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. I'm just saying

    So the youth. The Justin Bieber loving, ungrateful, self-centered, lazy,narcissistic youth are more non-religious. Big "F"ing surprise. Personally, I believe their should be more not sparing the rod, some kids need a good butt-whooping, and some biblical teachings about self-indulgence and treating others. But that's just me.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:06 am |
    • End Religion

      James, weren't you just preaching love a couple pages back? We see your true colors now, and this is why religion is dying. And you want to pass your garbage thought processes on to your grandchildren?!?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:08 am |
    • jesus christ

      You do realize that recent generations are more intelligent than ever before, don't you?

      It's not too late to go back to school or at least pick up a science book every now and then, my friend.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:13 am |
    • Wow I can Post here on CNN without registering and be Anonymous

      Studies show that religious people have a higher birth rate than atheists. I predict that this lost generation will die out.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:21 am |
    • I'm just saying

      More intelligent? They're a bunch of slackers that don't do anything but smoke pot, which is confirmed to make teenagers stupider. Also, you don't know me I go A's in science and I'm going to college for computer science.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:28 am |
    • End Religion

      "Studies show that religious people have a higher birth rate than atheists. I predict that this lost generation will die out."

      While normally I would ask to see your proof, I don't doubt that "religious people" have a higher birth rate.
      1) Religious people are most dense in underdeveloped countries.
      2) Religions practice Natalism (high birth rate)
      3) Some religions make birth control a "sin"

      All of these things combine to make a higher birth rate for religious people. However, if your theory was correct, we wouldn't have the article you just commented on. The internet is spreading knowledge faster than religion can breed new tyrants. Religion won't go away completely, but it is dying down to a whimper. Join or fade into irrelevance.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:15 am |
    • I'm just saying

      The God is dead argument has been going so for centuries and yet he still thrives. So go on with your little myth that he'll die and pretend that you're smarter than all the believers combined. I think it's cute.

      October 9, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • James Quinn

      Had a father muck like you based on your words. Problem for him was as he grew older and smaller I grew stronger and larger. Lets just say it did not end well for him and leave it at that.

      Pagan jim

      October 9, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  2. Wow I can Post here on CNN without registering and be Anonymous

    Atheism is amoral, and people who don't believe in God are lost and unhappy. I wouldn't trust an atheist. From my experience, people who don't believe in God are untrustworthy. I am not saying that doubt or skepticism are bad, but outright denial of the divine truth is something else together.

    Jesus created the Holy Catholic Church 2000 years ago when he conferred it to St. Peter, and he said that the "Gates of Hell" would not overcome it, or something to that effect. The Church has faced problems and challenges, curruption, scandal, liberal athetism/secularism. But, the Church still exists and will always be.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:05 am |
    • Kleineganz

      So because I don't believe in a god/diety/whatever, I must be lost and unhappy. Wow I had no idea being lost and unhappy could feel so good, because as far as I know, I am quite centered and happy with my life. Honestly, I wish people would stop making gross generalizations ...

      October 9, 2012 at 3:12 am |
    • jesus christ

      Most biologists are atheists. You'd better not trust the vaccines and treatments that they help discover.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:15 am |
    • End Religion

      @wow: "Atheism is amoral"

      Morality: Using empathy as a guide for human interaction. AKA, "treat others the way you want to be treated" and "put yourself in my shoes".

      Karen Wynn of Yale has a study showing even babies have an idea of wrong versus right. Neuroscientist Christian Keysers has done research to show that the brain of those who see others receiving pain themselves have similar neurological responses. There is a curve to empathy; some feel it more than others. But it certainly doesn't come from a hateful book about imaginary people.

      "I wouldn't trust an atheist. From my experience, people who don't believe in God are untrustworthy."

      You likely already have and just didn't know it. They didn't tell you because you are prejudiced against them. You know we could spend all day posting the names of religious people who also are not trustworthy.

      "I am not saying that doubt or skepticism are bad, but outright denial of the divine truth is something else together."

      This statement makes zero sense. Doubt and skepticism aren't bad up to the point where they succeed? What are you saying? There is no divine truth, dude. "Divine truth" is an oxymoron. Does not exist. Can not exist.

      "But, the Church still exists and will always be."

      First of all you have to know you're insane to suggest that anything on the planet always will be. You have to realize the planet is going to go through some changes in a few billion years, if we make it that long, that will cause all life to cease even while the planet itself continues on.

      Second, you can see from the article you are posting on that the decline of your religion is clear. It started a long time ago. The internet has given it a tremendous shot to the stomach. Your pope is reeling, up against the ropes. Can't you see that?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:17 am |
    • Philojazz

      "From my experience, people who don't believe in God are untrustworthy".

      Don't get out much, do you? Either that, or you're just not a very good judge of people. You can trust me on this.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • Bill Clayton

      you would looooove the think that were all miserable unhappy beings walking the earth denying the existance of god but that's simply not true. But hey, whatever you have to tell yourself to ease the pain of being wrong. Sorry but your just plain wrong. Sure, some atheists are like that but religion doesn't equate to happiness. Matter of fact, there are more and more cases these days where the religion itself causes a person to go into mental overload trying to adhere to all these ridiculous rules provided by these religions. Sorry, flawed logic is what you posted, not a valid point.

      October 9, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • James Quinn

      Lost and unhappy? Seriously that sounds like a convert deriving themselves if you ask me:P As for I well I am a diabetic born that way. Had a bio dad who was a drug addicted, violent criminal, and a stop dad who was alcoholic and violent as well. My third dad was a born again and I liked him the least of the three:) Having diabetes for over 40 years now I've gotten side effects from a disease that is 24/7 that is constantly trying to kill me such as vision, and kidney failure. Yet despite the fact I do not beleive in a god I am a happy go lucky kind of guy... Go figure.

      Pagan jim

      October 9, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Alicia


      You say vaccines?.. like the flu vaccine that has mercury in it (softkill)....(oh, and mercury that exceeds the max. sugested levels, I might add)

      It's proven, it's online and it exists.

      October 9, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  3. common sense

    What is so ironic about Atheists, They’re always talking about God.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:04 am |
    • Observer

      Believers are always talking about the parts of the Bible they like and ignoring the rest. That's why they don't mention talking animals and unicorns.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:07 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Actually, the vast majority of the world's atheists — about a billion Chinese — never talk about God at all. Doesn't bother them in the least, either.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:21 am |
  4. Jason

    Even Mr. Spock once refered to the Bible as "your book of myth."
    That was almost 50 years ago.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:04 am |
  5. Dayton Taladega

    "Dear Lord Baby Jesus, I want to thank you for this wonderful meal, my two beautiful sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, and my Red-Hot Smokin' Wife, Carley!"

    October 9, 2012 at 3:04 am |
  6. Peter McDonald

    Why do religious zealots spend time trying to convert others? One philosopher said,"Most of the troubles of this world happen because people can not sit in a room and be silent." Why do they ring my bell and yammer about a sky god? Can they not leave me alone?

    October 9, 2012 at 3:04 am |
    • Jason

      No, they need your money.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:07 am |
    • End Religion

      They don't necessarily have to have cash at the moment. They can instead take your credit card number, just for verification purposes. They won't charge you until you approve it, honest.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:20 am |
  7. funny

    A religious women upon waking up each morning would open her front door stand on the porch and scream, “Praise the lord.” This infuriated her atheist neighbor who would always make sure to counter back, “there is no Lord.” One morning the atheist neighbor overheard his neighbor praying for food, thinking it would be funny, he went and bought her all sorts of groceries and left them on her porch. The next morning the lady screamed, “praise the Lord, who gave me this food.” The neighbor laughing so hard he could barely get the words out screamed “it wasn’t the Lord, it was me.” The lady without missing a beat screamed “praise the Lord for not only giving me food but making the atheist pay for it!!”

    October 9, 2012 at 3:02 am |
  8. toydrum

    When I was a kid, we sang a song in church that said: "They'll know we are Christians by our love."

    The extreme intolerance and arrogance of the new fundamentalists have given Christians a bad name and I believe they are part of the reason for so many people being uninterested in associating themselves with Christianity.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:02 am |
    • Carl

      Although we disagree regarding religion and the idea of a creator, atheists have nothing against those who use their religion to spread joy. You are the rare but good ones and although we would point out that you don't need religion to spread joy, to spread good, if that's what it takes for you to help your fellow human beings by all means continue believing in whatever god you believe in.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:12 am |
  9. thedude

    So people are turned off by religion, this is nothing new. About 2000+ years ago Jesus railed against the "religious" as well. He's more in tune with the unaffiliated than the religious.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:02 am |
  10. Atheist and Proud!

    Tonight, I dream of equality, logic, and peace.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:01 am |
  11. Jo

    Is any body listening! I think the Born Again and Fundamentslst have just about done us in!!!!

    October 9, 2012 at 3:01 am |
  12. Jim Whalen

    I had friends who said the same thing but on the Death bed they begged

    October 9, 2012 at 3:00 am |
    • Carl

      Your friend was both hedging an illogical bet and weak.

      Anyone who renounces their atheism on their deathbed is no atheist.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:19 am |
    • Thinker...

      *sigh* Carl that is called the 'no true scotsman' fallacy.

      October 9, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  13. pn

    My friend is also atheist too. He remember pray God to heal sickness by using voice and never happened. Can anyone explain why the Magic spell won't work but works on bible inside but not outside. Good question.

    No idea.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:59 am |
    • I'm just saying

      Well, there have been studies that confirm that a belief in God has health benefits, like longer life expectancy and less stress.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:14 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      People in organized religious communities have somewhat better health and longevity than the general run of the population. Religious believers who don't have such a community do worse. It's probably the social aspect — like people willing to look in on you if you're sick — that makes the difference, not anything to do with whether the woo-woo stuff is real.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:25 am |
  14. Jim Whalen

    They Voted Obama President go figure

    October 9, 2012 at 2:59 am |
    • Observer

      The last president "talked to God all the time" and he was a complete disaster, even starting a war for false reasons.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:01 am |
    • meemee

      I didn't and I'm a nonbeliever as well. Get used to it, many people are simply growing up emotionally and intellectually.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:02 am |
    • Kevin

      Bush said God told him to invade Iraq. So either God made a terrible mistake, or he wanted to killed hundreds of thousands for no good reason, or politicians who think they hear God speak are nutbars. Take your pick.

      October 10, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  15. Patilan

    Better later then never !!

    October 9, 2012 at 2:59 am |
  16. Gregg

    Albert Einstein is my Anti – religious hero

    October 9, 2012 at 2:58 am |
  17. TheBeast

    Americans have outgrown this concept.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:58 am |
  18. chuckler

    Well then it sounds like you're non-religious just like the article mentions. Even if you're unsure about the question of "is there something out there" or not that'd make you agnostic.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:58 am |
  19. Tim Jordan

    If atheism is a religion then not collecting stamps is a hobby. Is rationalism a religion too? Please let me know...

    October 9, 2012 at 2:57 am |
    • Franky Franks

      So true. Atheism is the lack of religion, not a religion. Tomorrow I'll be engaging in my favorite sport. Not playing baseball.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:06 am |
    • I'm just saying

      It could be. Atheism means no God, and that technically doesn't mean no religion. Like budhism.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:07 am |
  20. Chris33

    The 3 great evils in the world are Islam, the Catholic Church, and the Repubican Party.

    October 9, 2012 at 2:57 am |
    • meemee

      You forgot to mention the social engineers out there. The party of Big Brother is the fourth big evil in the world – world socialism/communism is a religion and is doing (and has done) great harm all on its own.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:04 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.