One-Fifth of Americans Now Religiously Unaffiliated

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Oct. 9 2012 10:53 AM

One-Fifth of Americans Now Religiously Unaffiliated

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People tour an atheist welcome tent during the Reason Rally on the National Mall March 24, 2012 in Washington, DC

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

Political strategists, take note: Nearly 1 in 5 Americans now identify themselves as "unaffiliated" when it comes to their religious denomination.

That's according to a new Pew survey out Tuesday tracking the so-called religious "nones," a group that's increased by 5 percentage points in the past five years—and roughly 10 points in the past two decades—to 19.6 percent of all Americans, or about 46 million people. Indicating that the increase owes something to generational shifts in the general population, the number of younger "nones" is even bigger: A third (32 percent) of American adults under 30 are now unaffiliated.

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Pew breaks down the category into three sub-groups: atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular." Atheists and agnostics make up about 6 percent of the total population, or about 13 million people. The rest aren't exactly non-believers, however, with two-thirds of the entire "unaffiliated" category expressing some sort of belief in God. Overall, 42 percent of the group described themselves as neither religious nor spiritual, with the rest, a slight majority, identifying themselves in one of those two categories.

But here's where things get interesting: The religiously unaffiliated now make up the plurality religion of Democratic-leaning voters at 24 percent. For comparison, Black Protestants and White mainline Protestants comprise 16 and 14 percent of that voting group, respectively. That heavy Democratic support, however, seems to be limited: While the unaffiliated have a strong liberal stance on social issues (nearly three-quarters think abortion and same-sex marriage should be legal), the group's preferences on government size and role actually largely mirror the breakdown of the general population: 50 percent of the unaffiliated would prefer a smaller government, compared to 52 percent of the general population.

This kind of makes sense, given that the group expressed strong support for the role of religious institutions in fighting poverty and building community (77 percent and 78 percent), but were considerably less keen on the role of religion in "defending morality" than the general American public (52 percent vs. 76 percent). The latter role, of course, is more readily associated with the conservative Religious Right attitude towards religion's role in American governance.

The whole survey is worth a read over at Pew.

Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.