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. chuckler

    It's an inane point, but the sign in the photo the guy spelled the swear word wrong. It has 2 Ms, not MN, for some reason that always bugged me because everybody seems to make that error.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:18 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damm.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:27 am |
    • Webster


      It's correct. The one with 2 MMs is just a funny, slangy way to spell it.

      http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/goddam nit

      October 9, 2012 at 4:39 am |
  2. Emma in Baltimore

    Looks a lot like the Church of Laodicea

    October 9, 2012 at 3:17 am |
  3. JasonR

    Christian (18%) of Catholic (18%).

    of -> or

    October 9, 2012 at 3:17 am |
  4. jamessavik

    When people like Rep. Paul Brown (R, Georgia) go around mouthing idiocy like this:

    "All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell"

    "You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says."

    "What I’ve come to learn is that [the Bible is] the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason as your congressman I hold the holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that."

    And this idiot is on the House Committee on Science and Technology, what do you expect? People are resorting to atheism out of self defense against willfully ignorant religious fanatics that are in power and completely irrational.

    There are a lot of nice, sincere Christians out there but when you completely devalue science out of religious fanaticism, most reasonable people assume you are a kook at best and a lunatic at worst.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:17 am |
  5. Chick-a-dee

    Interesting. I'm curious as to how many respondnts gave bogus answers because they are tired of being polled or having the latest "poll results" paraded on the news. I personally know folks who do so for both amusement & to devalue the usefulness of these non-stop queries.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:16 am |
    • chuckler

      And I'm sure tons of respondents said they were christians even though they don't practice it significantly. What's your point?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:19 am |
  6. common sense

    Kittens A man sees a boy with a box of kittens The man goes over and says "Oh what cute kittens!" The boy replies "Yes they are Christian kittens". About a week later the man sees the boy again with the same batch of kittens. Once again he walks over and says "my, those are just adorable!" The boy replies "Yes, they are atheist kittens" The man asks "wait, weren't they christian before?" The boy looks at the man and says "Yeah but they have their eyes open now"

    October 9, 2012 at 3:16 am |
  7. Frank B

    This report has a major flaw in it. Not being affiliated with any particular religion does not mean that one does not believe! Of those who do believe, many are not affiliated with any particular religion either because they do not agree with many of the widely different beliefs of various religious groups or they are still trying to sort out who is right. Humans believed in a supreme leader long before religious groups were even formed. Just observing the magic of life is enough to make one believe that only a supreme being could have created it and the world we live in. However, it is the "hows" & "whys" that make it difficult to decide what religious beliefs are correct and what the role of a human being should really be in life.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:16 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Did you bother to actually READ the article before spouting off, Frank? It clearly says that a goodly portion of the people who don't claim any religion nonetheless believe in gods, or spirituality, or prayer, just not church. Sheesh! I'm dithering between what would be more desirable: less religion or more literacy.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:31 am |
  8. common sense

    Atheist: What’s this fly doing in my soup?
    Waiter: Praying. Atheist: Very funny. I can’t eat this. Take it back.
    Waiter: You see? The fly’s prayers were answered.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:15 am |
  9. common sense

    Fly in My Soup
    Atheist: What’s this fly doing in my soup?
    Waiter: Praying. Atheist: Very funny. I can’t eat this. Take it back.
    Waiter: You see? The fly’s prayers were answered.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:14 am |
  10. Eli

    lol Richard how many times are you going to say the same thing about faith. That must be your little jab to the word "faith". Time to teach you, faith is a noun: trust, belief, confidence, hopefulness, hope. ANTONYMS mistrust. You Trust there is no God, you Believe there is no Creator, you have Confidence in your Belief, you Hope your belief is spread to everyone one day, and you mistrust religion. definitely faith dude

    sure you can tell me Atheism is not faith-based its fact-based, but yet you can prove where everything even the Universe itself came from. Quantim Physics may be the closest science there is to show how the Universe works, and what its built of, but in the end, still cant explain from where is it all.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:13 am |
    • jrg

      The default position is that nothing exists that we can not directly sense. Thus it does not take "faith" to think that there is NOT a invisible giant in the room with me. Likewise with gods, I simply see no reason to think that they are real and plenty of reason to think we invented them.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:22 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      People who make their living off of pushing faith, the world's worst decision-making method, are desperate to conflate it with other, worthier methods of arriving at conclusions. That's one way they keep the suckers in the pews and the bux in the collection plate.
      In order of reliability, top to bottom, you've got logic, reason, confidence (in things), trust (in people), chance, obedience, hope, and faith. Faith is the process of believing things without any evidence whatsoever, and frequently despite evidence to the contrary. It is an atrocious way of deciding how to live your life, which is why it's the method most highly favored by the priest class, because otherwise they'd have nothing at all to sell you.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:37 am |
  11. common sense

    Why does an atheist wear red suspenders? To keep his pants from being taken up to heaven during the rapture

    October 9, 2012 at 3:13 am |
    • Sheikh Muhammad

      Com'n dude, let not attack atheist because of their belief. But yeah you can always attack a muslim 😉

      October 9, 2012 at 3:15 am |
  12. common sense

    How does an Athesist girl have her hair done? In big bangs!

    October 9, 2012 at 3:12 am |
    • Observer

      It's ignorance to assume that if you are an atheist you have to believe in the big bang theory.

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

      LOL at Observer.

      So the "non religion of science" now gets to pick and choose what they believe in irrespective of the evidence?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:19 am |
  13. Sheikh Muhammad

    It's not an option to follow religion. If you didn't have to answer to GOD in the day of judgement who would even follow religion.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:11 am |
    • chuckler

      Exactly, so why do people who don't just believe random stories without physical evidence need to believe in God? No God, not judgment. Simple.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:20 am |
  14. gsnlou

    The rational mind is a belief system. The way mathematical induction seems counter-intuitive to everyday life does not discredit its importance in shaping our world. Yet, we lump our belief in the weather services, the government, the traffic laws and the infamous stop sign, the math and the science, all to the credit of mathematical inductions. The ultimate logic for any human is 1+1=2, 2+1=3...so on. However, do you ever question why 1+1=2? Is that a universal truth? Or these truth would go haywire in the 6th dimension? Be all close-minded as you want but I am willing to entertain God as a possibility as opposed to someone who prematurely declares their proof of no life after death or no dimension greater than 4.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:11 am |
  15. Chad White


    October 9, 2012 at 3:11 am |
  16. Kuta

    "68% of the religiously unaffiliated say they believe in God"

    So of course the two photos in the article espouse atheism. Nice touch.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:10 am |
  17. Clark1355

    This is a great article, but the comments are even better haha! Hello to my brothers and sisters!

    October 9, 2012 at 3:09 am |
  18. F-Rod

    How many of these Atheists are real? Not even 10%. Most are new wave of fools, selfish kids, rebels wannabe eager to be the center of the attention. Most of these kids believe in Christmas but they don't believe in Jesus, they invoke the name of the Lord when facing trouble, but they don't pray on a daily basis. When these so called "atheist" get in real trouble and there is no possible help, they always "recall" the Lord, "oh my God, oh my God.... God please help me...." Then who are you trying to fool with your "convenient" Atheism?
    One last thing, if you choose to be an Atheist, keep it to yourself, there are lots of people who truly feel and need the presence of God in their lives. There is a Creator, He is the only one without an expiration date like you and me, but we all will see Him someday.

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

      Do you really need a church to do that, can we just put you in 4×4 room and let you speck to god all the time.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:10 am |
    • ==o==

      Nah, it's just a bunch of old folklore. Get a life.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:10 am |
    • Fozzyspeak

      I like your idea about keeping it to yourself. I think Christians and all other faiths should do just that. As well as atheists. If someone wants it they will come looking for it.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:11 am |
    • jesus christ

      LOL, you don't "choose" to become an atheist any more than you "choose" to believe that there is no Santa Claus.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:12 am |
    • Michael

      Yes... your imaginary friend is real, it's the atheists that are fake. We don't exist! Keep telling yourself that.

      Also, your fairy tales that you tell yourself to ease your insecurities (not talking about the Bible this time) are cute. You obviously hate atheists, probably wouldn't give them the time of day, yet you know what each and every single one of them do when they're in a bad way? Yeah, they pray to your god when you aren't looking. I wonder if the Hindus say the same thing about you secretly praying to Vishnu.

      F-Rod's post is a classic example of wishful thinking.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:13 am |
    • RAWR

      Religion is fake science is real. Mankind will have no need of your old religion in another few hundred years. Christianity and Islam will go the way of the polytheistic religions of the Greeks and Romans. Christianity and Islam do not fit anymore into our changing world. Mankind is what drives the good and evil in this world. Man and only man is responsible for the technological wonders we have today. God did not create a space program. God did not cure polio, God is not responsible for our leaps and bounds into medical research. Mankind has mapped the human genome, someday, if your ancient religions do not tear the world apart then man can achieve immortality, through science.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:19 am |
    • Godless

      it doesn't not matter if you believe or not in anything at all.

      We all started from dirt, and we will all end back in the dirt.

      God is man made.

      If you wish to fill your existence with childish hopes, dreams and fantasies.. that's your choice. Most rational, logical thinking humans do not need to believe in a magical fairy tale to make their life worth living or to give it some kind of meaning.

      Keep your magical fairy stories in your children's room where they belong.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:27 am |
    • Rick

      What do God, the tooth fairy and Santa Clause all have in common? The young and foolish believe they exist.

      October 10, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  19. Linda sadler

    William branham had it all including the answer for cancer. 1ooo's healed. He also believed in docters.

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

    How can you equate 'not affiliated with any religion' with being 'atheist'? I really don't understand, but I thought that Atheist believe there is no God, and all of their 'faith' is in Science. Just because someone doesn't affiliate themselves with the Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Mormon...faith, does not necessarily mean they don't believe in God.

    October 9, 2012 at 3:06 am |
    • Etalan

      I think it like a branch. You have christian, and they branch out to for example Mormon.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:12 am |
    • Kuta

      How can you equate 'not affiliated with any religion' with being 'atheist'?

      "68% of the religiously unaffiliated say they believe in God"

      Why is the focus on atheism when most of the religiously unaffiliated are agnostics at best?

      October 9, 2012 at 3:16 am |
    • felicitas panganiban

      I was about to make the same comment before I read your comment. W/out a religion and being an atheist are not the same.
      Lucky for those who will have the opportunity to accept they're not atheist after all and repent before they leave this temporary world of ours.

      October 9, 2012 at 3:21 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.