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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. BigSkyHumanist

    Organized religion is big business, like a t.v. comedian likes to say, "let the free market decide". Tax them like any other business and then we will see which ones survive and flourish in an open market of ideas.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  2. History Bear

    it is not necessary to be led around by the nose by some self appointed "shepard" in order to believe in God. Expensive clothes, churches, tempels etc , doctrine that says you are doomed if you don't believe their way and do things their way. Thinking people don't buy that anymore. I don't need or want organized religion in my life . God and I will work it out .

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

    Really hope you christians are following GODS rules:

    Leviticus 15:19-30 ESV

    “When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean. And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. And whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. Whether it is the bed or anything on which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. ...

    October 9, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • darwinrules

      And don't forget, according to Holy Scripture, if the husband of a woman dies, she must marry the man's brother. And of course, women must remain silent and submissive. Finally, Jesus says that divorce is prohibited. Funny how even the most fundie churches don't follow THAT rule!

      October 9, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  4. darwinrules

    If God – if this character aactually exists – INTERVENES in a person's life here on Earth, then this means God has taken away some or all of that person's FREE WILL. However, if God DOESN'T involve himself or change any outcomes, then he might as well not exist. Rather than wrestle with these awkward problems, it's much easier just to accept that there is no magic white guy who lives in the sky.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  5. GOOD NEWS

    FALL SPECIAL

    Jesus blood
    Jesus water

    Your choice: 2 oz / 4 oz. decorative gold bottles

    50% off thru 10/31/2012

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com

    October 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • End Religion

      since god is dying, this is a great deal. These items will soon be worth much more. Please email me 5 of each as soon as possible.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  6. David

    Religious zealots would still be jerks if there was no religion; it'd just be directed towards something else.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • End Religion

      agreed. They will no longer have a socially acceptable way to express their hatred and bigotry. Religion helps them mask this tendency.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Planes Walker

      What a sad and ignorantly self-righteous, self-indulgent over-generalization you and the first commenter have made about the billions of people who believe and practice religions all over the world!

      I suspect you are assuming at this moment I must be one of them. If so, you have just proved my point regarding your ignorance. I am in fact an atheist; but religious intolerance is far worse than the immorality of some who misuse and exploit religion for their own depraved, selfish reasons. Your gross generalization a great many good and decent people, and shows you are no better than those who abuse religion... the very ones you imply disgust you.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • End Religion

      Walker, you are a sad and ignorantly self-righteous, self-indulgent over-generalization-er-er-er. Plus one. Infinity. No take-backsies.

      I don't imply disgust, I have it outright. Religion and those who practice it are disgusting to me.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  7. GAW

    This survey will satisfy no one. It just demonstrates that more Americans are individualizing their beliefs and don't conform those beliefs to any particular system.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • End Religion

      it satisfies me that disbelief is growing by leaps and bounds, much to your chagrin

      October 9, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      This is great news. Americans want to think for themselves rather than be told what to think and do.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Ed

      I find myself not only satisfied, but rather encouraged.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  8. Rob

    So nice to see a report that focuses on NON-religion. There are MANY, MANY of us "good people" in the world that are full of morals, values, kindness, good-will, etc., and we don't have some fictional charcter from the dark ages to thank for it. We have our parents, and our own intelligence to thank for it. I was smart enough to question things that didn't make sense. I did my research, I struggled for many years thinking I was an alien because I didn't "believe". I finally figured out that I didn't believe because it doesn't make sense. I look at religion as a way for weak people that can't handle the truth and reality of LIFE to get by...to tell themselves that there's this magic place in the sky when they die (yeah, right next to Mars), and that if they just follow what their church says and "get saved" and give them all their money, they'll go meet this supposed creator of man. Yeah, um, I think not. No God that is supposedly that great would create such an awful species as humans, capable of war and torture and unspeakable evil, lies, deceit, destruction, corruption, etc. Nah, I ain't buyin' it. Not now. Not ever. By the way, you Catholics might want to get your Priests in check. Apparently child molestation is okay in the eyes of your make-believe leader. P.S. I'm gay, and I'm not fearful of your "Hell" for that, either.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  9. William Demuth

    Nothing pleases me more than belittling other peoples beliefs, with no proof of my own belief. I know I'll contradict myself shortly. I'll probably make a rude insult *about myself*. I believe I will, or won't.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Ah my son is back

      The one from the stupid wench.

      I know it was stupid but it was at a Who concert, and I was high as a kite.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • NoTheism

      Nice ad hominem...
      Let me ask you this, do you know what the shifting of the burden of proof is? If not, you should. If you do, then you fail miserably.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • End Religion

      apparently Bill, Sr enjoys visiting the sins of the father on the son. I shudder to think Bill Sr apparently enjoys father/son action.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  10. GOOD NEWS

    Jesus said: For this is the will of my Lord,
    that everyone who sees the Son (of Man) and believes in him
    may have eternal Life!
    And (my Lord said:) I shall raise him in the Last DAY (=MILLENNIUM)!
    (John 6/40)

    So that "Son of Man" has thus already come now to seek and save those WHO ARE LOST,

    in the beginning of this most critical Third and Last DAY (=MILLENNIUM) now!
    (Luke 19/10 = John 6/27, 40)

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com

    ***UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES***

    October 9, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • NoTheism

      Do you believe everything that you read?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • William Demuth

      I didn't get the memo from Jeebus about the Millenium is a day thing.

      Can you get your copy and post it here, so we can all follow your perverted logic and worship a Bronze Age Palestinian gay dude?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      I guess you didn't hear. The Rapture came right on schedule back in 2000 (beginning of "Day 3" on your timetable). Guess they missed you, huh?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Christianity and Islam is a mental disease- FACT

      Got to love insane people.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  11. Brian

    The business of America is business. Religion in this country is just another business. Go to church and you will see what I mean. It's all money, money,money and more money – what the Bible calls "filthy lucre."

    October 9, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • mama kindless

      The Bible? Oh, you mean Gullible's Travels.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  12. lamb of dog

    Hey all the religious people. Please understand that all your empty threats and scare tactics are ridiculous. Here is a list of some of the stupider ones.
    Without religion chaos will ensue.
    You will burn in hell.
    Without religion we would have no morals.
    And somehow you guys bring up Nazis all the time too.
    Please stop being retarded.
    Thanks

    October 9, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • hahahahhaha

      the more you tell them you don't believe, the more they want to carry out God's final act and kill you.

      Shows who the moral people are.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Did you know Nazi belt buckles said "God is with us" in German.

      Nazisim was 100 percent Christian, as was Hitler.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • smartaz

      You can put on a duck suit, but that doesn't make you 100% duck.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • William Demuth

      I know this from being on my knees at belt buckle level with guys.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Rob

      Right on! I laughed out loud at that one. Can you be my new best friend? LOL

      October 9, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Sin Breaker

      @William Demuth The National Socialist Movement was by no means a Christian endeavor!

      October 9, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Sin Breaker

      Read Hitlers book and you will find yourself a fool.

      Christian and done in the name of Christ

      October 9, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  13. us_1776

    Religion is the worst thing that ever happened to the human race.

    ...

    October 9, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Rob

      Couldn't have said it better myself!

      October 9, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  14. John

    I have no religion but believe and pray to God like 68% of votes.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Thomas Jefferson

      Sweet! How's that prayer thing working out for you?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • End Religion

      All religion is a fraud. Calling your beliefs "unaffiliated spirituality" does not help you dodge this bullet. If you suffer from a brand of this delusion, it is no less crazy than any other.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  15. Sin Breaker

    Give up religion, but never give up your relationship with Christ. He will never give up on you! It's never to late to begin your walk with God! Religion that many you mistake as Christ's teaching never was, is not, and never will be His true endeavors.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • SnYGuY

      Why do we need Christ when we have friends and family????

      October 9, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Thomas Jefferson

      Link?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Jesus is dead. So he was forced to give up.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      My relationship with Christ is that I think he's a total myth, and I am happy to follow your advice not to give it up.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Rob

      Ugh. Enough already.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  16. Atheist Fools

    It's a darn good thing then, Satan will have one heck of a party with all those Atheists down there. lol

    October 9, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • William Demuth

      If Satan is my cell mate, it is still better than eternity with Jeebus freaks.

      Better to burn than listen to you idiots drone on all day!

      October 9, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • === o ===

      I smell a disgruntled Evangelical Fortune Cookie Co. writer bootcamp "flunkie".

      October 9, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  17. Welcome to This World

    October 9, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • justme

      you need help. more than i can share here. so go to watchtower.org or jw.org or the next time one of Jehovah's Witnesses comes to your home just take time to discuss whatever you like and learn what the bible really teaches. it is not what you have been taught. Please. .

      October 9, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  18. jj

    I am a non-affiliated person. However, I feel that religions, along with their beliefs, also provide great social organizations for the betterment (usually) of society. It would be nice to belong to an agnostic group but I have never heard of such a thing.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Look online

      Thousands of them.

      Soon millions.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Let me recommend a perfectly legitimate alternative — SECULAR groups — outfits that do all the same kind of good works that churches like to claim as reasons for belonging to them, only without all the woo-woo superst¡tion and BS. The Red Cross or Doctors without Borders are excellent, and if you're looking for something that lets you meet people locally, check out the Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs, or PTA — they're always looking for folx to help kids. (In years past, I would have recommended the Boy Scouts as well, but that was before they were taken over by anti-gay, anti-freethinking bigots.)

      October 9, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • An Ohioan

      It sounds as though you may be interested in joining the Unitarian-Universalist Church which welcomes all beliefs and most members are athiest/agnostic and believe in science and evolution. Unitarian-Universalism has no creed or doctrine, but does have 7 guiding principles and congregants are encouraged to develop their own belief systems. Instead of worshipping a deity, the faith's primary focus is on social justice, equality, civil rights, humanism, environmental issues, etc. and church members contribute to the betterment of society in various ways. UU Churches also have a variety of social programs and are an excellent way to meet like-minded people. Unitarian Churches are all over the country and you can probably find one near your location. I wish you all the best in locating such a church since it sounds as though it would satisfy your needs and interests. I read that membership in the Unitarian-Universalist Church has increased by 10% in recent years so this particular faith seems to be bucking the overall downward trend in church affiliation.

      October 10, 2012 at 1:52 am |
  19. NorthVanCan

    Religion IS the problem!

    October 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • us_1776

      I think you're on to something there.

      .

      October 9, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  20. William

    "Pew found that those who are religiously unaffiliated are strikingly less religious than the public at large. They attend church infrequently, if at all"

    Non-religious people aren't very religious? And don't participate in religious traditions? I never would have guessed.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Rich in TX

      William: "Non-religious people aren't very religious? And don't participate in religious traditions? I never would have guessed"

      That's because you apparently think non-religious = atheist. If you read the article, you'd know it doesn't. It just means they don't identify with any particular brand. It says 13% of Americans are atheist or agnostic – so 87% believe in something.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:38 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.