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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. Guitar Man

    David Stone, so what would be proof for you that God exists? Anything?

    October 9, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      There is no proof.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Pool Side

      It's up to you to provide evidence. The rest of us will critique it.
      We're not going to give you the answer in advance, man! That would be cheating :-)

      October 9, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • David Stone

      An appearance in front of a large crowd that was videotaped would probably work for me, especially if he promised a few miracles like ending the death and hunger of children and the end to war, and then it actually happened.

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

      guitar – which god? the christian god? there is no chance for proof of the existence of the human invented christian god. it is a moot point.

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

      david – i would certainly be skeptical of a sudden appearance of a god. an alien race with sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from a god.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • KRHODES

      David Stone

      "An appearance in front of a large crowd that was videotaped would probably work for me, especially if he promised a few miracles like ending the death and hunger of children and the end to war, and then it actually happened."

      I doubt that would sway you because Christ has already come and did heal and feed the hungry. And what happened to him...he was executed. No...that would not sway you in the least because you do not want to believe...proof has nothing to do with it.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  2. solex

    I think the number is actually much higher than 1 in 5. I call it the "public Vs. private" persona argument. When you see people being interviewed on TV or something, the always talk about "The good lord willing" or "We pray for them" or whatever. They wish to be seen as being religious or moral by public standards.

    Once the cameras are off or the poll is through being taken, they return to their secular lives. If the number of people who practice religion was the same as the amount of people who profress in public to be religous, chruches would be standing room only. As it stands, there is PLENTY of room in churches and other places of worship.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Silly1

      Lol, and you think that is a bigger number than the people who avoid saying anything on camera and then say "thank God" as soon as they are off. No logical basis for that.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  3. Horus

    There are probably more than 1 in 5 that don't really believe. Some people simply play the social norms and tradtions out of fear of not "fitting in", or use the social aspect of organized religion to their personal gain. You "Christians" think you are judged and mistreated....you should see how "christians" treat my children, simply because we don't go to church or teach our kids that there is some imaginary being watching them all the time. We've literally had several parents tell us that their kids were not allowed to play with ours. I ask them "why?, you afraid your children might learn something outside the little box you keep them in?" Religion = Herd mentality.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  4. Barry G.

    As Kohelloth reminds us (see: Ecclesiastes), "There is nothing new under the sun. What is has been before, and what was will be again."

    In fact people have always struggled with faith. One need look no fruther than the Old Testament or the New Testament.

    Even God's "faithful" struggled to have faith and trust in him.

    The fact that people are so honest about their lack of faith–and the fact that they can acknowledge this, without fear of persecution–is perhaps something of a recent trend in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  5. Anthony

    Have fun in hell, David

    October 9, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • David Stone

      You mean the imaginary fire pit with the imaginary red horned devil guy with the pitchfork? Sure...

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

      How does one have fun in a place that does not exist? Never has. Never will.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Black Widow

      I don't see how that's a party.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      What you guys don't buy his scare tactic.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • karl

      GHeaven and hell both sound terrible. Its ETERNAl...eventually you would get sick of it and would be stuck there... aka the moment you die you cease to exist. Period. Enjoy being worm food and just to make you feel better the world will keep spinning and you will be forgotten.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  6. tax_mann

    Just think.....without religion.....how many wars which took the lives of millions of humans would not have happened. Religion has caused more deaths than all natuaral disasters, diseases, accidents. etc combined!

    October 9, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • smartaz

      If man created religion, and religion caused all these things then why do you think that taking religion out of the equation would change anything?

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

      Yeah...and atheist regimes murdered more in the previous century than "Christendom" is accused of in the 19 prior. What is their excuse?

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

      @krhodes – there's no such thing as an atheist regime. No one kills in the name of atheism.

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

      Whether there is religion or no religion, Human beings will always find ways to go to war. War has been around before religion, basing war on any indifference between people will bring confrontation which will lead to war. religion itself whether it is Islam, Judaism, or Christianity are AGAINST WAR. I have studied all three major religions and NONE say to murder INNOCENT people. The media BASES WAR on religion in their view to gain viewership which in turn gives them a profit

      October 9, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  7. Tomlaw

    Atheism is not a "religion" any more than not collecting stamps is a "hobby". Lack of belief in a supernatural deity is not religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • illusive

      Actually depending on what official definition your looking at, Atheism is counted as a religion, "a group of people that share a common belief" their belief (its a belief since it can't be proven) is that god does not exist. I personally don't think there is a God, and in many ways consider myself atheist, but i do consider you wrong. (Not collecting stamps is a choice, like belief)

      October 9, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  8. allenwoll

    ORGANIZED RELIGION IN A-C-T-I-O-N ! ! ! -

    " A 14-year-old girl who was awarded Pakistan's first National Peace Prize for her online diary reporting on the Taliban's ban on education was shot on her way home from school today. The Taliban claimed responsibility ".

    October 9, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • David Stone

      Praise gawwd.....puke.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Ed

      Allah the... merciful? God is..... great?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      Not only did they shoot her, they hit other kids as well.

      This is our enemy. We're talking about some awesome ignorance here.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  9. Kevin

    maybe we are finally entering an age where mythology no longer is necessary. Thank God!!!! (pun intended)

    October 9, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  10. Lindsey

    The idea of God is not a problem. The idea of a Creator or an Intelligent Designer is not the problem. God's alleged followers, now THEY'RE the problem! Like Gandhi said, "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians." If believers could just be content to believe what they want to believe and not be hell-bent (pun intended) on cramming their beliefs forcefully down unwilling throats, or trying to make their beliefs the law of the land. Maybe I don't WANT to believe the way you do, why are you trying to force me? I don't WANT to be evangelized, why do you continue to beat me over the head with your Bible and say I'm going to hell if I don't believe what you believe? If I'm going to hell, then LET ME!!!! What business is it of YOURS?!? Sheesh!

    And I'm talking about believers in all various religions here, not just Christianity. They all try to get new "converts". Please cease and desist!

    October 9, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • WordUpToo

      Amen Lindsey! oops...I mean "well said!"

      October 9, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  11. Hamza21

    The story doesn't state it but only 35,000 were interviewed back in 2007. There are over 300 million people in the US 35,000 it's too small a sample to extrapolate such a bold "finding" by Pew. Pew has guilty of this for years,small samples of the population in only certian areas then release a report to outlining new "findings". 35,000 people can not tell you what 300 million think anymore than one person can tell what a million people think.

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

      ehh, learn about statistics and statistical inference. 35,000 is a completely adequate sample size.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  12. plumbline

    2 Thessalonians 2:2-4.......

    2 not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ] had come. 3 Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, 4 who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Pool Side

      OK,
      You got your points with god today. No need to count the rosery.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • karl

      Spiderman: Battle with colossus

      " With great power comes great responsibility" I like to quote books that do not answer anything too. Just because you like a book does not mean that quoting from it will solve anything. Use that brain in your head instead of writing written after 200 years of phone tag and oral interpretation.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  13. lamb of dog

    Survey: 1 in 5 Americans no longer willing to listen to some old preacher caught in the past, telling fairytales, and telling us how to live life.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • David Stone

      And they are also tired of their kids being molested and getting their pockets picked.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  14. Moderate

    Seems to be an ever-increasing amount of practicing atheists around.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • David Stone

      I am a devout atheist. I will not bow to an invisible sky spirit who has never produced a shred of evidence as to his existence. If he DOES exist, and is as described, I will certainly NEVER bow to such a cruel monster. He can kiss my rear end.

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

      To David
      Don't worry there's someone down there that will have you kiss his a.s.s.

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

      @Atheist Fools – that's cute. Do you know a lot about Satan's ass?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Ed

      How does one "practice" atheism?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  15. Anthony Rossi

    God is real, and I am Jesus Christ. facebook.com/anthony.s.rossi

    October 9, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  16. David Stone

    Religion is a way to suppress people, and way for ignorant people to explain what they cannot understand. In many cases, it is both at the same time. When you really step back and consider how silly it is to live your life around the supposed rules of an invisible sky daddy which you have zero evidence of, you have to laugh, or at least I do.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      I want to laugh but at the same time I want to scream "REALLY, WAKE UP"

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

      Religion really is a genious plan, base it all on faith, providing an excuse for a lack of evidence. We say where is the evidence, they say that is not the point, it is about faith...Lamb of dog is proof how genious it really is.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  17. NorthVanCan

    People leaving religion ..... no, say it isn't so. I wonder why??????????????

    October 9, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • David Stone

      It's this nasty little habit of getting educated that people have been getting hooked on.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  18. ldwill

    Belief in a God does not necessarily entail aligning ones personal beliefs with a bunch of man created doctrine, ritual, or requirements that are more political and aimed at controlling the masses. Organized religion has become more and more about politics and less about what I would call Christian principles. Far too many "believers" place belief in the organization over the core spiritual beliefs. Unfortunately, the pushing of these earthly goals is becoming more and more hypocritical.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Christian Principles ARE man made.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  19. Generation X Atheist

    Frankly, there are several comments on here that I want to point out as just wrong:
    1. All atheists are not young and stupid. I'm middle age, educated and and well read. In fact, I'm probably more educate don your religion than you are.
    2. Atheists are not trustworthy or "good" people. What you don't know is that you deal with Atheists everyday and don't know it. To your horror, they could be your doctor, banker, lawyer, psychiatrist or (gasp!) your religious leader. They just don't tell you because you react by telling them they are going to hell.
    3. Atheists (in general) don't care what you believe, except that they may pity you for having a belief in something they feel is misleading. We just want to be left alone and not be subjected to your religious beliefs by the christian interference in our schools and government.
    4. Finally, and this is just a gut feeling that I have, but I think these polls are probably way off in numbers. I suspect that there may be more atheists out there than reported. Many, like myself, have no intention of announcing my disbelief because of the reaction of everyone around me, including friends and family. The only thing that makes me an unhappy atheist is my inability to announce what I really think. That sad, but I refuse to subject myself or my family to the spewing hate that christians love to heap on those that disagree.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Pool Side

      Amen brother

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

      You have very valid points here, although I don't agree with it all, I do think that there is too much judgement on people regardless if they believe or not in God. Whatever your believes are, we shouldn't have to expect anyone to accept or agree always and unfortunately quick to judge. This comes from a Gen X – Catholic.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Ed

      It's the new gay in a way. As more people come out, it will be easier for others to leave the shadows and join us. The data indidcates that not only are our numbers growing, but the growth is accelerating. Welcome to the new enlightenment.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  20. David Stone

    Right above this story is a girl, shot over religion. Very ironic.

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

      It is ironic, and incredibly sad. Christians will say that those who did this followed a "false God", and that if they only followed the christian way they wouldn't take such actions.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:54 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.