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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 • Politics • Polls

soundoff (7,763 Responses)
  1. Rob-Texas

    Many of you should be ashamed of yourselves. You speak as if Christians should wear crosss and anthiests should wear x's and all be put in camps or getto's. Sound familar? Look up Joseph Goebbels...

    October 9, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • NoTheism

      But Rob, Christians do wear crosses, and they do so on their own. If I wore something that identified me as an atheist, and I walked down the street long enough, I have no doubt that a Christian or a Muslim would shoot me dead.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • ME II

      Probably not the first today, but Congratulations on winning the Godwin award.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @ME II,

      sadly the Godwin award is on page 1, at least 17 hours ago!

      He does get extra credit for using "Joseph Goebbels" as the reference though.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Rob-Texas

      You know what I meant. All Christains do not ware crosses. I meant forced to wear crosess, forced to wear x's. Other posts on the 72+ pages just prove my point. So nice to hide behind the internet where people can spew all the anonymous hate they want, not matter what they believe.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • ME II

      @Rob-Texas,
      How about the atheists promise not to threaten everyone with eternal torture?

      October 9, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  2. ANGIE

    I feel like religion is a war in itself. I respect that people need and want religion in their lives, maybe its all they've known, maybe its a sense of comfort and moral guidelines for them but not for me. Just because I dont go to church and believe what most of the world believes doesnt make me wrong. Why cant people who preach to people like me just live out their lives and let it go that not everyone is going to agree with you? And personally I dont want a President who plays the religion card during the election (which it seems all of them do). I want a leader who isnt going to kiss everyones ass just to get votes, granted religion isnt the only subject this is done with.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  3. hINDUISM RACISM OF hINDU'S, CRIMINALS BY FAITH EXPOSED

    NoTheism-–There are no two kind of constant known to humanity but one, if other universes did not have same constant, balance, they would have collapsed on other's or within, It is constant format of constant truth absolute keeping universes including our's in balance including us. Rest of your argument is based not on truth absolute but on baseless hypothesis.
    Belief is based on faith and faith is nothing else but trust, one having trust in some one or some thing other an truth absolute is a hindu, ignorant, for not having faith in truth absolute GOD, constant of his own existence.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • mama kindless

      Can you do me a favor and run that through the Google translator one more time. I'm not gettin' it.

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

      I already replied to this.
      Also, your whole understanding of what belief is wrong. Belief is not based on faith, belief is based on evidence, on logical inference and deduction and so on. Faith requires none of those things.
      You seem a little confused about many of these things.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  4. CGAW

    So as a country we are shaping up to be the hateful godless Dems vs the hateful religous zealot Repubes. Don't know about you but I will take a 3rd option and one that operates from a moderate standpoint. Vote whoever you want but we are all screw-d.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  5. morpeth10

    More people are just finally realizing religion as a throwback, when we had so little understanding of the universe. We know the world's not 6000 yrs old, flat, and that people and dinosaurs did NOT co-exist, and that imaginary friends are for children - even though some anti-science bible-thumpers desperately hold onto to their little make believe world. Personally I find the trend reassuring.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Rob-Texas

      "We know the world's not 6000 yrs old, flat, and that people and dinosaurs did NOT co-exist" Christians do not believe this either. A few radicals are present in every group. Some are quite off.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • jungleboo

      @Rob Texas: The trouble with Christians is they keep changing their spots, updating their belief systems, and pretending that they are in no way responsible for the horrors that their religion espoused once upon a time. You keep insisting you are right, and then keep changing your credo. No wonder religion is finally getting the back slap it ultimately deserves.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      """Christians do not believe this either."""

      Really? Better let Rep Paul Broun know that.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Rob-Texas

      All Christians do not change to fit the culture, some do and some don't.
      Only a few Christians taught that silly stuff about 6000 years old, world being flat (most humans thought that in the dark ages not just Christians), Dinos and people, etc.
      Just because some fringe group of a larger group is true doesn't mean everyone believes the same thing.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • Rob-Texas

      Jeff Williams- When did he become the spokesperson for Christianity?

      October 9, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  6. john

    if fewer people are being drawn into religion then we truly are evolving. WE'RE GETTING SMARTER!!!!

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

      Smarter? Yep this country is full dumb-as-s of all beliefs and walks – I wouldn't be crediting anyone with intelligence quite yet.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Rob-Texas

      Turn on the TV lately? If anything we are getting dumber..

      October 9, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • jungleboo

      @ Rob Texas If you think turning on the television is a litmus test for intelligence, then you have a very poor range of information. This very Internet that we use to exchange information instantly is the root cause of people waking up and getting smart. Religion did NOT bring us the Internet. If anything, it has fought it tooth and nail. Television is for idiots, that's why they call it the boob tube. There is a bigger brighter world outside of your barca-lounger. Try it sometime.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Rob-Texas

      I watch verly little TV, and when I do its News, sports or history.
      Yeah, the internet is such a shinging display of intelligence. There are so many displays of equal intellligence and stupidity.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  7. Dan

    We went from everything is god, to multiple gods, to a single god to no gods. Religion was just the bureaucracy that developed to keep the franchise going. We are just growing up. If people find they still need gods and religion, we could just make some more up, possibly borrowing what works from the past and adding new elements like humans have been doing for eons.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • jungleboo

      The biggest mistake on earth was going to "One God" fits all. Had we stuck with the multiple god theory, each natural phenomenon represented by its own god would have been gently supplanted by the scientific method, bit by bit. Trees have their own purpose and reason, behavior and offerings. The Ocean has its own reason for being. Animals have their own guiding principles. Once that concept was hijacked and the Middle East put its tragic spin on things 3000 years ago, one God controlled everything, and therefore, nothing was allowed to flourish without "His" permission (I mean, the rabbai's, the Church's, the minister's permission.) That's the history of the human race in a nut shell. We just have to repair our damaged hearts from that one monotheistic drug overdose. One hopes it was not fatal.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  8. martin

    All organized religion is cult and political

    October 9, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  9. vonn

    Ever see an atheist on his death bed.. Not a pretty sight..

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

      Have you? No, I didn't think so.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Dan

      Plenty of Christians don't die gracefully either, what's your point? Moreover, why should someone's thoughts and feelings on their deathbed be a facet of this discussion? Should we lie to ourselves to make dying easier?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      I think anyone on their death bed isn't a pretty site.

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

      Looks exactly the same as someone mumbling the rosary.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • barlowc

      Don, a study earlier this year showed that Christians seek more healthcare than Atheists, as death approaches. It suggests to me that Atheists are at greater peace towards the end than Christian nut jobs, who fear death more greatly. So from a medical and palliative perspective it is more accurate to say "not a pretty sight" about Christians than Atheists.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Mark

      Vonn, I have. My father died blissfully, never having to believe all the crap religion tries to shove down his throat. Believe if you want, but leave my non belief alone.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • Rob-Texas

      barlowc- Some study, by who, when and where. Where were these Christians and Athiets, did they have equal access to health care, same age, etc. etc. etc. If you are going to quote a study, how about giving us some facts.

      I read this study where __________. Its true, I read it somewhere, maybe the internet.

      I have seen Christians afraid of death and Athiests afraid of death. Some people are and some people are not. It does not always tie directly to your religous beliefs or not believing in a God or afterlife.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  10. Ted

    In the 16th Century, a jewish mystic, after 7 years in meditation came up with realization that the Universe was created by a Big Bang, and the light spread to all directions creating space, time, and all energy-matter in the process. That was at about the same time Galileo looked in the first telescope and saw the moon, and Capernicus said that the Earth rotates around sun and not the other way around. Point is: the right side of the brain seems to have intuitive understanding of the reality a lot sooner than the reason-data driven left side of the brain.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • ME II

      Are you claiming some 16th mystic's ramblings as evidence of the supernatural?
      If that was the case then what happened for the first 15 centuries? Or the 100,000+ years prior that humans have been around?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  11. Tony

    This is great news. As we continue educating ourselves, the number of theists will continue to dwindle. This is the information age. There is no longer any excuse to be ignorant.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  12. Thiefs Of Christ

    Most holidays are completely stolen and contorted...Just wanted to say that. Read book don't let book read you.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  13. martin

    TRUTH NEVER REQUIRES BELIEF

    October 9, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • sam stone

      true. but mythology does

      October 9, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • hINDUISM RACISM OF hINDU'S, CRIMINALS BY FAITH EXPOSED

      Belief is based on faith and faith is nothing else but trust, one having trust in some one or some thing other an truth absolute is a hindu, ignorant, for not having faith in truth absolute GOD, constant of his own existence.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  14. AvdBergism source of filthyRainerBraendleinism

    lamb is not dog. dog filthy and pagan. lamb of dog evil. NO DOGS. Path of triple abdullah is truth absolute.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Dog is real. god is not.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  15. john

    the word "gospel" means Good news! this is the real good news!!!!!!

    October 9, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  16. hINDUISM RACISM OF hINDU'S, CRIMINALS BY FAITH EXPOSED

    NoTheism---–There are no two kind of constant known to humanity but one, if other universes did not have same constant, balance, they would have collapsed on other's or within, It is constant format of constant truth absolute keeping universes including our's in balance including us. Rest of your argument is based not on truth absolute but on baseless hypothesis.

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

      "There are no two kind of constant known to humanity but one"

      and perhaps we'll discover more at some point. Of course, there could be other universes in which humans do not exist, and such universes could have completely different set of rules (where constants are not required and perhaps such universes are stuck in a loop of coming into existence and going out of existence constantly.. but they would still exist without such a constant and I don't see anything contradictory about it).

      "Rest of your argument is based not on truth absolute but on baseless hypothesis."
      Look who's talking. That's a horrible way to answer a perfectly legitimate argument that I took the time to expose you to.

      Anyway, even if such a constant were true in the way you mean it, it doesn't prove that an imaginary power puff god exists.

      If you want to rename such a constant and call it truth absolute, and call truth absolute god, and call god manure, I'm not going to stop you.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  17. Ted

    People are confusing faith with religion. One is a natural functioning of the right side of the brain, and the other – a doctrine.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  18. Joe

    here is a reason why fewer people go to church or even believe: http://thinkprogress.org/election/2012/10/08/974321/republican-candidate-in-arkansas-says-parents-should-seek-death-penalty-for-rebellious-children/

    October 9, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Brad

      that will do it

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

      Yes, stories like that and many others did it for me years ago. I am in the second group, once religious but left the church for something more sane and moral.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  19. BambaDAMBAMbambaDAM

    http://xkcd.com/1102/

    Just sayin'.

    October 9, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  20. Ted

    When someone says "God does not exist", he is just as ignorant as the one who says that God does.

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

      When someone says that the Easter Bunny does not exist they are just as ignorant as someone that says the Easter Bunny does exist.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • God

      I don't exist.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • mama kindless

      Well I hate to say ignorant, but many do ignore other possibilities, one of which is something other than the present tense.

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

      How so?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Rav

      god is completely random thing defined by every religion. But surely it doesn't have any logical control over this world. By logic I means there is no way in which we can confirm that he is exercising control over the random misery and happy moments of people. For sure pray is such a stupid concept that has no logic at all. It is an easy excuse for people who don't want to find the real reasons behind mysteries. So whether u r agnostic or atheist it doesn't make a difference in ur life. I think its better to be atheist than agnostic coz it gives u more practical approach to life.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.