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. Pastor

    If you're a black who refuses to be a slave you're going to hell! If you're a woman who refuses to obey her husband you're going to hell! If you're gay you're going to hell! If you don't send me a check for 10% of your income you're going to hell!

    October 9, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  2. ^Knowledge is Power^

    If you take away the "carrot on a stick" model for success, like the fear of sin and eternal salvation for example, how successful would organized religions be today?

    Using great rewards and threats to recruit followers is a large part of their model for success, and without these tactics, their recruitment rates would've put them closer in size to a cult.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • amigay

      Religion also allows a person to avoid any responsibility for bad things (or even good decisions). You hear a lot of "it's God's will" from those people. What I can't understand are people who preach "the politics of personal responsibility" yet attribute anything that happens to them to "God's will." Republicanism never did make any sense to me.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  3. mike

    Keep fear in your home. Any you don't have to be an Athiest to not believe in god. Because it has turned into a group. Don't believe in god and stop labeling people.


    October 9, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      What do you think Atheist means, if not a disbelief in god? That is the only proper definition of the word. So if you state that you are an Atheist, you in turn are stating that you don't believe in a god.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Tallus

      "Atheism" is based in the root words of "A" meaning "Without" and "Theism" meaning "God." It's not so much a label as it is a word with an easily applied definition. However, society still comes from a position where "people with God" are the 'default' position. At some point we're going to come to realize why there's no word for "Not a golfer" and atheism becomes the default.

      Every time I hear someone say Atheism is a religion, I shake my head. We don't pray, we don't worship, we don't have funny hats or gather on certain days of the week to compare clothing.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  4. Jason Smith

    The picture is misleading. The article states that 68% of the religiously unaffiliated believe in God, but there is a picture of someone carrying a big atheist sign.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:04 am |
  5. Edward

    If i could id rather never known or had anything to do with religion but it was imposed on me from birth. There is no god. but If i were about to die by man id probably end up shouting Please God or something ironic. Thanks society.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  6. brich22

    What does the belief in god and a flat earth throughout history have in common?

    October 9, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • thewiz71

      The latter is a myth. Educated people knew the earth was round, loooooong before Columbus.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  7. capnmike

    "God" simply does not exist. Religion is a human invention, and while it serves as a prop for the weak-minded and brainwashed, all that blather about supernatural "supreme beings", "angels", "devils", "spirits", etc', is just that....Blather. It is pathetic that so many people feel threatened by the presence of those who simply do not believe all that hogwash. It's time the human race grew up and tossed religion onto the trashpile of history where it belongs.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  8. amigay

    Personally, I'm not a 'practicing' anything. I got it down pat!

    October 9, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  9. Randal

    Once captured by a Religion ... One is captured for ever. We want to be free.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  10. Ismael

    You must blindly accept the Bible by faith. Remember that an open mind is the devil's favorite toy. When you open your mind, Satan jumps right into your head and will show you countless contradictions, inconsistencies, absurdities and downright silliness present throughout the Good Book.

    It is important that we not exercise any rational thought when reading the Bible, for such tends to make God look bad and the whole book look like something even Mother Goose would reject. After all, it was God's first published work, and there were no publication houses with editorial departments when it was written. Even God recognizes how outrageous and misanthropic is His first best seller, especially Paul's outrageous writings that condemn so many. The Bible tells us that its every word was inspired by God, Himself (2 Timothy 32:16). God knew Paul's ridiculous rantings (which He inspired) would make no sense, so He actually went to great pains to warn us that those who try to understand Paul's logic do so "unto their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16). God also knew that people would start to "interpret" the Bible into something that wasn't so hateful and violent if given the chance, so He had John write near the end that anyone who adds or withdraws a single statement from the Bible (or at least its last book) will be destroyed (Revelation 22:18-19). Needless to say, God shuns philosophers and free thinkers, describing them as essentially evil (Colossians 2:8-9).

    The bottom line is that, in order to have any real shot at Heaven, we must believe every word of the Bible and all its incredible pronouncements. The only way a rational person can believe such jibberish is to accept it by faith, without question. We must turn off our brains. Fortunately for many of the participants here, they were born with very little brain power in the first instance, hence blind deference isn't difficult for them. Of course, this means that the majority of True Christians will continue to be those who hang their wet clothes on the line separating their double wides from their neighbor's stills.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      There are no devils.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • amigay

      You're describing Republicans, right?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • Bobby

      Again with the Jesus guy running his mouth but saying nothing. Why do you do this?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  11. real_personn

    Mark your "moral decay" was simply hidden by religion. What is now out in the open gives people a chance to make change. ...Religion was never a fix only "another switch in the control box".

    October 9, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  12. Dn Jones

    I pray that we don't end up with any more phoney "religious" leaders like Bush who call themselves Christians but are responsible for mass killings in trumped up wars in the Middle East. No more killing in the name of Christ or Big Oil.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  13. Veritas

    It's only natural. We are all born Atheists until people around us start to indoctrinate young and impressionable minds. The world will be such a better place without oppressive theism.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  14. End of God

    The end is in sight. One of the tools to oppress the masses is finally crumbling. There are many European countries where religion will die out in the next decade. Those people have recognized the waste, greed and power that religion stands for.

    Religion served a purpose for many millennia as the unquestioned power that glued societies together. For good and for bad, it was the one thing that forced people to obey. Now that we are culturally evolving and becoming a larger global community, religion has only negative effects and stands as a barrier to further progress.

    There are only 3 reasons why people believe in the myth of god anymore.
    1. Fear of death. They fear their own death and the death of their loved ones. They need someone to tell them that everything is going to be alright. Even if it isn't.
    2. Reason for existence. If there is no god, then there is no point. Our lives are meaningless, pointless struggles that end badly. The universe is a very large, cold, uncaring place that has no concern if you live or die. You are the only thing that can give your existence meaning. It means exactly what you determine it to mean.
    3. Social pressure/tradition. Your parents were told by their parents that god exists. Are you going to say they are wrong? Society pressures us to follow these traditions without question. To do otherwise makes you different and unacceptable.

    Points 1 and 2 can be dealt with when people decide to mature. You need to admit to yourself that you are not immortal, in any way. You must come to grips with your inevitable fate and embrace your new freedom. Make your life meaningful through your thoughts, words and deeds. Live fearlessly and honestly. Throw away childish egotistical ideas and grow up. You can't have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe any more than you can have a personal relationship with Santa, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.

    Point 3 will only change through time. As Max Planc said "Science advances one funeral at a time". He meant that old ways of thinking are not overturned by changing minds, but by old minds dying out and being replaced by new ones. The more we work to break the cycle of dependence on mythology, the faster we can progress as a species.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  15. Eddie Haskell

    I don't believe in God but I want a big Christmas present.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • clarke

      I am happy you believe in Santa.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      "Christmas" is a pagan holiday anyway.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      May the Chrismahannukwansistice Platypus deliver all the presents you can eat.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • Nic

      I think for a lot of people, such as myself, view Christmas as an entirely religion-separate holiday. It's more a family holiday that focuses on sharing and giving than it is about a religious figure. I know a lot of people rail against this, but I don't think it's a bad thing. Holidays, like all things, evolve. Many of our holiday traditions are built on pagan practices and beliefs, but for the most part those beliefs have been long outlasted by the traditions themselves. This isn't necessarily bad, it just is what it is.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  16. Rodney Caston

    Atheism a religion is like not collecting stamps is a hobby. The media really needs to stop calling atheism a religion, its just poor writing on their part.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  17. Buddha2112


    October 9, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  18. Evenstar13

    It clearly states in the bible that in the end days, people will turn from thier Lord God for Godless things. The end can not occur unless the people of this world turn away from God, and as it now appears, this is just the beginning.
    'But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit." Jude 1:17-19
    "Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction" 2 Thessalonians 2:3
    "The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good." Psalms 53:1
    "They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one." Psalms 53:3

    October 9, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • Tex Bravery

      Your religion has interesting defense mechanisms that help persuade people to stay, such as statements implying that those who leave indicate the end of the world. As this CNN story shows, those defense mechanisms are no longer working. Sorry!

      October 9, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Veritas

      Tee hee 🙂 Let go of your story book now, come come, you can do it...

      October 9, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • Evenstar13

      Tex Bravery:
      Can you not see, by turning away from God, you yourselves are fulfilling prophecy?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • End of God

      Evenstar13, the bible says a lot of things. Most of them are contradictory, delusional, psychopathic and otherwise unacceptable by today's standards. If you are going to believe in that mishmash of tribal campfire stories, then your life is going to be rather bleak and unfulfilling. If you do the things that Yahweh commands in that book, you will likely wind up in jail or a psych ward.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.”
      —1 John 2:18

      The end times were supposed to have happened around 2,000 years ago.
      “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things be fulfilled.”
      – Matthew 24:34

      The biblical definition of a generation can be found in Psalm 90.
      "The years of our lives are 70; and if by reason of strength they be 80 years, yet most of them are labor and sorrow; for life is soon cut off and we fly away."
      26 Psalms 90:10
      This is confirmed in the Gospel of Matthew.
      "Therefore all the generations from Abraham down to David are 14 generations; and from David down to the Babylonian captivity are 14 generations; and from the Babylonian captivity down to messiah, are 14 generations."
      – Matthew 1:17
      Matthew is using the Psalm 90 definitions of Generation in order to tell a specific chronological story.

      Any way you slice it, the end times were prophesied to occur many centuries ago, but so far we're all still here.
      Perhaps all the religiously unaffilliated folk will change their minds once the swarms of armor-clad locusts with the face of a man, the hair of a woman, the mouth of a lion and the tail of a scorpion rear their tinily-crowned heads, as Revelation says will happen.
      But thus far, grasshoppers aren't any more deadly than they've ever been and no seven headed dragons spewing torrent of water have tried to eat any pregnant women.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      "Can you not see, by turning away from God, you yourselves are fulfilling prophecy?"

      Can you not see that the boo you quote is nothing more than a book written and edited by NUMEROUS MEN over many years to fit their agenda of money power control and to convert pagans?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • Evenstar13

      End of God:
      My life is very fulfilling. I would thank you, but it is not you who has blessed me so, therefore, I will, and do, thank the Lord my God for his many blessings, as it is all due to his providence.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • Evenstar13

      Doc Vestibule:
      The bible is full of metaphors. Apparently, in all your intelligence, you can not see that.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Inciteful

      I get a real kick out of people who quote the Bible in order to justify their pro-religion position. Methinks you don't get it.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • End of God

      Evenstar13, obviously you are not doing what that book tells you to. I suggest you read it, cover to cover, and then start living your life by it. Have fun explaining to the police why you maimed/killed so many people in so many hideous ways.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Ismael

      Are you a cult member? A.K.A. (Jehovah's Witness, Mormon)

      October 9, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      It can be very difficult to determine what believers think is metaphor and what they think should be taken literally.
      Some of your religious brethren are of the opinion that everything in the book is to be taken literally.
      I imagine that even as a Bible adherent, it can me hard to determine that which is allegory. Vir/gin births, resurrections, turning water to wine, men who live to be 1,000 years old, etc.
      Revelation and Genesis are the least credible of the incredible books of the Bible. In order to put aside the cognitive dissonance required to accept them at face value, a lot of denominations declare these books to be pure metaphor – unless it suits their agendas not to.

      But the statements from the gospel of Matthew regarding the End Times supposed to have happened 2,000 years ago are unambiguous. The world was supposed to have ended no more than 80 years after Christ's ascension to Heaven.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • humanbean

      Give it a rest zealot. It says a lot of things in the bible that can't possibly be true or a lot of believers would be in jail if they took the bible (all of it) literally. Funny thing is that you don't even understand your own book. You've obviously had everything force fed to you. The chapter on the supposed end times was written about events happening while it was being written and a crazy old man's fantasies of what would happen during the collapse of the very Roman Empire that was persecuting early Christians.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  19. spangler

    'Did ye not know it is character which is judged and love is never a sin?' HoeMoeErectus 6:9

    October 9, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  20. Mo

    Glad to see folks are more willing to follow their own minds.

    October 9, 2012 at 7:59 am |
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About this blog

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.