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.

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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. Survey Crest

    Its good to see that people are moving towards believing in a religion. In God.

    October 24, 2012 at 6:27 am |
  2. Lorraine

    yes sam stone, this book is not old, it about all life then, and now, to remember, its true name is the book of remembrance, in Malachi 3:16,that is how the people are mislead to think, this book is juxtaposed, it tells the present, past, and the future.

    October 23, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • sam stone

      or course it is old, lorraine.

      and, your scriptural citations mean nothing to me.

      October 24, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  3. Adam

    This means that only 33MIL out of 300MIL are smart..

    October 22, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Athy

      I think 33 million smart ones is on the high side.

      October 22, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
  4. Sebastian2

    I'll feel better when that number is closer to 100%.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  5. Truth

    Mohammed is a f@ggot.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • sam stone


      October 23, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  6. Truth

    "One in five Americans are intelligent enough to see through the bullsh!t."
    The other four, well....it is America, after all. Not known for its intelligence, class, or sophistication.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  7. Eric

    It is pretty desperate that the first line of the article states that the fasted growing religious group is people without religion.
    You can call it whatever you want, Dan. You sure can. Thash a good boy, yesh it is. yesh it is.

    October 22, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  8. WorldCares

    Religion is what civilized man.

    October 22, 2012 at 6:55 am |
    • Eric

      You are absolutely right. Look at any Muslim country and see they are representative of the 12th century.

      October 22, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Mike

      Technological progress is what "civilized" man. Religion was the lazy parasite that sucked the money, power and sanity out of that civilization.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Sam

      Ha ha, really?

      October 23, 2012 at 1:08 am |
  9. the AnViL

    it has been shown that as IQ increases, religiosity decreases.

    October 22, 2012 at 3:02 am |
    • Sebastian2

      Once you accept that sunrises and sunsets aren't the works of a giant, invisible space creature playing basketball with the sun, you're better off IMO...

      October 22, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • the AnViL

      sebastian2: you will be pleased to know that your opinion is a fact.

      October 23, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  10. KarenFaye

    He's the biggest hypocrite and liar ever. His "teachings" weren't Christian beliefs – only GD America- ala Rev. Wright, and anti American sentiments from Frank Marshall, his mother and illeg. Father – whoever that may be. Obama is the worst thing to happen to the U.S. since the 9/11 attack – and if allowed to continue, will dissolve this great country into one big welfare check.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • Athy

      What the fuck are you talking about? Your comment sounds like it was written by a drunken moron.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
    • Eric

      Id say the worst thing that happened since the 9/11 attacks were the erosion of our liberties.

      October 22, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Eric

      Id say the worst things that happened since the 9/11 attacks were the erosion of our liberties.

      October 22, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Smoochesmom

      Rather judgmental and crass, I think! When you see a young women suffering from lupus and cannot afford medication or a another young woman who discovers she has cancer, but no longer covered by her mother's medical insurance, you would not make such a callous statement. Thanks President Obama!! Some of us have a realistic, less prejudicial view of what ss good for the country!

      October 22, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Smoochesmom

      When you see a young women suffering from lupus and cannot afford medication or a another young woman who discovers she has cancer, but no longer covered by her mother's medical insurance, you would not make such a callous statement. Thanks President Obama!!

      October 22, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Truth

      Muslim nagger? As my President? No sir.

      October 22, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • A Traveler

      Karen - were you home schooled your entire life? Certainly seems like it given your post.

      October 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  11. Nancy

    rh – why 'he'?

    October 21, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  12. ASK god...

    Lets get this number up so we are more open minded.

    October 21, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • ASK god...

      Make the most of the world around us that we know is real. Do not just do good things for a ticket to heaven.

      October 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  13. Rob

    I am surprised the number is 1 in 5. I believe a lot of people believe in God but turn their backs on organized religion. "Churches" have become such a disappointment – from raping children to stealing from followers. I went to Catholic school as a kid – and had thought I'd raise my kids Catholic – but the more I learn about the men of that religion the farther I stay away from it. And then add the idiot politicians to the mix who claim to be one religion or the other. Religion is not a path to peace and harmony – it has become a divisive and often violent organization. Who needs that?

    October 21, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • naestyoh

      It's more like the other way around: more 'faithful' are 'faithless' but afraid to come out. With so much information available, parents can no longer shield their children from logic and reason. This religion/god stuff is on its way out.

      October 21, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  14. LH

    In my younger years I was a very involved catholic-Then I started reading the history of all the major religions-I couldn't beleive the God I believed in would allow all these murders in his name. Not just Muslims, Catholics and protestants have had their share. Now, the God I believe in has only 1 Rule. That people love each other even more than God himself. If I were God, thats the only rule needed.

    October 21, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  15. Isabel

    Tell me why if he is all-powerful and all-knowing, he would need US to worship him.

    He made us as His image for HIs own enjoyment. Joy, Praise and Worship are the result of having God's love inside you.... you just can't help but love God back once He has entered your heart. When God enters your heart through Jesus Christ, gone is depression, insecurity, fear, worry - Life is still life, but its so much easier to go through when you can find the answers to how to live life in a full and abundant way in the words in the bible. Its not a book hidden to people. Pick one up and start reading it. Think about a father who loves you more than our earthly fathers ever could, gives us the grace none of us ever deserve, and eternal mercy, through the belief of the blood His son Jesus Christ shed for our arrogance of turning away from God. God doesn't say: "I won't love you unless you love me." God doesn't say "You must worship me." No, God says I am sending you my one and only son Jesus Christ to be the perfect sacrifice for your sins because I love you. Please accept this gift from me to you and I will give you eternal life with me in my Kingdom and while on earth, I will grant you mercy so you may live. I don't know about you, but when I accepted and received those gifts, I couldn't help but jump up and down with joy and worship this God, so much greater than me, and yet sought me out to give me this great love. Hope this helps you RH!

    October 21, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • A Traveler

      Isabel - which version would you suggest. I've been a student of religion for many years and was frankly stunned once I found out that I had read THE 76th REVISION of the KJB (with the majority of the revisions made in the second half of the 19th century and more in the first half of the 20th). These revisions were made by men. The book is a fairy tale.

      October 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  16. Isabel

    Every single person has a sense of right and wrong, a sense of compassion for those in need, and a sense of wonder about the world they live in. Religion is not spiritual relationship, it is a set of rules, laws and behaviors laid down by a group to be of benefit of the group it serves. But in my opinion, religion and politics are two sides of the same coin, and neither seem to serve a lot of the people. Having said that, I am a born again Christian, a current bible study student (for the past 18 years) and I can readily see that much of what is done in religion parallel up with what Jesus says. The biggest thing I see at this point is Jesus keeps it simple and gets to the point. Two things: Jesus is about the great love God has for us; and two, that we should help others. I believe most of us here in the United States do #2 quite well. As for turning to God in all things, knowing God's great love for us, understanding who God's one and only son is and the sacrifice and suffering He did for us (although most of us didn't ask for such a sacrifice) is the most humbling, rewarding, genuine, life-giving, life-changing, life-enriching, eternal life choice I ever made. And all I did was say yes, I sinned by turning my back on God and I'm sorry for that; and yes, I believe Jesus is the son of God, who willingly sacrificed his life and sits at the right hand of God, praying for the world's repentance. And I pray for that too.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Athy

      It takes 18 years of bible study to figure it out? Think of what you could have gained by using all those years studying something useful.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
  17. Aden Medina

    Because for every effect , there is a cause;....If you have any basic knowledge of Physics 101, you know every effect has cause...the universe just didn't happen by accident...Before EInstein became SENILE, he accepted he could NOT explain the mathematical precision by which the stars and galaxies are positioned in infinite universe and could only ascribe it to "religion" and becomes senile and loses part of his inteligence to say there is no God...poor senile Einstein....

    October 21, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Are you suggesting that every time someone doesn't know the cause of an event they claim that the cause was "god?" We don't know what "caused" the universe. You saying that an invisible sky wizard started it with magic spellz doesn't get you anywhere because then you just have to azzume that your invisible sky wizard didn't need a cause.

      We know that the universe exists; we don't know if an invisible sky wizard exists. If you (not us nonbelievers who say "we don't know how it started) want to say that something doesn't have a cause, just go with what you know exists (the universe) instead of inventing invisible sky wizards.

      October 21, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  18. Earthling

    Evolution is finally speeding up – even Billy Graham is pimping out his Christian faith – this week Mormons are no longer part of a cult – I wonder if he is OK with Scientology now?

    October 21, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  19. lex

    Atheism is the one relgion that is growing and it won't stop.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • D

      Atheism is not a religion. It is simply the lack of belief in any god.

      October 22, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  20. Chiniquy

    G-D is the Creator of all things, and HE is the Guardian and Disposer of all affairs. To HIM belong the keys of the heavens and the earth: and those who reject the Signs of G-D, – it is they who will be in loss.
    Say: "Is it someone other than G-D that you order me to worship, O you ignorant ones?"
    But it has already been revealed to you, – as it was to those before you, – "If you were to join (false gods with G-D., truly fruitless will be your work (in life), and you will surely be in the ranks of those who lose (all spiritual good)".
    Nay, but worship G-D, and be of those who give thanks.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • rh

      Tell me why if he is all-powerful and all-knowing, he would need US to worship him.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Nancy

      why HE??

      October 21, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Athy

      Chiniquy: Who the hell is G-D? And why do you capitalize words randomly? Come back and make a rational post after you've successfully repeated sixth grade.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:59 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.