Nearly One in Five Americans Have No Religious Affiliation

A new study hasn’t been released, but Cathy Grossman of USA Today has an article about how 19% of Americans have no religious affiliation, referring to surveys put out by the Pew Center for the People and the Press:

The rapid rise of Nones — including atheists, agnostics and those who say they believe “nothing in particular” — defies the usually glacial rate of change in spiritual identity.

Barry Kosmin, co-author of three American Religious Identification Surveys, theorizes why None has become the “default category.” He says, “Young people are resistant to the authority of institutional religion, older people are turned off by the politicization of religion, and people are simply less into theology than ever before.”

That’s 19% now compared to only 6% in 1990. That’s *incredible* growth.

FFRF is not-surprisingly thrilled:

“This means great news for progress, for reasoned debate, for the status of nonbelievers in our nation,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “The freethought movement and FFRF are growing rapidly. There is an explosion of local and campus freethought groups, activities and conferences.”

“With nonbelievers at about 20% of the population, there is no longer any excuse for leaving us out of the equation. Public officials cannot continue to assume ‘all Americans’ believe in a deity, or continue to offend 20% of the population by imposing prayer at governmental meetings or government-hosted events. These surveys now show that ‘In God We Trust’ is a provenly inaccurate motto. Nonbelievers should not be treated as political pariahs,” [FFRF co-president Annie Laurie] Gaylor said.

Keep in mind the percentage of atheists/agnostics is still relatively low (around 5%) — so we still have work to do with getting all those people on the fence or just apathetic to religion in general to stop hovering in the middle of nowhere, but “No Affiliation” is still better than “Religious.”

How high of a percentage do you think the Nones will reach at our peak? As much as I would love to see it become a majority in my lifetime, I think the pressures to maintain some sort of religious belief are just too much for most people.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • derek McCue

    Seems more likely that people just feel they can be more open about their non belief, but thats a step in the right direction.

  • Marella

    Living in a relatively non-religious country (Australia) my experience is that most people float over to a kind of thoughtless deism, they don’t believe in any religion but they can’t imagine that they’re really going to die either. This is not philosophically satisfying but it does mean that most of the evil that religion does is sufficiently attenuated that it really is no longer much of an issue. Being overtly religious is generally considered to be ‘bad form’ and most people simply don’t talk about it. It’s not perfect but it’s a vast improvement on the situation in the USA.

    • http://twitter.com/ForgotMyOrange Forgetful Orange

       Yep, I’m in Australia (Sydney) and that’s pretty much my experience.

    • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

      I like that term, “thoughtless deism”. I think it could be used to describe many people in the U.S. who currently claim an actual religious affiliation, as well… not just “nones”.

      It’s unfortunate, but many Americans (perhaps most) are generally thoughtless about most of their beliefs- they claim to believe in various things religious or political or scientific, but actually have never thought seriously about them at all. They believe things because they inherited those beliefs, or because they accepted them without question from some other source.

      Many people are completely unable to explain why they believe anything, or provide any defense of their beliefs beyond sound bites.

      • viaten

        I like the term too.  And thoughtless deism is certainly better than thoughtless theism.

    • advancedatheist

      Your country gave us that bad christian music from the Hillsong Church in Sydney:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillsong_Church 

      Fortunately some cryonicists in Australia have started to look for a place to build their own cryonics facility, so before too long you’ll have a feasible strategy for trying to stay alive through scientific means. 

      • LesterBallard

        They gave us Ken Fucking Ham, too.

        • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

          Ken Fucking Ham

          Now there’s an image! I just hope it’s not the Atheist Pig.

    • Jerry Mia

      This polite live-and-let-live attitude was the situation in the USA, more or less, until George Bush rallied up the Snake Charmers and shoved all this backwards Hellfire BS in everybody’s face. 

      While everybody bickered about that, he and his thugs killed a ton of people, American and not, and stripped the country of all it had. The rest of the jobs were all outsourced and deregulation made it super easy for Wall street to destroy everything with it’s wheeling and dealing and outright lying. Everyone is mad and they are blaming the Bible thumpers only because now everyone knows what they would do if they could which is send us back to the Civil War and let the South win this time. Women would be barefoot, pregnant, and silent. Amen. What the Bible Thumpers didn’t do is rally together while they got their homes falsely foreclosed or foreclosed due to predatory loans. One after another they watched their neighbors become homeless, tsk tsking because God wouldn’t punish them if they didn’t deserve it, and then it was their turn. Divided we fall.I’m going to guess a lot of the angry-at-churchers people are like me and just never imagined people could be so damn backwards and stupid in this day and age. It’s more incredulousness than anger.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=35702181 Christopher Check

        Bush is just the culmination of two decades of the rise of the Religious Right. Look to the history of the Moral Majority, and you’ll get an idea of the timeline of the political-religious revival in the US. It’s primarily a greatest-generation holdover that grabbed some ‘boomers. Once it moves over to the Gen-Xers and us Millennials, things should change pretty drastic, because even the religious people I know who are younger are a lot more “live and let live” types. Mostly.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger

    We need to continually remind politicians of this data. Various freethought groups and individuals should send politicians the links to these news articles and research results. 

    Just add a short cover letter telling the 
    politicians  that if they persist in using religion as a basis for their votes/legislation, they are alienating a larger demographic than African-Americans, Jews, NRA-members, small-business-owners, etc. 

    • Jerry Mia

      Or we could just let them keep alienating large groups of people. Why encourage them to lie even more?

  • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

    we still have work to do with getting all those people…to stop hovering in the middle of nowhere

    Hemant is evangelical.  Who knew?

    • Onamission5

      e·van·gel·i·cal/ˌēvanˈjelikəl/
      Adjective:Of or according to the teaching of the gospel or the Christian religion.Noun:A member of the evangelical tradition in the Christian ChurchYeah…. no.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ORRVVC5R2QWLTXEM6SX5L6BORE Jay Arrrr

    So almost 15% of the population say “No, I don’t belong to any church. Gawd? I dunno, I guess he exists.” and I’m supposed to think they’re my allies?

    This does nothing to change the fact that the majority of the American citizenry holds me in the same regard as they do child molesters and puppy killers.

  • advancedatheist

    Wow, think of all the millions of Americans who must struggle every day with hopelessness, despair, nihilism, the abyss and so forth, like the Fantasy Atheists we keep hearing about from christian preachers. 

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Thomas Lawson

    As far as I’m concerned, the United States is 54% non-religious. Why? Because only 46% of Americans attend church weekly. If you’re not religious enough to attend church weekly, then you’re not religious.

    • Cheepak Dopra

      Muslims don’t attend church weekly. Neither do Hindus, Buddhists, or Jains.

  • Dreepy

    “With nonbelievers at about 20% of the population, there is no longer any excuse for leaving us out of the equation.”Nice try, FFRF, but unaffiliated religious people predominately believe in God–they are not all “nonbelievers.” Around a third of them believe in a personal God. Not exactly Dawkins/Hitchens disciples.Even more disconcerting for the “Evangelical Atheism” movement: a Harvard study showed 1/3rd of religious nones had joined an organized religion when asked a few years later.

    The reality is atheism has not grown in the last 40 years in the US (it’s held at 4-5%). But I know in the echo chamber of high-minded atheism that will be a peer-reviewed “scientific fact” that doesn’t jive with one’s dogmatic beliefs or sense of identity. Feel free to debunk/discredit as needed.

    I’d recommend American Grace by Robert Putnam & David Campbell, or What Americans Really Believe by Rodney Stark if you’re interested in understanding the religious landscape based on actual data rather than the distortions of self-interested FFRF press releases.

    • Jerry Mia

      Amongst people I know it seems they get more religious as they age because (imo)  they don’t want the party (life) to end. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/BX6DFZRZEYZM3JJ7ZDRBVVQMU4 Anton

    A friend of mine that’s a professor takes a completely anonymous survey at the start of each semester on religiosity, sexual preferences etc of his grad students here in the bible belt of Dallas TX.  While the expected numbers are in the low teens to single digits when polled in this manner the avg of non-believers is actually in the high70s year in year out.    People ‘believe’ and attend church out of tradition, social networking or for lack of a better idea.  But it must be painful to sit and listen to the boring droll of bronze age tribesmen week after week knowing that it’s all bs. 

  • Tim

    The UK reached 50% “nones” about 2 years ago  (see this graph from the British Social Attitudes Survey) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bsa-religion-question.svg 

    There is hope for you guys too.  I give it no more than a generation or two..

  • machintelligence

    Keep in mind the percentage of atheists/agnostics is still relatively low (around 5%)
    This may be due to atheism denial.
    Daniel Dennett recently gave a humorous talk on that very subject.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLYjCqZx0xg  (This is the short version)

  • Sindigo

    Congrats Americans everywhere.

  • Guest

    Bwa Ha ha.  My how insecure are atheists.  Most are ‘seeking’, that doesn’t make them atheists.  It’s amazing how desperate atheists are to claim growing numbers.  As soon as any poll comes out, they seem to twist it to make their numbers larger than they ever are.  And of course, if less people are religious, can atheists blame growing problems on religion?  Logic would say no.

    • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

      No one claimed they were atheists. Did you miss the part where Hemant said this?

      Keep in mind the percentage of atheists/agnostics is still relatively low (around 5%) — so we still have work to do with getting all those people on the fence or just apathetic to religion in general to stop hovering in the middle of nowhere, but “No Affiliation” is still better than “Religious.”

      Many atheists see this as progress because it lessens the stranglehold of organized religion. The “nones” don’t have to be atheists for us to interpret the survey results as beneficial for society.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    The current demographic trends mean the US should be about half “nones” circa 2050. However, the recent study by Georgetown and the PRRI indicate there’s a pretty significant uptick among Millennials of Atheists/Agnostics. Instead of the two together being about 1-in-4 of the nones, they’re about 1-in-2. It’s not clear whether that shift is more a wave on the beach or a rising tide. (The increase in the unaffiliated over the last 40 years seems more tide-like.)

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    I can’t really get too excited about this. Sure, they’ve given up organized religion, but most of the “nones” still believe in supernatural things like ghosts, gods, souls, heaven, reincarnation, astrology, etc.

  • John Sherman

    Checking NONE doesn’t make you an atheist. I take these optimistic number with a grain of salt.


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