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. TheSchmaltz

    That's me in the corner
    That's me in the spotlight...

    October 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Ed

      That was playing in my head as well.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • DL

      I was listening to this the other day...love it.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  2. atheists in science and technology


    The number of Nobel laureates is astounding.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  3. David Stone

    I find it hilarious that ultimately, the myth of gawwd was destroyed by the internet.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  4. Crash

    This is a correct step forward for all mankind. All those good faith/virtue/intention/behavior/whatever should come sincerely from the bottom of the heart of a human being, not from god. Religions, especially those one-god ones that see other people's gods as enemies, are one of the main stumbling stones of the advance of mankind.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:31 pm |

      Do not deny your own existence, One can not exist without constant, truth absolute, GOD. hindu, ignorant.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  5. Realdirect

    It's probably 1 in 20 Americans...they bind follow they say they'er christian because they'er parents are christians not that they did any research about that religion.....

    October 9, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • SnYGuY

      Not quite sure what you are trying to say. But I think you mean there should be more people not affilliated with religion instead of less, if kids are really just following their parents and not doing research? Maybe i'm wrong

      October 9, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  6. Clarence Hall

    When Churches choose to mix politics and religion they lost a lot of people.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      You mean when Constantine converted?

      October 9, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Do you mean the HOLOCAUST?

      Do you mean the invasion of Iraq?

      Be more specific in the evils you refer to!

      October 9, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I'd reply with something a little more recent that makes sense, but I can't.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  7. David Stone

    In a few thousand years, people are going to look back and say, "wow, what a bunch of idiots these christian people were".

    October 9, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Many of us say that right now!

      October 9, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Jake

      A few thousand years? People are already saying that in the rest of the world.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Atheist Fools

      David and William are smoking Moth Balls again.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  8. Joe's Brain

    This is great news. America is finally growing up.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • mikepomatto

      Thinking the same thing.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  9. MightyMoo

    I would think people are being turned off to religion more by those who commit large scale criminal acts and provoke military action because of some of those acts. Honestly, how can people think good of religion when a bunch of knuckleheads get on planes during 9/11 do the damage they did? (Islam) All those cases where some nut job went in to a women's health clinic and shot up an abortion doctor and whoever else? (Christianity)

    Good luck selling your faiths these days in a world where screwballs do that crap.

    That isn't even going in to the whole science vs. religion fight going on in schools and stuff because we look a little further in to the universe and don't actually see anyone physically looking back at us with a white beard and robes. Nor has anyone this day and age come back from the dead to say, "Hey! There's a Starbucks over there!" or whatever.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Eddie

      Actually someone has seen God. Many people have seen him. 200 years ago a man saw Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father. There is no greater evidence on earth than personal testimony. Have you ever considered that people have agency? The ability to choose? It is one of our greatest gifts and God will not take that away from us. People do bad things, but that does not mean there is no God or that God is not watching. Wickedness brings consequences. Righteousness brings consequences.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • DL

      Poor Eddie...It is called manipulating the masses 200 hundred years ago. Think of your star-maker as a really great charleton man understanding how to control the masses with a story people have a psychological need to believe. Taking one story that worked for over a thousand years, updating it, and SELLING it as truth. You've been suckered.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      """There is no greater evidence on earth than personal testimony. """

      Demonstrably FALSE. Liar Liar, pants on fire. Personal testimony is the LEAST reliable evidence.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Eddie

      Again... Read the Book of Mormon and you can know for yourself. Belief in somethings takes far more courage and strength then simply waiting for people to show physical evidence. There was no suckering done 200 years ago. The Book of Mormon was translated from gold plates and many people testified that they saw those plates and that Joseph Smith did translate them. He did it in around 85 days. I would ask anyone to write a 531 page book in 85 days that speaks of Christ and changes millions of lives. A Book that cannot be discredited. And the book cannot contradict itself. And it also has to agree with the Bible. That is what happened 200 years ago. Joseph Smith translated the book with God's power.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • DL


      I BELIEVE that you BELIEVE. Look deep into my eyes...

      October 9, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      """Read the Book of Mormon and you can know for yourself."""

      Here's what I believe. The bible was GOD 1.0. The qur'an was GOD 2.0 The book of mormon is obviously GOD 3.0

      What I don't understand is where scientology comes in. Is it GOD 4.0 or 'Star Trek, Wrath of the Thetans'? Let's DISCUSS!

      October 9, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  10. kme

    "Yes, look at the great advances that scientific atheism brought..."

    Science makes things that WORK. Its axioms ("beliefs") are proven in the real world when things stand up, diseases are destroyed, eyesight is corrected, rovers land on Mars, or packets of data fly over wires to being your comment to CNN.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Nukes dude!

      You can finally have that Armagedeon the baby Jeebus promised you, do to the hard work of Atheists!

      October 9, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  11. Ellen

    Organized religion is outdated, ignorant and a cause of much trouble in the world. We will all be better off when people become aware that "religion" is a sad trap for the ignorant. If it makes you all feel better to think I'm going to hell, feel free to think so.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Silly1

      Yup, all will be better when we embrace anarchy...

      October 9, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • William Demuth

      So God is order now?


      God is a con, a way to sucker rednecks. And better yet, it is WORKING!!!

      October 9, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Eddie

      Maybe it is not religion that is the problem. Maybe it is the fact that less and less people believe in religion. It is interesting to note that as religion has become less important in society, the world has become a more evil and prideful place. The same thing goes with families. As families have become less valued and parents have kids out of wedlock, we see the devaluation in morals and the increase in evil acts.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  12. David Stone

    Christians keep tell us that jesus is "coming"....sounds like a personal situation to me.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  13. why be an atheist when you can have a king, one that's higher than jesus


    October 9, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  14. tony

    Thank god 🙂 for the Internet and all the various Belief blogs.

    Now more and more people can share their experience that "prayer" never works, because it's more and more obvious that there is no-one listening. And that every pro-religion argument is based on believing incredibly silly old fantasies.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Planes Walker

      Actually, studies have shown that prayer does work better than chance, and slightly better than placebo. Sorry, I inconveniently do not have the link to these studies. But you can look them up.

      I suspect the effect is due to the self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon, rather than divine intervention. But who am I say it was not divine intervention? I'm just another atheist. At least I do not presume to know the truth with any certainty. That would be arrogant, and ignorant of me.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • tony

      Actually there was proper scientific blind study that proved the opposite. There was then immediately a flurry of press reports on religious TV stations, and of course press release, picked up unchecked by regular local TV's referring to a fantasy study instead made by a religious pseudo-sci group that claimed that they had found prayer worked.

      But that's what religion is all about – Lying to keep adherents and collection plates, despite paying lip-service to the 9th Commandment.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • max

      Well then, I guess everyone should start praying for the Cleavland Browns....if enough do they will win the super bowl, right? HAHA.

      Who wants to bet on that one...I will give 1000 to 1 odds.

      Prayer or no prayer the Browns will not win the super bowl this year. Get it? You can pray all you want and the only thing it will alter is your subjective life. And I would not bet the farm on that one...but if you want I am offering 1000 to 1 odds on the Browns. Step right up suckers.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      """Prayer or no prayer the Browns will not win the super bowl this year."""

      Of course not, silly! God is a Steelers fan.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  15. Not Surprised

    A disturbing, but yet not surprising trend. As C.S. Lewis predicated, we are beginning to see the "Abolition of Man". We are becoming less dependent on God, and therefore less human...nothing more than "calculators and copulators".

    October 9, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Be afraid. You will all turn into the borg. My guess is nothing surprises you. Stupid scare tactics.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • mikepomatto

      Or thinkers. Quoting Carl Sagan, "I don't want to believe. I want to know."

      October 9, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • Thomas Jefferson

      I see nothing wrong with either of those things.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Crash

      What are you talking about? Less dependent on god actually means more human oneself.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Planes Walker

      "...nothing more than 'calculators and copulators'."

      I like that. But there is no such word, "copulator". You guessed it... I'm a word cop! But, I agree that "calculators and those who copulate" doesn't sound as good. 🙂

      October 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time moves on.” – Neil Degrass Tyson

      October 9, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  16. sere

    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,

    October 9, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Lets get another 25% in 2 years.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • max

      What we need another Hale Bopp and a 250mm, 3×5 satin purple diamonds.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  17. NSM

    Thank goodness! America is waking up! That old myth has fooled millions for so long because the churches tried their best to recruit people in order to fortify their positions, power and wealth. It's gratifying to see today's young, often critized to be self-absorbed and indifferent, are opening thier eyes wide on this matter.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • max

      They are not fooled. They simply lack any real knowledge. They are not incapable of dealing with reality in a factual way they simply flow like water to the path of least resistance. Believing in something takes not effort, you just say..."I Believe" and ta-da you are in the club. Thinking up new ideas or proving existing theories takes a ton of hard work and being that most Americans are fat and lazy, well...easy, belief driven things attract more people. But is funny how they all go to the doctor and demand the rule of law when they are personally screwed.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Eddie

      Actually belief takes much work. Belief is not merely declaring "I believe". It is action. Belief, or faith, cannot not exist where there are no steps taken. Belief takes one through the "refiners fire". It is our purpose on earth. To believe and then act.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • DL

      I hope you are right! The last few years of observing teens, I have seen horrible Christian children in the community claiming their relgion as truth while practicing willful ignorance of the facts and dishing out hate to others. It is disturbing. The idea that they cannot use reason in any capacity is mind-boggling.

      October 9, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  18. Planes Walker

    Enough Atheist-bashing! Just because we lack a soul, doesn't mean we don't have feelings! ;(

    Nah, just kidding. We don't have feelings either. Bash on, religious zealots!!!


    October 9, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • NoTheism

      not bad

      October 9, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  19. DL

    The problem with organized religion is that they indoctrinate children with "faith belief" when they are to under-developed cognitvely to grasp the concept of faith vs. truth, which is how what may be a positive then becomes a negative force we know as HATE. 100% of the atheists I have encountered in my life are 100% better people than 85% of the Christians I have known. They reason so many don't understand the idea of "spirituality" is due to the fact that their EMOTIONAL life was purposely disposed of as children. Their parents decisively eliminated their child's true spirit via religion, orchestrated or otherwise. I can tell if someone is a "spiritual" or "non-spiritual" Christian observing their eyes and conversing with them. There is NOTHING behind their eyes, kind of like Mitt Romney, who as a Mormon sees non-Mormons as some annoying, unwanted animal to mow over. And if you investigated certain religions, including Romney;s, it is an indoctrination of church beliefs that KILLS A CHILD'S SPIRITUALITY. Nothing behind the eyes, nothing in the soul.

    October 9, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Silly1

      Yeah, atheist families bringing up kids and making sure they understand there is no such thing as spirituality is nowhere near as damaging to their spirituality...

      October 9, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • DL

      Sorry I didn't edit my blip. I am on the road.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Eddie

      You obviously have not learned of the doctrine of the Mormons. The name of the church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. No other church teaches Christ-like behavior as much as the Mormons. It is true that nobody is perfect. Even some Mormons are not great people, but how can you say Mitt Romney doesn't care about non-Mormons when he has been nothing but generous with his time, talents, and money. Read the Book of Mormon and your eyes will be opened to what the Church stands for and what they believe. To the point about indoctrination of church beliefs that kills a child's spirituality, you could not be further from the truth. Children are the most faithful people on earth. They grasp the concept of faith vs. truth as well as you or I. Have you ever seen a child lose something and simply pray to have it back? Have you listened to a child pray for rain? Pray for their pet? Faith is not understood. It is felt and believed through the soul.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • DL


      The discussion is about "spirituality" and your reply clearly proves the point that you don't understand the concept. It is how you live your life and treat others here and now. Good is defined by being and doing good as way of life, not due to some punishment or other motivator. It is not really definable...but one can see when it is missing if your own spirituality is developed enough to do so. I am not an atheist, agnostic or otherwise, just an observer in the realities of the human psychological development and behavior. Compassion for all living things whether they think like you or not is part it.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • DL

      Of course, there are good Mormons, I was married to one once. However, most Mormons do see non-Mormons as beneath them. They are just the example that comes to mind at this time...I did include all organized religions in general. Yes, they do good deeds, but it is in the name of converting the masses, like most religions. If you are going to give a no-strings-attached would be truly spiritual. The irksome idea that converting anyone that is suffering to any faith while they are impoverished, suffering, starving, or otherwise is in a way brainwashing.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Eddie

      As who defines what is good? With your definition, then most everything we do is brainwashing. It is called persuasion. Businesses succeed and fail based on how well they can "brainwash" people. If brainwashing means helping another then I am the worst of them all.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  20. John

    Put religion on US Census... I bet only 1 million will be non-religious

    October 9, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • DL

      You would quite surprised how wrong you would be about this, which is why it is being discussed. We don't know what we don't know.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • jj

      In the past, religious affiliation was a question on the Census. That it is no longer a question demonstrates its increasing lack of importance in our society.

      October 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
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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.

October 2012