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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 • Faith Now • Politics • Polls

soundoff (7,763 Responses)
  1. JohnC

    Many will dismiss those that don't believe by saying they need to read and pray and search and they will then know. But few of those people actively do what the advocate for other religions. Even fewer do so for other things that many believe. How many believing Christians have actively researched claims of alien abductions. One must admit that most religious people wanted to believe then read and such to better support what they wanted and to shape their general thoughts into something more specific. Also we know that most that read the Bible don't interpret it correctly. We know that for a fact because they very often interpret it differently than others. Since there is only one truth then at most one interpretation is correct meaning the others are wrong. Often you have two that are very sincere, pray, read, and listen to others and yet have VERY different interpretations. There's no point in me believing just to believe as it's all about finding the truth so it's important what I believe is the truth and not just what I WANT to be the truth.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  2. cWhatsNew

    No, I didn't lose it, I got rid of it, if "IT" is defined as group based, top to down practice. I keep my spiritual practice to myself as my private matter. I do not want to be used by human-bond interest using "religion" as a mass market. I can not bear to sit there and listen to the nonsense that only if you listen to my sermon on my schedule, in my church of my God can go the heaven, all others go to hell, including those practicing Yoga.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  3. Lapsed

    I left organized religion when I discovered that the most evil, vile and mean people are those who are supposed to be religious leaders. Religion is like sausage, many people like it, but nobody should see how it is made. Having been inside the religious industry as a lay employee, I saw the evil perpetrated by those in so called leadership positions.

    The Bible was written by humans and is interpreted by humans. Committees of people decided what books were to be included and excluded. The Bible is no more of a divine book than any other book.

    To proclaim god's goodness and then lie about protecting a small child from an abusive parent was enough for me to break off any further involvement with organized religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • MDAT

      Misused a quote buy Otto Von Bismark "Laws are like sausages,better to not see the being made"

      October 9, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  4. Robert

    Now if people would just follow these principles

    1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
    2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
    3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth;
    4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
    5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in society at large;
    6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
    7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • William Demuth

      And cookies and milk at nap time.

      Dude it is dog eat dog.

      Always has been, always shall be!

      October 9, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Mike

      Funny, these are all things that Jesus taught.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • TSB8C

      But why would adhere to any of those principles if I do not believe humans are part of a common family, created with a purpose, or destined for anything more than mortal existence? If I believe I am just a higher form of animal inhabiting a planet that started as a large ball of gas and dust and that my mortal death marks the end of my existence, then why not get what I can, disregarding the expense and suffering of others, with no regard to my future state based on actions? That's how all other animals live on this planet. If I'm just another animal, then that's how I will act. When we teach our children they are just animals who were lucky to be at the top of the evolutionary leader, then we should not expect any better behavior our outlook on life than what all other animals do.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Robert

      Maybe, but not 3 and 4. Jesus wanted you to believe what he wanted you to believe.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Rebecca

      Exactly

      October 9, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • jungleboo

      At this point, Mr Demuth, your cruelty is showing. Science is offering profound evidence that human beings have compassionate cellular structure that allows us to share feelings, thereby improving the object of the darwinian Principle of survival of the fittest. We will do well to enjoy our similarities and work cooperatively. Dog eat dog is about dogs. You are not a dog.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Robert

      could this be the founding principles of a religion/spiritual commmunity?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Yes, most certainly. It would be expected for prehistoric humans to see something "godlike" in the inner voice that speaks to more thoughtful behavior, a kind of guiding light. But the very structure of cellular success depends on the cooperative outlook. Once cells join together, they must work together to survive as a community of like-minded individuals. They actually depend on each other, rather than succeed by attacking each other. Thus was religion born. And we would do well to ditch religion now that we have a scientific understanding of the underlying principles. Nothing bad about becoming omniscient. Look at what we have achieved in a few short years with the Internet.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  5. George Zipp 1980

    So the "Independents" have reached the world of religion. HO-HUM.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  6. Live and Let Live

    Religion: The art of peddling an imaginary cure for an imaginary disease.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  7. David

    Yawn. So... more and more people who in the past would have called themselves religious but were not practicing (which has always been the majority of people anyway) are now just admitting that God is not a meaningful factor in their lives, or they never believed in him anyway. This isn't news, it's just the natural trajectory of a modern secular society. People that don't believe in god feel like they can be honest about who they are without being discriminated against by the religious masses. This sounds like a healthy thing to me.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  8. Cory

    This article is more about the affiliation by domination than a lack of christian views. Just because people don't identify with a church does't mean they are not Christian or would Christian beliefs. Very misleading article.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Wrong

      Many are saying your God is an outright lie.

      Never existed at all.

      Just a marketing campaign to seduce the ignorant into subservience.

      And it seems to be working as planed.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • NoTheism

      It's not misleading at all, it's people's reading comprehension and bias that prevents them from understanding what the article is saying. It is a survey report, that's it....

      October 9, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Cory, "Christian " beliefs are not in any way, shape or form the sole property of "Christianity". Christianity is nothing more than the AH HA Moment for the Mediterranean Basin peoples 2000 years ago. The rest of the world was doing quite well on their own, making their own mistakes, and loving and learning without the so-called Christian faith. The Golden Rule, a basic tenet of Christianity was not invented by Jesus Christ. If he existed at all, he simply recognized the basic value of considering your neighbors before satisfying oneself at their expense. No big deal, except that it was simultaneously harnessed by the Roman Empire and turned into the HOLY Roman Empire and then split into smithereens of warring Christian factions. Keep your head down where it belongs until you can think independently.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  9. Morgan

    I'm Christian, but I don't give money to churches because there's just way too much corruption and greed in religion these days.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Johnny

      These days? It has been like this forever.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  10. matt

    Finally, some good news.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  11. Tom Victor

    I am willing to Trade in My Belief in Jesus Christ to Vote for a man who Bows down before copper plates brought by Space aliens...to Hell with Jesus & His Teachings ...God Bless Romney and the Mormon Church!!!

    October 9, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Amniculi

      Gold, not copper. Jeez! Get it right!

      October 9, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • JJ

      Just love it when you Christians with your equally ridiculous myths ridicule others.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  12. Jonathan Jupp

    So there IS a shining star out there in the future. Organized religion is a massive scam upon the sheep.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  13. derp

    Isn't it funny listening to christians lecturing about morality when their entire faith is based on the accepted fact that they will not behave morally.

    That's really funny.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Amniculi

      Not so much funny but scary.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Silly1

      Its all scary. Whether it is a religious purge of non-believers or a atheist survival of the fittest mass genocide. People are morons.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Amniculi

      Whoa! Who said anything about a mass genocide?

      October 9, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Silly1

      There are as many crazy atheists as crazy religions nuts (percentage wise). I have heard some interesting theories on survival of the fittest and how that should scientifically be applied to the world from some extremist atheists. Point was that religion doesn't have the market cornered on crazy, there is plenty to go around.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  14. Joe

    This really wouldn't be so much of an issue if the all powerful God, who created everything including us, whom he loves so much, would just show up and say "hi, it's me God. Like me on facebook!"

    October 9, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • jimbob

      And maybe revise that confusing book.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  15. Don

    I have been affiliated with the Baptist Church for almost 50 years and I have always stood by the idea that organized religion will be the downfall of Christianity.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  16. A W Messenger

    Jesus never believed in religion either.
    He believed in loving and glorifying God, and loving your neighbor as yourself.
    Even though I go to church, I don't believe in religion either.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Amniculi

      You seem to be a very confused person then.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • A W Messenger

      It appears that way to those who have hardened their hearts to God.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • MDAT

      Well we don't need god to be a good person.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  17. Doc Vestibule

    @B-man
    What are you, a Mormon?

    October 9, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  18. KyRunner

    Christianity is still growing faster and also tighter then all other faiths. CNN and other liberals have been doing this for years trying to slander Christianity. Give it a break

    October 9, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • MDAT

      No.There is no proof.Protestants are no longer a majority.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      The only places Christianity is growing are in third world countries where missionaries give food, water, medicine and swag to those who convert.
      "Cognite intrare"

      October 9, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • waitasec

      no, christians are slandering christianity just fine...

      October 9, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Thomas Jefferson

      @MDAT Christians don't believe in proof. Duh.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • derp

      The only places where religion is growing is where people are stupid and poor. All across the first world, religion is disappearing.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • KMW

      CNN is very, very anti-Christian. Would they write the same way about Muslima or Jews? I think not.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • No Way Yahweh

      The atrocities committed by the church or by people doing "Gods" work speak for themselves. The history of Christianity is it's own worst enemy, no one has to make up false accusations.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Amniculi

      MDAT, not a majority. Plurality, yes, but not a majority. Here's your proof:

      http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2012/10/09/non_religious_americans_now_one_fifth_of_the_population_according_to_pew_survey_.html

      October 9, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Tom k

      You can smash your hands to your ears all you want. The truth moves forward without you regardless whether you choose to believe it or not.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Amniculi

      Oops. Sorry, MDAT. Read your comment incorrectly.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • pauleky

      @KyRunner – I hope the "Ky" in your name doesn't stand for Kentucky because, if it does, you're playing into the stereotype of ignorance. Please show me where Christianity is being "slandered" in this article. And, I have to ask, why do most questions tremble in fear at anything they see as questioning their faith (the rise of secularism, equal rights for gays and women, etc.)? If one's faith is strong, you should not be bothered by this. Your faith belongs in your heart, your home and your church. This is America – we're a melting pot, not a theocracy. I wonder what Christians will think if Islam becomes the majority and they attempt to put their faith in our schools, government offices, etc. Somehow, I think shouts of "separation" will be heard from the steeples.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • MDAT

      thanks for clarifying that.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • pauleky

      Christians, not "questions."

      October 9, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • OTOH

      KMW,

      No religion means no Islam and no Judaism either.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • OTOH

      p.s. If and when we get some Muslim or Jewish posters, we'll debate with them too.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  19. William Demuth

    Three thousand Gods have come and gone, long since forgotten or relegated to Pop Culture.

    Jesus faces the same destiny.

    Just as we now name cars after Roman Gods, the best Jesus can hope for is that we name an SUV after him.

    You see, regardless of whatever denial the Christians put forth, the score remains

    God discrediting Atheists 3000
    Jesus Christ Zero

    Time to put the fantasy aside and build a new one.

    Perhaps we can cobble together a new Frankengod, with bits and pieces of the dead and forgotten Gods of the past.

    After all, that technique worked wonders for Christianity.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • malibu123

      "If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first." John 15:18

      Thanks for doing your part in fulfilling what Christ said 2000 years ago.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • derp

      My new hybrid Messiah gets 42 miles per gallon.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • jesus christ

      200 – 300 active religions today.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Malibu, you are a simpleton.

      Christ is a fabrication, and your beloved Bible is just a Bronze Age Facebook.

      Next time, if you want to create an imaginary Super Hero from from Palestine, I suggest you do a better job of it.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • jesus christ

      @Malibu123: Proverbs 12:1 Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • jesus christ

      @malibu123: I got bible verses too mudafuker

      October 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Very well put. Thank you for presenting a clear, concise discussion.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • derp

      "Thanks for doing your part in fulfilling what Christ said 2000 years ago"

      I bet this doosh believes in the rapture too.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • OTOH

      malibu123,

      You mistake disbelief for 'hate'. Do you hate Zeus or Odin?

      October 9, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  20. xirume

    Thank God people are starting to realize the absurdity of religion. It's about time.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • No Way Yahweh

      The sooner the better.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:32 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.