Irreligion in the United States

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Irreligious Americans
Total population
Population in the United States:
Not religious or spiritual: 15%[1]
Unaffiliated: 22.8%[2]
Pew Research Center, 2012 and 2015
Regions with significant populations
New England region, Western United States
(including agnosticism, atheism, deism, skepticism, freethought/freethinker, secular humanism, ignosticism, apatheism, Nonbeliever, nontheism, rationalism)

Encompassing at least agnosticism, atheism, deism,[a] secular humanism, and general secularism,[4] Americans without a religious affiliation represent about 20% or more of the population.[1][2][5] and since the the early 1990s, independent polls have shown their rapid growth.[6][7]

Unaffiliated Americans are sometimes referred to as "Nones".[7][8][9] Though having no religion and not seeking religion they have diverse views: 68% believe in God, 12% are atheists, 17% are agnostics; 18% consider themselves religious, 37% consider themselves as spiritual but not religious, and 42% considers themselves as neither spiritual or religious; and 21% pray every day and 24% pray once a month.[7][10]

As of 2014, 22.8% of the American population does not identify with a religion, including atheists (3.1%) and agnostics (4%).[2] The Nones tend to be more politically liberal and their growth has resulted in some increases in membership of secular organizations. However, the overwhelming majority of those without religion are not joining secular groups or even aligning with secularism. [11]


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."[12]

A 2008 Gallup survey reported that religion is not an important part of daily life for 34% of Americans.[5] 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%.[13] 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 the total US population had no religious affiliation and that only 15% of the total US population identified as "neither spiritual nor religious".[14] [15] Furthermore, atheists made up 2.4% and agnostics made up 3.3% of the US population.[7] It also notes that a third of adults under the age of 30 are religiously unaffiliated. However, out of the religiously unaffiliated demographic: the majority describe themselves either as a religious (18%) or as spiritual but not religious (37%) while a significant minority (42%) considers themselves neither spiritual or religious.[7] Additionally, out of the unaffiliated: 68% believe in God, 12% are atheists, 17% are agnostics and overall 21% of the religiously unaffiliated pray every day.[7]

The 2015 Pew Religious Landscape survey reported that as of 2014, 22.8% of the American population is religiously unaffiliated, atheists made up 3.1% and agnostics made up 4% of the US population.[2]

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."[6]

Similarly, the 2012 Pew study reported that 23% of Americans who affiliated with a religion were not religious. The religiously affiliated were 79% of the population, and the unaffiliated were 19.6%, including 6% "atheist" or "agnostic".[1] [15]


In 1776, only 17% of the US population was religiously involved in America and by 2000, the amount of people who were religiously involved had actually increased gradually to 62%.[16]

According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) report, in 1990 only 8.2% of the US population identified as "no religion", atheists were not detectable, and agnostics made up .7% of the US population. By 2001, 14.1% of the US population identified as "no religion", atheists made up .4% and agnostics made up .5% of the US population. By 2008, 15% of the US population identified as "no religion", atheists made up .7% and agnostics made up .9% of the US population. [6]

According to the 2008 Pew Religious Landscape report, as 2007, 16.1% of the US population identified as "no religion", atheists made up 1.6% and agnostics made up 2.4% of the US population. [17]

According to a 2012 Pew Report on the "Nones", 19.6% of the population identified as "no religion", atheists made up 2.4% and agnostics made up 3.3% of the US population.[7]

The 2015 Pew Religious Landscape survey reported that as of 2014, 22.8% of the American population is religiously unaffiliated, atheists made up 3.1% and agnostics made up 4% of the US population.[2]

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.[18] Though Millennials are less religious than previous generations at the same age frame, they are also much less engaged in many social institutions in general than previous generations.[15]

Several groups promoting secularist beliefs 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).[12][19] However, the growth of atheist groups is very limited and will possibly shrink due to atheists normally being non-joiners and some atheist organizations being too "religious" like. [11] Phil Zuckerman notes that the overwhelming majority of the nonreligious in the US are not identifying with secular movements or secularism or secular beliefs and instead live basic mundane lives without much thought of the secular.[11] As such, the overwhelming majority on the nonreligious do not join secular groups. Only a very small minority of the nonreligious, around 1% to 2%, actually join these kinds of groups.[11]

When looking at countries which have high levels of atheism such as Scandinavian nations, atheist organizations there generally have very low membership and only those that have links to a political party or offer legalized rituals have some noticeable membership. [20]


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:[6][21]

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[22] 5%
52 Mississippi 5%
53 U.S. Virgin Islands[23] 4%
54 Guam[24] 2.5%
55 Puerto Rico 2%
56 Northern Mariana Islands[25] 1%

Demographics of the religiously unaffiliated in 2012.

Race  % Unaffiliated[7]
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.[26][27] The study also found that religious Americans are less tolerant than secular Americans of free speech, dissent, and several other measures of tolerance.[27]

Being less religious is moderately correlated with increased life expectancy and decreased teenage pregnancy.[28]

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".[29] 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.[30][31]

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."[32] A Religion and Public Life Survey (2002) found that 54 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of atheists,[33] but the favorability of people who are "not religious" is 52.2%, with a net difference of 23.8%.[34]

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.[35] 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.[36] 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."[37]

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the first United States President to acknowledge "non-believers" in his inaugural address,[38] although other presidents such as George W. Bush[39] 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.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d Cary Funk, Greg Smith. "Nones" on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation" (PDF). Pew Research Center. pp. 9, 42. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "America’s Changing Religious Landscape". Pew Research Center. May 2015. 
  3. ^ Schultz, Jeffrey et al. Encyclopedia of Religion in American Politics, p. 73 (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999).
  4. ^ Kosmin, Barry et al. American Religious Identification Survey, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York (2001). Accessed 2013-09-26.
  5. ^ a b Frank, Newport (28 January 2009). "State of the States: Importance of Religion". Gallup. Retrieved 2012-11-06. 
  6. ^ a b c d Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, [1], March 2009, American Religious Identification Survey [ARIS 2008], Trinity College.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h "'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. 
  8. ^ "American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population" (PDF). American Religious Identification Survey. 2008. Retrieved 2014-01-30. 
  9. ^ Hunter, Jeannine. "Who are the ‘Nones’?". Washington Post. Retrieved 2012-11-06. 
  10. ^ "Religion and the Unaffiliated". Pew Research Center. October 9, 2012. 
  11. ^ a b c d Zuckerman, Phil (2014). Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. [S.l.]: Penguin Books. ISBN 1594205086. 
  12. ^ a b Salmon, Jacqueline. "In America, Nonbelievers Find Strength in Numbers", Washington Post (September 15, 2007).
  13. ^ Newport, Frank (July 28, 2008). "Belief in God Far Lower in Western U.S.". Gallup. Retrieved 2010-01-16. 
  14. ^ Cary Funk, Greg Smith. "Nones" on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation" (PDF). Pew Research Center. p. 43. All told, about two-thirds of U.S. adults (65%) describe themselves as religious (either in addition to be being spiritual or not). 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%). 
  15. ^ a b c "Losing Our Religion: The Growth of the 'Nones'". NPR. Retrieved 2013. 
  16. ^ Finke, Roger; Stark, Rodney (2006). The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. p. 22-23. ISBN 0813535530. 
  17. ^ "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" (PDF). Pew Research Center. 2008. 
  18. ^ "Religion Among the Millennials". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 24 February 2015. 
  19. ^ Gorski, Eric (November 24, 2009). "Atheist student groups flower on college campuses". USA Today. The Associated Press. Retrieved Jun 3, 2014. 
  20. ^ Zuckerman, Phil, ed. (2010). "Ch. 9 Atheism And Secularity: The Scandinavian Paradox". Atheism and Secularity Vol.2. Praeger. ISBN 0313351813. 
  21. ^ Barry A. Kosmin, Ariela Keysar, et al., American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population, Trinity College.
  22. ^ "Google Drive Viewer". Retrieved 2014-05-17. 
  23. ^ "The Association of Religion Data Archives | National Profiles". Retrieved 2014-05-17. 
  24. ^ Joshua Project. "Country - Guam". Joshua Project. Retrieved 2014-05-17. 
  25. ^ "The Association of Religion Data Archives | National Profiles". Retrieved 2014-05-17. 
  26. ^ 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. 
  27. ^ a b Campbell, David; Putnam, Robert (14 November 2010). "Religious people are 'better neighbors'". USA Today. Retrieved 2007-10-18. 
  28. ^ "The Importance of Religion". 21 February 2009. Daily Kos. Retrieved 2013-05-14. 
  29. ^ Treharne, Trevor (2012). How to Prove God Does Not Exist: The Complete Guide to Validating Atheism. p. 198. 
  30. ^ Landsberg, Mitchell (28 September 2010). "Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion, survey says". Los Angeles Times. 
  31. ^ September 27, 2010 (2010-09-27). "How Ignorant About Religion Are Religious Americans?". Retrieved 2014-05-17. 
  32. ^ 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.
  33. ^ Religion and Public Life Survey. 2002. opinion of atheists (last accessed 2013-05-14).
  34. ^ Religion and Public Life Survey. 2002. Opinion of non-religious people (last accessed 2013-05-14).
  35. ^ CNN Exit polls
  36. ^ ""Nones" on the Rise". Pew Research. October 9, 2012. Retrieved 2012-12-26. 
  37. ^ Oppenheimer, Mark (November 9, 2012). "Politicians Who Reject Labels Based on Religion". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-11-28. 
  38. ^ An inaugural first: Obama acknowledges 'non-believers'
  39. ^ "Bush, like Obama, acknowledged non-believers". USA Today. 2009-01-22. Retrieved 2010-05-05. 


External links[edit]