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Bucking previous trends, survey finds growth of the religiously unaffiliated slowing
January 10th, 2013
01:30 PM ET

Bucking previous trends, survey finds growth of the religiously unaffiliated slowing

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN) – After years of marked growth, the size of Americans who identify with no religion slowed in 2012, according to a study released Thursday.

Since 2008, the percentage of Americans who identify as religious "nones" has grown from 14.6% to 17.8% in 2012, according to the Gallup survey. That number, which grew nearly one percentage point every year from 2008 to 2011, grew only 0.3% last year – from 17.5% in 2011 to 17.8% in 2012 – making it the smallest increase over the past five years.

This study contrasts with headlines from previous studies on religious “nones,” including a 2012 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that found the group was the fastest growing "religious" group in America and that one in five Americans now identify with no religion.

“Although this ‘rise of the nones’ has increased dramatically over recent decades, the rate of increase slowed last year, suggesting the possibility that there may be a leveling off in this measure in the years ahead,” reports the Gallup study, which is made up of more than 350,000 interviews.

Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup, says these results suggest “that religion may be maintaining itself or even increasing in the years ahead.”

“Our current ability to look at it over five years with these big surveys suggests the possibility that the growth [of the nones] may not be inexorable,” Newport says.

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In his book, “God is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America,” Newport argues that a number of factors, including baby boomers reaching senior ages, migration to more religious states, recognition of health and well being of religion and an increase in a Hispanic population, are all reasons that “we are going to continue to have a quite religious nation going forward.”

Atheist and humanist activists disagree and pushed back against the Gallup study.

“The truth is, it doesn't really matter whether one of these surveys – even a big one like Gallup – shows the number leveling off a bit this past year,” Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard University, says. “First of all, the numbers for young Americans are still dramatically higher, and secondly, it is beyond dispute now that the "nones" are one of the largest demographic groups in the United States, and we're going to stay that way for a long, long time.”

The Gallup study also found that 27% of Americans age 18 to 29 identified as religious nones, making the age group the largest subgroup in the study. The finding tracks with other studies on religious nones, many of which have found the growth among the religiously unaffiliated has been most notable among people who are 18 to 29 years old.

“There's no slowing here at the Secular Student Alliance. We're up to 394 campus groups from 310 a year ago,” Jesse Galef, communications director at the organization, says in response to the survey. “You can see the religious future of America just by looking at the demographics: Young Americans (18-29) are almost three times as likely to be unaffiliated with religion than senior citizens are.”

In particular, Galef points out, the Secular Student Alliance has experienced growth in ages below 18, an age group that Gallup did not survey. In the last year, says Galef, the number of Secular Student Alliance affiliates at high schools doubled to 60 campuses.

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News of strong growth among nones had long been heralded by their community.

As study after study began to report that religious nones in America were growing, many atheist, agnostic and humanist activists began to stress the need for these relative non-believers to come together and turn their numbers into political and social influence. Though some leaders split on what wielding that influence would look like, the size of religious nones became the impetus for many leaders to call for more recognition.

In response to the Gallup study, those calls continued.

“The real question now is when are our historically large numbers going to start turning into more votes and influence,” Epstein says. “The nones can become a steady and inspiring powerhouse in American life if we focus on what we do believe in.”

And even though the Gallup study found a relative leveling off of growth among the nones, David Silverman, the president of America Atheists, says he finds the survey “not at all troubling.”

“This underscores what American Atheists has been saying for years - that every person in America knows more nonreligious people than they think they know,” Silverman says. “America has to get used to the fact that atheists are everywhere, you already know us, and we are a vibrant and growing portion of society.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Nones

soundoff (1,615 Responses)
  1. PeterC

    There is a fundamental confusion here between "theism" (belief in a supreme being aka god, and its obverse "atheism"), "faith" which is the continued belief in something in the absence of evidence or even despite the evidence (think "there is no global warming" and "I have not seen the sun rise tomorrow but I have faith it will") and "religion" which is a set of behavioural practices usually oriented around a god. It is possible to have religion without god (many cults are like that), and it is possible to have faith without religion or a god. TO ask about religious affiliation completely ignores the real question of whether a person believes in a god, as there are undoubtedly many people who have no religious affiliation but nevertheless have faith in a supreme being.

    January 10, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • Goose66

      But a simple faith without adherence to a particular set of religious tenants and rules seems pointless from a discussion standpoint. I may believe that some force unknown and, perhaps, unknowable created the universe, set the cosmos in motion, and thus everything that flows from that, including the creation (evolution) of Man. You can call that force God, if you wish. But, if I don't profess faith that there is a benevolent (or malevolent) deity that continues to control our lives and to which prayers and sacrifice must be offered based on some tenants or rules, then aren't I technically an atheist? I don't think theism is technically the belief in "some supreme being (or force)," I think it is belief in a specific supreme being, be it the God of Abraham, or other.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
  2. I Am God

    Atheism is the future. Bringing religion to a close and bringing science to the forefront of all cultures.

    January 10, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • Mr. McGuire

      I just want to say one word to you, Benjamin. Just one word. Plastics.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
    • yep Dan

      However, my fear is that one religion will replace another. The old becomes myth and the new is the truth. Even though we know the facts today. Some hundreds of years from know MLK and Kwanzaa will merge together with MLK now being a prophet for Kwanzaa.

      January 10, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
  3. Willie12345

    I'm overwhelmed by the warmth of all this love .

    January 10, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • Righteo

      New to the internet, are you? I have seen Golden Retriever forums get much worse.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
  4. Em

    What many people here fail to understand is that this is simply DATA. This isn't an excuse for atheists to come out and call Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Hindus (and so on and so forth) simpletons. It's amazing to me how it is "deplorable" for some people to be preached to by someone of faith, and yet it is somehow OK to belittle someone for their religious beliefs. The United States was founded not just on the basis of freedom of expression, but also freedom of religion. We are free to believe or not to believe, and we are free to engage in intelligent debate on the subject. Hate speech, however, is NOT protected by the 1st Amendment if it doesn't pass the Miller test and/or falls under the category of "fighting words."

    January 10, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
    • are122

      Ask an atheist the origin of laws which govern the universe. The physics. Then you will have met a simpleton.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • Goose66

      The laws that govern the universe were created in the big bang, just like the universe itself. It's a set. You don't get one without the other. There were (and are) a whole different set of laws outside of the boundaries of the universe that determined how the universe was created. What was the origin of those laws? The very process that created the context outside the boundaries of our universe and into which our universe was created. You may not be comfortable with that, but it is simply a matter of context and semantics.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      What?

      January 10, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
  5. bostontola

    Interesting point about the lack of political power of the "nones". I don't think they (we) will gain political power anytime soon either. The "nones" lack the key ingredient, common set of beliefs/rules that they can rally behind to create a coherent force. The "nones" have almost as many world views as members. The religious on the other hand, zealously follow their cannon and will kill for it. Religions are the survivors in the cultural fitness battle raging for the past few millenia. When science reaches a critical mass of knowledge, this may turn, but culture takes a long time to change.

    January 10, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
  6. sk

    all religions should get extinct and only one religion of HUMANISM should exists
    where in every human is treated with respect and with humanity..
    instead of fighting and killing each other on the name of some religion

    January 10, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
    • ks

      All religions should be eliminated, except for mine.

      Niiiiiiice!

      January 10, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
    • nwg6011

      There's just one problem: You're not treating religious people with respect or humanity by wishing they never existed.
      The only way we can make this work is to agree to disagree, and move on. Demonizing each other and wishing each other away is not the answer.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
    • are122

      Yeah like Mao Zedong...One-and-a-half million people died .

      January 10, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      122, Mao did not kill people primarily because of their religion. People were killed in communist nations for a lot of different reasons. Some may have died defending their right to practise religion in the open. Some were communists who disagreed with those in power and were killed because of that. Some were anti-communists opposed the government and were killed for that. Some were simply in the way or inconvenient and were killed for that. These are political disagreements that people were being killed over, not murder in the name of atheism.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
  7. Realist

    There have been 10,000 religions during the history of the Earth, and 1,000 gods to go with them.

    The only difference between an Atheist and a "Religious Person", is that the "Religious" completely discount 999 of these "gods", and Atheists simply discount one more, additional "god".

    January 10, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
    • Righteo

      only 1,000 gods for 10,000 religions? Those gods must have dome a lot of moonlighting for other religions to make up the slack.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
    • sam

      Some were mirrored. I mean, look at the Greeks and the Romans.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
    • Realist

      How many branches of Christianity are there?? 10? 15? Not to mention Jews and Muslims technically worship the same "god" as Christians..so add all of the branches of those "religions" as well, all for one "god".

      The numbers don't really matter, the point is still valid, in that Atheists only discount one more "god" than the religious.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
  8. Victor

    I identify with a religion where God is optional: Unitarian Universalism. What does that say about this poll?

    January 10, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
  9. RB

    Please stop referring to atheism as a "religion" or "religious affiliation". It shows true ignorance and continues to project atheism as some kind of organized society with rules and doctrines. Sorry but this is a pet peeve of mine. Atheism is the rejection of religion. To say otherwise is offensive.

    January 10, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
    • Bob

      You must be ignorant to the plight of us Pastafarians.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
    • Nathan Kapusta

      Ra-men, brother

      January 10, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
    • Victor

      Atheism is the rejection of God...not religion.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
    • Hannibal

      I had a pet peeve once. Bit the hell out of me. I ate him with some fava beans and a nice chianti

      January 10, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
    • ? ? ?

      You lost me on that, Victor. How can you reject the existence a god without automatically nullifying the religion surrounding him?

      January 10, 2013 at 5:11 pm |
    • Bob

      Wrong, Victor. Atheism is absence of irrational thoughts. You are the one invented the idea of gods existing. Only you can reject them. We didn't even consider them.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
  10. menotyou

    People who believe in an imaginary man in the sky ruling the world and need to consult a novel written thousands of years ago about every aspect of their lives are weak-minded simpletons.

    January 10, 2013 at 5:01 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Are you aware that almost no one believes in a magic man in the sky? I think you are tilting at windmills my friend.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
    • MarylandBill

      The most remarkable thing about some (but not all) atheists is how they dramatically mischaracterize religion in general and Christianity in particular.

      In short, Christians do not believe God is a man in the sky; they don't believe he is a man at all. They believe that God is fundamentally beyond our understanding, but that he is made of of three persons, one of whom became man.

      Whether you believe it is true or not, the Bible is not a novel.

      Christians do not feel the need to consult the Bible or even God about every detail of our lives (For example, I did not pray before deciding I was going to have a ham sandwich for lunch today). We do however strive to live in a manner consistent with what we believe to be God's law.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
    • are122

      True. Everyone knows a gob generated the laws (mathematics) of the universe). You'd have to be a simpleton not to!

      January 10, 2013 at 5:26 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'In short, Christians do not believe God is a man in the sky; they don't believe he is a man at all. They believe that God is fundamentally beyond our understanding'

      ah so we werent made in his image?

      January 10, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
  11. LB Colorado

    That just might explain some things that are now happening in the USA – kick God out and well – history speaks pretty loud. Don't blame the guns, it is the "people" using the guns – no soul or conscience.

    January 10, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
    • Roger the Shrubber

      Oh, what sad times are these when passing ruffians can say Ni at will to old ladies. There is a pestilence upon this land, nothing is sacred. Even those who arrange and design shrubberies are under considerable economic stress in this period in history.

      January 10, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Well, I think the guns help a bit. I mean, you can't go yelling "bang" at people with the same effect.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
    • Daniel in Denver

      Roger, I was about to politely disagree with my friend from Colorado. Now, thanks to your fine entry, I can't stop laughing. Bonus points if you typed it from memory. Kudos.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      You act like bad things just recently happened. Evil and bad has been going on since the beginning of time. Even during the "good" ol days when people went to church more often.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
    • Todd

      "Don't blame the guns, it is the "people" using the guns – no soul or conscience."

      True but one problem with your post, the number of mass killings has been averaging 2 a year for a while now. It only went up this year. The no soul or consciences is really about all the greed in this country and since 80% of people claim to be Christian, then it's more about your religion.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
    • Really??

      Way to jump to unjustifyable conlusions. You must be a christian.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
    • Nope

      It's not sensationalist media, constant wars, poverty, increases in population, or mental illness that are causing people to act out. It is Zeus unleashing his wrath upon a thankless society that has forgotten the old gods.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
    • Todd

      "Even during the "good" ol days when people went to church more often."

      True and a lot of it got covered up and swept under the carpet, just look at the priest issue with altar boys.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
    • a reasonable atheist

      Ni!

      January 10, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
  12. onemorehere

    I find it Ironic that some say Holmes is evil when Holmes was sure every one at the theater was evil and deserved to die...that make that who calls Holmes evil as evil as Holmes himself for they both come the the same conclusion death to evil it jsut that they are both looking at eachother reflections when thinking it...

    if God is male then what is the female force in nature if the female force is God then what is the male force in nature if the sun is male the moon is female...we have both deal with it...both support life in some form...becuse they bothe exist we exist...

    January 10, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
  13. Ken Margo

    I know I will upset a bunch of people. It all still boils down to money. Catholic schools here in NYC are closing at a record pace.Those believers are choosing their money over their religion. You can believe all you want, but if the money isn't there the church will not be no matter the denomination.

    January 10, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
    • Father Chester Moe Lester, Catholic

      Catholic schools here in NYC are closing at a record pace.

      Child molestation crime is going down also. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

      January 10, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      You said it. Not me.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
  14. Rich

    "the size of Americans who identify with"

    WOW. That's a professional journalist who wrote that. Viva college!

    January 10, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
    • nwg6011

      Maybe we Americans are shrinking....

      January 10, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
    • Bad Bob the Albino

      Yeah, "the size slowed". Perfectly clear to me. The author is a simpleton who gets paid by the word. He might have used spell checker, but definitely not any proof reading done. Can I be an I reporter? CNN = Confused, Non-grammatical Nonsense. (Please be aware that I intentionally used a sentence fragment.)

      January 10, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
  15. Bob

    The truth is, there are no gods. There are only delusional people clinging to very outdated stories. When your children tell you that there are monsters underneath their beds, you hope that they grow out of it. Trust me, you don't need gods and fairies to be a good person and live a good life. Now please, grow up. If god created us in his image, then he's an as_hole anways. I wouldn't trust his word on anything. ;-)

    January 10, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
    • Bad Bob the Albino

      Bob,
      There was a guy named Robert G. Ingersoll who took on all the pastors in the US back just before the turn of the century, basically vilifying the church and its creed. Very interesting reading. The church clearly lost most of its arguments with Mr. Ingersoll. He excused ancient cultures for their ignorance, and credited advances in scientific understanding in Astronomy, geology, etc. with the decrease in the power and appeal of the church. He basically stated that it was unbelievable, and if it was true, it was immoral for the most part.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
  16. onemorehere

    I find it Ironic that some say Holmes is evil when Holmes was sure every one at the theater was evil and deserved to die...that make that who calls Holmes evil as evil as Holmes himself for they both come the the same conclusion death to evil it jsut that they are both looking at eachother reflections when thinking it...

    if God is male then what is the female for in nature if the female for is God then what is the male force in nature if the sun is male the moon is female...we have both deal with it...both support life in some form...becuse they bothe exist we exist...

    January 10, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
    • Bob

      There is no evil. There are no gods. Grow up.

      January 10, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
    • Yeah

      There is no evil? Then how do you explain Ann Coulter?

      January 10, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
    • Bob

      Inbreeding and constipation?

      January 10, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
    • sam

      Ann Coulter is a special case. Not even evil will touch her.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • Bad Bob the Albino

      Sam, below, would still tap her.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
    • Angel

      Funny you should say that. I never used to believe in evil, until Ann Coulter. Now I feel as if she alone is proof that evil does exist. I don't know about Good though, but evil for sure.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
    • Stev

      Ann Coulter Is pure EVIL! I insist on freedom

      January 11, 2013 at 5:13 am |
  17. Daniel in Denver

    "The Gallup study also found that 27% of Americans age 18 to 29 identified as religious nones"

    Could it possibly be that some parents are finally getting the message that the important thing is to teach their children HOW to think, rather than WHAT to think? I'm cautiously encouraged.

    January 10, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Yes, because all the 18-25 year olds I meet are such great thinkers

      January 10, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
    • RB

      Bill's comment is uninformed and ridiculous. How many young people in this age group have you had deep philosophical discussions with? Or scientific conversations? I agree completely that our children need to be taught HOW to think not WHAT to think. The former teaches to weigh all evidence and make up their own minds. Not just accept what they are told.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Ridiculous certainly, uninformed, not at all. I must admit to posting occasional sarcasms when the OP cites something unsubstantiated as if it were fact.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
    • Bad Bob the Albino

      What the heck is a none?

      January 10, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
  18. Angel

    Even though much of this discourse is just non-productive wrangling, i have to realize that before the internet you would never have had a 'safe' forum for athieists and religious people to engage. Pretty cool. Did God create the internet.....oh yea, that was Al Gore.

    January 10, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
  19. wolfyb

    There is an inverse relationship between the of education certain sciences and religious affiliation. Once people learn about comparative anatomy, the geological and paleontologic record and now genetics, religion fades rapidly. This is because the myth of the creation of mankind and everything else by a god resembling a human being, is no longer sufficient or needed. But religion will continue to be with us in the future, because it is still needed for the masses.

    January 10, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
  20. Toutle Mom

    I personally am going to teach my kids only those things that have been proven to be true. How many people say that prophecies in the bible prove that it is right and true when there are how many other prophecies that never came true? Or the fact that the bible has been obviously manipulated by people throughout history but it's still supposed to be TRUE.

    I believe in things that I can see, and an omniscient sky daddy isn't one of them.

    January 10, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
    • Consequence

      Sky Mommy – one "prophecy" which has proven to be true was Solomon's "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." We are the product of our training....and if parents seek to raise children without reference to religious belief and values, there is a very good chance that our children will not have them. If we smoke, drink and carouse around our children...or they hang out with friends who do, it is most likely they will do the same. Now, if you are a "doubting Thomas" who needs to see all you believe, science is useless to you unless you know it all and, I hate to break it to you, scientists do not know it all. So, before you relegate that "sky daddy" to the dust bin of history, you might take stock of how much you really know and how much you really take on faith. And, before you train your children on the subject, you had better be sure you are right...because they will inherit the same ignorance you have if you pass it on. Absolute knowledge of a subject is difficult, but faith abounds. You just need to decide in whom you will place your faith.

      January 10, 2013 at 5:39 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.