Washington, D.C. – A new report from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is growing at a rapid pace. About one-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under age 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. In 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 affiliation (14%).
This 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. However, 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%), more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five say they pray every day (21%).
The 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. A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten among those 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 their lives.
While 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 Protestant. In multiple 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, including those who consider themselves born-again or evangelical Protestants as well as those who do not.
The new report is based on an analysis of dozens of Pew Research Center surveys conducted in recent years among tens of thousands of respondents. It charts the growth of religiously unaffiliated Americans, describes their demographic characteristics and explores their social and political attitudes. The report also includes findings from a new survey conducted jointly by the Pew Research Center and the PBS television program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly,” produced by Thirteen for WNET New York, which delves more deeply into the religious beliefs and practices of this group. The new survey was conducted among a nationally representative sample of adults in all 50 states, including 958 who are religiously unaffiliated. “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” is also producing a three-part mini-series, “None of the Above: The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated,” based in large part on the survey’s findings. It will begin airing nationally on PBS the weekends of October, 12, 19 and 26 (check local listings).
Additional key findings include:
The “Nones” and Politics
With 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 much more 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.
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 at least $75,000 and those making less than $30,000 annually, and residents of all major regions of the country. When 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.
Views of Religion
The unaffiliated 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, they are not uniformly hostile toward religious institutions. A majority of the religiously unaffiliated 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%).
Religious Beliefs and Practices
The vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans are not actively seeking to find a church or other religious group to join. Leaving aside atheists and 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. Nor 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.
In 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 altogether.
The full report is available on the Pew Forum’s website.
Photo credit: reuvenim (Creative Commons)
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