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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. Atheist Hunter

    There are over 800 confirmed FEMA camps in the United States and growing. However, a Google maps search of Rex 84 returns over 3,000 results. What are all of these camps for?

    Why would the government ever need so many camps unless they are planning for martial law? What other purpose could logically call for such a high number of detainment facilities?

    The largest confirmed FEMA detention camp, which is in Alaska, has the potential capacity limit of 2 million people. According to the U.S. Census, Alaska only contains 698,473 citizens.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Paranoia is a trademark of zealotry.

      The truth is you don't matter at all and it drives you mad.

      You have been ignored your whole life and always will be.

      You see you are not well, it comes off you like the stench of a dead fish.

      If you REALLY believe your own nonesense, now ould be the time to seek some therapy

      Clonazepam and some generic SSRI along with cognitive behavioral therapy seems like a good starting place.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Atheist Fools

      True and those who built these are Atheists, we're heading for another Atheists Nazi regime.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Henry

      Wasn't this basically the plot of X-Files?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Atheist Hunter

      William Demuth..........."Clonazepam and some generic SSRI along with cognitive behavioral therapy seems like a good starting place." Sounds like you know. Does it work for you? Must not, all you do is stay on this blog fighting an invisible God you don't believe in. How sad you are!

      October 9, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Petercha

      Atheist Hunter, how is this related to the topic at hand?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Dip Stick

      A 9mm round cost the US about 2 cents.

      Why move you to Alaska? To work on a snow farm?

      They would cap you and leave you to rot wherever you fell.

      You don't warrant transport

      October 9, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @Atheist Hunter

      You've gone off the deep end. You have allowed your mind to be poisoned where you can't even recognize reality anymore. Please seek professional help.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Atheist Hunter

      The Jews thought it would never happen to them too and they are God's chosen. Do you think American's are more special than others like jews, syrians, etc.? WAKE UP PEOPLE! Your godless society is leading you to the slaughter.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • NoDescript

      Atheist Fools: You do realize that the VAST majority of Nazi Germany considered themselves to be either Protestant or Catholic, right? Not a single atheist in the mix....

      October 9, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  2. ohioudave

    I think the number is actually a bit higher but most are too afraid to admit it. Regardless, the truth is that Americans have been trying to reinvent their religions for yeas. Most Catholics take birth control. Most Jews eat pork. In addition, most people calling themselves Christians can't even describe the holy trinity or know what it means to be a Christian. More and more people have flocked to new age versions of paganism only because it went mainstream in pop culture. We get polls showing 75% of Americans are Christians. It's not even close.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  3. vonn

    Science Knows the big bang but don't know from what.. The Bible tells them it is right in front of them.. Hebrews11 11, 1-3.. Now Faith is the SUBSTANCE of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear..

    But of course this is foolish to the human mind..But the mind is not were you hear from God...

    October 9, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  4. kent

    great. now we'll have to read and hear how the world is closer to the end from the religious scare squad, since more are turning away from their invisible nonexistent friend in the sky.

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

      Another proof of the Bible.. Few will enter the kingdom of God for the sayings of God is foolishness to man .. More proof in the last days.. Thanks you for pointing that out..

      October 9, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  5. Ken Vaughn

    There is a reason 95% of all hard scientists (Physics, Chemistry, Biology etc...) are Atheists. I understand simple peoples need for religion. It is a tactic created to control. Napoleon said it was created to keep the poor from killing the rich. Faith is defined as belief with no evidence or proof for that belief. That is the opposite of science. Archaic thinking. People are not as gullible as they used to be.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Chris

      Yes, look at the great advances that scientific atheism brought in the communist countries. Why did those idiots ever want out of those societies.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Petercha

      Ken, I have never heard that figure before. But I have heard that the majority of scientists are Christians. Care to name your source?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • John

      @Chris

      Atheism has nothing to do with communism. One is lack of a religious belief, the other is a social and financial doctrine. You are an idiot if you think those two are somehow connected.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  6. Dale

    Religion fails when it becomes the controller of men and that is what religion has become, it controls men and their actions. This regardless if you are Christan , Muslim, or Jewish. Gods, Yahweh's, and Allah's message has been so distorted over time that people have to pull away from religion and reevaluate what religion is and how it fits into their life. Mass murder in the name of someones God is another reason religion is failing; and no religion is innocent of this crime against humanity. "Follow my God and my religion or else" is not a message supports religion but clouds its message of love and peace.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Chris

      Yes, unlike the mass murders in the name of the great atheists like Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot; and the current atheist leader Kim of North Korea.....great heritage you atheists have.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • JustRight

      Chris – provide one single reference that shows those murders were in the name of atheism...you cant because they werent.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Daniel

      Inquisition, Jihad, Crusades, witch burnings, etc...Great Heritage you have there Chris.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Petercha

      JustRight – but they WERE committed in the name of the atheistic system of Communism.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  7. Josie

    I have filled that out in the past...and opt to choose no religion because typically the religion I practice is not listed. I know of many in my boat. I am not Christian, Islamic, Jew, etc. So these serveys can be very misleading.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Petercha

      You raise a good point, Josie.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  8. P4perspective

    We just all need to realize that their are many paths to the same place.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  9. Jzar

    God sucks!

    October 9, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  10. Atheist Fools

    Atheist are getting mad? lol The truth hurts? lol

    October 9, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Nah, not mad

      EVEN.

      Payback!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      October 9, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • brad4nyc

      Nah, we are just getting real!
      God is imaginary and it is proved at http://godisimaginary.com

      October 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Petercha

      "Even", William? Somehow I doubt that the person with the screen name "Atheist Fools" ever did anything to you.....

      October 9, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  11. BikerMiker

    When there are major global problems facing mankind like, world hunger, global warming, nuclear proliferation, overpopulation, desertification, etc, etc – it is extremely depressing to see so much energy wasted on divisive religious extremism on ALL SIDES. The world needs unity to address all of these problems, not divisive bickering and radicalism over which god is 'the best' or 'the right' god. Religions, in general, create way more problems than they solve. They allow people to justify behavior that, when measured against the well-being of all of mankind, is simply wrong. Believe whatever you choose to believe but keep it to yourself and don't force your beliefs on anyone else. And then let's rationally discuss how to solve the real problems in this world.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • hINDUISM RACISM OF hINDU'S, CRIMINALS BY FAITH EXPOSED

      product of hinduism, denial of truth absolute.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  12. DE

    The only things religions have accomplished is to bring bigotry, hate, pain, suffering and death into the world.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      I don't think religion introduced those things – but it certainly honed those ugly facets of human nature into tools of statecraft and control.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      This ignorance has been debunked so many times it's not even worth listing the references. Look it up yourself unless you are content in your bigotry

      October 9, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @Bill Deacon

      While I don't agree that religion has only contributed those things, are you saying it never has?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  13. DJR

    there is nothing alarming in this to the faithful. It is taught that that is how it will be, it is Biblical fact. Gee, it is to say what the BIBLE states is so, I'm constantly amazed that journalist who believe in there insight to knowledge are not so knowledgeable. If they were they would finish their columns with, "Just as it is for told it would be." the President himself could not describe what CHRIST is. He called HIM a bridge, a way over. Not redeemer or savior or KING. Few Americans understand what it is to serve a king. The true Christian belief is that GOD will justly ask "When did you give me the time of day? And so why should I give you any different. To be a believer never ends, changes or stops it is who you are, forever.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • brad

      hahahaha you said bible and fact in the same sentence. thats funny.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      """To be a believer never ends, changes or stops it is who you are, forever."""

      You are so right. In spite of us learning new facts and evidence every day which contradict your mythology, your beliefs never falter. That persistent cling to ignorance is truly awesome.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  14. Doug

    There's actually a huge difference between religion and God. Religion is an entirely man-made creation, God is not.

    I do not belong to a religious group at all and never will, but I do believe in God and an afterlife of some kind. I just don't believe the preposterous malarkey that organized religion of all stripes keep trying to sell us so they can keep their followers under their thumbs and continue to extract money from them.

    Atheists confuse the two all the time and they shouldn't. You can believe in God but not in a religion, trust me - I've been doing it most of my adult life and it makes for a very satisfying existence.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Humanist11

      Being able to inject heroine for free every day would also be a wonderful existence.

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

      Odd...I find that most people can prove the existence of religion but not the existence of God. Perhaps you are the only person I have ever encountered that can do the opposite.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Reasonably

      See...you have it all wrong. Now you need to force your opinion on others, ask for money and a tax exempt status and also get a few hollywood celebs on your side. Stop being at peace with yourself! You might start a trend.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • John

      Why exactly is God not man-made? God is something people made up to explain the inexplicable and to make them feel better about the fact that they're going to die. You believe in God and the afterlife because you are terrified of the alternative. That is not proof of his existence, that is proof of your fear and bewilderment.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  15. Cmreno

    The more people become educated, going to college, learning to think for themselves. learning to be challenged and questioned, having to back up statments and writings with critical thinking and citing of concrete facts, the more they begin to question the norms of religion. Education gives them the confidence to question what others say about how we should think and feel about our existance on this earth. With knowledge we demand to know more about our existance. The confines of any organized religion only serve to restrain us as an individual who can critically think for him or herself. The human species is always looking for answers to our complicated life. Saying that everything that happens is due to some God or Gods, is far too easy an explanation.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  16. brad4nyc

    Visit this website for 50 reasons that proove god is imaginary. And thank god he is because of all of evil this mythical being has brought forth on the Earth. http://godisimaginary.com/

    Pleace and love in a world without religion. This blog post further indicates that more and more Americans are having a spiritual awkening and realizing the truth that God Is Imaginary.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  17. kme

    In related news (seen on FARK.com):

    "Fastest Growing Hobby Is 'Not Collecting Stamps'"

    October 9, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  18. Brant Bishop

    I just heard Jay Thomas say religious leaders should be more inclusive or risk alienating those with differing views. If you have to alter God's word to be more inclusive then what have you gained besides increased membership and revenue. We all live contrary to God's commands at times and his truth, which isn't subjective, is needed to bring us back into his will. I sincerely and disobey just like anyone else but I don't expect to be told my behavior is acceptable just so I can feel good about myself. That's creating God and for those unfamiliar with the way it happened , it's the other way around.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  19. Kyle

    Religion has been a force for good in the world– it has forced altruism and has bonded us together like nothing else.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • littleBearFN

      It also is a source for pushing people away unless they 'conform.'

      October 9, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • scott

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Ages

      That is all.
      well, that's enough for now; that's just a scratch on the surface of the atrocities committed in the name of "religion"...

      October 9, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • kme

      Religion WAS a force for simple, altruistic good in very small groups (so were knitting clubs). Once you take it to "In the world", you are in deep trouble because everyone insists their god is the right one and then...well, war, pretty much.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Yup

      Salem Witch Trials
      Racial Bigotry
      Holocaust
      Manson murders
      Heavens Gate
      Jonestown
      Spanish Inquisition

      Yup, thats a force for good alright!

      October 9, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Petercha

      Good point, Kyle.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Petercha

      "because everyone insists their god is the right one and then...well, war, pretty much." That's quite a leap, Kyle. While I respectfully disagree with many doctrines of other religions, I certainly don't believe in getting violent with them (except as a matter of self-defense, of course), and I'd be willing to bet that most people feel the same way.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Petercha

      Ooops, my 2nd comment was in reference to kme's comment, not Kyle's comment.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  20. Atheist Fools

    1 Atheist don't believe in God
    2 Atheist believe in science and Stephen Hawking
    3 Atheist believe in string theory
    4 Atheist believe in the big Bang theory
    5 Atheist don't believe in God because we cannot physically prove his existence
    6 Atheist believe in String Theory even if we can't physically touch it and see it
    7 Atheist believe in Big Bang Theory even if we can't physically see it
    8 Atheist are not any better than believers, they also believe in fantasy stories
    9 Atheist also believe in things we can't physically touch and see
    10 Atheist believe in String Theory and his about to proclaim a Nobel Prize for believing that we are all attached to strings like puppets.
    11 Atheist also believe in flying spaghetti which are the Strings Stephen Hawking is talking about
    12 Atheist are a bunch of fools with so souls and common senses

    October 9, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • allanhowls

      Patently false and illiterately stated...quelle surprise.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Bob

      'god' is an idiotic idea promoted by immoral people to control and pacify the weak minded.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • David Stone

      "no soul or common senses...." ugghh

      October 9, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Thomas Jefferson

      It's not your fault you're not too smart. You've been brainwashed and are naturally grasping for straws.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • littleBearFN

      You really should concentrate on your own soul and stop judging others...

      October 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • DE

      Facts are not fantasy, the bible is.

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

      Your righteous indignation has trumped your grammar and spell check. But only just.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • David Stone

      Most of that is not necessarily true....we just don't believe in invisible sky daddies, sky fairies, horned devil things...stuff like that. Views on quantum physics vary by atheist.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • a famous brony

      string theory and big bang have reasons and evidence to support it. We came to those possibilities based on observation, not the other way around. Also, we accept that they may be wrong.

      Religion is based on literally nothing, was a claim before an observation, and is designed to be trusted fully and blindly never to be questioned

      good day sir

      October 9, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Horus

      Big Bang and String at least of supporting evidence....... "god" has none.

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

      You were right until that stupid #11. The flying spaghetti monster was a reference on the tv show southpark.

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

      Are you 12 years old?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Planes Walker

      It's "Atheists" (plural). Fool.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • scott

      ....this is a joke, right?
      First of all, the flying spaghetti monster is a joke; it is literately a mockery of religion. It is the name someone made up to show just how absurd most religious beliefs are; "what makes your god any more real than mine?"

      Second: do you know what a scientific theory is? It is a when someone comes up with a question, and then looks for supporting evidence to go along with that theory; if they find evidence that does not support it, they publish that instead. However, when they can proven their evidence, they submit it to other scientist, and they test it as well. These aren't just "made up" ideas you're talking about. These are things that others have said and even more people have come behind and proven to be true as well. Every day there are scientific discoveries being made in support of these theories, yet not a single on in support of an actual God.
      And believing in something that has factual proof and believing in something that someone just tells you to believe in are two different things.

      Most people believed in Santa when they were young; that didn't make him real.

      What about the theory of gravity? or motion? Or the theory of thermodynamics? If I didn't believe in those, would that make them not true? Would I fly? Your arguments are immature and uneducated; go do some research in a real book.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Humanist11

      It appears to me that you failed your science classes and you're lashing out. Not everybody is able or willing to see the big picture. Maybe someday you will.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Flip

      Ican only agree with 1,5,&9

      October 9, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Planes Walker

      1 Atheist don't believe in God – Thank You
      2 Atheist believe in science and Stephen Hawking – Thank You
      3 Atheist believe in string theory – Thank You
      4 Atheist believe in the big Bang theory – Thank You
      5 Atheist don't believe in God because we cannot physically prove his existence – Meh... Not quite, but close. Thank You.
      6 Atheist believe in String Theory even if we can't physically touch it and see it – Thank You
      7 Atheist believe in Big Bang Theory even if we can't physically see it – Actually, we can see its background radiation, but Thank You.
      8 Atheist are not any better than believers, they also believe in fantasy stories – Well, if I knew it was a fantasy, I wouldn't believe it. But Thank You anyway.
      9 Atheist also believe in things we can't physically touch and see – You pretty much said that already, but Thank You.
      10 Atheist believe in String Theory and his about to proclaim a Nobel Prize for believing that we are all attached to strings like puppets. – Em... Now you sound crazy. But Thank You anyway.
      11 Atheist also believe in flying spaghetti which are the Strings Stephen Hawking is talking about – See my response to item 10.
      12 Atheist are a bunch of fools with so souls and common senses – "Who's the more foolish? The fool, or the fool who follows him?" – Obi-Wan Kenobi

      Thank You.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • inachu

      In this day and age to imply your faith in the modernitty of christianity means you are fodder for the pastor to yell at you to vote republican so that we vote for more eternal wars that are based on the war ideology of the evangelical who think that if these are not the end times then WE WILL MAKE IT THE END TIMES!

      Do we need that in todays economies climate? Heck no! We need a cool level head that thinks about true peace around the world.

      NO MORE BLOOD FOR THE AMERICAN MILITARY PERIOD!
      Bring them home now!

      October 9, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • I wonder

      A F,

      Do you have a lisp... so that you can't say (or spell) 'atheists'?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:02 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.