Irreligion in the United States
|Population in the United States:|
Not religious (not spiritual): 18%
Not religious (spiritual): 27%
Pew Research Center, 2017-2019
|Regions with significant populations|
|Nationwide, though more common in New England, and the Western United States.|
(including atheism, agnosticism, deism, skepticism, freethought/freethinker, secular humanism, ignosticism, apatheism, Nonbeliever, nontheism, rationalism)
Surveys show that Americans without a religious affiliation (which include 'nothing particular', agnostic, and atheist), sometimes referred to as "Nones" range around 23.8%, 26%, 24.8%, 33%, 21%, and 31.4% of the population, with 'nothing in particulars' making up the majority of this demographic. Since the early 1990s, independent polls have shown the rapid growth of those without a religious affiliation.
Identifying as religious and/or spiritual vary widely across surveys depending on the wording they use. Among longitudinal academic surveys such as the General Social Survey which allows for degrees of religious identification: 21.5% are not religious, 25.1% were slightly religious, 37.5% were moderately religious, and 15.5% were very religious in 2018. According to a 2017 Pew report which asked about religious and spiritual identification: 54% of Americans consider themselves religious, 75% consider themselves spiritual. In combination, 27% are spiritual but not religious and another 18% are neither spiritual nor religious. Those who do not consider themselves as 'religious' may often consider themselves "affiliated" with a major religion and/or "spiritual". According to Pew in 2017, 72% of the "Nones" believe in God, a higher power, or spiritual force.
Self-identification among the Nones is also diverse. For instance, according to Pew study in 2009, only 5% of the total US population did not have a belief in a god. Out of all those without a belief in a god, only 24% self-identified as "atheist", while 15% self-identified as "agnostic", 35% self-identified as "nothing in particular", and 24% identified with a religious tradition. According to the Pew Research Center in 2014, self-identified atheists were 3.1% and agnostics were 4%, and by 2019, self identified atheists were 4% and agnostics were 5%. According to the 2014 General Social Survey, 3% identified as atheists and 5% identified as agnostics.
Various explanations have been proposed for the changing demographics such as reduction of negative stigmas on labels allowing more Americans to identify with other options than just religion, general and broader cultural changes in American life impacting all things including religious identity and behavior, political backlash against religion in politics, delays in marriage and having children among younger generations delaying participation rates in religious activities, and general increases in distrust among younger generations on all institutions including religion, marriage, politics and the media. According to the Pew Research Center, only 49% of young adults consider themselves Christian, and they are replacing the older generations. 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.
Diversity in measures on religiosity
Religiosity is difficult to define, but different scholars have seen this concept as broadly about religious orientations and involvement. It includes experiential, ritualistic, ideological, intellectual, consequential, creedal, communal, doctrinal, moral, and cultural dimensions. Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion. Furthermore, spirituality was not distinguished from religiousness until the 20th century after the rise of secularism.
Sociologists of religion have observed that the people's beliefs, sense of belonging, and behavior often are not congruent with an individual's actual religious beliefs since there is much diversity in how one can be religious or not. Multiple problems exist in measuring religiosity. For instance, variables such as church attendance produce different results when different methods are used such as traditional surveys vs time use surveys. There are extensive variations in the measures of subdimensions of both religiosity and spirituality and single-item measure like affiliation or participation have limitations with regard to both religiosity and spirituality.
In a study on how individual people actually define and understand "religiousness" and "spirituality" showed that people differ and have wide-ranging understandings of these terms from referring to rituals to altruistic behaviors or to religious experiences. Although religiousness and spirituality appeared to describe different concepts, they were not independent or mutually exclusive since self-rated religiousness and spirituality were correlated among the subjects including in variables such as frequency of prayer, church attendance, beliefs of the sacred. The authors observe that the inconsistency of the definitions of both "religiousness" and "spirituality" cause multiple issues such as it being difficult to know what the researchers and the participants mean or understand by these terms and as such it becomes difficult to draw general conclusions from various studies and surveys that use such terminology.
Though god-belief is often seen as an indicator of religion in the West, anthropologically, god belief is only one kind of component of religion but not a universal and not even the most common one for religions since most religions around the world do not have god concepts at all. Accordingly, "atheism is quite a common position, even within religion" and that "surprisingly, atheism is not the opposite or lack, let alone the enemy, of religion but is the most common form of religion." With regards to secularity, he observes that religions are quite secular in general and include many mundane activities by default such as games like bingo, pot luck dinners etc.
According to a review of secularity from Peter Glasner's study on secularization processes, Jack Eller observes that secularization is very diverse and only one type of secularity out of 10 leads to pure secularism.
Studies on irreligion
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. The study also found that religious Americans are less tolerant than secular Americans of free speech, dissent, and several other measures of tolerance.
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". 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.
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." A Religion and Public Life Survey (2002) found that 54 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of atheists, but the favorability of people who are "not religious" is 52.2%, with a net difference of 23.8%.
Inaccuracy of polling and identification
The reliability of any poll results, in general and specifically on religion, can be questioned due numerous factors such as:
- there have been very low response rates for polls since the 1990s
- polls consistently fail to predict government election outcomes, which signifies that polls in general do not capture the actual views of the population
- biases in wording or topic affect how people respond to polls
- polls categorize people based on limited choices
- polls often generalize broadly
- polls have shallow or superficial choices, which complicate expressing their complex religious beliefs and practices
- interviewer and respondent fatigue is very common
The measurement of religiosity is hampered by the difficulties involved in defining what is meant by the term and the variables it entails. Numerous studies have explored the different components of religiosity, with most finding some distinction between religious beliefs/doctrine, religious practice, and spirituality. When religiosity is measured, it is important to specify which aspects of religiosity are referred to.
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."
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".
Existing nationally representative polls such as Pew and Gallup indicate atheist prevalence is relatively low (3% -11%) in the United States, however, in one study using validated unmatched counting interviewing technique, in which people did not need to "admit" explicitly to a certain position, the number of people who did not believe in a god was indirectly estimated to be 26% overall. The authors noted that 26% of Baby boomers and millennials did not have belief in a god.
According to a Pew study in 2009, only 5% of the total US population did not have a belief in a god. Out of all those without a belief in a god, only 24% self-identified as "atheist", while 15% self-identified as "agnostic", 35% self-identified as "nothing in particular", and 24% identified with a religious tradition.
According to a Gallup's editor in chief, Frank Newport, numbers on surveys may not be the whole story. In his view, declines in religious affiliation or declines in belief in God on surveys may not actually reflect an actual decline in these beliefs among people since increased honesty on spiritual matters to interviewers may merely be increasing since people may feel more comfortable today expressing viewpoints that were previously deviant.
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."
A 2008 Gallup survey reported that religion is not an important part of daily life for 34% of Americans. 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%. 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 Research Center reported that, of the U.S. adult population, 19.6% had no religious affiliation and an additional 16% identified as "neither spiritual nor religious". Furthermore, atheists made up 2.4% and agnostics made up 3.3% of the US population. 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 nor religious. 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.
The Pew Religious Landscape survey reported that as of 2014, 22.8% of the U.S. population is religiously unaffiliated, atheists made up 3.1% and agnostics made up 4% of the U.S. population. The 2014 General Social Survey reported that 21% of Americans had no religion with 3% being atheist and 5% being agnostic.
Religion is highly variable between people, and it touches not only their intellectual position, but also their internal and external identity. Any assessment will be impacted by a large number of factors. One common way of assessing people's religiousness, spirituality, and affiliations is asking them to directly self-identify in interviews and polls.
According to General Social Survey data, which allowed for degrees of religiosity to be expressed, 21.5% of Americans consider themselves not religious, 25.1% were slightly religious, 37.5% were moderately religious, and 15.5% were very religious in 2018. Irreligiousness is highest among young healthy unmarried educated white males. Overall, approximately 80% of Americans described themselves as both religious and spiritual to varying degrees.
According to the 2015–2019 wave of the World Values Survey, 58.0% of Americans considered themselves as a religious person, 33.3% were not a religious person, and 7.9% were atheist. In the 2010–2014 wave of the World Values Survey, 67.9% of Americans considered themselves as a religious person, 27.7% were not a religious person, and 4.5% were a convinced atheist. In the 2005–2009 wave: 72.1% of Americans considered themselves as a religious person, 24.4% were not a religious person, and 3.5% were a convinced atheist.
According to Pew's study on religious and spiritual identity, the number of Americans who consider themselves religious (irrespective of whether they are affiliated or spiritual, or believe in one or more Gods or a higher power) had dropped from 65% in 2012 to 54% in 2017. 27% were spiritual but not religious and another 18% were neither.
According to the Win-Gallup International polls, those who self-identified as religious person were at 73% in 2005, 60% in 2012 and 56% in 2015 and in 2017. In the 2012 poll, 30% were not a religious person and an additional 5% identified as an atheist. In the 2017 poll, 32% were not a religious person and an additional 7% identified as atheist. However, researchers have advised caution with WIN/Gallup International figures since other surveys like the World Values Survey, which have used the same wording for decades and have bigger sample sizes, show differences in results at the global level for similar time periods.
Polling organizations sometimes generate their own abstract versions of what "religious" and "nonreligious" is using variable and inconsistent criteria. According to a 2017 report by Gallup, church attendance and the importance of religion American's lives were interpreted as measure of religiosity. Based on this, Gallup classified Americans as 37% highly religious, 30% moderately religious, and 33% not religious. According to Pew Research Center's typology of religiosity, which included frequency of practicing their faith, the value they place on their religion, and the other sources of meaning and fulfillment in their lives, 39% were highly religious, 32% were somewhat religious, and 29% were nonreligious.
Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion. However, in contemporary usage, many people use the term spirituality to refer to the interior life of the individual and religion to mean the exterior life of groups such as communities and/or organizations. For some, spirituality can become distinct in that it marks a separation from group affiliation and focuses more people's private beliefs and for others it is interchangeable with religious things. Both spirituality and religion have similarities and have 4 basic components: belief in a reality greater than the individual, desire to connect with the greater reality, promotion of rituals for that connection, and an expectation of particular behaviors (moral or not), that reflect that connection.
According to Pew's study on religious and spiritual identity, the number of people who consider themselves as spiritual (without consideration of whether they are affiliated or religious) was 78% in 2012 and 75% in 2017.
According to Mark Chaves' review of General Social Survey data, of people who were not religious, 88% considered themselves as at least moderately spiritual.
In 1776, only 17% of the US population was religiously involved in America and by 2000, the number of people who were religiously involved had actually increased gradually to 62%.
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 0.7% of the US population. By 2001, 14.1% of the US population identified as "no religion", atheists made up 0.4% and agnostics made up 0.5% of the US population. By 2008, 15% of the US population identified as "no religion", atheists made up 0.7% and agnostics made up 0.9% of the US population.
According to the 2014 General Social Survey the percentages of the US population that identified as no religion were 21% in 2014, 20% in 2012, just 14% in 2000, and only 8 percent in 1990. Furthermore, the number of atheists and agnostics in the US has remained relatively flat in the past 23 years since in 1991 only 2% identified as atheist and 4% identified as agnostic while in 2014 only 3% identified as atheist and 5% identified as agnostic.
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.
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.
The 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.
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. 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.
A 2018 Barna group study shows 35% of Generation Z to be nones.
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). 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. 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. 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.
According to the American Values Atlas from PPRI, 24% of the US Population is unaffiliated with a religion in 2017.
Various explanations for trends
Some of the underlying factors in the increases in people identifying as "Nones" seem to not be that significant numbers of people are dropping religion, but rather that, in recent times, it has become more socially acceptable for younger and older generations to identify as a "None" than in previous decades, when identifying as having no religion carried negative stigmas. With young people usually having lower religious observance than older people and them feeling more comfortable identifying as a "None", generational replacement factors could play a role in the increment.
Other possible driving factors may be just broader general cultural changes in the American way of life. The growth of the internet and social media has altered the sense of community and spirituality and the growth of self-focused citizenry, as opposed to community-focused citizenry, has broadly led to less civic involvement and less loyalty to many public institutions.
Other possible driving forces could be political backlash. Young adults, in particular, have turned away from organized religion because they perceive it as deeply entangled with conservative politics and some seek to distance themselves from polarized systems.
Others have suggested that delays in marriage, settling down, and having children among younger people reduces or delays the number and commitment of people participating in traditional religions or religious activities.
Younger generations as a whole have lost trust and belief in numerous institutions along with religion. For instance, Millennials, which make up about 1/3 the "Nones" demographic, tend to have less belief and trust in institutions such as the labor market, the economy, government and politics, marriage, the media, along with churches; than previous generations.
Various beliefs and practices of the Nones in 2012.
|Traits||% Nones (2012)|
|Believe in God||68%|
|Consider themselves religious||18%|
|Consider themselves spiritual but not religious||37%|
|Consider themselves as neither spiritual nor religious||42%|
|Pray every day||21%|
|Pray once a month||21%|
Irreligion by state
|Rank||Jurisdiction||% "Nones" (2007)||% "Nones" (2014)|
|19||District of Columbia||18%||24%|
Irreligion by territory
Territories of the United States with percentage of population claiming no religion in 2010.
|Territories||% Nones (2010)|
|U.S. Virgin Islands||3.8% or 3.7%|
|Northern Mariana Islands||1%|
Irreligion by region
Regions of the United States ranked by percentage of population claiming no religion in 2014.
|Region||% Nones (2014)|
Demographics of the religiously unaffiliated in 2012 (as fraction of the named groups).
Voting trends and political affiliation
In the election of 2016 and 2018, 15%/17%/21% of the voters was religiously unaffiliated, of which a majority voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. 21% of registered voters were religiously unaffiliated; they are considered to be the largest "religious" voting block. The number of voters who never attend worship services increased to 27% in 2018, up from 22% from 2016.
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. 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. According to a Pew Research exit poll 70% of those who were religiously unaffiliated voted for Barack Obama.
Changes in stigmas in politics
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."
On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the first U.S. President to acknowledge "non-believers" in his inaugural address, although other presidents such as George W. Bush have previously acknowledged non-believers in different speeches.
The 2012 study by the Pew Research Center 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%.
Irreligous/secular impact on politics and policies
Irreligious viewpoints are perceived by religious people as starting to have an impact. It is seen by religious people as a "culture war". This despite demonization of atheism, low organisation, low voter turnout, and the low number of openly irreligious politicians.
Irreligious elected officials
Agnostic elected officials
Former United States senators
Former state governors
Atheist elected officials
Former United States senators
Former United States representatives
- Pete Stark (Democratic), Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California's 13th district, 9th district, and 8th district
- Barney Frank (Democratic), Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts's 4th district
Former state governors
- Culbert Olson (Democratic), 29th Governor of California
- Jesse Ventura (Reform/Independence), 38th Governor of Minnesota
Current state legislators
Former state legislators
- Culbert Olson (Democratic), Utah Senator
- Culbert Olson (Democratic), California Senator
- Barney Frank (Democratic), Massachusetts Representative from the 8th and 5th Suffolk district
- Lori Lipman Brown (Democratic), Nevada Senator
- Sean Faircloth (Democratic), Maine Representative from the 17th and 117th district
- Sean Faircloth (Democratic), Maine Senator from the 9th district
- Jesse Ventura (Independent), Mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota
- Rocky Anderson (Democratic), 33rd Mayor of Salt Lake City
Current city council members
Former city council members
- Claims to be the fastest-growing religion
- Discrimination against atheists in the United States
- Ethical movement
- First Amendment to the United States Constitution
- Irreligion in Latin America
- Religion in the United States
- Religious skepticism
- Secular humanism
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In addition to those who say they are spiritual but not religious (27%), 48% say they are both religious and spiritual, while 6% say they are religious but not spiritual. Another 18% answer both questions negatively, saying they are neither religious nor spiritual...Who makes up this rapidly rising, “spiritual but not religious” segment of American adults? While many of them (37%) are religiously unaffiliated (describing their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”), most actually do identify with a religious group, including 35% who say they are Protestant, 14% who are Catholic and 11% who are members of others faiths, such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism.
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In recent years, the share of American adults who do not affiliate with a religious group has risen dramatically. In spite of this trend, the overwhelming majority of Americans, including a majority of the religiously unaffiliated – those who describe themselves, religiously, as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” – say they believe in God or a higher power, according to a new Pew Research Center survey conducted in December of 2017....Finally, among those who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated – also known as “nones” – 72% say they believe in a higher power of some kind.
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The percentage answering 'no religion' was 21 percent in 2014, 20 percent in 2012, just 14 percent as recently as 2000, and only 8 percent in 1990." & "In 2014, 3 percent of Americans did not believe in God and 5 percent expressed an agnostic view; the comparable percentages were 2 percent and 4 percent in 1991. More people believed in a 'higher power' in 2014 (13%) than in 1991 (7%).
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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.
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