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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. blogo

    Stop religious brainwashing – and guess what? People naturally don't believe!

    October 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • hINDUISM RACISM OF hINDU'S, CRIMINALS BY FAITH EXPOSED

      Nature of human is truth absolute, constant, but lost in hinduism, hypocrisy of hinduism, corruption of truth absolute called religion's.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  2. Art

    Freedom of Speech...Freedom of Religon...

    October 9, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  3. clinky

    blogo, I've been reading these CNN threads on God and atheism each week. There has been an informal series of them lately. Hundreds of people attest to questioning the church they grew up in. Some decide to stay, some become SBNR in their own unique way, some jettison religious belief. Some people lose faith, some people find it. Cross-examining your parents' religion is very common, not the anomaly you think. What or how you believe or don't are very personal decisions and there is no trend to read except that organized religion is losing some degree of membership.

    Even if there were a social trend toward atheism, is that any reason to be convinced? Isn't that the same herd mentality that atheists complain Christians do, only in reverse? Better to think for yourself then wonder which way the wind is blowing.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Not believing in anything is different than believing in fairytales.

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

      See my comment above. Ever wonder why Muslims have children that believe in Allah, and Christians have children that believe in God? Coincidence?

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

      blogo, Your 10-word quip doesn't speak for lifetimes. (If you think it does, you have some broadening and growing to do.) The way people conduct private matters like the question of faith is very diverse and probably impossible to quantify. What I've taken away most from the CNN series is that individuals have widely different stories about their belief systems and doubts.

      lamb, Atheism is a metaphysical assertion like any other. Also, I'd wager most believers make a categorical distinction between believing fairy tales and God.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  4. Dlawrence

    This article was hilarious. First, to define no religion as a religion actually turns the very definition on its head. But then to make this a political article and state that the religiously unaffiliated will have a larger unified political voice to counter the religious voters is ludicrous, if a large block of voters by very definition are unaffiliated, how do they actually then share a unified voice. Hey, let's go down to the unaffiliated religious group so we can pontificate on our unified political stance. Even by writing this comment I'm supporting a ridiculous piece dribble, arrrgh.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  5. Matt

    Add to that, the people commenting on here about Christianity, have NO understanding of it.

    There is more than what you see on tv/choose to think

    October 9, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      Riiigghhht. Just keep telling yourself that – they just don't understand it.

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

      Nope. I'm betting a lot of commenters on here started out as Christians, questioned some of the concepts, started thinking for themselves, saw through the brainwashing, realized the insanity of it all and became non-believers. Count me into that group.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      It is precisely because many of us studied it that we rejected it. Better watch out what you wish for.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      False. I was raised catholic and have done extensive reading on religions of the world.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • NoTheism

      That's irrelevant.

      You may believe that unicorns exist and you build an entire religious system around 'em; but doing so doesn't change the fact that there still aren't any unicorns.

      You could write books talking about historical fact, and bringing in unicorns and the magic they do from time to time, and say that unicorns didn't create our universe because it is in fact part part of an infinite multi-verse (unicorns told you this); but they hold it together through their magical powers that we cannot even begin to understand.

      One day you come around talking about these unicorns and how they do all these things, and you have books that were written about them and so on; and you say: people talking on this blog don't understand Unicornism well, as there is much more to it.

      Well... ok, that still doesn't make it true!

      October 9, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • QS

      "There is more than what you see on tv/choose to think."

      That's funny....I say essentially the same thing to religious people about the bible – don't believe everything you read, choose to think.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Jordan

      I was raised in church. Started questioning everying. Became an Athiest for a few years. Then found my way back to God. So I see things from both sides of the line. Trust me, there will come a time in your life when you will need something/one much larger than yourself and if you ignore it then you will continue being an Athiest, commit suicide, or become so depressed that you can't function. I've been close to 2 and definately 1. If you realize that you can't do it by yourself, God will become more real to you than you ever thought was possible. It happened to me. You won't get it though and you will call it foolish and that's fine.

      @matt: it's like the old preacher who sat in on a lecture by an Athiest. When the Q&A part came up the old minister asked the Athiest what the apple he had just finished eating tasted like. When the Athiest said that he had no idea because he didn't taste it, the old minister said "neither have you tasted of my God." Athiests don't believe because they have not yet hit that time in their life when they have nowhere to look but to God. I completely agree with you brother. And remember, even the bible says that what seems foolish to others (athiests) is the wisdom of our belief.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  6. Mark

    There is no need for religion. All it is about is controling you steeling your money or killing or raping childern.So I do not see any point to it.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  7. Georges

    Christianity: The belief that a Jewish zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree...

    October 9, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      You took that right out of the dictionary of psychiatric terms didn't you?! ;)

      October 9, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Makes sense.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • That was gorgeous

      Georges, where can I send my check to you to help spread the word? Hallelujah Georges has arrived!

      October 9, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  8. Bootyfunk

    good news, everyone! people are starting to use their brains.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  9. liz

    What about the severely undercounted non-religious, religious person? I don't necessarily mean the ones who claim religion and fail to liive it in their day-to-day lives. I live in the Bible belt and I've never known more people who claim a strong connection to comservative Christianity yet rarely, if ever, attend church.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  10. correctlycenter

    Science, reason, logic and YOU were created by God. It was fun. Stop placing so much effort in foolishly attempting that the Intelligent Designer doesn't exist, you can't, and place more effort in THANKING God for all your blessings. God bless...

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

      also, don't try to fool santa claus or the easter bunny!

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

      and how do you know this? How do you know there aren't many gods, a god of reason, a god of science, and so on? How do you know that such god(s) would even CARE about you 'thanking" them? What if it's an evil god and it created the universe because it actually enjoys watching life come about so that it can be destroyed?
      Is there ANY reasonably good proof for any of your claims???

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

      You're going to be sorry when your boat sinks in a storm because you didn't sacrifice a goat to Thor!

      October 9, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • richunix

      Which GOD(s)

      The GOD of Pencil-Sharpener?
      The GOD RA?
      The GOD ZEUS?
      The GOD YAHWEH?
      The GOD AN?

      Please infom us, which GOD does the creating?

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

      In order to believe that your God exists, I would have to ignore all the evidence as you have. I am not willing to do that.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • snowboarder

      center – that is just looney. if there is in any form a force which began this universe it resembles the gods of men not one bit.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Del Kroupa

      Wrong. God was created by man, in his image, with all of his worst traits, such as pride and envy (thou shalt not have other gods), bloodlust (killing a child for talking back, and adulterers), and more. No thanks.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      Shaggy
      "You're going to be sorry when your boat sinks in a storm because you didn't sacrifice a goat to Thor!"

      Nay, you must drown a horse in sacrifice to Poseidon for protection - zounds!

      October 9, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  11. Matt

    Most of the people commenting on this should read the ENTIRE article. Atheism is not growing, people identifying as "Catholic" or "Baptist" growing.

    Not surprising people picking what facts they like and running with them.

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

      No, it says religously unaffiliated is growing and among those more are athiest or agnostic. This survey is a joke anyway, At my college campus I can honestly say out of 10,000 kids maybe 5% are religious. By that I mean attend church once a week. People trash religion as being stupid and outdated. The stats about younger people is more important because it indicates religion is dying out. Many kids would say that their parents are X religion or even claim it themselves but probably never attend church or read the bible and dont even believe that stuff in it.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • richunix

      NOT!...try again....people are waking up and seeing what religion really is.....Fakery

      October 9, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Matt,

      you have either made an honest mistake or you are delusional.

      Atheists and agnostics represent a very small part of society, but they have increased from 4% to 5.5% in the last five years.

      How is that NOT growing?

      http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

      October 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      More people are moving away from Catholicism than ANY other religion. (from other Pew data)

      October 9, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  12. J. D. Hunter

    I began to taste freedom after I threw away god.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  13. LNBigBearCA

    Just about time. There is hope for America.

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

    Keep your religion out of my government and out of my life. You want to worship, that is your business, but dont force me to listen to you

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

      Nabuna – please. No one is forcing you to listen to them. Unless you can honestly say that someone is holding a gun to your head while they talk, that is.

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

      @petercha Atheists don't stand on the corner and preach or come knocking on your door.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Petercha

      Way to miss my point, SkepticalOne. Preaching on a street corner or going from house to house does not involve force.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  15. Julio P.

    I understand that it IS tough for some people to accept that "God" was created by man, not the other way around. I'm not against religions though, they do serve a purpose and help some people.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • David Stone

      They keep the weaker among us in a "herd". Religion keeps the weak minded from acting out. Sad but true.

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

      does it? tell that to all the abortion doctors shot in the back by christian zealots. how about the KKK, a christian organization that has terrorized minorities in the south for over a century. also, christians are MUCH more likely to go to prison (commit crime) than atheists. non-believers, about 20% of the country - but in prison is only .2% of the population. so that means if you're a non-believer, you have a MUCH smaller chance of going to prison.

      so sorry, don't buy your premise. religions doesn't keep people from acting foolish at all. it encourages it.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  16. David Stone

    Religion is all about fear.....be scared of a horned devil torturing you for eternity, and because of this fear, bow down to the invisible sky daddy. Screw that.

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

      It's a bit more complex than that – it's a combination of fear, guilt and manipulation; all for the ultimate goal of control, not compassion as religions would have us believe.

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

      It is those with religion that have no moral compass. They need the fear of punishment from God to keep them from doing bad things.

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

      Wrong, Jack. Without a religion, people can make up whatever they want to be their moral compass – which equates to no moral compass at all.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • boballan

      No, it's even more complex than that. Were not robots–we have free will, and He does not force us to respond in love to the life he has given us here and forever with Him. It's a test of belief on the type of God we see him to be; either a God is a God that is seems too good to be true (creator, benefactor, passionately-sacrificing-crazy-in-love-with-us redeemer) or the God that harshly and severely punishes us with our own choice; eternity without him–because we said "screw that" to him, or just plain death, whichever the case may be.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  17. Petercha

    Scary. I'd rather see that people had a religion other than my own (except islam, maybe) than to see people with no moral compass at all.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • David Stone

      You equate no religion with no morals. Do you ever consider that some people actually treat others with respect because they want to on their own? I do it every day. No invisible sky daddy needed.

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

      By moral compass do you mean murder, intolerance, child molestation, bilking old people out of money?

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

      I don't need the threat of eternal torture to give me a moral compass, I have a brain for that.

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

      'If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed' ~ Einstein

      October 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Shaggy

      There has been secular philosophy longer than there has been Christianity or Islam. It makes more sense to quite a lot of people to determine their moral principles by logically extrapolating from a few base principles than by parsing the conflicting current interpretations of texts translated multiple times through several languages over thousands of years which are interspersed occasionally between records of tribal lineage, dietary customs, and war history.

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

      With no religion, people can make up whatever they want for their moral compass. Which equates to no moral compass at all.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • SkepticalOne

      Peter, it doesn't matter how many times you repeat it, that won't make it true. If you have to consult a book to determine what is good then you don't have a moral compass.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Petercha

      SkepticalOne, it doesn't matter how many times YOU repeat it, that won't make it true. If you choose not to consult a book to determine what is good then YOU don't have a moral compass.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Shaggy

      With religion people can make up whatever interpretation of whatever passage of the Bible, torah, Koran, etc they want to justify their actions, and they then do not have to support it with logic or consistency. People who do not rely on religious texts for their moral justification have to keep logical consistency, which is far more rigorous.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Petercha

      Shaggy, I appreciate your effort to keep to keep the tone of this discussion civil, unlike some others. But I must respectfully disagree with you. People who choose not to believe in a religion do not have to keep a logical consistency. They can believe mutually incompatible things if they want to, since there are no divinely inspired guidelines.

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

      "Shaggy, I appreciate your effort to keep to keep the tone of this discussion civil, unlike some others. But I must respectfully disagree with you. People who choose not to believe in a religion do not have to keep a logical consistency. They can believe mutually incompatible things if they want to, since there are no divinely inspired guidelines."

      This is hugely wrong. The bible for example is a hugely inconsistent work, and every page is held to be equally logically binding by adherents. This is building a house on quicksand. The bible can't even keep it's story straight in the first two chapters. There are two names for God in the original texts, and either takes six days to make the Heavens and the earth or one day to make the Earth and Heavens. Adam is created first and then given dominion over the animals made next, and all of the earth. Next time around animals are made first and Adam can't leave a special garden. First time man and woman are created together, second time there is the whole woman made from man's rib thing. This isn't one small thing here, and people use these basic "facts" that are contradictory and find modern implications in them.

      In a philosophical, logical derivation of morality, no one would start with a jumble of contradictory nonsense so clearly linked to ancient tribal culture. Someone might for example begin a logical moral structure based on a few assumptions about life, happiness, and fulfillment. But how is this improved by adding in that eating shellfish is an abomination and you need to cut the little piece of skin at the end of a male's penis off?

      October 9, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  18. David Stone

    "Don't anger the invisible sky daddy, or he will make you stay with the invisible horned devil creature who will poke you with a pitchfork in the invisible fire pit FOREVER! Praise jesus...."

    October 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  19. Jessica

    Finally! Science and logic. I love this article. Religion is outdated, at least the forms we participate in.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Kevin H

      "Religion is outdated, at least the forms we participate in." You got my attention with that comment...what forms do you recommend?

      October 9, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  20. Jean, Des Moines, Iowa.

    This poll should have the category "organized western religion" – and who follows that or doesn't? Organized Christianity has become an intolerant, bigoted, small-minded "pick and choose" (with emphasize on the Old Testament and the prejudices and misinterpretations of its writers) rather than the teachings of the man, Jesus, which Christianity is suppose to be. That is why many are pulling away from organized religion. It doesn't mean they do not have faith – it is how that faith has been gradually turned into a political and narrow-minded theology.

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

      I haven't stepped foot in a church for around 4 years for that very reason. You hit the nail on the head. The American protestant church has become nothing but a giant corporation/country club. It's ridiculous. The picking and choosing of what is emphasized is sickening. It's just such a sham and a shame what it has become. I consider myself a Christian but refuse to align myself with a church due to the reasons you pointed out.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:47 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.