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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. Mark

    Someone had better show this research to Pat Robertson.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  2. vonn

    Atheist have no hope.. I don't worry about them..But when they are left behind it will be that much harder for them...I don't know which will be worse for them the shock or the grief...

    October 9, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • NoTheism

      Let us assume you're a Christian; are you going to "hell" because you're not Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu?
      How do you know you're right and every other religion is wrong? How do you know that your god is the real god and everyone else's is not?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Tony

      Fear of getting "left behind" is what drives you to hold your inane beliefs? Ridiculous. Think for yourself.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Bob

      Catholics believe people of other faiths can go to Heaven.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • sam stone

      have no hope? of what? eternity with your punk?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "But when they are left behind it will be that much harder for them..."
      you believe that will happen during your lifetime do you? I ask because people have been predicting the end times for a few thousand years now.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      """when they are left behind it will be that much harder for them"""

      You sound serious.

      sooooo........ do you have a nice car? If you do, please leave the keys.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Jorge

      NoTheism, only God can judge at the end of your time if you have a clean spirit to get in heaven, however, from the perspective of a Catholic, I have to say there is no other better way to have a clean spirit than to follow the teaching of God himself, thought by his own son, also God. Other religions might have their prophets that talk about God, but there is not religion that can firmly prove God made flesh on earth and establishing his Church to guide in the path for God.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • Rick

      Don't worry of the 10,000 gods that have been worshipped over the thousands of years I'm sure YOU picked the right one. But the people who believed in the other 9,999 gods will all burn in hell with the atheists right? LOL

      October 10, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  3. jarhead333

    I see that a lot of people mention how religion is keeping the world from peace, yet after reading the hateful comments I don't think being an atheist is going to bring us closer to world peace. Christianity is based on love and tolerance of ALL. The problem is the faith has been perverted by many. Society has placed a high standard on Christians, as it should, but we have failed to exemplify what it is that we believe in.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Observer

      'Christianity is based on love and tolerance of ALL."

      So why doesn't it apply to gays and pro-choice people so often?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • jarhead333

      That is the problem. It is not really our place to not love gay people or pro choice people. As a Christian, I do not support those things, but I do not love them any less. They are still people. There is not one place in the Bible that tells us to be the judge of others. In fact, it says the opposite. It tears me up when I see Christians judging others and spewing hatred. When that has become the public perception of Christians, it is no suprise that less people want to identify with Christianity. Its our own fault.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Bob

      To love and tolerate everyone does not necessarily mean to approve of everyone's every action. It means you seek to help, not hurt, and to be kind to people, and that you don't assume how God will judge someone. You can believe one's actions to be wrong but still not assume how God is going to deal with them when the time comes.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • sam stone

      love and tolerance for all? are you joking?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'I see that a lot of people mention how religion is keeping the world from peace, yet after reading the hateful comments I don't think being an atheist is going to bring us closer to world peace"

      really? remove all the fanatics will be a huge help for starters in that regard.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • sam stone

      jarhead: hiow does this "love and tolerance" thing christians supposedly have going jibe with denying gays equal rights?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • fred

      Observer
      As to Pro Choice there is the assumption that abortion is the killing of a child. We cannot love the act of murder but as Jesus did we should love and help those that find the need to murder children. That is one of the things I do when I give op
      tions to those would abort a child. If they choose to abort anyway then they need even more prayer and help

      I do not know of many Christians that hate gays. I read about the few odd balls here and there but I do not know any. Those that have in the past shown confusion as to how a Christian should respond to actions that are in conflict with the teachings of the Bible undstood the error of their ways.

      Do you show love to the Gay community by telling them the truth about dangerous lifestyles or do you promote misinformation by makeing excuses for wrong behavior?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • jarhead333

      @Sam stone. It is obvious that you are not willing to listen or read for that matter. Bob hit the nail on the head in his post. I do have the ability to love and care for people without supporting their actions. Again, it is not up to me to judge, but I also do not have to support everyone elses beliefs and opinions either.

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

    Although our country's moral principles are unfortunately going down thanks to a materialistic culture that professes relativism, one day one thing is good the other it is bad, this study does not say that those that have faith with the grace of God, and have a true religion centered around love, are more attached to their believes than ever before, fighting for the life of the unborn, for the family principles based on a man and a woman, and for the freedom of having a religion of their preference with a government that respects it and does not imposes immoral laws.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • NoTheism

      Of course, everything that you consider moral is just your opinion and that of your fellow religious bigots.
      If god is the source of morality, then morality is subjective to god. That makes morality relative.
      Atheists simply understand morality based on other concrete things, such as the things that people value and so forth. Secular morality has been around for as long as man has been around.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Observer

      Jorge,

      "fighting for the life of the unborn"

      The Bible never mentions abortion, but it's fun for Christians to pretend it does.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Jorge

      You are making a big mistake, God is absolutely not relative, he is the pure and only truth. Evil also poses problems for the nonbeliever. Claims that torture is wrong even though the victims of torture might be terrorists with useful information appeal to some external standard. But what is this standard? Such claims need to be grounded in something if they are to be asserted with such confidence. So, while some naturalistic philosophers have developed ethical systems without God, many other naturalists acknowledge this doesn’t work and that such ethical systems are entirely arbitrary. If God does not exist and there is no grounding for how things ought to be, then moral — as opposed to emotional — outrage at horrendous evil has no basis. The fact that we cannot escape our sense of horror and outrage at evil actually points us to God’s existence.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Jorge

      Observer, it does not have to be written in the Bible to be true word of God, we have the Church Tradition too. All together form the message of God. Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God. But without getting into this point, the abortion is the killing of a human being, not the killing of a frog, therefore a terrible sin expressed in the Bible.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "God is absolutely not relative, he is the pure and only truth"

      Of course he is relative. He is relative depending on what religion you follow. You say you are right, a Hindu will say he is right. Nothing makes your claim carry more weight than his.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • Observer

      Jorge,

      It's good that you are able to know exactly what God wants without any proof. I think it's called mind-reading.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Jorge

      Observer, the fact that you don't have a proof doesn't immediately apply to the humanity. In this material world, there is people that can not see more than their own noses, it is like putting a bunny in a computer room, how will this bunny be able to understand what are those things making noise? Fortunately we are intelligent beings, and also we have a supernatural gift, the grace of God, which is given not acquired, and have to be cultivated. I do have proves of what God wants, and I have the free will to decide if I do it or not. I freely chose to do what he asked me to do, it is not easy, but nothing good comes easy anyway.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Jorge

      Cedar, you are saying it, it is relative to you, but not to the believer. God is absolute truth and can not be relative to me and to all Christians. You are contradicting.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  5. Ted

    Education will never eradicate pure faith, just like left brain can not eradicate the right side.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  6. wikipedia people

    blah blah blah...wikipedia it :) the following are some %'s that may make some atheists sad... whaa...believe whatever you want people... if you want to "think" you're "cool" and supporting the new "in crowd" for not "believing"... you can believe that too... might as well ... believe whatever they tell you :) happiness...

    Religion in the United StatesFrom Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Religion in the United States is characterized by both a wide diversity of religious beliefs and practices and by a high adherence level. According to recent surveys, 92 percent of Americans identify with a religious denomination and 36 percent state that they attend services nearly every week or more.[1] A majority of Americans report that religion plays a "very important" role in their lives, a proportion unique among developed nations.[2] Many faiths have flourished in the United States, including those spanning the country's multicultural immigrant heritage, as well as those founded within the country: these have led the United States to become one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world.[3]

    The majority of Americans (76% to 80%) identify themselves as Christians.[4][5] According to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), those who identify themselves as Catholics make up about 25% of the adult population, while "other Christians" account for another 51%.[6] According to the same survey, other religions (including, for example, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism) collectively make up about 4% of the adult population, another 15% of the adult population claim no religious affiliation, and 5.2% said they did not know, or they refused to reply.[6]

    Despite a high level of religious adherence, only 9% of Americans in a 2008 poll said religion was the most important thing in their life, compared with 45% who said family was paramount in their life and 17% who said money and career was paramount.[7]

    October 9, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  7. Jeff R

    Religion is anachronistic. it had its place. Next step,the utter removal of religion from politics. That would be fantastic.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  8. End Religion

    see the black heart of true religious fanaticism in this REAL, non-animated movie filmed near heaven

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYq_35xJtFY&w=640&h=390]

    October 9, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Clausen

      Stop spamming your propaganda videos.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Clausen

      I took a break from bottling pickles to show you a true story of my religion and why I love god so.

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGzghUQRVk8&w=640&h=390]

      October 9, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  9. Ted

    Atheists are making a big mistake throwing a baby with a bath water. Their faith is a baby, and religion is a dirty water.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • End Religion

      alea iacta est

      October 9, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Nat Q

      What?

      Why should I believe anything without evidence? Besides, you do the same thing. If you are Christian, you've thrown the faith baby out with the Hinduism bathwater that you've chosen to reject.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  10. Dr. Scientist

    Ask yourself this: What happened to ancient Greek beliefs? Ancient Egyptian? People evolved, got smarter, became free thinkers and realized how incredibly stupid these beliefs were. It is only a matter of time before modern day Religions meet the same fate.
    What do all Religions have in common? They promise eternal life because we are all scared of death. Well, I am going to live THE ONE life I have and enjoy it.
    Is a god who kills thousands of innocent people through disasters really worth siding with? Sounds like the ultimate serial killer to me.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Clausen

      Not true. Many religions don't promise eternal life.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      """What do all Religions have in common?"""

      Ummm, believers?

      Please understand that all religions are batsh!t crazy, except for the one you believe in. Funny how that works.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Jorge

      We are free by the grace of God to do what we want, that is our nature. If God had to intervene every time you make a mistake, like writing those lines above, you would simply be a marionette. As with the free will of humans, God cannot constantly intervene in areas such as physics, chemistry, weather and tectonics without disrupting the inherent freedom of his creation and disrupting his consistent sustaining of all the matter and energy in the universe. Without this consistency, science would be impossible, and moral choices would be subverted. If God blocked the consequences of human moral choices, like committing murder, and natural events, like tsunamis, every time they led to evil results, then moral responsibility would disappear and the natural world would become incoherent.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      BTW, I do agree with you except for the eternal life part. But Christians do seem pre-occupied with that whole death/dying/eternal life thing. I think that's what prevents even educated adults from unlearning the comforting mythology they were ingrained with as children.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      " If God blocked the consequences of human moral choices, like committing murder, and natural events, like tsunamis, every time they led to evil results, then moral responsibility would disappear and the natural world would become incoherent"

      what have natural disasters got to do with moral responsibility disappearing? if god stopped an event from happening we would never know he did so it would have no effect. That he supposedly allows it to happen shows how evil he is.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Jorge

      "what have natural disasters got to do with moral responsibility disappearing? if god stopped an event from happening we would never know he did so it would have no effect. That he supposedly allows it to happen shows how evil he is"

      Of course it has, you are missing the point, how do you know that God has not intervened in events from happening that we don't know. What I am saying is that he can not intervene every time because science will not make sense any more, and the same with moral issues, having God intervening in every single action that we do wrong, where would our moral responsibility be? where will our free will go? Again, we would be simply marionettes.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  11. End Religion

    is this an argument for or against religion?

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ivikc4KqGKk&w=640&h=390]

    October 9, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  12. Ted

    The problem is not with G-d, but with a mockery the religions have made of it.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Jeff R

      well, considering god doesnt exist, you're right. the problem isnt god, its the nincompoops who believe in fairy tales as literal truths.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • End Religion

      one problem with it all is expressed succinctly yourself. You live in such an infantile fear of your loving god you dare not even type the word "god". You and your god are embroiled in some twisted sado-masochistic love affair.
      Religious Delusion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_delusion

      October 9, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  13. BigSkyHumanist

    There is no heaven nor hell, I like to think we all just go back to where we came from. We shouldn't be afraid of non-existence, we've already been there done that.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  14. discopak

    Finally the human race is waking up from the brainwashing of religion, no religion is the way to peace on earth.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  15. Tim

    Pray to "god" or pray to a George Foreman Grill, your prayers have the same chance of being answered...but one of them will cook some chicken for you.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  16. evil_atheist

    Some faith in humanity has been restored by this article. "No affiliation" is one step closer to no religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  17. End Religion

    undeniable proof that church-goers are sheep

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al5ZthL_DBA&w=640&h=390]

    October 9, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  18. me

    I am a follower of Christ and I love Jesus Christ as my Saviour- I guess you can say I am a Christian.
    But if you ask me if I am religious I would say NO because I don't follow a set of religious rules so one day I will be this or that or get saved. I believe that I am saved because of what the Lord Jesus did for me and I want to follow Him and be more like him all the days of my life. In fact I would say; religion brings death and blidness, but relationship with Christ brings life and prosperity in anyways. The most religious peole during Jesus' time crucified Him and were unable to see Him as who He was..

    October 9, 2012 at 5:21 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.

      If you're a nice person, why the sado-masochistic need for the threat of an infernal Abu Ghraib? Why can't you just be nice for the sake of it alone? You're trying to walk in the footsteps of a fictional character. Might as well be the real Lord, Bilbo Baggins. Please learn to walk in the many footsteps of Bilbo. In His name I pray...

      "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty wet hole, filled with the ends of earth worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole, with nothing to sit down on or to eat; it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort."

      From the book of Bilbo, 1:1

      October 9, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • sam stone

      other than christianity, which other religions accept jesus as a savior?

      October 9, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  19. David

    Do people still get up in arms when you say Merry Christmas? As an atheist I have no problem celebrating Christmas – now mind you I see it as a largely capitalistic holiday where people give each other gifts, as it is in this day and age, so I don't consider it a religious holiday.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • David Stone

      I'm an atheist who has a christmas tree, gifts, the whole works. The kids love it, and so do I. I just don't worship invisible spirits.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • David

      Exactly! And we still sing the goofy religious Christmas carols and listen to women beaters (Bing Crosby) belt out the classics... if that's not tolerance, I don't know what is.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "Do people still get up in arms when you say Merry Christmas?"

      Actually I see people get more up in arms when you say 'happy holidays'
      The religious nuts then scream about a war on religion blah blah blah.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  20. David Stone

    Religion is a disease.....education is the cure.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • dave

      david,

      please tell me what the educated explanation is for our existance and the reason for our existance.

      thanks.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • ClaireView

      Many people of faith are highly educated. So much so, in fact, that they have come to the conclusion that they do not know everything. Instead of 'religion is a disease and education is the cure' – how about 'love is the answer?' It sounds like you've been burned badly in that department and I'm truly sorry about that. But keep in mind, bitterness only eats away that one who is bitter.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "please tell me what the educated explanation is for our existance and the reason for our existance."

      well the reason of how we came to be is i think too big to cover here but as to the reason of our existance?....... there is none, there is absolutely no reason for it.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:03 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.