New survey results from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life show that one in five adult Americans—and one in three young adults—claim no religious affiliation, including 13 million who self-identify as atheist or agnostic. These are the highest percentages ever in Pew Research polling history. The number of religiously unaffiliated has grown from 15 percent to 20 percent in the past five years.
John Green, a senior research adviser at Pew speaking to CNN, breaks the religiously unaffiliated into three groups. First, he says, are those who were raised totally outside organized religion. Second are groups of people who were unhappy with their religions and left. The third group, Green says, comprises Americans who were never really engaged with religion in the first place, even though they were raised in religious households.
“In the past, we would describe those people as nominally affiliated. They might say, ‘I am Catholic; I am a Baptist,’ but they never went” to services, Green says of this last group. “Now, they feel a lot more comfortable just saying, ‘You know, I am really nothing.'” Green adds there’s a lot less stigma associated with being religiously unaffiliated than in the past.
The survey results also found that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.