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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. Sylan

    I m not Ethist. I m born Hindu and Spiritual not religious. I always beleave in god existence and no religion own god or no certin group of people was chosen by god to spread his message. I respect all religion's god and beleave all gods are same and different form of one god like ice may be different form but it contain just water.

    October 10, 2012 at 4:46 am |
  2. Gaunt

    Even if you accept for a moment that some supernatural giant Sky Santa really does exist (for which there is not a shred of evidence of any kind), how unimaginably arrogant are yiou to assume that the form of this celestial Tooth fairy happens to be the exact interpretation of the exact version you believe in?

    Can you make a single tangible, logical argument why your version of your branch of Christianity is ANY more likely than the Norse pantheon, or the God Mithras? Why should your version of your religion happen to be accurate when you dismiss as 'myth' all of the versions of the 45,000 or so other religions out there, past and present (all of whom had folowers just as sure as you are that THEY were right)?

    October 10, 2012 at 4:13 am |
    • sam stone

      Does seem pretty uppity, doesn't it?

      October 10, 2012 at 4:17 am |
    • GO_GOP

      Ah Gaunt, you are back! I am sure you remember how I crushed you the last time!! Shall I copy paste that part here??? That would be a little embarrassing for you don't you think? Don't worry I am not in the habit of embarrassing children in front of adults. So enjoy school today Gaunt boy!!

      October 10, 2012 at 4:36 am |
    • Zak

      First of all God has given his Word, The Bible. I beleive Christianity is true because of the same message throughout the Bible – Salvation of man thru Jesus and fulfillment of prophecies old and new testament.....
      Secondly you live everyday in a world which supports you, gives you air, food...God has goven that...

      October 10, 2012 at 4:41 am |
    • Gaunt

      Oh GOP, you poor little liar. You fled like a whimpering coward from every point of substance yesterday and you will no doubt do so today. Now, in the last-gasp, desperation tactic of all adolescent internet trolls, you brag about past victories that never happened in the vain hope that it will help you feel better about yourself.

      You are just so Boring, little boy.

      October 10, 2012 at 4:47 am |
    • Gaunt

      Zak: "God has given his word, the Bible'

      Firstly, so the Bible says the bible is true, and thats your evidence? The Blair which project movie says the blair witch project is true. So therefore, it must be. Right?

      Secondly, lots of other gods ALSO gave their word in their own versions of their holy books. How dare you claim all of them are liars and (by a stratling coincidence) the one you were raised to believe is true?

      Thirdly, you believe the bible is true because you 'like' what it has to say? Since when does reality revolve around what you personally like?

      Air and sun and food are products of nature, which is a proven product of natural evolution. No god required.

      October 10, 2012 at 4:52 am |
    • the Blair Witch

      Believe or not, you'll be the one wanly staring into the corner of the room when I am through with you!

      October 10, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  3. Meh

    No religions are growing fastest? THat's progress. Can't wait till religion is gone for good.

    October 10, 2012 at 3:33 am |
  4. Lord Vader

    .

    October 10, 2012 at 3:20 am |
    • Meh

      No religions growing fast? That's progress.

      October 10, 2012 at 3:32 am |
  5. GOOD NEWS

    GOD created the Universe/s based on a 19 coded, Symmetrical, most Powerful and Superb "Mathematical Planning,"
    in the first place:

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com
    ==UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES!

    October 10, 2012 at 3:17 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Remember that just because a religion like Catholicism or Lutheranism may be handing out an old, familiar, comfy form of insanity, they still got their start — and are still based on — nutbaggery like this.

      October 10, 2012 at 3:21 am |
  6. End Religion

    @mama kindless: Spinoza is mentioned in this Multiverse video @34:05

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vfvq1J7eVpU&w=640&h=390]

    October 10, 2012 at 3:16 am |
  7. mike

    its not that people are godless it that the churches are judgemental against any one that doesn't see it there way. stand not on a corner and praise me but praise me in your closet. and to judge is not are's its gods so if you say a person is dam to hell so are you then. lol to many people don't follow what is there in the bible. change not a word. how many change it to fit what they believe. i don't go to church. why to sit with sinner's that sin more then some one that has never heard the word of god but live's it. let's say that they.. who don't go... and believe are better off then they who do and go. there will come a time of false profit's lol that time is now. or let's see you stand before a lion and give your life for god. no.... bet you could find a way out of that to. some bull about i have god's work to do. stand with me and you shall never fall. god's words.... but the church is power hungry. it use's god to get what it want's...... power! lol hide behind good to do evil. rock on god and judge every church as you will. so all in all no wonder people are turning from religion. it's religion's fault not god's

    October 10, 2012 at 3:15 am |
  8. bsdetector101

    Its funny all these so called Christians just come to this board to ridicule and condemn. What happened to following the teachings of Jesus? Love, patience, acceptance? Hypocrites.

    October 10, 2012 at 2:58 am |
  9. hateuall

    CNN's atheist agenda. The Godless shall perish in their own filth.

    October 10, 2012 at 2:42 am |
    • Observer

      hateuall, (by the way, it's a great name for a "Christian")

      CNN reported what the PEW poll found,

      Looks like you can't handle the truth.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:48 am |
    • End Religion

      coincidentally i'm sitting in my own filth this very moment. The problem is, people keep telling me on this blog that prayer works, and I keep praying that god changes my adult diaper. The smell just gets worse day after day instead.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:54 am |
    • mike

      its not that people are godless it that the churches are judgemental against any one that doesn't see it there way. stand not on a cornner and prasse me but prasse me in your closet. and to judge is not are's its gods so if you say a person is dam to hell so are you then. lol to many people don't follow what is there in the bible. change not a word. how many change it to fit what they believe. i don't go to church. why to sit with sinner's that sin more then some one that has never heard the word of god but live's it. let's say that they who don't go and believe are better off then they who do and go. there will come a time of faulls profit's lol that time is now. or let's see you stand before a lion and give your life for god. no.... bet you could find a way out of that to. some bull about i have god's work to do. stand with me and you shall never fall. god's words

      October 10, 2012 at 3:01 am |
    • sam stone

      great screen name. a shining example of christianity.

      now, b1tch, get back on your knees and open your mouth, jesus is coming again

      October 10, 2012 at 3:07 am |
  10. Jim Stevenson

    Full turnkey solutions available, start getting inquiries from US dentists this week. Prices are reasonable. Email me for details: brainstorm_enterprises@gmx.com

    October 10, 2012 at 2:39 am |
  11. Spirit WonderBoy

    follow me..... *hands up* n let dance..... About of time 1 in 5 Americans relaize Religion is waste of time. Reading bibles that was rewritten for 2,000 years by religion authorities, Preist/Pastors lecture and teach things that r not exactly true. Naturally, God loves us as long as we keep our faith in God and ourself. Follow your heart, spirit and use ur mind for knowledge. Bible are covering every thing and teach us to be seperate from everyone and God ans Jesus n ascending Masters. Jesus, Monks, Tibets and few groupz taught same thing 'Love yourself, Love others and LOVE GOD. Treat each other like they are your friends, brothers, sisters. Fear n Hate r wrong.

    October 10, 2012 at 2:38 am |
  12. Mike

    I trust atheists much more than those who believe a god is watching them and has their back.

    October 10, 2012 at 2:34 am |
  13. End Religion

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39qmbl7mpJQ&w=640&h=390]

    October 10, 2012 at 2:31 am |
  14. Joshua

    I'm glad this country is finally moving in the right direction.

    October 10, 2012 at 2:29 am |
    • End Religion

      wonderful to see so many people happy about this!

      October 10, 2012 at 2:33 am |
    • Zak

      yeah and did you see what happened to communist countries...

      October 10, 2012 at 4:45 am |
    • End Religion

      yes, zak, we did see it. In case you missed it or weren't alive, the U.S. went through its "yer a commie" stage and then grew out of it once everyone realized how childish and indecent it was. I see you may still be wallowing in that time period.

      No one is changing the U.S.' form of government. The U.S. will stay a pseudo-democratic sorta-plutocratic republic. The U.S. isn't becoming a "godless commie nation." Now, back into your bunker so you can recount your stocked up canned foods while Rush whispers sweet nothings into your ear.

      October 10, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  15. Zoby

    Where I live if you tell people your an atheist its social suicide. Ever since I was a kid I didn't buy it and it just sounded like a bunch of bologna to me but I kept my mouth shut because my family and friends was so into it. Today at 25 and living in my own I am still trapped in the same situation having to pretend I believe in fairy tales to prevent ridicule.

    October 10, 2012 at 2:27 am |
    • JP0

      What do you need these people for? Get some backbone.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:33 am |
    • End Religion

      it can be tough to be in an overly religious area. You're not alone though. You can always move as well. Get on the internet and find your interest groups. There will be pockets of atheists in certain places if joining groups is your thing.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:36 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      All around you are others just like you, afraid to speak up until somebody else goes first.
       
      To all my fellow atheists: come out, come out, wherever you are!

      October 10, 2012 at 3:24 am |
  16. harbharb

    Deism: 1. belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation (distinguished from theism).
    2. belief in a God who created the world but has since remained indifferent to it.

    October 10, 2012 at 2:25 am |
  17. Onel Kejee

    How is the number 1/5? There are 300,000,000 Americans, 30,000,000 would be 1/10, 33,000,000 couldn't be less than 1/9.

    October 10, 2012 at 2:24 am |
  18. harbharb

    Deist: 1. belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation (distinguished from theism).
    2. belief in a God who created the world but has since remained indifferent to it.

    October 10, 2012 at 2:24 am |
  19. GO_GOP

    Numerous studies show that atheists tend to be self centered, short tempered and suffer from low self esteem. In fact most psychologists warn against atheism because of the above mentioned flaws. Embrace christianity and be saved.

    October 10, 2012 at 2:24 am |
    • Observer

      GO_GOP,

      And Christians are much more likely to be hypocrites.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:33 am |
    • JP0

      There are people on the low side of every bell curve.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:36 am |
    • OneTruth

      You know that's not true. Were you looking in a mirror when you wrote that?

      October 10, 2012 at 2:39 am |
    • End Religion

      if most people are religious then i wouldn't be surprised to see most psychologists tell you atheism should be avoided, however knowing you rarely tell the truth, we'll need to see the sources for your statements.

      October 10, 2012 at 2:39 am |
    • Chris

      Can you cite these studies? I want to see their methodology

      October 10, 2012 at 2:50 am |
    • sam stone

      and christians are more likely to be buggering children and livestock

      October 10, 2012 at 3:11 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Let us grant for a moment that these "studies" you fail to cite are all 100% completely accurate. So what? Does that make religion true?
       
      "The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact than a drunken man is happier than a sober one." —George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Irish writer

      October 10, 2012 at 3:26 am |
    • Gaunt

      I DARE you to cite just one of these 'numerous studies'.

      Oh right, you dont deal in facts do you? You post silly, obvious lies then squirm away like a dickless coward as soon as your lies are challenged by your betters.

      October 10, 2012 at 4:10 am |
    • AGrey

      I'm not an atheist, but I'd like to point something out to you (other than the fact that your entire comment was untrue). You claim atheists are self centered, but the focal point of christianity as practiced by christians is completely self centered. It's all about what happens to them. Them going to heaven, them going to hell, someone taking the rap for their sins. Them praying to God about them and things they want. You can't really get more self centered than that.

      October 10, 2012 at 4:11 am |
    • GO_GOP

      Ah Gaunt, you are back! I am sure you remember how I crushed you the last time!! Shall I copy paste that part here??? That would be a little embarrassing for you don't you think? Don't worry I am not in the habit of embarrassing children in front of adults. So enjoy school today Gaunt boy!

      October 10, 2012 at 4:35 am |
    • mikem

      Numerous studies show that religious people do not have the capacity to think for themselves, tend to be self centered, short tempered and suffer from low self esteem because of their inability to be free thinkers. In fact most psychologists warn against being religious because of the above-mentioned flaws. Embrace free thinking to find etermal peace and contentment. It is the only way to guarantee that you are "saved." If you are religious, what are you going to if you are not judged the way you think you should be judged on judgment day? If you become a free thinking atheist, you' won't have to warry aobut this because free thinkers get to skip the whole judgment day crap.

      Hi GO_GOP. Now repeat after me: American, one Nation under Law (not God), indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

      October 10, 2012 at 4:46 am |
    • Gaunt

      Stop squirming away like a cowardly bltch little boy. All your posturing and posing cannot change your silly lies.

      i DARED you to cite just one of the 'numerous studies' you claimed in your initial post.

      EXACTLY as I predicted, you fled like a coward, refusing to answer: you dont even have the balls to stand behind your own lies. just like I said.

      October 10, 2012 at 4:48 am |
  20. Atheist and PROUD!

    "One in five Americans has no religion" and that trend is growing. Hopefully religion will go away completely!

    October 10, 2012 at 2:19 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.