance will ya!!!

      October 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • sam stone

      Also, Art: Any god that would sentence people to eternal torment is a petty vindictive pr1ck, as are those who would find comfort in such a god. Thanks for playing, though

      October 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • David Stone

      Don't worry, there are plenty of others who believe in imaginary sky spirits who live in cloud cities, and invisible horned devils who live in invisible fire pits. You will always have company.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Elopez4024

      Satan is smiling? Hell? Are you 10? Grow up.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Madtown

      I'd like to believe in Jesus too, it's just that I've never heard of him. I was born into a primitive tribal culture in the heart of Africa. Is there any hope for me to attain the special award that you get?

      October 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • DLM

      The article did not say that all of these people are atheists. I personally define myself as "spiritual" and have a deep love for God and believe in Jesus. However, I will not allow a church to tell me what is "right or wrong" and have them pick out the parts of the bible they like to justify their beliefs and values/morals. I also have no interest in the "mega-churches" that are led by great con artists that have legally found a way to make tons of cash and practice tax evasion. I believe that God made everyone and loves everyone. I believe that God gave everyone "free will" and I have no right how to tell others to live their lives. I believe that God is the ultimate judge, and therefore, I have no right to judge others. Religion should not be confused with worshiping/loving God.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Dave R

      You are a true follower..doing things because others have told you so. Remember, "FAITH" is defined as a belief that is not based on proof.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • sharon

      I'm with you Art! People are forgetting there is a hell. Whether they believe it or not, it's there. Satan and his demonic cohorts would want nothing more than for people to have no belief system at all. To all those who disagree, I would recommend you go to Youtube and search "near death experiences". There are countless testimonies of people who got a taste of the afterlife and were brought back to tell their stories. Some experienced hell, some saw glimpses of heaven, and some actually saw Jesus. These people didn't know eachother. Some were even blind in this life but were able to see in the next. The striking thing is that their afterlife stories are all similar.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • The FSM

      @Art
      Get perpared to be slimed by a garlic, parmesan and tomato sauce when my noodly appendage slaps you up the side of the head. The reward for being a doofus.
      Ramen.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • azlady630

      Yes and I am sure that Satan is also smiling at all of those "men of the cloth" who hide behind a clerics robes and molest little children! Why do you think that Satan has anything to do with not following a religon? Organized relgions are nothing but cults. Just because I do not find the need to be told what to do, what to read, what to think and how to vote does not make me a bad person. I know atheists that have more compassion and human kindness in their beings than people who go to church 3 times a week. Religion is the opiate of the people" (Carl Marks)

      October 9, 2012 at 1:01 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.