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. abuzayd

    sad to see more and more people driven away by the actions/misbehavior of 'religious' adherents and religious organizations. they judge religions based on perceived actions/behavior of the adherents rather than considering the truth or falsehood of the message.

    everyone has a religion even if they don't want to admit it, those who call themselves atheist/humanist/freethinkers still have a religion, they believe themselves to be their god, that they are not accountable to anything other than themselves, that they are self sufficient and self sustaining. unfortunately for them they won't be able to run away from this belief once their time on earth comes to an end.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • xsandks

      Neither will you. What if you are worshiping the wrong god? They are all jealous gods. "Worship only me or eternal damnation!" If Thor is the correct one and you have been worshiping Jesus, bye bye.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • Hadenuffyet

      Indeed , what if ..... but what if?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Erika

      Very well said, abuzayd. You hit the nail on the head.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • sam stone

      abuzayd: we are accountable to civl authorities, just like everyone else

      October 9, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • BU2B

      Atheism by its very definition is a lack of belief in any gods. How is this considered a religion? We have no special holidays, rituals, prophets, etc. Do you also consider bald a hair color?
      We do not think we are "god", we are definitely not perfect. There's no need to "run away" from anything, we all know what happens when we die if we use common sense. No need to scare anyone into kissing your god's @$$.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • snowboarder

      abuz wrote "they believe themselves to be their god"

      do you have to trot out that tired old fallacy. nobody believes themselves to be gods. pure malarky.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • Tbay

      So xsandks, if Thor is correct, does that mean we are all getting hammered?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      One who beleive themselves to be God would be an "autotheist", not an atheist.
      Atheism is a negative statement that says only what one does NOT believe.
      It does not imply any behaviours, morals, or characteristics whatsoever.
      Concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • abuzayd

      Doc, atheists/humanists/'free thinkers' BELIEVE that our existence was the result of random chance. whereas theists BELIEVE that our existence was the result of intentional conscious creation.

      October 9, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  2. Paul

    The picture at the top of the article doesn't make sense. Why would an atheist call on a god he doesn't believe in to condemn something?

    October 9, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • Bobby

      A Christian that doesn't understand irony, what's next? HAHAHA

      October 9, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • snowboarder

      paul – irony

      October 9, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • Kurt

      I think it has something to do with this thing called "a sense of humor." Might want to look into that.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  3. Tbay

    2nd definition of religion is "Details of belief as taught or discussed". And with the atheists pushing as hard as they are, they are becoming quite the aggressive religion. Not only are they discussing and teaching, they are now preaching as the signs in those pictures show.
    Atheists Witnesses lol

    October 9, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • ^^^Knowledge is Power^^^

      Atheists do have their issues, but I find them amusing. Watching them put the bigoted, brainwashed masses into their death grip of logic is always good for a few laughs.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  4. mama kindless

    James Madison (Deist who grew up within and supported the Episcopal church) (he became our 4th President, and was the chief architect of the U.S. Const!tution):

    During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superst!tion, bigotry, and persecution.

    –A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the Virginia General Assembly, 1785

    Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?

    –A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of VA, 1795

    October 9, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  5. ^^^Knowledge is Power^^^

    Richter Belmont: Tribute!?! You steal men's souls and make them your slaves!
    Dracula: Perhaps the same could be said of all religions...

    October 9, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  6. RW

    Because Today's "Christians" are greedy uneducated warmongers. Why would we want to be like that ?

    October 9, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  7. Rebel4Christ

    This is sad America need Jesus! He is coming back!!!!

    October 9, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • Sirhc

      You are what is wrong with America. You probably also believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, and fossils were left by your 'great flood'. People are actually learning about science, and looking at your silly stories for what they are – silly, impractical stories. I don't refute that there are good teachings in the bible, but most of them are just common sense if you are a civilized person.

      Atheist has a negative connotation because of people like you. I prefer evolutionist, or realist.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • Tbay

      There are no scriptures in the NT that even hint at God favoring one nation over another. IN fact, it says quite clearly that God favors people from all nations so long as those people are doing his will .

      The concept that God favors America isn't scriptural and is very presumptuous.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • snowboarder

      reb – there is no particular reason to be jesus is actually coming back.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • sam stone

      why wait, rebel4christ? meet jeebus halfway. do you have tall buildings where you live?

      October 9, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Christians have been waiting on tenterhooks for the Second Coming since the Bible itself was written.
      Many have prophesied the exact time of date of His return and ALL have been wrong.
      George Rapp said it would be September 15th, 1829.
      William Miller predicted October 22, 1844. Jesus’ failure to arrive is known as “The Great Disappointment”. Many of his disillusioned followers went on the found the 7th Day Adventist Church, who are still patiently awaiting His return.
      Charles Russell, 1st President of the Watchtower Society told his fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses that Jesus would be back in 1874.
      Rudolf Steiner maintained that from 1930 onwards, Jesus would grant certain people psychic powers to enable them to witness his presence in the “etheric plane”.
      Herbert Armstrong, Pastor General of the Worldwide Church of God said 1975.
      Bill Maupin managed to convince his followers to sell all of their worldly goods in preparation for Jesus’ return on June 28th, 1981.
      Benjamin Crème stated that on June 21st, 1982 Christ would make a worldwide television announcement.
      Mark Blitz, Pastor of El Shaddai Ministries says it would be September 30th, 2008
      Jerry Falwell said it’d happen between 1999 and 2009.
      Harold Camping told everyone that the Rapture would happen May 21, 2011 after failing in his first predicted date of 1994.

      Conversely, many believe He’s all ready come in the form of Sun Myung Moon, Emanuel Swedenborg, Baha u llah, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, David Koresh, Hailie Selassie, John Thom, Arnold Potter, William Davies, George roux, Ernest Norman, Krishna Venta, Ahn Sahng-Hong, Jim Jones, Mashall Applewhite, Hulon Mitchell, Wayne Bent, Ariffin Mohammed, Mitsuo Matayoshi, Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, Inri Cristo, Thomas Provenzano, David Icke, Shoko Asahara, Hogan Fukinaga, Marina Tsvigun or Sergei Troop.

      It would appear that the much lauded Jewish carpenter has been thoroughly dead for 2000 years and will remain so.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • David R

      Doc: do not mistaken a cult leader to be a Christian leader.. It is like calling a Mormon Christian just because they have Jesus described as a teacher and reject the whole doctrine that He is the Son of God... The Bible states explicitly that no one KNOWS THE END OF THE TIME EXCEPT THE FATHER.. Those who try to predict the future is gravely blinded that very passage. A note, a believer will follow the will of God (with sincerity and earnest though we might fail due to sin).. But "Christians" predicting the future is as blasphemous as telling me Jesus is not God or dead in the Christian faith.. Again, you are making assumptions and making accounts in Roman artifacts state that existence of Christ and his resurrection.. Even then, you are telling me many disciples will die on the faith that Christ was dead and never rose and evangelize and live close to poverty? At the end, the second coming will happen as per Bible (and most of the accounts of the Bible are consistent and accurate to other historical accounts that you would gladly accept as true without issue... The issue is that the Bible cast judgment to all of us as sinners..) Do I believe in it? Yes... It will happen and signs are showing that is getting closer.. Do not know nothing in the Bible has failed..

      October 9, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  8. Nii

    Atheists will be so kind to learn this.
    1. Beinng an Atheist does not means you do not believe in God. Disbelief in God however does not mean you are an Atheist.
    2. Espousing the philosophy of Empiricism is a central doctrine of Atheism.
    3. If you are an Empiricist then you are an Atheist. However Empiricism is an old Greek philosophy not a 21st century phenomenon.
    4. Dawkins and Hitchens are not the only Atheist intellectuals you can read.
    6.Atheism is a non-theistic religion like Confucianism and Stoicism
    7. Even though there are lots of non-believers, few are Atheists.
    8. Atheism is a religion that is easily synchretized with others. There are Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Bhuddhist Atheists.
    All said and done Atheists can be spiritual. It depends on the individual. American Atheists seem to think like their Evangelical Christians. However for the rest of us Atheists on the whole are pretty easy-going and don't need to prove they have a better religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Keep trying to make yourself believe that .. good luck.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • chuck

      you are an idiot. saying atheism is a religion is like saying not playing basketball is a sport.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Free

      Um yeah, I am not an Atheist or Agnostic or any other term defined by this article, I'm 28, dont believe in any definition of God, so much so that no Presidential Candidate could use my lack of religion to make me vote his way...I think you are forgetting that most people call themselves Atheist because they have no beliefs at all, no matter how you want to define them. We just are, without God or societies definition of us. If it makes you feel better to label me go ahead and do so. I also don't agree with the guy who said "They can't ignore us"...they can and should because the more I hear about a supposed Atheist Movement the sooner I will have to find a new term to define myself as. How about...a person.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • Ace

      Your point #1 is wrong (sorry) based on the definition of the word "Atheist".
      You have a point regarding Empiricism, but bear in mind that many believers would argue that they have had "sensory experiences" that they could view as empirical evidence supporting their beliefs. I'm not saying they'd be right, but still...
      No one said Atheism was a new philosophy.
      Ahteism, is not a religion. This is an infantile argument in the same vein of rubber and glue. It would be nice if this was no longer perpetuated, but I won't hold my breath on that one.
      There can't be any Atheists. As soon as you become an Atheist, you are no longer a Christian, Muslim, etc.
      Jews may be a different case simply because in their very specific their religion is often used to indicate their origin.
      These are very simple facts that have been understood for MANY years, but are being muddied in recent times by the religiously inclined in order to try to make Atheists appear to simply be members of another religion.
      But saying it and repeating it just won't make it true.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Ace

      The system here took out what I put between symbols.
      I meant to say "there can't be any religion Atheists", not "there can't be any Atheists" which is what is displayed above.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • David R

      Your statement does not make sense.. Atheist by definition do not believe in the existence of a God or God... While agnostic believe that there could be a God but do not see the evidences to validate that.. So how could an atheist believe in God when the definition defines that validation? So don't you mean agnostic?

      October 9, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  9. God

    My minions..oh wait. Myself like all other deities are made up by man to blame bad things and to thank for good things. You weak minded people who need a book to follow to run your lives.. I weep for you.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  10. ^^^Knowledge is Power^^^

    Our pets don't get to go to heaven despite the fact they're better behaved than their human companions.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  11. a dose of reality

    Now there is a glimmer of hope on a cold rainy tuesday morning!!!!

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

      @dose: in NYC huh? lol

      October 9, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  12. Daniel Ashe

    There have always been atheists, I think the difference now is the number of people who claim to be atheist and actively hate religion. It has become the fad in this country to hate religion and specifically Christianity. On some local news sites (Where it is easier to track the same users) I've seen "Atheists" attack any story about the Christian God while the same people will make comments defending Islam. There seems to be a level of disrespect of individuals beliefs with many of the new Atheists that does little to further viewpoint.

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

      Any atheist who would defend Islam after attacking Christianity is not much of an atheist. While the Abrahamic deity is a pretty monstrous fellow, Jesus at least offered something better. The problem is that Christianity in turn became another controlling ideology that departed from its founder's teachings. (In the case of Islam, Muslims really DO follow Muhammad–which is the problem.) In the end, it all comes down to whether or not one can reasonably evaluate evidence, eschew ideology, question assumptions, and allow others to disagree with you. If Christians can live with that, I can live with them–even if I disagree with them.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • JLS639

      I suspect many of these users are not defending Islam so much as attacking religious bigotry or mocking Christians (presuming the posts attacking Islam are written by Christians). Many who attack Islam on news sights do so by saying demonstrably false things (e.g., no Islamic nations condemned 9/11, no churches are allowed to be built in any Islamic nation, Sharia has become law in Deerborne, etc.) and atheists are pointing out the falsehoods. I see that a lot on CNN.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  13. Not a theist.

    I believe that it's actually quite a bit more than just 1 in 5.
    Most christians in america are the wishy-washy types that SAY the believe in jesus, but live just as an atheist would.
    Their so called religion plays very little to no part in their day to day lives, yet when asked directly they'll still say they're a christian, just because the mental conditioning they've been subjected to asserts itself, and because they're afraid of going to hell.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  14. Pow

    A little bit less God in our lives and a little bit more reality is exactly what we need as a species.

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

    With access to unbiased information and no state protection of the religion, Islam would disappear faster from Muslim countries. We should do more to help make that happen instead of banning YouTube and bending over backwards to condemn content some brave folks produce to show the truth.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  16. Patrick

    "The betrayal of the Son of God lies only in illusions, and all his "sins" are but his own imagining. His reality is forever sinless. He need not be forgiven but awakened. In his dreams he has betrayed himself, his brothers, and his God. Yet what is done in dreams has not been really done. It is impossible to convince the dreamer that this is so, for dreams are what they are because of their illusion of reality. Only in waking is the full release from them, for only then does it become perfectly apparent that they had no effect upon reality at all, and did not change it. Fantasies change reality. That is their purpose. They cannot do so in reality, but they can do so in the mind that would have reality be different." – A Course in Miracles

    October 9, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  17. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Definately a step in the right direction .. we must be vigilant to keep this going and prevent desparate followers from desparate attempts to force their weeknesses into our government/laws.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  18. Shephrd01

    What is sad is that articles like this only confirms that the bible is in fact, written by God. The bible explains that this will come to pass as people begin to turn away from him. So with each article and each demostration, they are only fullfilling the prophecy that was written and recorded hundreds of years ago.

    I will pray for them, because no matter how much they protest they do not believe, doesn't change the fact they will face God one day.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      That's a trick called self fullfilling prophecy .. also known as a pre-emptive strike. Kind of like saying if you don't like the way something turned out it's because you didn't believe enough. But believers want to believe and followers need to follow.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      "What is sad is that articles like this only confirms that the bible is in fact, written by God."

      LOL sorry to burst your bubble there buddy, but that book was written by MEN then edited by more MEN. That is all in history. Research.

      " doesn't change the fact they will face God one day."

      Secondly, please provide evidence of this. Without quoting the bible, a book written by men to control men.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • GetReal

      Your welcome to your opinion but the article pretty much describes a growing trend that religion is not required for happiness. Your welcome to hold on to your ancient ideals, but much like those ancient societies don't believe in Mt Olympus, we too will face a godless nation. I can't wait. Maybe then your fear mongering will truly be a relic and you soon understand that Ancient man can make up stories just like Hollywood.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • BU2B

      Nobody is stopping you from talking to yourself, Shephrd01

      October 9, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • Doug from Seattle

      Thank you for your concern, but when I die I'll simply be dead! Like I was before I was born.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • Shephrd01

      Your post and lack in faith is my proof and confirms what was written. We will see a world that turns from Faith to Non-Belief. It must come to pass to fullfill the prophecies that have been written by God.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • Shephrd01

      May God Bless you GetReal, to not believe in God is a fullfilment of what was written, but doesn't change the fact you will call his name some day. When that day comes, please think of your life right now and those who have told you the truth. Remember as long as you have breath in your lungs, God will welcome you and will be there for you when you need him.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  19. James

    @ evenstart13: Maybe the true cause of the end of times prediction you make is that the religious people have been so corrupted by the greed and vanity of the men who guide their religions that they themselves willingly and misguidedly destroy the Earth "in God's Name". In this scenario, those who flee religion do so because their eyes are open and they can see the hypocrisy and evil in so many religions.

    October 9, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Hadenuffyet

      A nuclear blast feels no remorse and is not preferential.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  20. TJ

    The most "sinful" people I know are also the most religious. I've always assumed they used religion as a crutch to deal with a guilt complex or as some form of get of jail free card (e.g., what I did was terrible, but I know the lord will forgive me.)

    October 9, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • WhatNow

      TJ...Sadly, I share that experience. The members of my family that claim to be the most religious are also the most screwed up. Instead of working to help themselves, they just think some god will fix it and forgive them. It is very depressing to watch.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Ender

      It scares me that people have actually wondered how do you know how to be a good person without religion. Is it really that hard to figure out? What is wrong in their brain that they can't comprehend being a good person without having the fear of Hell to motivate them.
      It's amazing what people have justified themselves doing in the name of God. Including hating their own children.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:38 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.