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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. Marc

    Right! And the fastest growing art form in America is no art at all! Right? C'mon!

    October 9, 2012 at 4:25 am |
  2. atomD21

    With the way religious groups carry on these days, is it any wonder more and more of us are saying goodbye? They want to play the victim in all of this, but really, in most cases, they were the bully.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:24 am |
  3. Marc

    Right on! And the fastest growing art trend is "no art", right? C'mon!

    October 9, 2012 at 4:22 am |
  4. End Religion

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhfMqj_385Y&w=640&h=390]

    October 9, 2012 at 4:21 am |
  5. Eric Bloodaxe

    So, Jeremy, religion is only for cowards who are afraid of death? And the only reason to be good on earth is so you can get into heaven later? Seems that goodness with an ulterior motive isn't really that creditable. I'd rather be good simply because it's the right thing to do. Do I need religion for that?

    October 9, 2012 at 4:20 am |
    • End Religion

      "I'd rather be good simply because it's the right thing to do. Do I need religion for that?"

      For those keeping score at home, the answer is "no."

      October 9, 2012 at 5:07 am |
  6. Kane

    Thank god more people are learning to think for themselves!

    October 9, 2012 at 4:18 am |
  7. Dr. Meat

    Read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins and know there is no god.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:17 am |
  8. postedbygeo

    CNN screeners, you are afraid of the truth. M.E. religion is the bain of our land.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:17 am |
    • Helpfun Hints

      No "screeners" here - it's an automatic word filter.

      Bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN automatic filter:
      Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
      You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters or some html tricks to modify the "offending" letter combinations.
      ---
      ar-se.....as in ar-senic.
      co-ck.....as in co-ckatiel, co-ckatrice, co-ckleshell, co-ckles, etc.
      co-on.....as in racc-oon, coc-oon, etc.
      crac-ker…
      cu-m......as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, circu-mnavigate, circu-mstances, cu-mbersome, cuc-umber, etc.
      ef-fing...as in ef-fing filter
      ft-w......as in soft-ware, delft-ware, swift-water, drift-wood, etc.
      ho-mo.....as in ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, ho-mogenous, sopho-more, etc.
      ho-oters…as in sho-oters
      ho-rny....as in tho-rny, etc.
      hu-mp… as in th-ump, th-umper, th-umping
      jacka-ss...yet "ass" is allowed by itself.....
      ja-p......as in j-apanese, ja-pan, j-ape, etc.
      koo-ch....as in koo-chie koo..!
      nip-ple
      o-rgy….as in po-rgy, zo-rgy, etc.
      pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      p-oon… as in sp-oon, lamp-oon, harp-oon
      p-orn… as in p-ornography
      pr-ick....as in pri-ckling, pri-ckles, etc.
      que-er
      ra-pe.....as in scra-pe, tra-peze, gr-ape, thera-peutic, sara-pe, etc.
      se-x......as in Ess-ex, s-exual, etc.
      sl-ut
      sm-ut…..as in transm-utation
      sn-atch
      sp-ank
      sp-ic.....as in desp-icable, hosp-ice, consp-icuous, susp-icious, sp-icule, sp-ice, etc.
      sp-ook… as in sp-ooky, sp-ooked
      strip-per
      ti-t......as in const-itution, att-itude, t-itle, ent-ity, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, nightw-atchman, salt-water, etc.
      va-g......as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant, va-gue, sava-ge, etc.
      who-re....as in who're you kidding / don't forget to put in that apostrophe!
      wt-f....also!!!!!!!
      There's another phrase that someone found, "wo-nderful us" (have no idea what sets that one off).

      October 9, 2012 at 4:46 am |
  9. dan o

    I understand why people believe in god. Nature is cruel and it is tempting to personify it. (personify means to give human attributes to nonhuman things).

    That being said, religion is personification in its most obvious form.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:16 am |
    • End Religion

      unfortunately it isn't so obvious to all. I would wager most religious people actually believe it is not personification but rather very real god and very real satan. It's almost unanimous among them that jesus was real, when we have not a shred of evidence for his existence.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:10 am |
  10. Gaunt

    Even if we accept the farcical idea that there is a giant magic invisible guy up in the shy watching us every time we go to the bathroom, then christians are faced with yet ANOTHER logical problem.

    Please provide a shred of tangible or measurable evidence that YOUR version of YOUR interpretation of YOUR god is real, as opposed to the Norse Pantheon of Odin, Thor and Baldur. Is there any reason at all to believe even if there IS a celestial tooth fairy, it happens to be your version and not one of the 40,000+ other versions out there?

    October 9, 2012 at 4:16 am |
  11. Geno

    Thank (whoever) people are finally coming to their senses. It's hard to comprehend how so many intelligent (?) people in this world still believe in this crap.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:12 am |
  12. ameri2010

    CNN is such a joke. Their headlines, surrounded by a bunch of silly videos, are about a skydiver jumping from the edge of space and atheists. LOL Entertainment and comedy not to be taken seriously. I group them in with the rag mags because any political news is slanted or outright lying and their feeble-minded audience largely consists of people who buy into any type of nonsense CNN wants to sell them. Other stories and videos are amusement to keep the idiots entertained. We conservatives come over to laugh at them and their ridiculous comments and then go back to real news sources to get information on politics and world events.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:11 am |
    • your to phunny

      From where? Fox? Lol. You conservatives are delusional.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:13 am |
    • Gaunt

      And yet you spend your time here reading the news reports and commenting on them repeatedly and at length. Judging by the number of comments by you on the last 2 pages on this thread, you have been here commenting for at least and hour if not more.

      Lying hypocrite much?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:13 am |
    • ameri2010

      Fox? Those are your words not mine but since you brought up Fox as the "obvious" choice of news for anybody who doesn't buy into CNN and MSNBC's lies, I checked Fox to see what they have as their headlines. Top headline is about Israel shooting down a drone that now is suspected to have originated with Hezbollah. Another headline is how ABC tried to put words into Ryan's mouth during an interview and got caught (once again) being unfair. Another headline is about how House committee State Dept. rejected pleas for more safety measures before Libya attack.

      I guess when the left is trying to deflect attention away from Obama's failures, they can't report anything worthwhile. Meantime, they keep the idiots entertained with simple stories and animal videos. The animal videos should sooth the evolutionists who flock here. I'm sure they can hear familiar sounds from their ancestors when the volume is increased.

      Thank you for the chance to prove an idiot wrong.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:26 am |
    • ameri2010

      Hey Gaunt: I know it's hard to be a liberal and not lie through your teeth, but people know how to count. I made two comments prior to you posting this so you're lies don't carry any weight Try again.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:29 am |
    • End Religion

      ameri, your religion is dying. Your party is in shambles. We understand you are disillusioned with both and have come here seeking answers. Don't be shy. We accept even encephalitic retards without too much hazing, so welcome to CNN!

      October 9, 2012 at 5:18 am |
    • evan

      @gaunt the best way to find out what is really going on the world is to read stories from multiple news sources instead of cnns liberal agenda

      October 9, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  13. your to phunny

    Score one for the rational thinkers.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:09 am |
  14. Weels

    The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:09 am |
    • Bog

      yup. Hmm... what would happen if everyone felt that way?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:17 am |
    • Dmitri

      Your country sucks, your brethren are mostly insane, but thank you for wanting to do good. It could be worse.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:36 am |
  15. Brandon

    Maybe one day we'll even give the nuclear codes to someone who doesn't believe in wizards or magical underpants. Scary.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:08 am |
  16. RichardSRussell

    Prayer changes nothing.

    Just had to get that in before heading off to beddy-bye. 'Night, all.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:05 am |
  17. Jeremy

    If there is someone here who is afraid of death or hell, then read this............God hates sin, but God loves humanity! So God's own son, Jesus Christ, died for mankind's sin. Not figuratively, but literally. If you understand that Christ gave up his life, taking the punishment of sin in YOUR place, and you trust your life to him and what he has done for you on the cross, then you are ready to be a christian. If you turn away from sinful life and depending on your own good deeds to be accepted by God, and believe that he is God's son and your savior from sin and God's punishment of sin, then you can pray to him for forgiveness and accept him as God.....and he will accept you. Then you can live a life without fear of death or hell or abandonment!

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

      What if I turn away from sin, lead a good, honest charitable, humble, giving, generous, peaceful life? What if I manage to (impossibly) spend my entire life in the service of the less fortunate, never thinking for or caring for myself, but just being the ultimate good person in all things? (Oh, but I beleiev in a different god).

      Do I get into heaven then? No?

      What if I spend my entire life murdering people, abusing women, assaulting children, stealing, raping, and committing every sin known to man in spades? And then, just before I die, I genuinely repent and turn to your god? Do I get into heaven then? I do?

      So... how EXACTLY can you DARE call your god 'good'?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:09 am |
    • Dmitri

      I hear you spoke in class today, Jeremy. Is it true?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:10 am |
    • Dr. Meat

      You do not need a belief in a god to know the merit of good deeds.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:11 am |
    • dan o

      that basic statement removes moral responsibility from the individual. It says, "It doesn't matter what I do because god will forgive me" . This line of logic is weak and extremely faulty.
      Take responsibility for yourself and everything you do, don't attribute your strengths or weaknesses to somebody who died 2000 years ago. Now isn't that more logical?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:13 am |
    • shawn l

      My fairy tales are far more interesting than yours.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:19 am |
    • Dick Izinya

      Your god sounds like a tyrant. Why don't you jam him up your a**?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:23 am |
    • End Religion

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MS91knuzoOA&w=640&h=390]

      October 9, 2012 at 5:21 am |
  18. Gaunt

    God's plan eh?

    OK, please inform us all how childhood lukemia fits into god's plan. A horrific, torturous disease that slowly and agonishing kills children, that was until very recently completely untreatable. Parents just got to watch their little children die shrieking until their vocal cords ruptured.

    I'm curious what god had in mind when he created that.
    Anyone?

    October 9, 2012 at 4:04 am |
    • Dick Izinya

      I understand that the only reason children were quite in their last moments was because they were too weak to scream.
      And a kind, loving god designs this?
      Please.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:25 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      If anyone with knowledge answered any of your questions you just couldn't understand.... it's a spiritual thing and you don't get it. So you might want to just stop with the juvenile questions.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:34 am |
    • Dmitri

      I do not see those as juvenile questions. They are deadly serious questions. Why do you not know the answer?
      I'll tell you why: it's because your "god" doesn't exist and there is no magic anything. Harsh but true. Juvenile? Nope.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:40 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      Why answer idiots? If anyone over heard me answering any of these idiots' questions...well, they won't know who the idiot is. Duhhh. ...now go figure...

      October 9, 2012 at 4:44 am |
    • Gaunt

      Wisdonm, I admire your consistency. You always have an excuse, some squirming justification, as to why you are too cowardly to engage on facts, debate on point, ot try and refute solid logic. You always answer every post, but never even TRY and post actual intelligent rebuttal. You post a one-line insult (possibly to make yourself feel better about your ignorance) and then squirm off to a new post, and repeat the same pattern again.

      Why are you such a coward? Did your religion make you a coward, or was it how you were raised?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:53 am |
    • End Religion

      what i want to know is, how is anyone going to "overhear" him typing a reply?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:24 am |
  19. End Religion

    Proof Every Christian Goes to Hell by End Religion
    1) The only irredeemable sin against your Lord thy God is denying him, the Holy Spirit
    2) To deny is to refuse to admit truth of or to refuse to give that which is requested
    3) Any sin is to deny god of his commandments
    4) Therefore, even one sin results in a soul that cannot be forgiven. Sin once, and you're going to hell whether you repent or not. Since Christians are "born into sin" they're automagically damned to hell and cannot be forgiven.

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

      Sorry, but you are ignorant! Sad for you :-(

      October 9, 2012 at 4:31 am |
  20. Derek

    Hurrah for the nons!

    October 9, 2012 at 4:00 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.