Irreligion in the United States

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Irreligious Americans
Total population
Population in the United States:
Not religious: 33%[1]
Unaffiliated: 20%
Pew Research Center, 2012
Regions with significant populations
New England region, Western United States
Irreligion (Nones)
(including agnosticism, atheism, deism, skepticism, freethought/freethinker, secular humanism, ignosticism, apatheism, Nonbeliever, Non-theist, Rationalist)

Encompassing at least agnosticism, atheism, deism,[a] secular humanism, and general secularism,[3] nonreligious Americans represent about a third of the population.[4][1] Nonreligious Americans tend to be more politically liberal.

A related group is religiously unaffiliated Americans, sometimes referred to as "nones".[5][6][7] About a fifth of Americans are unaffiliated. Since the late 1980s, many independent polls have shown rapid growth in the number of unaffiliated Americans,[8][5] and secular organizations have experienced increases in membership.

Many Americans who are affiliated or identify with a religion do not think of themselves as religious or believe in their religions' theology.[8][1]


A 2007 Barna group poll found that about 20 million people say they are atheist, have no religious faith, or are agnostic, with 5 million of that number claiming to be atheists. The study also found that "[t]hey tend to be more educated, more affluent and more likely to be male and unmarried than those with active faith" and that "only 6 percent of people over 60 have no faith in God, and one in four adults ages 18 to 22 describe themselves as having no faith."[9]

A 2008 Gallup survey reported that religion is not an important part of daily life for 34% of Americans.[4] In May of that year, a Gallup poll asking the question "Which of the following statements comes closest to your belief about God: you believe in God, you don't believe in God but you do believe in a universal spirit or higher power, or you don't believe in either?" showed that, nationally, 78% believed in God, 15% in "a universal spirit or higher power", 6% answering "neither", and 1% unsure. The poll also highlighted the regional differences, with residents in the Western states answering 59%, 29%, and 10% respectively, compared to the residents in the Southern states that answered 86%, 10%, and 3%.[10] Several of the western states have been informally nicknamed Unchurched Belt, contrasting with the Bible Belt in the southern states.

A 2012 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported that 19.6% of Americans had no religious affiliation and that out of the whole population, 18% were "spiritual but not religious" and 15% "neither spiritual nor religious".[1][11]

Inaccuracy of religious self-identification[edit]

The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) found a difference between how people identify and what people believe. While only 0.7% of U.S. adults identified as atheist, 2.3% said there is no such thing as a god. Only 0.9% identified as agnostic, but 10.0% said there is either no way to know if a god exists or they weren't sure. Another 12.1% said there is a higher power but no personal god. In total, only 15.0% identified as Nones or No Religion, but 24.4% did not believe in the traditional concept of a personal god. The conductors of the study concluded, "The historic reluctance of Americans to self-identify in this manner or use these terms seems to have diminished. Nevertheless ... the level of under-reporting of these theological labels is still significant ... many millions do not subscribe fully to the theology of the groups with which they identify."[8]

Similarly, the 2012 Pew study reported that 23% of Americans who affiliated with a religion were not religious. The affiliated were 79% of the population, and the unaffiliated were 19.6%, including 6% "atheist" or "agnostic".[1][12]


In a 2006 Point of Inquiry podcast, author Tom Flynn stated, "Over a period from the late 1980s to the dawn of the 21st century, a number of polls using a number of different methodologies had continued to show a steady rise, an approximate doubling in the number of people who did not claim traditional religious affiliation."[13]

The 2008 ARIS study found that the relative growth of nones (138% since 1990) was surpassed only by the growth of Non-denominational Christians (4,040%), Born-again Evangelicals (295%), followers of Eastern Religions (185%), and Muslims (156%). But the absolute growth of nones (19.8 million) exceeded the other four combined (11.5 million).[8]

The 2012 Pew study said, "The 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." Some of the religiously unaffiliated are spiritual or religious in some way; 30% believe with absolute certainty in a "God or universal spirit", 38% believe with less certainty, and 21% pray every day. Out of the unaffiliated demographic, only 12% were atheist, and 17% are agnostic. In terms of the overall US population, atheists increased from 1.6% in 2007 to 2.4% in 2012 and agnostics increased from 2.1% in 2007 to 3.3% in 2012.[5] A 2010 Pew Research Center study comparing Millennials to other generations showed that of those between 18-29 years old, only 3% self-identified as "atheists" and only 4% as "agnostics". Overall, 25% of Millennials were "Nones" and 74% were religiously affiliated.[14]

Several groups promoting no religious faith or opposing religious faith altogether – including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, Camp Quest, and the Rational Response Squad – have witnessed large increases in membership numbers in recent years, and the number of secularist student organizations at American colleges and universities increased during the 2000s (decade).[9][15]


The percentage of people in North America who identify with a religion as opposed to having "no religion" (2001 US) (1991,98,99 CA).

The states of the U.S., Washington D.C., and territories ranked by percentage of population claiming no religion in 2008 is as follows:[8][16]

Rank Jurisdiction  % "Nones"
- United States 15%
01 Vermont 34%
02 New Hampshire 29%
03 Wyoming 28%
04 Alaska 27%
05 Maine 25%
06 Washington 25%
07 Nevada 24%
08 Oregon 24%
09 Delaware 23%
10 Idaho 23%
11 Massachusetts 22%
12 Colorado 21%
13 Montana 21%
14 Rhode Island 19%
15 California 18%
16 Hawaii 18%
17 Washington D.C. 18%
18 Arizona 17%
19 Nebraska 17%
20 Ohio 17%
21 Michigan 16%
22 New Mexico 16%
23 Indiana 15%
24 Iowa 15%
25 New Jersey 15%
26 Pennsylvania 15%
27 Virginia 15%
28 West Virginia 15%
29 Wisconsin 15%
30 Connecticut 14%
31 Florida 14%
32 Missouri 14%
33 New York 14%
34 Utah 14%
35 Illinois 13%
36 Kentucky 13%
37 Minnesota 12%
38 South Dakota 12%
39 Texas 12%
40 Alabama 11%
41 Kansas 11%
42 Maryland 11%
43 Oklahoma 11%
44 North Carolina 10%
45 South Carolina 10%
46 Georgia 9%
47 Tennessee 9%
48 Arkansas 8%
49 Louisiana 8%
50 North Dakota 7%
51 American Samoa[17] 5%
52 Mississippi 5%
53 U.S. Virgin Islands[18] 4%
54 Guam[19] 2.5%
55 Puerto Rico 2%
56 Northern Mariana Islands[20] 1%

Demographics of the religiously unaffiliated in 2012.

Race  % Unaffiliated[5]
White 20%
Hispanic 16%
Black 15%
Gender  % Unaffiliated
Men 23%
Women 17%
Generation  % Unaffiliated
Younger Millennials 34%
Older Millennials 30%
GenXers 21%
Boomers 15%
Silent 9%
Greatest 5%

Studies on irreligion[edit]

A comprehensive study by David Campbell and Harvard University professor Robert Putnam found that religious Americans are three to four times more likely than their nonreligious counterparts to "work on community projects, belong to voluntary associations, attend public meetings, vote in local elections, attend protest demonstrations and political rallies, and donate time and money to causes -- including secular ones." However, religious Americans who regularly attend religious services but have no friends there do not have higher levels of civic participation, while nonreligious Americans who have religious friends do get more involved. "It's not faith" that accounts for civic activism, Putnam said, "It's faith communities." The authors said the same effect might be found in secular organizations that are close-knit with shared morals and values.[21][22] The study also found that religious Americans are less tolerant than secular Americans of free speech, dissent, and several other measures of tolerance.[22]

Being less religious is moderately correlated with increased life expectancy and decreased teenage pregnancy.[23]

Alan Cooperman of Pew Research Center notes that nonreligious Americans commonly grew up in a religious tradition and consciously lost it "after a great deal of reflection and study".[24] As a result, atheists and agnostics are more knowledgeable about religion than those who identify with most major religions, according to a 2010 Pew survey.[25][26]

The American public at large has a positive view of nonreligious people but a negative view of atheists. One "extensive study of how Americans view various minority groups", found that "atheists are at the top of the list of groups that Americans find problematic."[27] A Religion and Public Life Survey (2002) found that 54 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of atheists,[28] but the favorability of people who are "not religious" is 52.2%, with a net difference of 23.8%.[29]

Irreligion in politics[edit]

According to exit polls in the 2008 presidential election, 71% of non-religious whites voted for Democratic candidate Barack Obama while 74% of white Evangelical Christians voted for Republican candidate John McCain. This can be compared with the 43–55% share of white votes overall.[30] 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.[31] According to a Pew Research exit poll 70% of those who were religiously unaffiliated voted for Barack Obama.

In January 2007, California Congressman Pete Stark became the first openly atheist member of Congress. He described himself as "a Unitarian who does not believe in a Supreme Being." In January 2013, Kyrsten Sinema became the first openly non-theist Congresswoman, representing the State of Arizona. Although she "believes the terms ‘nontheist,’ ‘atheist’ or ‘nonbeliever’ are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character," she does believe in a secular approach to government. Her unbelief "was not used to slander her as un-American or suggest that she was unfit for office."[32]

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the first United States President to acknowledge "non-believers" in his inaugural address,[33] although other presidents such as George W. Bush[34] have previously acknowledged non-believers in different speeches.

The 2012 Pew study reported that unaffiliated Americans say by a margin of 39% that churches should keep out of political matters. Affiliated Americans agree by a margin of 7%.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ While religious in the sense of acquiring "a knowledge of the Creator through reason alone", deists promote secularism and are not part of any organized religion.[2]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Cary Funk, Greg Smith. "Nones" on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation" (PDF). Pew Research Center. p. 43. Nearly one-in-five say they are spiritual but not religious (18%), and about one-in-six say they are neither religious nor spiritual (15%). 
  2. ^ Schultz, Jeffrey et al. Encyclopedia of Religion in American Politics, p. 73 (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999).
  3. ^ Kosmin, Barry et al. American Religious Identification Survey, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York (2001). Accessed 2013-09-26.
  4. ^ a b Frank, Newport (28 January 2009). "State of the States: Importance of Religion". Gallup. Retrieved 2012-11-06. 
  5. ^ a b c d "'Nones' on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation". Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. October 9, 2012. Retrieved 2012-10-19. 
  6. ^ "American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population" (PDF). American Religious Identification Survey. 2008. Retrieved 2014-01-30. 
  7. ^ Hunter, Jeannine. "Who are the ‘Nones’?". Washington Post. Retrieved 2012-11-06. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, [1], March 2009, American Religious Identification Survey [ARIS 2008], Trinity College.
  9. ^ a b Salmon, Jacqueline. "In America, Nonbelievers Find Strength in Numbers", Washington Post (September 15, 2007).
  10. ^ Newport, Frank (July 28, 2008). "Belief in God Far Lower in Western U.S.". Gallup. Retrieved 2010-01-16. 
  11. ^ Losing Our Religion: The Growth Of The 'Nones'
  12. ^ Losing Our Religion: The Growth Of The 'Nones'
  13. ^ Grothe, D.J.. "The Rise of the Non-Religious"". Point of Inquiry. Retrieved May 30, 2014. 
  14. ^ "Religion Among the Millennials". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 24 February 2015. 
  15. ^ Gorski, Eric (November 24, 2009). "Atheist student groups flower on college campuses". USA Today. The Associated Press. Retrieved Jun 3, 2014. 
  16. ^ Barry A. Kosmin, Ariela Keysar, et al., American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population, Trinity College.
  17. ^ "Google Drive Viewer". Retrieved 2014-05-17. 
  18. ^ "The Association of Religion Data Archives | National Profiles". Retrieved 2014-05-17. 
  19. ^ Joshua Project. "Country - Guam". Joshua Project. Retrieved 2014-05-17. 
  20. ^ "The Association of Religion Data Archives | National Profiles". Retrieved 2014-05-17. 
  21. ^ Burke, Daniel (May 14, 2009). "Religious citizens more involved -- and more scarce?". USA Today. Retrieved Jun 1, 2014. The scholars say their studies found that religious people are three to four times more likely to be involved in their community. They are more apt than nonreligious Americans to work on community projects, belong to voluntary associations, attend public meetings, vote in local elections, attend protest demonstrations and political rallies, and donate time and money to causes — including secular ones. At the same time, Putnam and Campbell say their data show that religious people are just "nicer": they carry packages for people, don't mind folks cutting ahead in line and give money to panhandlers. 
  22. ^ a b Campbell, David; Putnam, Robert (14 November 2010). "Religious people are 'better neighbors'". USA Today. Retrieved 2007-10-18. 
  23. ^ "The Importance of Religion". 21 February 2009. Daily Kos. Retrieved 2013-05-14. 
  24. ^ Treharne, Trevor (2012). How to Prove God Does Not Exist: The Complete Guide to Validating Atheism. p. 198. 
  25. ^ Landsberg, Mitchell (28 September 2010). "Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion, survey says". Los Angeles Times. 
  26. ^ September 27, 2010 (2010-09-27). "How Ignorant About Religion Are Religious Americans?". Retrieved 2014-05-17. 
  27. ^ Edgell, Penny. 2003. "In Rhetoric and Practice: Defining ‘The Good Family’ in Local Congregations." pp. 164–78 In Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, edited by Michele Dillon, Cambridge University Press.
  28. ^ Religion and Public Life Survey. 2002. opinion of atheists (last accessed 2013-05-14).
  29. ^ Religion and Public Life Survey. 2002. Opinion of non-religious people (last accessed 2013-05-14).
  30. ^ CNN Exit polls
  31. ^ ""Nones" on the Rise". Pew Research. October 9, 2012. Retrieved 2012-12-26. 
  32. ^ Oppenheimer, Mark (November 9, 2012). "Politicians Who Reject Labels Based on Religion". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-11-28. 
  33. ^ An inaugural first: Obama acknowledges 'non-believers'
  34. ^ "Bush, like Obama, acknowledged non-believers". USA Today. 2009-01-22. Retrieved 2010-05-05. 


External links[edit]