Growing Number of Americans Lack a Religious Identity

This could have ramifications in November, as President Obama may be targeting these voters over committed Catholics.

Long-Term Trends in Religious Affiliation
Long-Term Trends in Religious Affiliation (photo: Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life)

WASHINGTON — A new survey shows that more Americans than ever are religiously unaffiliated, and as a group they are not seeking religion.

Just under 20% of U.S. adults are now unaffiliated, an increase from 15% in 2007, says a new survey from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Among those aged 18-29, 32% have no religious affiliation.

The research center nicknamed this population “nones.”

Although the Catholic population remains statistically unchanged at 22%, a 1% decrease from 2007, Pew credits this steadiness in part to immigration from Latin America.

The decline is mainly among both evangelical and mainline white Protestants. For the first time in U.S. history, its Protestant population has dropped below 50%.

Pew included in the “nones” atheists and agnostics, who respectively make up about 2.4% and 3.3% of the population.

About 74% of “nones” were raised with a religious affiliation. Most religiously unaffiliated Americans said they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them, while only 10% said they are.

“In terms of their religious beliefs and practices, the unaffiliated are a diverse group and far from uniformly secular,” the research center said.

Thirty percent said their belief in God or a universal spirit is “absolutely certain,” while 38% said they are less certain. Only 27% said they do not believe. Twenty-one percent said they pray daily, and another 20% said they pray weekly or monthly.

Eighteen percent think of themselves as religious persons, while 37% say they are spiritual but not religious. Forty-nine percent of “nones” said they seldom or never attend religious services, an increase of 11% from 2007.

Analysis also found that those polled are no more inclined towards New Age beliefs than the general public.

The survey shows a decline in religious affiliation among both college graduates and those without college degrees.

Pew said that generational replacement is an important factor in the increase in the religiously unaffiliated. Only 5% of the World War II generation is unaffiliated, while 9% of the "Silent Generation" is. However, baby boomers and members of "Generation X" have become less likely to affiliate with a religion.

The “nones” have mixed views of religion. 

Around 70% of respondents said churches and religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too involved with politics and focus too much on rules. Only half said that churches protect and strengthen morality.

However, over 75% said churches bring people together, strengthen the community and play an important role in helping the poor and the needy. 

The “nones” tend to take positions in favor of abortion and “gay marriage," with 72% saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 73% favoring redefining marriage.

They are predominantly Democrat, with 75% favoring President Obama in 2008. The religiously unaffiliated make up 24% of Democratic or Democratic-leaning registered voters, more than any Christian subgroup in the party.

The rise of “nones” in U.S. society may have consequences for the November election.

In March, Mark Gray, director of Catholic polls for Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, suggested that President Obama’s re-election strategy may be willing to sacrifice winning the majority of Catholic voters in order to strengthen support among non-Christian and non-religious voters.

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