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number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at
a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 –
are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew
Research Center polling.
the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15%
to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13
million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public),
as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious
large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large
on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious
services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.
a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s
Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television
program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds that many of the country’s 46
million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds
of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a
deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more
than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five
(21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated
Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society
by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.
few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not
looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think
that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too
focused on rules and too involved in politics.
growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the
rise of the “nones” – is largely driven by generational replacement, the
gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones.4
A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with
just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more
likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in
generational differences are consistent with other signs of a gradual softening
of religious commitment among some (though by no means all) Americans in recent
decades. Pew Research Center surveys conducted over the last 10 years, for
example, find modest growth in the number of people who say they seldom or
never attend religious services, as well as a declining number who say they
never doubt the existence of God.
addition to religious behavior, the way that Americans talk about their
connection to religion seems to be changing. Increasingly, Americans describe their
religious affiliation in terms that more closely match their level of
involvement in churches and other religious organizations. In 2007, 60% of
those who said they seldom or never attend religious services nevertheless
described themselves as belonging to a particular religious tradition. In 2012, just 50% of those who say they seldom or never attend religious
services still retain a religious affiliation – a 10-point drop in five years.
These trends suggest that the ranks of the unaffiliated are swelling in surveys
partly because Americans who rarely go to
services are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments
their rising numbers, the religiously unaffiliated are an increasingly
important segment of the electorate. In the 2008 presidential election, they
voted as heavily for Barack Obama as white evangelical Protestants did for John
McCain. More than six-in-ten religiously unaffiliated registered voters are
Democrats (39%) or lean toward the Democratic Party (24%). They are about twice
as likely to describe themselves as political liberals than as conservatives, and
solid majorities support legal abortion (72%) and same-sex marriage (73%). In
the last five years, the unaffiliated have risen from 17% to 24% of all
registered voters who are Democrats or lean Democratic. (See religious
groupings in pie chart below.)
report includes findings from a nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center,
conducted June 28-July 9, 2012, using both landlines and cell phones, among a
representative sample of 2,973 adults. In partnership with Religion &
Ethics NewsWeekly, the Pew Forum conducted an additional 511 interviews with
religiously unaffiliated adults between June 28 and July 10, producing a total
sample of 958 religiously unaffiliated respondents in the new survey.
help paint a full portrait of religiously unaffiliated Americans, the Pew Forum
also aggregated and analyzed data on this large and growing population from
prior Pew Research Center surveys.
addition, this report contains capsule summaries of some leading theories put
forward by scholars in an attempt to explain the root causes of the rise of the
“nones.” These theories run the gamut from a backlash against the entanglement
of religion and politics to a global relationship between economic development
and secularization. While Pew Research Center surveys are unlikely to settle
the debate, they may help to rule out some misconceptions about the
unaffiliated. For example, the surveys show that religious affiliation is
declining among Americans who do not have college degrees, as well as among
college graduates, which suggests that the trend is not solely a result of
attitudes toward religion on college campuses. Nor, as the new Pew Research
Center/Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly survey shows, are the unaffiliated
composed largely of religious “seekers” who are looking for a spiritual home
and have not found it yet.
Ranks of the Religiously
Unaffiliated Continue To Grow
2007 Pew Research Center surveys, 15.3% of U.S. adults answered a question
about their current religion by saying they were atheist, agnostic or “nothing
in particular.” The number of religiously unaffiliated respondents has ticked
up each year since, and now stands at 19.6%.
the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown significantly over the past five
years, the Protestant share of the population has shrunk. In 2007, 53% of
adults in Pew Research Center surveys described themselves as Protestants.
In surveys conducted in the first half of 2012, fewer than half of American
adults say they are Protestant (48%). This marks the first time in Pew Research
Center surveys that the Protestant share of the population has dipped
significantly below 50%.
The decline is concentrated among white Protestants, both
evangelical and mainline. Currently, 19% of U.S. adults identify themselves as
white, born-again or evangelical Protestants, down slightly from 21% in 2007.
And 15% of adults describe themselves as white Protestants but say they are not
born-again or evangelical Christians, down from 18% in 2007.5
There has been no change in minority Protestants’ share of the population over
the past five years.
findings represent a continuation of long-term trends.6
The General Social Surveys (GSS), conducted by the National Opinion Research
Center at the University of Chicago for roughly four decades, show that the
number of religiously unaffiliated adults remained below 10% from the 1970s
through the early 1990s. The percentage of religiously unaffiliated respondents
began to rise noticeably in the 1990s and stood at 18% in the 2010 GSS.
Protestant share of the population, by contrast, has been declining since the
early 1990s. In the GSS, about six-in-ten adults identified as Protestants in
the 1970s and 1980s. By 2000, however, 54% of GSS respondents were Protestant.
And in the 2010 GSS, 51% of respondents identified themselves as Protestants.
Catholic share of the population has been roughly steady over this period, in
part because of immigration from Latin America.7
What Is Behind the
Growth of the Religiously Unaffiliated?
important factor behind the growth of the religiously unaffiliated is
generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer
ones. Among the youngest Millennials (those ages 18-22, who were minors in 2007
and thus not eligible to be interviewed in Pew Research Center surveys
conducted that year), fully one-third (34%) are religiously unaffiliated,
compared with about one-in-ten members of the Silent Generation (9%) and
one-in-twenty members of the World War II-era Greatest Generation (5%). Older
Millennials (ages 23-30) also are substantially less likely than prior generations
to be religiously affiliated.
But generational replacement is not the only factor at
play. Generation Xers and Baby Boomers also have become more religiously
unaffiliated in recent years. In 2012, 21% of Gen Xers and 15% of Baby Boomers
describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, up slightly (but by
statistically significant margins) from 18% and 12%, respectively, since 2007.
The trend lines for earlier generations are essentially flat. Not only are
young adults less likely to be affiliated than their elders, but the GSS shows
that the percentage of Americans who were raised without an affiliation has
been rising gradually, from about 3% in the early 1970s to about 8% in the past
decade. However, the overwhelming majority of the “nones” were brought up in a
religious tradition. The new Pew Research Center/Religion & Ethics
NewsWeekly survey finds that about three-quarters of unaffiliated adults were
raised with some affiliation (74%).
Evidence of Decline in Religious Commitment in the U.S. Public
continued growth of the religiously unaffiliated is one of several indicators
suggesting that the U.S. public gradually may be growing less religious. To be
sure, the United States remains a highly religious country – particularly by
comparison with other advanced industrial democracies – and some measures of
religious commitment in America have held remarkably steady over the years. The
number of Americans who currently say religion is very important in their lives
(58%), for instance, is little changed since 2007 (61%) and is far higher than
in Britain (17%), France (13%), Germany (21%) or Spain (22%).8
And over the longer term, Pew Research surveys find no change in the percentage
of Americans who say that prayer is an important part of their daily life; it
is 76% in 2012, the same as it was 25 years ago, in 1987.
on some other key measures, there is evidence of a gradual decline in religious
commitment. In 2003, for instance, 25% of U.S. adults indicated they seldom or
never attend religious services. By 2012, that number had ticked up 4 points,
the percentage of Americans who say they never doubt the existence of God has
fallen modestly but noticeably over the past 25 years. In 1987, 88% of adults
said they never doubt the existence of God. As of 2012, this figure was down 8
percentage points to 80%.
addition, the percentage of Americans who say the Bible should be taken
literally has fallen in Gallup polls from an average of about 38% of the public
in the late 1970s and early 1980s to an average of 31% since.9
And based on analysis of GSS data, Mark Chaves of Duke University has found
that Americans born in recent decades are much less likely than their elders to
report having attended religious services weekly at age 12. Young adults are
also less likely than older adults to report that when they were growing up,
their parents attended religious services regularly.
recently summarized trends in American religion by asserting that “… there is
much continuity, and there is some decline, but no traditional religious belief
or practice has increased in recent decades.”10
Religious Americans Increasingly Say They Have No Affiliation
of the reason that the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown in recent years is
that Americans who are not particularly religious – at least by conventional
measures, such as self-reported rates of attendance at religious services –
increasingly describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in
2007, 38% of people who said they seldom or never attend religious services described
themselves as religiously unaffiliated. In 2012, 49% of infrequent attenders
eschew any religious affiliation. By comparison, the percentage describing
themselves as unaffiliated has been flat among those who attend religious
services once a week or more often.
this same period (2007-2012), change in self-reported levels of religious
attendance has been relatively modest. In 2007, 38% of U.S. adults reported
attending religious services weekly. Today, the figure is 37%. And although
there has been a four-point uptick over the past decade in the number saying
they seldom or never attend services, the change over the past five years has
been more modest (from 27% saying they seldom or never attend in 2007 to 29% in
these trends from another angle, the religiously unaffiliated population is
increasingly composed of people who rarely or never attend religious services.
In 2007, 68% of religiously unaffiliated Americans said they seldom or never
attend religious services. As of 2012, this figure has risen slightly but
significantly to 72%. Over the same period, the share of religiously affiliated
adults who seldom or never attend religious services has declined slightly.11
Who Are the
growth of the unaffiliated has taken place across a wide variety of demographic
groups. The percentage of unaffiliated respondents has ticked up among men and
women, college graduates and those without a college degree, people earning
$75,000 or more and those making less than $30,000 annually, and residents of
all major regions of the country.
it comes to race, however, the recent change has been concentrated in one
group: whites. One-fifth of (non-Hispanic) whites now describe themselves as
religiously unaffiliated, up five percentage points since 2007. By contrast,
the share of blacks and Hispanics who are religiously unaffiliated has not
changed by a statistically significant margin in recent years.
In terms of their religious beliefs and practices, the unaffiliated
are a diverse group, and far from uniformly secular. Just 5% say they attend
worship services on a weekly basis. But one-third of the unaffiliated say
religion is at least somewhat important in their lives. Two-thirds believe in
God (though less than half say they are absolutely certain of God’s existence).
And although a substantial minority of the unaffiliated consider themselves
neither religious nor spiritual (42%), the majority describe themselves either
as a religious person (18%) or as spiritual but not religious (37%).
unaffiliated also are not uniformly hostile toward religious institutions. They
are much more likely than the public overall to say that churches and other religious
organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and
too involved in politics. But at the same time, a majority of the religiously
unaffiliated clearly think that religion can be a force for good in society, with
three-quarters saying religious organizations bring people together and help
strengthen community bonds (78%) and a similar number saying religious
organizations play an important role in helping the poor and needy (77%).
The religiously unaffiliated population is less convinced
that religious institutions help protect morality; just half say this,
considerably lower than the share of the general public that views churches and
other religious organizations as defenders of morality (52% vs. 76%).
of Americans, including 63% of the religiously unaffiliated, say religion as a
whole is losing its influence on American life. A large majority of those who
think religion’s influence is on the decline see this as a bad thing. But those
who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” are less inclined to
view religion’s declining influence as a bad thing. And atheists and agnostics
overwhelmingly view religion’s declining influence as a good thing for society.
vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans are not actively seeking to
find a church or other religious group to join. Leaving aside atheists or
agnostics, just 10% of those who describe their current religion as “nothing in
particular” say they are looking for a religion that is right for them; 88% say
they are not.12
are the ranks of the unaffiliated predominantly composed of practitioners of New
Age spirituality or alternative forms of religion. Generally speaking, the
unaffiliated are no more likely than members of the public as a whole to have
such beliefs and practices.
example, roughly three-in-ten religiously unaffiliated adults say they believe
in spiritual energy in physical objects and in yoga as a spiritual practice.
About a quarter believe in astrology and reincarnation. In addition, nearly
six-in-ten of the religiously unaffiliated say they often feel a deep
connection with nature and the earth; about three-in-ten say they have felt in
touch with someone who is dead; and 15% have consulted a psychic. All of these
figures closely resemble the survey’s findings among the public as a whole.
the other hand, the religiously unaffiliated are less inclined than Americans
overall to say they often think about the meaning and purpose of life (53% vs.
67%). They also attach much less importance to belonging to a community of
people with shared values and beliefs; 28% of the unaffiliated say this is very
important to them, compared with 49% of all adults.
religiously unaffiliated are heavily Democratic in their partisanship and
liberal in their political ideology. More than six-in-ten describe themselves
as Democrats or say they lean toward the Democratic Party (compared with 48% of
all registered voters). And there are roughly twice as many self-described
liberals (38%) as conservatives (20%) among the religiously unaffiliated. Among
voters overall, this balance is reversed.
liberalism of the unaffiliated extends to social issues, though not necessarily
to attitudes about the size of government. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of
religiously unaffiliated Americans say abortion should be legal in most or all
cases, compared with 53% of the public overall. And 73% of the religiously
unaffiliated express support for same-sex marriage, compared with 48% of the
public at large. But the portion of the unaffiliated who say they would prefer a smaller
government providing fewer services to a larger government providing more
services is similar to the share of the general public who take the same view
(50% and 52%, respectively).
recent elections, the religiously unaffiliated have become one of the most
reliably Democratic segments of the electorate. Exit polls conducted by a consortium
of news organizations indicate that in 2000, 61% of the unaffiliated voted for Al
Gore over George W. Bush. By 2004, John Kerry’s share of the unaffiliated vote
had increased to 67%. And in 2008, fully three-quarters of the religiously
unaffiliated voted for Barack Obama over John McCain. In 2008, religiously
unaffiliated voters were as strongly Democratic in their vote choice as white
evangelicals were Republican. Obama’s margin of victory among the religiously
unaffiliated was 52 points; McCain’s margin of victory among white evangelical
voters was 47 points.
religiously unaffiliated constitute a growing share of Democratic and
Democratic-leaning registered voters. In 2007, there were about as many
religiously unaffiliated Democratic and Democratic- leaning registered voters
as white mainline and white Catholic Democratic voters. And the religiously
unaffiliated were only slightly more numerous among
Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters than were black Protestants
(17% vs. 14%).
Today, the religiously unaffiliated are clearly more
numerous than any of these groups within the Democratic coalition (24%
unaffiliated, 16% black Protestant, 14% white mainline Protestant, 13% white
Catholic). By contrast, Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters are
only slightly more likely to be religiously unaffiliated today than they were
in 2007 (11% vs. 9%).
3 Pew Research Center calculations based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s August 2012
Current Population Survey, which estimates there are 234,787,000 adults in the
U.S. (return to text)
4 The term “nones” is often used to describe people who indicate in surveys that
they have no religion or do not belong to any particular religion. See, for example, Kosmin, Barry A. and Ariela
Keysar, with Ryan Cragun and Juhem Navarro-Rivera. 2009. “American Nones: The
Profile of the No Religion Population, A Report Based on the American Religious
Identification Survey 2008.” Trinity College, http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/NONES_08.pdf.
See also Smith, Tom W. 2007. “Counting Religious Nones and Other Religious
Measurement Issues: A Comparison of the Baylor Religion Survey and General
Social Survey.” GSS Methodological Report No. 110. http://publicdata.norc.org:41000/gss/documents/MTRT/MR110-Counting-Religious-Nones-and-Other-Religious-Measurement-Issues.pdf.(return to text)
5 Evangelical Protestants are defined here as Protestants who say yes when asked,
“Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian, or not?”
Protestants who do not answer this question affirmatively are categorized here
as mainline Protestants. Other research that sorts Protestants into evangelical
and mainline categories based on denominational affiliation (e.g., Southern
Baptist, United Methodist, etc.) finds that the long-term decline in American
Protestantism is concentrated primarily among the Protestant mainline. See, for
example, Chaves, Mark. 2011. “American Religion: Contemporary Trends.”
Princeton University Press, pages 81-93. (return to text)
6 Notwithstanding the rise of the “nones,” some historical studies find that the
portion of the U.S. population that is “churched” – i.e., that belongs to a
parish or congregation – has increased dramatically over the nation’s history.
Roger Finke and Rodney Stark have estimated, for example, that just 17% of
Americans belonged to religious congregations in 1776, compared with about 62%
in 1980. However, the historical figures pre-date the modern era of polling and
are based instead on various kinds of church records; they are estimates of
congregational membership, not self-identification or affiliation with a
religious group. See Finke, Roger and Rodney Stark. 1992. “The Churching of
America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy.” Rutgers
University Press, pages 15-16. (return to text)
7 For more information on recent changes within American Catholicism, including
the impact of religious switching and immigration, see the Pew Forum’s “U.S.
Religious Landscape Survey,” conducted in 2007 and published in 2008,
http://religions.pewforum.org/reports. See also the Pew Forum’s April 2007
report “Changing Faiths: Latinos and
the Transformation of American Religion,” http://www.pewforum.org/Changing-Faiths-Latinos-and-the-Transformation-of-American-Religion.aspx. (return to text)
8 See the November 2007 report by the Pew
Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project “The American-Western European
Values Gap: American Exceptionalism
Subsides,” http://www.pewglobal.org/2011/11/17/the-american-western-european-values-gap/. (return to text)
9 See Gallup. July 8, 2011. “In U.S., 3
in 10 Say They Take the Bible Literally.” http://www.gallup.com/poll/148427/say-bible-literally.aspx. (return to text)
10 See Chaves, Mark. 2011. “American Religion: Contemporary Trends.” Princeton
University Press, pages 14, 50-51. (return to text)
11 Studies have found that some survey respondents switch back and forth between
describing themselves as affiliated and unaffiliated. Researchers call such
people “liminals” because they seem to straddle the threshold of a religious
tradition, partly in and partly out. In a 2006 survey and follow-up interviews
in 2007, Robert Putnam and David Campbell found that roughly 10% of the members
of each major religious tradition can be considered liminals. Moreover, they
found that although the liminals’ nominal affiliation changed (in either
direction) from one year to the next, their self-reported religious beliefs and
practices remained largely the same. This may be seen as further evidence that
the rise in the number of unaffiliated Americans is not just a reflection of
changes in religious behavior. The way that some people think about and
describe their religious identity also is in flux. See Putnam, Robert D. and
David E. Campbell. 2010. “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,”
Simon & Schuster, pages 135-136. See also Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol Ann
MacGregor and Robert D. Putnam. 2010. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering
Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of
Religion, vol. 49, no. 4: 596-618. (return to text)
12 Nevertheless, there is substantial switching from unaffiliated to affiliated.
In the current survey, four-in-ten adults who say they were raised unaffiliated
now identify themselves as religiously affiliated. For a comprehensive analysis
of patterns in religious switching and the reasons people give for switching, see
the Pew Forum’s “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” conducted in 2007 and
published in 2008, http://religions.pewforum.org/reports. Also see the Pew
Forum’s April 2009 report “Faith in Flux,” http://www.pewforum.org/Faith-in-Flux.aspx. (return to text)