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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. What

    Sorry to spoil your "perfect future", but my children will learn values morals and manners, know what real work is, love and be loved by their family and will be taught to pray before every meal. I can't believe how shallow and apathetic people are becoming, and the only comeback by anyone against this lifestyle is that it is brainwashing, no it is not, it is a loving family, the one that all your grandparents were raised in, they knew what love was, what manners were, what culture is, and I will never let it die.

    October 10, 2012 at 2:15 am |
    • Observer

      What,

      It's good that you want to bring up your children to be good people, but the only thing in there that has any direct link to religion is the praying part.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:21 am |
    • Veritas

      You seem to think that love, morals, values, etc, can only exist through religion. While they are good things, they can and do exist without religion.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:22 am |
    • electricretard

      As an atheist, it is quite insulting for you to insinuate that I do not love my wife and son and that we are immoral people.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:26 am |
    • S.Lutz

      You have good solid values. All the things you mentioned have nothing to do with religion, or affiliation with a particular religious group. Respect, kindness and obedience can all be taught and practised without the bigotry of religion in the way. All the best to you though.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:28 am |
    • What

      I do not hate atheists, I have atheist friends, I do not favor militant atheists, that hate Christians, I know many nice atheist people, I just dislike that so many people on this page claim I am oppressing them. When I am not, I don't hate anyone, I have never stopped research from taking place, Christianity is not your enemy,

      October 10, 2012 at 2:36 am |
    • 13monkees

      @What – I have no idea what you are talking about with regards to atheist's claims to oppression being bogus. I do not know you personally and have no idea what you actually believe. I can say that the bible espouses many immoral, and downright evil beliefs. I can say that many Christians and other religions do oppress other people's rights and when those people stand up for their rights, somehow that is oppressing the religious. It is lunacy for the religious to attempt to use their religion to legislate behavior. If you look at the 10 commandments, other than killing, stealing, and perjury, none of the others are at all relevant. And those were codified by Hammurabi long before the bible. I would argue that you can be a more moral person without religion than you can with.

      October 10, 2012 at 3:14 am |
  2. Truth

    How come you guys are showing so much hate? Where is all this Hate coming from -__- Why can't we all just get along.

    October 10, 2012 at 2:15 am |
    • Hmm

      Your right, a lot of little hitlers out there "cough, most people on this page, cough!!" They give good atheists a bad name, discussing genocide.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:33 am |
  3. JP0

    Thank god!

    October 10, 2012 at 2:09 am |
  4. mickflanigan

    Awesome! Please keep opening up about the scourge of religion on this planet, and maybe we can get rid of it once and for all, and have a happier place where people actually consider themselves part of humanity first, part of this planet first. Then maybe we can start working together.

    Nothing burns me more than religion in politics, people running to third world countries in a religious proxy war to convert the masses, and corrupt religious leaders stealing from the people they claim to protect. Religion is a disease.

    October 10, 2012 at 1:53 am |
  5. guru

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYi8KSwWzqM&feature=related

    October 10, 2012 at 1:51 am |
  6. guru

    October 10, 2012 at 1:50 am |
  7. Bootyfunk

    woohoo! reason wins!

    October 10, 2012 at 1:47 am |
  8. Truth

    "And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved." – Matthew 10:22

    Can't argue with that. "but he that endureth to the end shall be saved." :)

    October 10, 2012 at 1:31 am |
    • Blessed Are the Cheesmakers

      Cult logic

      October 10, 2012 at 1:49 am |
    • JP0

      Bull pucky!

      October 10, 2012 at 2:10 am |
    • 13monkees

      Actually that can be argued against rather easily. You state the quote as if it has some kind of authority. What authority does this have? Demonstrate why I should buy into it. I don't mean point to it in the bible. I can find numerous holy books to also point to that assert just as much authority. Exactly why is what your bible reads is true versus other holy books? What actual evidence is there to make me want to follow your faith above any other? Why would i follow a genocidal, petulant, misogynistic, god anyway?

      October 10, 2012 at 2:14 am |
    • sam stone

      interesting you desire eternity with a being from whom you have to be "saved"

      October 10, 2012 at 3:17 am |
  9. Rufus T. Firefly

    Goodnight all. Just for the record, anything posted after this is not written by me – apparently I have been effectively offensive enough to inspire someone to steal my name. Don't let the bedbugs bite.

    October 10, 2012 at 1:26 am |
  10. Keepyourgawd

    Christians pray to a jewish zombie who rose from the dead.

    October 10, 2012 at 1:20 am |
    • 13monkees

      I've always liked, "god sacrificed himself to himself in order to appease himself over a fruit tree dispute because he couldn't think of a better way."

      October 10, 2012 at 2:16 am |
  11. Just call me Lucifer

    Despite the dumbing down of Americans, who are out ranked by various third-world countries in education level, they apparently aren't buying the 2,000 year-old crap stories that are religion. I maybe out of a job soon. Guess I'll have to work for the muslims now.

    October 10, 2012 at 1:13 am |
    • Keepyourgawd

      There will always be a few nutjobs that need you to complete their fantasy.

      October 10, 2012 at 1:18 am |
    • OneTruth

      Right because 1500 crap is so much better.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:27 am |
  12. spockmonster

    Just watch out, religion is in death throes. They will stop at nothing to get at America's youth through the classroom, textbooks and curriculum.

    October 10, 2012 at 1:01 am |
  13. Martina

    Hmm... Only 1 out of 5? I thought the US was a civilized country.

    October 10, 2012 at 12:57 am |
  14. spockmonster

    Religion is a mental disease.

    October 10, 2012 at 12:57 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      education and thinking for yourself is the cure.

      October 10, 2012 at 12:58 am |
    • Bob Bales

      Many people believe in God because they think for themselves.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:01 am |
    • Veritas

      Most people who believe in god do so because they learned it from their parents; years of church, praying, and sermons tends to stick. Especially with the trend towards home-schooling specifically to avoid conflicting views.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:30 am |
    • 13monkees

      @ Bob, Most people believe not because they think for themselves but because they were raised that way. how else do you explain that religion is broken up by region? What religion you are is mainly determined by where you were born. You believe in magic! there is not a shred of evidence that anything supernatural exists and yet you accept it. I believe that you think you have made a rational decision, but truly open your mind and look at the ridiculous stories in the bible and then ask why you believe that any of it is true.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:58 am |
  15. Bootyfunk

    some day churches will just be museums of ignorance.

    October 10, 2012 at 12:56 am |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      you sound ignorant.

      October 10, 2012 at 12:58 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      And that day is today!

      October 10, 2012 at 1:08 am |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      Hey, that's the first time somebody has stolen my handle – I'm flattered!

      (sorry, Bootyfunk, that was not me who called you ignorant)

      October 10, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • 2357

      Actually bootyfunk is an exceptionally erudite young man. A true beacon of knowledge and an illuminated freethinker. You should all strive to emulate his excellence of mind!

      October 10, 2012 at 1:16 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      oh shucks... go on.

      and no worries, my handle gets stolen, too.

      October 10, 2012 at 1:49 am |
    • 13monkees

      They are currently more like a performance art of ignorance. You can view it every Sunday.

      October 10, 2012 at 3:00 am |
  16. mama kindless

    OK – I'll take a chance and put this out there – I'm just curious. Does anyone know if there are any reasonable theories out there about the possibility of an ent!ty X (I can't go to the g word because this has nothing to do with that g), but where ent!ty X doesn't necessarily have to be a higher intelligence being (and not necessarily singular or a singularity), but where this X only existed before the big bang, but could have affected everything through and after the big bang resulting in what Spinoza describes? It seem like he saw the current universe collectively as God, but with so little unknown before the big bang, I'm wondering if there have been theories that make use of Spinoza in part. Part of what makes me wonder about this is that with so little known before the big bang, I'm wondering if something that was before then (this X thing I referred to) could not be spirit nor biological, and yet have properties to either morph into Spinoza's world (post big bang) or to "seed" something like Spinoza's world. Maybe someone can recommend a good forum where I could monitor discussion about creation theory.

    October 10, 2012 at 12:43 am |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      I'm no expert here, but I think there's lots of hypothesizing, but little else. According to what I understand of cosmological physics (which ain't much!), we are simply not able to "see" beyond the big bang with any sort of empirical measurements.

      October 10, 2012 at 12:46 am |
    • mama kindless

      Thank you, Rufus. Yes, of course all of this is out of my field, so pure speculation. I did like Spinoza' ideas although I tend to not want to assign nature any more a "god" value than an atheist geologist would for instance. lol. I guess I should add some more forums to my list to check out – there must be something where people discuss non-creationism creation theory.

      October 10, 2012 at 12:53 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      There's something called the Ultimate Anthropic Principle, which hypothesizes that intelligent life is dedicated to preserving intelligent life, and if there's a multiverse, in which new universes spring from old ones, those old ones that have intelligent life within them will tend to produce more "offspring" universes that also favor intelligent life. It's evolution on an unimaginably large scale. And, of course, totally unprovable with anything available to us in 2012. The key point for present purposes, tho, is that it doesn't require any gods.

      October 10, 2012 at 1:12 am |
    • 2357

      God is the sole evolver and selector, not "nature". Don't be weeded out for destruction. Adapt to God's provision and survive into the next universe.

      October 10, 2012 at 1:22 am |
    • mama kindless

      Thank you RichardSRussell, I have never heard that. But certainly sounds reasonable to me. I will try to get up to speed soon on the current theories.

      October 10, 2012 at 1:44 am |
    • End Religion

      i don't know of any theories before bang but there's an interesting thing i saw the other day that tried to visualize a couple versions of a "bubbling multiverse" on the science channel. If universes pop in and out of existence and there are endless universes then it would be like this vast plane of universes popping in and out.

      a little on multiverse: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiverse

      October 10, 2012 at 2:13 am |
    • End Religion

      October 10, 2012 at 2:20 am |
    • mama kindless

      Oh wow, thank you End Religion – I will check this out. I think I did hear of this idea of the bubbling thing and it really makes sense to me.

      October 10, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  17. KnightIII

    Thank "god". lol... no really. Hopefully one day religion will be obsolete. I am with you Adam!

    October 10, 2012 at 12:42 am |
  18. GOOD NEWS

    Jesus said: For this is the will of my Lord,
    that whoever sees the Son (of Man) and believes in him
    may have eternal Life!
    And (my Lord said:) I shall raise him in the Last DAY (=MILLENNIUM)!
    (John 6/40)

    So that "Son of Man" has thus already come now to seek and save those WHO ARE LOST,

    in the beginning of this Third and Last DAY (=MILLENNIUM) now!
    (Luke 19/10 = John 6/27, 40)

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com

    *****UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES!

    October 10, 2012 at 12:40 am |
    • Gadflie

      That's the funniest website I have seen in a long time!

      October 10, 2012 at 12:42 am |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      Looks like a great place to pick up a computer virus!

      October 10, 2012 at 12:49 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      and don't forget where jesus told slaves to obey their masters!

      October 10, 2012 at 12:57 am |
  19. WOT

    There are so many Americans with REPROBATED MINDS. The new religon now is sports, xex, poles, pono, ect. Pleasures of the world not God! Read the Bible, it is foretold to be this way.

    October 10, 2012 at 12:38 am |
    • Observer

      The end of the world has been called imminent for 2,000 years now. Nothing new at all.

      October 10, 2012 at 12:46 am |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      Honestly, I am just too beholden to my "xex, poles, pono ect" to give them up.

      October 10, 2012 at 12:50 am |
    • mama kindless

      lol Rufus. How in the world do people communicate these days if they just can't write a sentence in a place where all you do is write??

      October 10, 2012 at 12:59 am |
    • EnjaySea

      Oh no!! The end of the world is coming! ..... ..... .... again

      October 10, 2012 at 1:23 am |
    • sam stone

      Oooh.....REPROBATED MINDS (must be important, it's capitalized)......that's bad, right?

      October 10, 2012 at 3:38 am |
  20. Adam

    Thank "god". lol... no really. Hopefully one day religion will be obsolete.

    October 10, 2012 at 12:32 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.