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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. † In God We Trust †

    Sad to see that there are still few people that don't believe the Bible – God's word.
    I don't think they are mentally healthy those type of people

    October 9, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
    • sybaris

      Troll

      October 9, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
    • mama kindless

      Oh, you must be talking about Gullible's Travels.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      As if you'd know what "mental health" is, you crazy-azz ninny.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
    • rory

      Can we think ourselves away from God?

      October 9, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • NorthVanCan

      Don't forget that we are very secular in Canada and it Rocks

      October 9, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
    • Athy

      I, for one, love the bible. I keep one in each of my three bathrooms in case they run out of a certain hygenic material.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      right, because a mentally sound person believes in talking snakes, talking donkeys, and millions of animals on one boat.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
  2. Kirbydog

    "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."

    What a stupid statement. Sort of like saying vegatarians eat strikingly less meat.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
  3. † In God We Trust †

    Thank God more than 90% of Americans believe in God. I left secular Europe to religious America :)

    October 9, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • mama kindless

      Nah -it's more like 80%.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
    • End Religion

      you're just in time for America's enlightenment.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • Athy

      Where you gonna go when America becomes secular?

      October 9, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
  4. JubJub

    Gadflie, my perception on free will is that if God created the universe, He can give me free will. That is inherent in itself. However, without God, you are left to the path the universe forces you to take, where everything is completely subject to physical laws, where even what you are thinking is just the result of chemistry.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Your perception doesn't really matter. If God is omniscient and he KNOWS that you will choose to turn right at a fork in the road tomorrow, can you actually turn left instead? If you can, he is not omniscient. If you cannot, you do not actually have free will. It's that simple.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
    • mama kindless

      lol. I love it when these things are misplaced. It's like an episode of the old Star Trek where a whole set of different characters come through some kind of wormhole.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • Dave

      Gadflie... as a Christian I struggled with this very paradox for a long time. I reasoned that if God was omniscient, and I committed suicide, it would be because God knew that's what I would do ahead of time. What other choice did I have? Well, after months of thinking on and off about this issue, I concluded the answer may be in my own misperception about God. Christian theology teaches that God is the "alpha and the omega," the beginning and the end. It also suggests that to God a second is as a thousand years, and thousand years as a second. I've concluded that omniscience is not about specifically knowing the future, but rather about instantaneous awareness at every point along a timeline. That awareness includes knowing every outcome of every decision made by every person. Limiting God to knowing simply what's going to happen, rather than every possibility means you're not actually considering God to be omniscient (ALL knowing).

      October 9, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
    • Dave

      Sorry, I meant to say every POSSIBLE outcome. As in, I could choose to go left or right...I can only choose one, and will only discover what happens if I choose one, but God knows both.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Dave, interesting justification. But, the question is still begged. If God KNOWS that I will turn left at the fork in the road tomorrow, can I still turn right?

      October 9, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • JubJub

      Gadflie, I believe that God knows what will happen if I decide to turn left or if I decide to turn right. I don't believe that I am capable of understanding God, much less to prove or disprove His existence by applying simple logic paradoxes to Him.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
    • Gadflie

      JubJub, it isn't a simple logic paradox which implies that it is untrue in real life. It is actually true, what is untrue in real life is the Christian idea that an omniscient god and free will can coexist. It's similar to this truth, there can possibly be an irresistible force, there can possibly be an immovable object. It is impossible for there to be both.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • JubJub

      Gadflie, I'm assuming that whatever the true case is, God knew how to do it, including giving us free will.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Your assumptions have no basis in reality nor any rational basis. But, if they give you comfort, feel free to cling to them.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
    • clinky

      JubJub does not speak for all believers, and need not hold his soft determinism to believe in God. It's compatible with belief to take a non-deterministic stance and say omniscience is not an attribute of God. In fact, it seems like omniscience fell by the way side long ago in this kind of discussion. Since when was it seriously included in the equation? Omniscience contradicts God's own power to do otherwise and has to be thrown out as an attribute.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
  5. Truth

    America is still very religious in general... I may pack my bag and move to western Europe soon.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
  6. Agnostic

    I hate religion but love Jesus Christ.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • End Religion

      awwww... that's so cute. Do you have a favorite little teddy bear as well?

      October 9, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
    • I wonder

      Agnostic,

      The only information about this Jesus character comes from religious sources.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
  7. Really

    More than 60% still pray to God and believe in Him of those 1/5 number of 'No Religion'.
    LOL

    October 9, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Where do you get your data about which percentage of them pray?

      October 9, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • Truth

      I cannot believe it either. They say no religion yet they still pray to god.

      Watch the CNN clip on top of this page

      October 9, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  8. Yaho

    4/5 Americans (80%) are Christians ...

    October 9, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Only nominally at best.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • sybaris

      and it's no wonder why the U.S. doesn't even get into the top 10 for academic achievement.

      Religion and the worship of god(s) makes you ignorant.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  9. Thomas Jefferson

    Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
    • rory

      to me the only homage of God is love. if we are all created, we must be loved. God is perfect love...that which sees all beyond what we see for each other. God loves all.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      God(s) love us sooo much he will be sure to burn us .. not just burn but burn for ETERNITY no less. Yup, he sure loves us .. but only if we "believe" what blind followers tell us to believe & it matches what they believe.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
  10. NorthVanCan

    Most Americans think the Bible is a true story.
    Yikes!

    October 9, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      They don't actually believe it .. they're just too afraid to admit they don't, even to themselves.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
    • sybaris

      no wonder why the U.S. doesn't even get into the top 10 for academic achievement.

      Religion and the worship of god(s) makes you ignorant

      October 9, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
  11. BigSkyHumanist

    I don't think I am the only who has noticed that almost every obit in the local newspaper says the deceased has gone up to heaven and hanging out with Jesus. Not one person has been said to move in the opposite direction. We keep getting mixed messages from the faithful.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
  12. rory

    Love is the anthesis of fear. Christ taught to love those that do not love you...for where is your reward in loving those who only love you? this is simply his message.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      You should be aware that the anthesis of love is not fear .. it's apathy.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
    • End Religion

      i think i've told him before....

      October 9, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
  13. !

    *************************************************************************************************************************************************

    Do not believe what an atheistic satanic author on CNN is trying to tell us proud religious people about America turning into secular and nonreligious society. This poll was asked only by few thousands out of more than 312 million Americans.

    America is a Christian country and has always been the most religious developed nation in the world. We are proud of our faith and those against it are neither Americans nor patriots. This is one nation under God and our motto is 'In God We Trust'.

    > 80% of Americans are Christians and more than 90% believe in God :)
    Christianity is growing rapidly across the world, and in the U.S. we expect additional hundred million more Christians by next few decades. We have over 400,000 churches and every day new churches are opening and getting built.

    *** Only 1-3% of the U.S. consider themselves atheist/agnostic. Just because 15 – 20% of Americans saying 'No Religion' does NOT equal (≠) to being atheist/agnostic. Watch the video clip, the majority of the 1/5 voters still pray to God and continue to believe in one and only truly God ***

    CNN belief blog and other websites talking about religion is dominaned by closet atheists who have nothing else to do but being against religion and Christianity in general. One day they will realize their big mistake and I hope God does NOT forgive them. They are all evil and nasty people, just like how Stalin, Mao, Pot, Mussoulini, and Castro were!

    Stay away from nonbelievers.... yuck!
    **************************************************************************************************************************************************/

    October 9, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • NorthVanCan

      First you say "don't believe the satanic author" and then you say" watch the video clip"
      Well , you my friend is all messed up.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
    • Gadflie

      The most religious developed country in the world, I'll let Vatican City know you think so.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
    • ErinNY

      There's a good Christian; "I hope God does NOT forgive them!" Hahaha

      October 9, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
    • justme

      erin; i agree that the loving standard of a true christian is not quite seen in that comment but then nothing else he says makes much sense either.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  14. what1ever

    So, we're in the 21st century, and only 13 million of us don't believe that the earth was created by magic?! Wow, just wow...

    October 9, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
  15. John Lennon

    Imagine no religion .. it isn't hard to do.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
  16. Nick

    I'm not surprised with the younger population identifying as atheist or agnostic in such high numbers. I have many friends who seek different religious (or non-religious) experiences. Now that I'm older, all of these friends (who once identified as atheist or agnostic) have returned to their religious roots. Whether it be Catholic, Baptist, or non-denominational Christian, they have all returned. This happens in every generation, to a lot of people, at that age.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • NorthVanCan

      Yah, keep telling your self that if it makes you feel better.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • Gadflie

      Actually, more and more of them keep that "belief" (atheism or agnosticism) into adulthood. I'm an atheist. Always have been. And, the survey shows that this (dis)belief is increasing in every age group. So much for your argument.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      If you'd return to your roots that would be Atheist since we're all born Atheist.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
  17. Serve Him

    What is interesting is that I expect things will get worse regarding humans and their beliefs (or non-belief) in God. Jesus predicted this and he encouraged Christ followers to stay strong.

    8 But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.

    9 “Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. 10 At that time many will [a]fall away and will [b]betray one another and hate one another. 11 Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. 12 Because lawlessness is increased, [c]most people’s love will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. 14 This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole [d]world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      And people have been touting that verse, and many others, as signs of the end times for over a thousand years. You are not showing anything except your willingness to buy into a persecution complex fostered over many generations.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • Serve Him

      really, and who has been touting it? or are you gaining comfort from that false claim. For the numbers to dwindle, they must have been greater.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • JesusNotReligion

      hawwii...And you sound like the fulfillment of this passage from 2 Peter 3...

      The Day of the Lord

      1 Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking. 
      2 I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles.
      3 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 
      4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.
      5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 
      6 By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 
      7 By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
      8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 
      9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
      10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • anisa

      what if people mistakenly ignore the real prophet, thinking that he is a false prophet.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • Gadflie

      How anyone can be a Christian is beyond me. The prophesy that Jesus repeated and paraphrased the most often did NOT come true and the deadline he set is long past. Obviously a false prophet.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • wjmccartan

      After 2000 years that have decimated free thinkers in the name of religion, you would have thought that maybe just maybe the good book doesn't hold all the all the answers. The messenger may have been heavenly, but the author was man.

      Lucid One

      October 9, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • JesusNotReligion

      Gadflie, you SCOFFER you...Go watch the Voice and stop wasting your time here...You are too intellectual for this site...See you in the dirt where you are "intellectually" fighting for us all to adhere to...Can someone laugh and cry at the same time, cause I am...

      I can "Imagine" JesusNotReligion....Can't I? You all just want that to not be true more than you really believe that in the end WE ALL END UP IN THE SAME PLACE...Now that's something to imagine... But WHATEVER...

      October 9, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @Serve Him

      In the gospels Jesus supposedly says that the current generation of his time will not pass from the earth before the end of the world. Same thing in the Pauline letters. Did you really think the apocalyptic preaching was confined to now? Head in the sand is a look you must like for yourself.

      @JNR

      Don't care. You cannot demonstrate your underlying premise, nor can you give evidence that anything supernatural occurs.

      Worthless assertions of supernatural events and circular reasoning on the authority of your bible don't work. When either of you get some logic, then come back.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      JNR, you might want to lay off the booze. Just sayin'. You post like a drunk.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
    • Gadflie

      JNR, if your delusions bring you comfort, feel free to revel in them. Me? I'll stick with reality.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
  18. Dawkins is my homeboy

    You mean full frown adults are giving up imaginary deities for science and truth? How novel...no gods never, has been, never will be.

    October 9, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
  19. Jeremy

    Well I have to go to bed since I was up too late last night. Goodnight to all!

    October 9, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  20. JubJub

    I'm surprised to read so many atheists expressing such passion for their "enlightenment". Don't they realize that their thoughts are nothing but a chemical reaction that will soon dissipate, and they really have no control over what is going on in their heads since it's all the inevitable path of the universe? Or that the people they are arguing with are just doing what their chemical reactions are compelling them to do? Who knows, maybe a meteor with some alien DNA sticking to it will hit our planet, gradually spread to everyone, change their brain chemistry, and make us all scientologists. Hey, if it doesn't involve God, it could happen, right?

    October 9, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • NoTheism

      are you saying that for a meteor with alien DNA to hit earth requires a god?
      I'm not sure I'm following.
      Of course, materialists believe in cause and effect and that, yes, our minds are the product of our brains (poorly put). Are all atheists materialists? I don't know. Either way, a materialist doesn't have to exclude the possibility of inputs influencing their brains (such as the food that you eat, or the information that you learn) in order to explain how and why we respond to certain things (such as me replying to you).

      October 9, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • clinky

      Well put, JubJub. I've been waiting for somebody to do that. It is possible for atheists to get out of this maneuver... as long as they take back their claims that believers are reductively "wired," "programmed" or what have you to hold their conviction (really, it is convictions in the plural, since there is such wide diversity and vibrant debate among them).

      October 9, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Jack

      One of the definitions of a troll is not adding to the debate in a positive manner. That fits you JubJub, quite well. Your comment has nothing to do with this fine article. I recommend that you learn to comprehend or if you have done so already, I suggest that you refrain from displaying your superior wisdom until it is called for. Until then, troll elsewhere or try again. By the way, I am sorry that the world has not caught up to your high standards, yet.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • Gadflie

      JubJub, and if you pretend that you can have free will with an omniscient god, you should realize that it's just that, pretending. If you think about it at all, this is obvious.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • JubJub

      My meteor reference was a loose one to the theory that life on earth originated elsewhere. I could also have said, an extra hydrogen here or an adanine mutation there, and I could be the athiest and you could be a priest (or a cat, if your chemical reaction were altered long enough ago). As far as any imputs affecting your brains or thoughts, well, that is still the result of numerous chemical/physical/etc. reactions, all of which were set in motion to inevitably arrive at that point.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • JubJub

      Jack, you may have clicked on the wrong article. This one is about religion, so before you respond to the other thousands of posts about religion, you need to find your way to a different forum. Anyway, trolls go around insulting people (which you are doing). If you think I'm insulting anyone by implying that they don't have free will, then provide a counter-argument. Anyway, I must admit that I think my post is more thought-provoking than most of the other comments.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.