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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. Carolyn

    They worship the god Ego.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:50 am |
    • You fail

      Straw man fallacy: You invent a false illusion of your opponent (we actually worship nothing, and certainly not "ego"), they pick that apart.

      Why do Christians debate so dishonestly?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:53 am |
    • tom

      its people like you that drive others away from religion carolyn

      October 9, 2012 at 5:02 am |
    • BigSkyHumanist

      Ego? we Humanists do not claim to have a special relationship with a deity. That's egotistical

      October 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  2. BD70

    You don't need religion in order to believe. Ever ask yourself why so many different religions? All with their own set of rules? I was raised in religion. Went to many different churches. It is the reason I left...even as a child religion made no sense to me.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:49 am |
    • End Religion

      Yeah, i was gently forced to go through the churchy motions until 13 but it never clicked with me at any time. The whole thing was like a joke the entire time. I kept feeling like I was the only one who noticed it was all so fake, like I could easily see behind The Great Oz's Curtain but no one else could. Not only couldn't they see behind the curtain, they would get upset if I tried to show them the curtain.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:30 am |
  3. Carolyn

    Christianity is not a religion. It is a relationship. Religion is for small god's in your life. It is doing certain things to manipulate a god into doing what you want. Atheism is a religion and the god they worship is the atheist – themselves. They even evangelize, spreading the word that you are wrong to believe in something they feel does not exist. Ego.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:47 am |
    • You fail

      Fallacy of equivocation. Immediate failure. The correct definition for religion in a theological sense is "The service and worship of god or the supernatural". Does not fit at all. You are trying to use alternative definitions – equivocating – to create a straw man. It's an immediate debate loser.

      Why is it so important for religious people to drag atheists down to their level? Trying to do so implicitly admits the superiority of the atheist position.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:51 am |
    • the anvil

      xianity most certainly is a religion.

      atheism is religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.

      and there's precisely zero gods. you've been lied to.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:55 am |
    • awasis

      Funny you mention ego. Because all Christianity is, is the believer transferring their ego on to Jesus. When you say personal relationship, what you are really saying is that you've made up Jesus in your own image in your mind. Since Jesus doesn't exist, all that praying to him is really you praying to your ego. The ego says I'm right, I have the right religion and God. In other words you're being egotistical.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:56 am |
    • tom

      what an amazingly stupid thing to say carolyn. it's really gotta be arrogance to suggest that people who don't believe in god must somehow be inferior to you, so they must 'worship themselves'. Which is totally ridiculous.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:56 am |
    • jungleboo

      No, dear Carolyn. I am sure you find your "belief" about what atheists are doing to be very comforting, because it once again allows you to sit in judgement with an accusing finger and point at the sinners. EGO, you say? Worshipping ourselves, you say? Inasmuch as the word "worship" was invented to serve you and yours in your "relationship" to a supreme authority figure, I would venture a guess that it is actually a pretty meaningless term outside of religion.

      Atheists and agnostics are a very content group, enjoying the ride of a lifetime, only stopping to speak sharply at people like yourself who ditch logic and climb onto the throne and tell the future for the rest of us, whom you view as The Great Unsaved. Life is a lot more beautiful than you can possibly imagine, free of the highchair and the straps and restraints. But there is hope for everyone.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:59 am |
    • End Religion

      lol, I know churches are getting desperate but here are a couple facts you have a bit twisted:
      1) atheism is a lack of belief in any god. It cannot be a religion.
      2) christianity is still a religion; it requires a belief in a supernatural god
      3) "Truth" (even if it spelled with a capital T) is not redefined as "one's personal belief". A truth is something based on a repeatedly provable fact. So your belief in God is not "your Truth".

      October 9, 2012 at 5:35 am |
  4. Jeremy

    To know more about what I'm telling you, read this..... "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."

    October 9, 2012 at 4:45 am |
    • slupdawg

      Oh, I see now...it all makes sense...you're saying...ppppplllllbbbbttttt!

      October 9, 2012 at 4:48 am |
    • You must be very shallow to buy that

      That's stupid. Why not just do away with sinful behavior? Why play this bizarre hiding game that ensure many will be tortured forever? And why torture forever? What kind of sick cruel god would do that, and does he deserve worship?

      Your god makes no sense. It's all your imagination. Join the real world.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:48 am |
    • Dmitri

      Isn't it sad when ignorance rules the delusional?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:54 am |
  5. Geo

    I wonder who religion will get their money from if less people believe in that crap?

    October 9, 2012 at 4:45 am |
  6. Chris

    The last thing non-religious people should do is become a voting block that can be 'counted on' by a political party. We'd be just like puppets to politicians.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:42 am |
  7. Jeremy

    Think I'm getting blocked :( Too bad...

    October 9, 2012 at 4:42 am |
    • Simple

      The core of it is there is no human censor, only a filter that won't let Consti.tution be posted because there is a ti.t in it, or circu.mstance, and so forth. Find the hidden naughty word, bo what I did, and join the roller derby

      October 9, 2012 at 4:45 am |
    • Helpfun Hints

      Jeremy,

      See the list on page #8.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:48 am |
  8. Mom of Three

    Whew! About time. Once atheists become more mainstream, you watch, we're going to come out of the woodwork. Most of us keep our mouths shut as not to make our elders sad or upset. There is an evolution out of the God gene, some have it, some don't. I do. No amount of religious study (in fact, the more I study religions, the more of an atheist I become) will ever convince me otherwise. I even died two years ago after a medical procedure. If anything, it convinced me more that there's nothing after, and that it's perfectly okay. If your energy is snuffed out, you can't worry about the fact that you're dead! It was very peaceful but totally devoid of anything.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:41 am |
    • Drock

      how can it be peaceful if its devoid of any feeling? Youre statement makes no sense. If it were peaceful, like you say, and you're an athiest, there is no such thing as an eternity of peace without turning into an enternity of hell.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:07 am |
    • Drock

      side note: wouldnt it be scary if you were feeling the beggining of hell?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:09 am |
    • jungleboo

      Like sleep is peaceful, meaning devoid of the anguish of the electric bill?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:10 am |
    • jungleboo

      Tell us, Drock. Tell us how it feels to be the "beginning of hell". I assume you are writing from personal experience?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:11 am |
    • Drock

      I havent died yet like mother of three, but I do know this there is no such thing as being at peace forever. Its like seeing the darkness always you'd never know it unless it was compared to light. In order to feel peace you gotta have conflict then peace is what comes after.

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

      or visa vera. It would really suck spending years being bored let alone the rest of eternity.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:22 am |
  9. LK

    For a bunch of Christians, the lot of you are judging pretty harshly; isn't that a main moral of Christianity, to not judge?

    People are allowed the natural human right to choose the way they want to live their lives. If you're unhappy with how someone is living their own private lives, then maybe you should examine your own life as to why you are judging others.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:40 am |
  10. jamie

    Being non-religious is actually the first step towards finding God. There is hope for America!

    October 9, 2012 at 4:40 am |
    • Really?

      Prove that whopper, jamie. Their numbers would not be growing dramatically if that were even remotely true.

      Get a brain.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:43 am |
    • Drock

      I can see what youre saying. If you were brought up in a certain religeon you never really chose that religeon it was decided for you and you just followed. Its when you find it for yourself that makes you truely believe in something. Which makes me also wonder about athiest, they believe and regurgitate whatever they hear from scientist and take it for face value just because a scientist said it. They (the athiest) never discovered anything in thier own. A scientist could tell them the world is made of farts and they'd eat it right up without a second thought.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:15 am |
    • End Religion

      drock, of course you understand jamie - you speak the same language of delusion.

      ***
      "atheist believe and regurgitate whatever they hear from scientist and take it for face value just because a scientist said it."

      What we do, my friend, is rely on well-substantiated explanations of aspects of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. These aspects build upon one another so that we don't have to waste our time re-proving them ad nauseum. Every once in a while a path or theory is determined to have been wrong, but once we know why then we can go back to building on what we do know. This is progress. This is the opposite of religion, which would still have you believing god was causing earthquakes. But don't worry... even as you kick and scream we will tear the binky of religion out of your mouth and force you to grow up.

      ***
      "They (the atheist) never discovered anything in their own. A scientist could tell them the world is made of farts and they'd eat it right up without a second thought."

      Not everyone in the world can be a scientist or any of the other fields in life. We don't require doctors to stop surgery so they can go pave roads to get to work in the morning. We don't ask plumbers to stop fixing our sinks so they can go grab some law classes real quick and defend a law suit against them. We hire plumbers to plumb, lawyers to defend, doctors to operate, and asphalt dudes to make our roads.

      For the same reasons, and this should be painfully fucking obvious to anyone that has more than a 7th grade education, we have scientists to study science. Those guys love proving each other wrong. They're constantly testing each others' theories so you and I can get on with whatever the hell our jobs are. Why the fuck would you expect everyone in the world to be a scientist? Oh, you must have a lower than 7th grade education.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:52 am |
  11. It's a few centuries behind schedule, but better late than never.

    Every religious response here, with their threats of doom and collapsing America, are exactly why people are abandoning the cesspool of religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:39 am |
  12. BradKT

    This is a big part of the reason that this country is going to hell in a handbasket. The left has embraced atheism and the right has embraced Christian evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists. The majority of religious people are caught between these two extremes and don't like either one at all...not one bit!

    October 9, 2012 at 4:38 am |
    • Really?

      The poll directly refutes your post. People wouldn't be joining a group they don't want any part of.

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

      You do realize religion is the number one cause of murder, war , hatred , division, pedophilia, greed and arrogance that you possess... People that think they are better than atheists because they believe in wizardry in the sky. You will never see an atheist bomb an abortion clinic or fly a plane into a building.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:43 am |
    • End Religion

      If you're in the middle between atheism and christianity then you are not in the middle. Christianity requires your obedience to its god's commandments. If you aren't down with that, then you do not believe, and you are an atheist. Don't be frightened. You don't need a sky fairy to get through life. Celebrate the here and now with family and friends because there is no afterlife.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:00 am |
  13. snookers

    I think Christianity especially the roman catholic branch, is down right scary and pretty weird. Not nice to scare little children with Hell, devils etc.
    If you view religious paintings, especially those depicting hell, you kind of wonder what kind of sadistic brain came up with those images. View the Garden of earthy delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Especially the right panel. I call it what it is ,pure surrealism and a rather superb painting of mythology tales.
    Makes Freddy Kruger look like a Saint.

    .

    October 9, 2012 at 4:37 am |
  14. F.T.C.

    I do not blame Atheist for their lack of faith. their "see it to believe it" philosophy is quite understandable. considering what they have seen and continue to see in our "religious" Leaders. If more Christian leaders acted in accordance to Christ's teachings maybe people would be more inclined to follow such leaders. I for one am a person of faith with no religion. I have a big problem when i see the Joel Osteen's and Benny Hinn's of this world driving around in their new car/truck/suv's from all those "blessings" donated to them in the name of god, yet most of their congregation drives around in used or beat up vehicles.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:37 am |
    • Tired of Christian Lies

      It isnt our "lack of faith" in christian leaders its the fact that we can rationally explain things that you claim that "God" has made happen. A mind dominated by religion is a mind that cant rationalize the simplest of things. Quit looking to a fiction novel for the answers of the universe and try to figure them out on your own. Once you do this the questions you assume are hard will become very easy.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:43 am |
    • Nii

      TCL
      I am also tired of Atheist lies. Most scientists are religionists. I am and so are many of my friends. All the fathers of science were. Albert Einstein was. LeMaitre was. So remove your nose from the Red Book.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:55 am |
    • jungleboo

      Nii, you are posting falsehood in the hope that they will appear true to you. If anything, scientists of the past hid themselves quite effectively from the terror of confronting people like yourself. It's called blending in, so as not to stir up a commotion. Scientific work is expensive to do, and the last thing a scientist needs is to create a controversy in his life by making statements about belief or lack of it. So they put up with your type. But no more. This is indeed a new dawn for mankind. And if he can create wonders on the order of our Internet, our space expirations, our understanding of DNA, then to hell with all your hobgoblins.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:18 am |
  15. At this rate . . .

    Crazy narrow-minded and oppressive: now why would anyone want to give up that for the cosmopolitan liberty of secularism?

    October 9, 2012 at 4:36 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      Why are you berating yourself like that? Don't you know that God loves you? I guess not. :-(

      October 9, 2012 at 4:50 am |
    • Gaunt

      Wisdom, I'm noticing a trend from you. people post logical conundrums, tangible evidence or factual data proving your silly version of your belief system wrong.

      You lack the balls to actually answer any of them on point, or engage with the substance or logic of the debate, so you post mewling one-line insults instead.

      Why are you such a coward Widsom? Whay do you lack the courage to man up and actually debate on point? Is whimpering little off-topic, one-liner insults from the sidelines really are you have?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:56 am |
    • jungleboo

      Point.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:20 am |
  16. /B/tardHer0

    Oh looky!! The occupy whiners have found something else to not believe in! Thank GOD I wont see them in the next world!!

    October 9, 2012 at 4:33 am |
    • Dmitri

      You won't see anything because you won't be taking your body with you. Not even your memories will survive your death.
      There is nothing left once you are brain-dead. Scary, perhaps, but at least we don't have to remember all this crap for eternity.
      We cease to exist at death. There is no indication of any after-death existence nor any indication that one would even make any sense whatsoever. With nothing to feel with, how will you feel? With nothing to think with, how will you think?
      With no memories what would you do? We are electro-biochemical feedback loops. There is no reason why this would persist beyond the cessation of our electrochemical brain activity, and no reason to assume otherwise.
      What insanity to think there is some giant psychopathic being who requires our attention in any way. What BS.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:49 am |
  17. sue avery

    If these are generation whose votes "counts" and soon to govern our nation then we are closer to the cliff than I thought..

    October 9, 2012 at 4:32 am |
    • the anvil

      people who believe in imaginary men in the sky clearly demonstrate a delusional mindset. they should be prohibited from voting, holding public office, purchasing firearms, and teaching public school.

      tolerance of religion and delusional thinking has got to end.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:35 am |
  18. slupdawg

    There might be hope for the human race yet, by cracky!

    October 9, 2012 at 4:29 am |
    • james

      Perfectly commensurate with the inevitable decline of America.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:33 am |
    • jungleboo

      James, the sky is falling! The sky is falling! Do you like fortune telling. Let me guess...GOP?

      October 9, 2012 at 5:22 am |
    • End Religion

      pity party for james!

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmcEudtif2o&w=640&h=390]

      October 9, 2012 at 6:08 am |
  19. Joshua189

    Out with God in with gay. right ? trade the big G for the little g. So sad that people don't see themselfs as anything more than a sack of meat that will die and be no more. I feel bad for them.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:28 am |
    • religion is a fable

      You are nothing more than a sack of meat.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:32 am |
    • Zack

      Out with god in with gay?! LOL this is hysterical!

      October 9, 2012 at 4:34 am |
    • Knowledge is Power

      Matthew 7:1
      Do not judge, or you too will be judged.

      Luke 6:37
      Do not judge, and you will not be judged.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:34 am |
    • End Religion

      Judy 1:1 "Do not judge lest Judge Judy judge ye."

      This thread has been certified Comedy Gold!

      October 9, 2012 at 6:10 am |
  20. Stephanie Conner

    Jeremy-bless you son! You too are obviously a christian. I feel sorry for these poor ingnorant souls whose eyes and mind has been blinded by satan into believing there is no God. You know how in the bible it says "the FOOL has said in his heart there is not God"! At least we know you and I will go to heaven!

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

      Yeah, I know I'd love to spend eternity with you and Jeremy...

      October 9, 2012 at 4:29 am |
    • Tired of Christian Lies

      If we dont believe in god how do we believe in satan? our eyes havent been blinded by some fictional being our eyes have in fact been open to the truth. That truth is that little book you hold so much faith in is nothing but a pack of fictional fairy tails. We have proven that man has been here longer than 6000 years. We have proven evolution with every new species found. You on the other hand have yet to find the garden of eden. Have yet to find Noah's Arch. Have yet to find the Holy Grail. Have yet to prove that god or satan exists.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:33 am |
    • A Frayed Knot

      Stephanie: "the bible it says "the FOOL has said in his heart there is not God"! "

      A quite old and sometimes effective tactic – declaring that those who do not believe your story are 'fools'. Nobody wants to be considered 'dumb' for not seeing the Emperor's new clothes, or a 'bas.tard' for not seeing the Sultan's new turban, or a 'cuckold' for not being able to see the Miller's gold thumb.

      Even Joseph Smith used it when he gathered his 'witnesses' to his golden plates. He told them that only those with 'true faith' would be able to 'see' them.

      The ancient, primitive Hebrews who originated those Bible stories were quite adept at manipulative mind-games.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:53 am |
    • Nii

      A Frayed Knot
      "The ancient primitive Hebrews who originated those Bible stories were quite adept at manipulative mind-games!" Now thats hysterical! lol

      October 9, 2012 at 5:02 am |
    • Pete

      I am an athesit becuase I used to go to church every Sunday, and by the time I was about 8 years old I had realized it was all a bunch of nonsense.

      October 9, 2012 at 1:14 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.