The changing demography of US belief and non-belief

By staff writers
October 14, 2012

As we have reported in our News Briefs, fresh and updated data from the Pew Research Center in the US shows that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is growing at a rapid pace (

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 per cent) or lean toward the Democratic Party (24 per cent). They are much more likely to describe themselves as political liberals than as conservatives, and solid majorities support legal abortion (72 per cent) and same-sex marriage (73 per cent). In the last five years, the unaffiliated have risen from 17 per cent to 24 per cent of all registered voters who are Democrats or lean Democratic.

Demographic Profile

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 organisations 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 organisations bring people together and help strengthen community bonds (78 per cent) and a similar number saying religious organisations play an important role in helping the poor and needy (77 per cent).

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 per cent of those who describe their current religion as “nothing in particular” say they are looking for a religion that is right for them; 88 per cent 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 behaviour, 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 per cent 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 per cent 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 Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life conducts surveys, demographic analyses and other social science research on important aspects of religion and public life in the US and around the world.

As part of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, non-advocacy organization, the Pew Forum does not take positions on policy debates or any of the issues it covers.

* The full report is available on the Pew Forum’s website:

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