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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. Gods not here!

    "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"
    – Epicurusey

    October 9, 2012 at 3:58 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      OH for the love of God! Really? Geez!

      October 9, 2012 at 4:10 am |
    • Gaunt

      Wisdom, I'm noticing a trend from you. people post logical conundrums, tangible evidence or factual data proving your silly version of your belief system wrong.

      You lack the balls to actually answer any of them on point, or engage with the substance or logic of the debate, so you post mewling one-line insults instead.

      Would you say you are as cowardly and pitiful as the average christian, or are you worse than average?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:18 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      @caunt

      What in the hell are you yapping about?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:39 am |
    • JohnnyC

      God's creation includes free will. This is a greater good which may have the consequence of producing a lesser evil.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  2. alfuso

    why would I want to live by the rules and myths of a group of goat-herders who lived 3500 years ago?

    October 9, 2012 at 3:55 am |
    • Dmitri

      So that you can feel good about being horribly ignorant and foolish? Seriously. It works for those who are as primitive and clueless as those goat herders. Are you like that? If not, you should try something else.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:13 am |
  3. blerg

    look at all the terrible things religion is responsible for. Why people think it's so righteous is beyond me.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:53 am |
    • JohnnyC

      Like the University, the Hospital and Western Music? Thanks, Catholic Church!

      October 9, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  4. blaqb0x

    This shouldn't be surprising since EVERYONE IS BORN AN ATHEIST.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:49 am |
  5. IceMan

    Any religion is only a hypothesis – "an hypothesis" if you want to be snooty – for which there is essentially no credible supporting data.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:49 am |
  6. AEvangelista

    The question of whether the universe has a creator or not is undetermined. Therefore it really makes no sense to be an atheist. The problem with the major religions is they're just too old. They need to upgrade in order to maintain relevance. Their reluctance to upgrade is leading to their downfall. If young people turn away from religion, will they turn away from ethics and morals as well?

    October 9, 2012 at 3:47 am |
    • End Religion

      Morality: Using empathy as a guide for human interaction. AKA, "treat others the way you want to be treated" and "put yourself in my shoes".

      Karen Wynn of Yale has a study showing even babies have an idea of wrong versus right. Neuroscientist Christian Keysers has done research to show that the brain of those who see others receiving pain themselves have similar neurological responses. There is a curve to empathy; some feel it more than others. But it certainly doesn't come from a hateful book about imaginary people.

      Atheism makes perfect sense. It means "Although I cannot disprove the existence of a creator (in the same way one cannot disprove leprechauns), I see no evidence pointing to it, therefore I do not believe in it."

      October 9, 2012 at 3:54 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Suppose I hypothesized that the Universe was created by an ambitious troop of Girl Scouts who weren't content merely selling cookies. Are you logically required to to accept THAT possibility as well, since the actual cause is, as you say, "undetermined"? Or does it make more sense to just say "Nobody knows where the universe came from, but if we ever DO find out, it will be science that discovers it, not religion"?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:55 am |
    • the anvil

      "The question of whether the universe has a creator or not is undetermined. Therefore it really makes no sense to be an atheist."

      so what you're saying is – people should just default to a belief in a god?

      it's funny – because the default position is atheism. no belief in a god.

      why would it make sense to skip all the hard work in determining the underpinnings of our universe, and jump right to "god did it." ???

      October 9, 2012 at 3:58 am |
    • Jerry

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FigprdcBGA&w=640&h=390]

      October 9, 2012 at 4:04 am |
    • Rick

      Believe or or not it is possible to be a good moral human being without constantly being threatened to burn in hell for eternity. When I go about my day I respect and help my fellow man, When I open the door for a lady, help someone in trouble or donate to charity I do it because it is RIGHT not because I want to impress some imaginary being or because someone told me if I didn't I'd suffer eternal damnation.

      If anything Atheists are more moral because their morality comes from reality, not from a fairy tale.

      October 10, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  7. Evelyn Connaway

    Because your not affiliated with any religion doesn't make you an Atheist. When the time comes and you grow up and real trial and tribulations with lots of physical pain to yourself or some one you love, you will ask your Maker for help, because there
    is no one else to call on.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:46 am |
    • End Religion

      when we are children and talk to imaginary beings, it's cute. When we're adults it is known as insanity.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:50 am |
  8. Atheist and Proud!

    As Sherlock Holmes would say, "It's called the powers of deduction dear Watson, the powers of deduction!"

    October 9, 2012 at 3:46 am |
  9. Jerry

    All I can say is #42

    October 9, 2012 at 3:44 am |
    • End Religion

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aboZctrHfK8&w=640&h=390]

      October 9, 2012 at 3:49 am |
  10. ronjayaz

    If I "just sed that" as the moderator sed in its rejection Y wasnt it published?!!!!!!! See my FACEBOOK. Fascist CNN is not as powerful s it think in limiting "original" thinking.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:44 am |
    • Observer

      Before you make a bigger fool of yourself, the automatic censor of certain words/word combinations likely got you both times.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:50 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Most crazy people are original thinkers. It's not necessarily something to be proud of.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:57 am |
  11. Gaunt

    Why is christianity wrong? Simple. because god doesnt care about good and bad at all.

    If Mother Theresa, after giving her life to charity and good works, converted to islam on her deathbed, does she go to heaven or hell according to Christians?

    If Adolf Hitler genuinely converted and repented on his deathbed and accepts jesus, even after a lifetime of hate and slaughter and genocide, does he go to heaven or hell?

    The Christian god doesnt care one whit about good or evil at all. All he cares about is that you scream his name and nobody elses. Thats arrogant, sadistic and evil.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:44 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      Why you hatin the very God who hold's your life in His hands? You sound like the ".....arrogant, sadistic and evil." one. Shame on your dumb butt.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:49 am |
    • Observer

      wisdom4u2,

      Since you were unable to answer any of the questions, all you had left was childish insults. Try again.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:52 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      I realize that the name "Mother Teresa" is, in the popular mind, supposed to conjure up images of selfless devotion, kindness, and charity, but Christopher Hitchens ripped the cover off that lie with his book "The Missionary Position", in which he pointed out that MT was actually more in love with poverty than the pöor. She viewed suffering as being redemptive and wanted to see as much of it as possible. She was also 100% in favor of 2nd-class citizenship for women.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:01 am |
    • Gaunt

      Ah Wisdom, you poor useless fool. I posted clear logical deduction based on Christian scriprural dogma. You could not answer, had no response or rebuttal, so decided to whine and insult me as a way of making yourself feel better about your incompetence. How 'Christian' of you.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:01 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      Listen, observer(?), you don't 'control' anything – nothing, and certainly not me. Kiss my ashy a ss, clown, you get no answers from me...just 'cause I hate control freaks, freak. We've been through this before, so move along now, there's nothing more to say.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:02 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      Why are you dummies trying to 'control' everyone's replies when you don't even know where you came from or where you're going? That's so sad... :-(

      October 9, 2012 at 4:05 am |
  12. Gaunt

    All you zealots are in for such a shock when you die, go before the Allfather Odin, and are cast into Hel because you did not die in battle surrounded by your slain enemies.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:41 am |
  13. kevin

    I notice the increase non-affiliated statistics coincide with the Simpsons emerging in the 1990s. Blame Jebus.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:41 am |
  14. Driverdale

    As my first catechism teacher explained to us, Science taught you how, religion told you why. The next year, the Pastor taught each of the 3 years of catechism.

    The eureka moment in my personal opinion of organized religion was in the 3rd year, when it was said Joseph wasn't Jesus' father. How sad that organized religion dismissed a MAN who knowingly raised a child, reportedly not of his seed, as his own. Throughout history, established cultural beliefs were usurped by religious types to further their agenda. Not Eating pork, wearing burkas, solstice celebrations, Christmas trees, the list goes on.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:41 am |
    • ameri2010

      Catholics don't adhere to the Bible. They make up false doctrine as it suits them (no meat on Friday; it's okay to eat meat on Friday now, etc.) That's why God said to have a personal relationship with Him and not man. It's not about "religion" or a particular denomination; it's about grace through faith. I don't know how many times I've heard about childhood experiences being an excuse to not believe. As adults, each person has a responsibility to read the truth for himself. For crying out loud, people spend more time planning for and looking into their vacation than they do their eternal "vacation." Pretty stupid if you ask me.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:50 am |
    • Driverdale

      Most denominations that follow the Christian. faith are an offshoot of Catholicism. You can thank Martin Luther (among others) who questioned the established dogma. Organized religion is nothing more than a Sunday morning social club. Originally created to build a community. Otherwise, you wouldn't need to shop for a congregation to find others who shared in your beliefs.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:06 am |
    • JohnnyC

      The Bible is a Catholic Book. The Catholic Church wrote the Bible, canonized the Bible, protected the Bible, lived the Bible, and suffers the indignity of having the Bible stolen and falsely interpreted by various manmade traditions. The authority of the Catholic Church comes from Christ through Peter in Matthew 16:18 and elsewhere, and to the apostles generally. If you are not Catholic, you are not practicing the Faith as it was practiced in the earliest days of the one true Church and beyond. May God have mercy on your soul, which he may well do, under the doctrine of "invincible ignorance." You are the sad recipient of generations of heresy and false teaching.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  15. ameri2010

    This is so comical and a sorry excuse for a news story. Thank goodness we have 24 hour comic relief. The guy in the picture is a joke. He reminds me of a rebellious kid on his bicycle who says, "Look Ma, no hands" just as he flies over the handlebars and falls down. I'm sure his mother is proud to have raised the town idiot.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:40 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      LOL. I know...right?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:45 am |
    • Gaunt

      The fact that America is finally coming around to reality and shaking of decades of zealous religious dominance in a manner that will profoundly affect the future of the country most certainly IS news. Important news. Stop whining just because you hate reality.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:46 am |
  16. End Religion

    welcome to atheism! We're glad to have you! :)

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

    October 9, 2012 at 3:39 am |
    • snookers

      LOL. Leave it up to the british for a great parody on religion.
      That said, I will not make fun at folks that are religious. It has some social value.
      However, I do pity some when they fork over their hard earned bucks to some smooth talking televangelist and/or slick website/begging phone call

      .

      October 9, 2012 at 4:05 am |
    • snookers

      I think Christianity especially the roman catholic branch, is down right scary and pretty weird. Not nice to scare little children with Hell, devils etc.
      If you view religious paintings, especially those depicting hell, you kind of wonder what kind of sadistic brain came up with those images. View the Garden of earthy delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Especially the right panel. I call it what it is ,pure surrealism and a rather good painting of fairy tales.
      Makes Freddy Kruger look like a Saint.

      .

      October 9, 2012 at 4:34 am |
  17. snookers

    The article does not state which group is the largest but bet the group that had no religious upbringing is the largest.
    My two kids (22 and 26) are part of that group. Never took them to any church when young nor baptized them.
    Religion is brainwashed at a very young age into kids. Kind of a permanent affliction that only a few are able to shed when grown up.
    Besides I always told them when you are an adult, you can decide if you want to be religious. Seems fair enough to me.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:39 am |
    • End Religion

      you're a courageous and progressive, loving parent, snookers. Your kids will thank you one day!

      October 9, 2012 at 3:41 am |
    • joey selene

      Awesome. One of the things that turned me off to religion was when I was younger, I had many folks trying to force their beliefs and opinions on me. That was one of the biggest turn offs that made me turn away from it. When people started to tell me I NEED TO GO TO CHURCH, I refused and now know that they were trying to make me believe. If you wanna go to church and be religious, no problem. When you try to force your beliefs onto another...then go to hell.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:48 am |
  18. BigBird Johnson

    It is a religion. They believe, without any proof, in extreme absolutes. They put great effort into converting others.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:38 am |
    • reason

      what are you talking about?
      We are not a group. We believe all the same things you do without all the god related crap.
      I dont try to convert anyone to do anything.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:44 am |
    • the anvil

      atheism isn't a belief. it's not a religion... remember what christopher hitchens said "that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence."

      religious tolerance must end. religion... all religion – impoverishes and stunts humanity. people, while still free to worship imaginary men in the sky, should be ashamed to espouse their delusional beliefs publicly.

      those who espouse any religious beliefs shouldn't be allowed to vote, purchase firearms, serve in any public office or teach public school.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:47 am |
    • Rick

      It is not a religion we use science to explain the universe and more importantly to find more questions. The earth is more than 6,000\9000 years old, we are not all descendants of two people, there is no way Noah's ark ever existed. The bible is a bunch of fairy tales made up thousands of years made up to help scare and control the population.

      Ever wonder while miracles ceased to exists as soon as camera's were invented?

      October 10, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  19. Weels

    The future of Mankind>>> http:\\truthmovement.blog.com

    October 9, 2012 at 3:37 am |
  20. wisdom4u2

    Ahhh duhhh. Why are we even discussing this bull? "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." (Hebrews 11:6) These clowns don't have a clue. Poor things... : ( We need to pray for them.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:37 am |
    • reason

      how weak you are. I dont need any reward from any make believe creature from beyond.

      dont pray for me – you will be wasting your time.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:45 am |
    • End Religion

      that's "wisdom4u" - he wants us all to stay ignorant. Not only should we continue with medieval superstitious bullshit, but we shouldn't even *talk* about anything else. W4U2, you are the reason religion is dying. People have had enough of ignorant people forcing them to wallow in stupidity. The planet is moving on - join or pass into irrelevance.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:46 am |
    • Dmitri

      Yes, why are you even leaving a comment? Good question.
      Maybe the fact that you say "Ahhh duhhh" has something to do with it.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:46 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      Ha-haaa. Y'all sound like you're wearing your thongs backwards. ahhh duhhhh :-)

      October 9, 2012 at 3:52 am |
    • Rick

      You pray for me, I'll think for you.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:53 am |
    • End Religion

      rick: excellent point!

      October 9, 2012 at 3:56 am |
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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.