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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. GOOD NEWS

    Jesus said: For this is the will of my Lord,
    that whoever 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 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 4:59 pm |
    • William Demuth

      I believe we have a Cult Bot here!

      Make cash of the believers ha?

      Tear em up and rip em off, they deserve it!

      October 9, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      I guess everyone should have hobby. Maybe yours is more of a fetish, but, at any rate, why inflict it on the people around you?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Petercha

      Good News didn't say a word about cash, money, dollars, or anything like that, William.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Sorry William, that was directed at GOOD NEWS.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Brian

      I wanted to buy some of the Jesus blood they were selling, but I forgot where I saw it. I won't sleep now until I find this.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Dugger Dog

      Dude, It was Paul, formerly Saul, who started Christianity, not Jesus. Weird thing is that Paul never met nor spoke to Jesus.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  2. Atheist Hunter

    Obama is Christian (LOL) and Romney is Mormon so who ya'll atheists gone vote fer?

    October 9, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Why bother?

      Even you aren't THAT stupid, are you?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • NoTheism

      Are you implying that both of them don't believe in the separation of church and state? I thought that it was only Romney that thought so.
      Anyway, Gary Johnson, if you really want to know.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • === o ===

      Look below at Atheist Hunter asking what a Deist is. What a pathetic waste of space.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Bob

      If American Christians are any indication, the religion you claim has little to do with your actual behavior!

      October 9, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • Atheist Hunter

      If they both believe in it then why they both singing about their religious stance?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • Atheist Hunter

      === o ===..........well you splain it brains. Sounds like a cop out to me.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • David Stone

      This is about the economy, not what invisible sky daddy the candidate believes in.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Veritas

      Are you making the case for separation of church and state? I agree we need to remove the unwritten rule that a candidate for the major parties needs to have a religious affiliation.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Dugger Dog

      I'm a gonna vote fer Obama Jethro. He a smart feller, n you ain't.

      October 9, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  3. Geoff Barton

    duh, this survey wouldn’t even have been taken in europe

    October 9, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  4. SRC

    Being "religiously unaffiliated," which is what the poll is indicating, is in no way the same as "having no religion."

    October 9, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  5. Lewis Black on Evolution

    October 9, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  6. old golfer

    Aw come on, you left out we Deist's. Maybe, just maybe, the masses are finally figuring out that God gave man reason and man gave man religion. Progress comes slow.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Atheist Hunter

      What exactly does a deist believe?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • mama kindless

      James Madison (Deist who sometimes attended Anglican church) (He was our 4th President, and he was the chief architect of the U.S. Const!tution)

      During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superst!tion, bigotry, and persecution.

      –A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the Virginia General Assembly, 1785

      October 9, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • === o ===

      You've been slobbering all over this forum for how long now Atheist Hunter and you don't know what a Deist is? You're pathetic.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • NoTheism

      @Atheist hunter, look it up...

      October 9, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Atheist Hunter,

      the dictionary definition of deist is:
      One who acknowledges the existence of a God upon the testimony of reason, but rejects revealed religion.

      It is also frequently (mis?)used to include people who believe in a universal spirit rather than traditional anthropomorphic Gods.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • Atheist Hunter

      I was aslking the golfer what he believed, not you bunch of morons. You just believe you are all god and i already know that.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • OneTruth

      AH. They were answering what you asked – what is a deist? You didn't ask golfer what he believed. Having boyfriend troubles?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  7. nburton6

    I couldn't care less about the numbers, percentages, or any of the statistics involved. I believe in God and Jesus Christ and always will. I'm thankful that religion was never forced on me while growing up, but that my beliefs truly came from my own personal choice. If someone else chooses to disagree, that's ok, too. No need to judge. Sadly, it's very hard to come by a church that practices what they preach anymore, which is why I rarely attend. But, that doesn't mean I can't maintain my beliefs.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • wanalawn

      If you don't follow the rules of the club, do you really belong in that club?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  8. Atheist Hunter

    Only God is good.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Veritas

      For what?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      And we know this how? Because it says so in the BIble, right? And we know the BIble is always 100% accurate how? Because it's the word of God, right? And we know this how? Because God wrote the entire Bible, and he's always good, so he certainly wouldn't LIE, would he?
       
      Now subst¡tute "Bernie Madoff" for "God" and "investment prospectus" for "Bible", and you'll see why your "reasoning" fails to convince.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      God IS good – but only when you add the second "o".

      October 9, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      For profit?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Atheist Hunter

      RichardSRussell.............well for one we can read the comments on this blog and see that man is not good.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • Atheist Hunter

      Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear........well, well, ain't you jus clever! The bee's knees. Good fer ya!

      October 9, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  9. Petercha

    Scary. I'd rather have society filled with people of other religions (except islam, maybe) than have it filled with people that have no moral compass.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • SnYGuY

      Moral compass has nothing to do with religion. Never been to church and I know what is right and wrong based how I was raised, and the fact that when you do a good deed and people are gracious it makes you feel good. The idea that religion tells you how to feel and what is right or wrong is stupid.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Petercha

      SnYGuY – "I know what is right and wrong based how I was raised" – even if you were never exposed to religion of any kind whatsoever during your lifetime (which, if you live in America, is highly doubtful), then there is a good chance your parents were during their time, when religion was much more prevalent than it is now, and this could well be where they learned what they taught you.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Hey stupid just because we don't believe in god doesn't mean we are bad people.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  10. vvk

    CALM DOWN PLEASE
    WHATEVER IS, STILL BETTER THAN ISLAM.
    THE SOLUTION OF ISLAM IS CUT THIS, CHOP THAT, SHOOTING THEM AND USING ACID.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Petercha

      It may be better than islam, vvk, but not by much.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  11. Chuck

    This is balony

    October 9, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • wanalawn

      Believer finds people not believing in their mumbo jumbo "Baloney". News at 11.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  12. IamTHErighteousONE

    @SinBreaker

    "The National Socialist Movement was by no means a Christian endeavor!"

    Neither is american "christianity."

    October 9, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  13. Nosy Ass

    Reblogged this on NosyAss®.com and commented:
    Good Read

    October 9, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  14. KK

    god/evil is within yourself; just believe in YOU. Good/Bad, the out come is up to you.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  15. columbus

    Spirituality is believing in something that cannot be seen and may not be proven, that's why even atheists can at best be agnostic, they believe there is no God but can't prove there is no God. Because they believe in something they can't prove, it follows they must have faith in their belief, thus, they have spiritual beliefs. Nothing wrong with that, in fact I am an ardent agnostic, I have beliefs that do not believe in a man made God. But I still hate to see good people bashed and assailed for the crimes and actions of their religious leaders. Those church leaders are human, they are not Gods nor are they any different than any other person, and they are as much likely to make bad choices in their lives as anyone else. corruption, greed and power have corrupted men since time began, religion or no religion. So would the world be any better place if everyone was atheist?

    October 9, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • NoTheism

      "that's why even atheists can at best be agnostic, they believe there is no God but can't prove there is no God"
      You're just confusing terminology and building a logical framework that is ridiculous.
      So, an atheist cannot be an atheist.. that's interesting
      Also, great shifting of the burden of proof.
      Your argument is shockingly bad.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  16. RichardSRussell

    It's possible that this jump is due in part to the way they're asking the question. That was the experience with the American Religious Ident¡ty Survey (ARIS), which got "none"s in the 9-10% range when they asked "What religion do you belong to?" but saw a jump to 15-16% when they changed the question to "What religion do you belong to, IF ANY?". They speculated that previously people had been thinking "Well, I was raised Catholic" or "I underwent full-immersion baptism" or "I was confirmed Presbyterian" and answering accordingly, not realizing that "I don't do that any more" was a valid option.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  17. Miriam

    Had the church ever met my needs, I'd still be there. It didn't, and in addition was often full of hate for various groups. I saw very little evidence of Christ among the people who professed to be his followers; I am much happier without that dissonance.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • castingstones

      Miriam, I understand, and I've been there too. If they would listen to those who left maybe they would revitalize themselves but that would involve giving up power.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  18. Melissa

    Wow. You mean people are growing up and out of the fiction of religion? Now if they will just grow out of the fiction of any god/s, the world would be a better place.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Ohioan

      Melissa, I could not agree more with your excellent post! The most progressive and sensible religion is Unitarian-Universalism where all religious denominations and beliefs are welcome and many members are athiest/agnostic. 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. Unitarian Churches are all over the country and perhaps some athiests/agnostics and other religiously unaffiliated persons will become interested in joining this faith. 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 9, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Melissa

      Its still a religion honey. Better to grow out of religion completely.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • An Ohioan

      Melissa, I am atheist and do not belong to this or any church. Most of those that do are atheist/agnostic and believe in science and evolution. Therefore, the vast majority of members do not believe in fiction, as you say. Unitarians/Universalists also do a lot of good things for the betterment of society. Therefore, if one is of this persuasion and desires to associate with a church which is aligned with these values, the Unitarian/Universalist Church is a good choice. Furthermore, my name is not honey!

      October 10, 2012 at 1:30 am |
  19. Awesomeness

    Glad to see organized religion falling! Keep this trend going!

    October 9, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • Christianity and Islam is a mental disease- FACT

      ***THUMBS UP****

      October 9, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  20. Dave

    And whosoever will not receive you, when ye go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet for a testimony against them.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
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About this blog

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.