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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. Guru_spiritual

    Not here to promote a religion but Sikhism is the only religion that goes along with science to a greater distance than any other religion.It does not believe in AVATARS who came to the world in a shape(body) and then died coz the creator does not die,he is shapeless,he does not scare anyone,he does not force himself on the people.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • hINDUISM RACISM OF hINDU'S, CRIMINALS BY FAITH EXPOSED

      Borrowed from Islam. Part hinduism, pagan ism, part Islam. Koshered pig.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Guru_spiritual

      Half knowledge is more dangerous than having none.If i ask you ABC of sikhism,if am sure you don't have any clue.So please read before you speak.Thx

      October 9, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • ME II

      If the selling point is Science, why not just go with Science?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Yeah, but apparently they cant run very fast.

      Can they make a decent bomb?

      You need good explosive skills if you want to rule the cult world.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  2. MagicPanties

    It's time to tax the churches.
    I'm tired of subsidizing these cults.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  3. BigSkyHumanist

    Because of our secular society, Christians have been drug kicking and screaming into the modern world. If it were not for the separation of church and state, slavery could be legal, women would still be considered property, child labor laws repealed, blasphemy laws reinstated, divorce outlawed again. Freedom of religion is not biblical.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • hINDUISM RACISM OF hINDU'S, CRIMINALS BY FAITH EXPOSED

      Believers in GOD, truth absolute can not be secular's, get some education, hindu, ignorant.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  4. Debb

    Even at age 10, sitting in a pew, I used to think to myself, this is BS. I would not call myself religious.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • WordUpToo

      Yep Debb, that's about when it all hit me as a bit silly too. NOthing has changed my mind since. I guess we were a couple of the smarter ones.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • David V

      It was when I actually read the bible when I was 14 and kept asking myself why this book contradicted itself so much. I severed all my ties with the church after that. Haven't been to a mass in a long time.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  5. Guru_spiritual

    why my comments are not posted??

    October 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • dmoney

      y u no grammar?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Helpful Hints

      Guru

      See the list of hints on page #8

      October 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  6. BunnyPumper

    It's about time that our species started growing out of the stupidity that is religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  7. Tim

    We can't "lose" our religion fast enough, it's what is wrong with this world. Did anyone notice that this story was directly under the one about the Pakistani girl who was shot by a religious extremest because she spoke out against them? She wants to go to school and the religious practices in the area don't allow that. How long before crap like that comes to America? In many ways it has been here for a long time. If you want to believe in a fairy tale, go ahead, but stay out of the public and stop spreading your delusions.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • sneeky

      My friend that krap HAS BEEN in America for way too long already! I find this to be awesome news though that the ranks of the Non-religious are growing.... ie, more Americans are basically "coming out of the closet" as far as religion goes. The less religion we have in our daily lives and esp. our politics, the better. We can only improve. Religion is a "dumbing down" of the mind. Blind acceptance over fact can never be a good thing. Let's keep these numbers growing people!! We have about another generation of religious mental zombies to go through before we'll really start making the progress we need.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  8. Atheist Hunter

    hawaiiguest..........obviously you been chatting with a different atheist hunter. I don't hide nothing, never did. It's a fact. Syria is your future. Take a look a the new toys (vehicles) that dept. of homeland security just purchase and maybe the incenerators recently purchased and stacked at FEMA camps. This is you godless society. What do you recon Obama needs stack of huge incenerators for? We gonna roast marshmallows and troll around in our military vehicles in the US singing the Barney song? You're sad at best. You live in your little atheist, nothing could happen to me, bubble don't ya?

    October 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • OldSchool

      LOL wow... crazy just oozes out of your pores doesn't it?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Atheist Hunter

      How can you see through your rose colored glasses.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • waitasec

      sweden is doing pretty good for a godless country captain, so what is your point?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • WordUpToo

      ...into your life it will creep....

      paranoia strikes deep!

      October 9, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Dude.

      Syria is just a cheaper way to deal with Fundies than Social Scurity.

      You don't think any of us are foolish enough to go?

      What are you CRAZY? Send the Jeebus freaks

      October 9, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • sam

      I hear tin foil is on sale this week if you need to redo your hat...

      October 9, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • David V

      If you seriously believe anything you are saying, get help now.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  9. William Demuth

    Smugness leads to stupidity. I don't mean to come off as smug, but I'm a bright guy. ...really....trust me.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Nah, I really am smug

      Say howdy to Mom, remind her about losing the lounge piercing.

      It gives me hives on my privates.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • William Demuth

      I picked a bad week to start licking toads. I can't keep up with my own gibberish.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  10. Martin

    The Catholic Church is the largest organization of pedophiles in the world. Islam is pure evil and the things done in its name awful and disgusting. Judaism is the source of massive unrest and war in the middle east. Buddhism is not likely to gain much ground in the US and other religions such tiny minorities here they stand little chance of growth as well.

    And they wonder why people are turning away from these organizations.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • hINDUISM RACISM OF hINDU'S, CRIMINALS BY FAITH EXPOSED

      Openion of of a hindu ignorant Atheist, self centered like a hindu pig, filthy self centered. Atheist.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • WildMontana

      Bravo! Religion is the source of all evil in the world today. The faster religion is gone along with the wingnuts, the better off we'll be.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  11. William Demuth

    I wonder how much the little boy buggering by preachers impacted this.

    I guess they sunk to many exploratory wells into too many altar boys?

    October 9, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  12. jrodpace

    great – just dont tell the GOP – republicans!!

    be spiritual and do good

    unlike man made religion

    believe in God!! we're all one!

    October 9, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  13. pelegrim

    Good. Once religion is a belief that lives in the minority, we'll all be better off.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  14. Striker

    You want to know where the 3 branches of government came from, Isaiah chapter 32 verse 22 (32:22) Separation of powers Jeremiah 17, tax exempt status for churches and charitable organizations Ezra 7:24. Get it through your heads our country was built on the foundation of the Bible. Without that foundation the US will fall. Proverbs 23:10 says "Do not remove the ancient landmark" Proverbs 16:12 says "A throne is established by righteousness, Psalm 9:17 says

    October 9, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • hINDUISM RACISM OF hINDU'S, CRIMINALS BY FAITH EXPOSED

      No need to mention book of hindu Mithra ism, racist savior ism, reject of son of blessed Mary, book of hindu Jew's criminal deniers of truth absolute.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Pool Side

      Doesn't really matter. We should constantly be improving it. Good ideas can come from anywhere.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Thomas Jefferson

      The Bible is just a book written by some men. That doesn't mean they didn't have some good ideas I guess. So what are you arguing exactly?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Home schooled by an abusive father I guess?

      Using the Bible to defend Christianity?

      Circular logic dude, and you know it.

      Calm your demons and get therapy

      October 9, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Mike

      When was the last time you make a blood sacrafice on the temple altar? That is also mandated in the old testament.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      CS ?

      Peace...

      October 9, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • ME II

      Where exactly did the 1st Amendment, freedom of religion, come from? It seems in direct contradiction to the 1st commandment.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • BunnyPumper

      A reasoning person doesn't need moldy old texts and mystical bloviation to understand or craft the articles of a successful nation. You people credit your god with creating the whole world, too. Explain that one without the circular logic of referring to your bible to explain your bible.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • sam

      If this is a Poe, it's the best one yet. Bravo, dude.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • jrodpace

      wow – so I guess we have God to blame for taxes and goverment....Yet the GOP wants a smaller goverment....Because sure – the Govt can't do anything better than the private sector.... the private sector is good at a lot of things like destroying the wealth of the middle class – and take us to the moon... or hold on that was the Goverment.

      Better yet lets do what the GOP wants – and that is infuse the religion into the goverment and while we're at it – let's change the name of the country to United Pakistan... and give more power to Priest to have their fun with what they like most...

      God forgive those who only see and believe what's in front of them... like the Koram, the Bibble – etc... the challenge has always been to have faith in good regardless of how it presents itself – whether in the form of paper or hallucination

      This country was built by people with the belief and resources they had at the time....If they had the science advancement we have today I think those same people – The Founders would have been even more progresssive... the irony!

      October 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  15. nowayjesus212

    There's a reason the religious right hates people with science degrees. They have no explanation for how/why the earth is older is 6,000 years. I had my fill once my church told me I was not a Christian unless I hated gays and opposed abortion. I frankly never cared about those issues, and I took offense at being told that I had to, and once I went to college and started taking my biology classes seriously it occurred to me why they didn't like it. I will never step foot back in a church again after that experience. Yes, be offended believers, but while taking offense, please, I challenge you to explain to this board how it is that Jonah survived for three days in the belly of a whale. Good luck.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Mike

      Exactly. At some point, the church quit talking about what they were for (taking care of those who need to be taken care of) and became overwhelmed with talking about what they are against.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      When I was around 14 years old, I was friends with a fellow from a devoutly Baptist family.
      He suffered from a degenerative eye disease in which scar tissue built daily on his coneas.
      His family told him that if he prayed hard enough and was a good enough Christian, God would cure him.
      The whole time I knew him, he was wracked with guilt for not being righteous enough, though he was the kindest, most loving person I had known.
      He is blind now.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  16. fritz

    To the Christian I asked, "Why did you steal my money?" The Christian replied, "Well, um, it wasn't my fault! I backslid! We all do it from time to time! But it doesn't matter. If I pray hard enough God will forgive me so I can steal again tomorrow and still get my Heavenly reward. You see, God turned us all into sinners because He was mad at Adam for letting that evil woman Eve beguile him into eating that rotten fruit. We have no choice but to be sinners! God made us that way! We are born sinners and we will continue to sin against you ubelieving heathens until Judgement Day. Besides, the Devil made me steal your money because God in His infinite wisdom...let him."

    October 9, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • pocoyo

      God does not make us sin we choose to. If God did not allow Eve to decide on whether or not to eat the fruit, then we would not have free will. In that sense we would all be little robots dooing whatever God wants. God does not want that He loves us so he gave us a choice to love Him back or not He does not force Himself on us that would not be love. So He lets us have freewill, and choose.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  17. Samuel

    That is exciting! Surely this number is even greater, considering how many agnostics live quiet lives not discussing their doubts to those around them who are so blindly convinced.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  18. SequoiaAdmirer

    Please READ in the Holy Bible.... Revelation 13 and 14! That what they talk about Catholicism will control the world and they give you mark 666 if you choice them who keep the Sundays! But Jewish keep the Sabbath but problem is no believe in Jesus... while Muslim do on every Fridays! But Jesus keep the Sabbath! It's important we must keep God's commandment which is on 7th day on the week is rest and worship on Sabbath. No one supposed to change to Sunday. Because God never change for any reason. God is prefect schedules. God never change his mind! But Papacy did changed it for bad reason about Jesus resurrection on the Sunday! He NEVER SAID CNANGE from Saturday to Sunday period! That how Satan deceived to the world! That's so sad many millions people didnt know the truth! But on both politicians did not read the Bible very good! I don't care how intelligent they are! Lot of them have missing the most important- God! God is a key than anything in the world! Therefore I will not vote any of them because they did make bad suggest for example they think gay and lesbian are nothing wrong which are bad example to make them to vote more scores! It's bad. Don't argue with me that Jesus coming very very soon! I m telling you that I can see how the world go so worst crazy, hates, lies, bad disasters causes by mother natures. Time is near! Dont be mocking at God by saying where is God! God is very deadly powerful than forever! Oh I love Jesus so much.... I dont care what they think but like to tell you now the words are in your mind as judgement in every seconds by the Heaven! Make wise and your choices. I honest I don't trust the politicians because they are not prefect and make so many mistakes or being greedy... plus controls us to be trapping... I already knew. I m ready for being prosecuting by whom against the God's commandments.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • pelegrim

      Dude, that is some BORING sh**.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Robert Siddall

      You are a very silly man. Taking bronze age myths so seriously really is very good for you.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Robert Siddall

      You are a very silly man. Taking bronze age myths so seriously really is not very good for you.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  19. Uklotan

    Really for real. They only worship food stamps and do not vote. That is their religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • scott

      Actually, you would be surprised; The vast majority of the science community is atheist/agnostic. On the flip side, less than 1% of America's prison population is atheist.

      I am an atheist serving in the military; I provide for my family, and I do vote.

      Scary, huh?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  20. Sergey

    Christians are about the same percentage of the American population as white people.
    Now imagine for a second that in the debate last week, Mitt Romney said:
    "In America we are all WHITE" instead of saying "We all believe we are children of the same god".
    It is outrageous that a presidential candidate can dismiss a fifth of the population out of hand!

    October 9, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • relmfoxdale

      And if he's said "we are children of the same natural forces" or something, he'd have offended 4/5 of the population. Your point?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Sergey

      relmfoxdale,
      You have entirely misunderstood my point.
      It was the fact that he said "WE ALL believe" that I found dismissive of atheists.
      If he said "We are children of god" I would not be offended because he would be talking about his beliefs and not mine.

      By the way, I really like the way you put it, WE ARE THE CHILDREN OF NATURAL FORCES.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:42 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.