Study Finds Americans Less Religious Than Ever

The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life has released a new study that looks at the rise of people in the U.S. who do not identify with any religion. Audie Cornish speaks with Gregory Smith, Pew Forum senior researcher and co-author of the study, for more on that growing segment of the population.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As we watch polls in the presidential race bounce around, here's a poll that shows a consistent shift in American society. More people than ever before consider themselves religiously unaffiliated. That's a key finding in a survey out today from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life. And coauthor Gregory Smith joins us to talk about it. Welcome, Gregory.

GREGORY SMITH: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So first of all, what do you guys mean when we say the unaffiliated? I mean, I don't know if we're talking about people who say they're not believers or also people who are believers but don't identify with a particular religion.

SMITH: Right. It's really three groups. In all of our surveys, we asked people about their religion, which religious group do they identify with. And we provide them with a variety of options: Protestants, Catholic and a number of other choices. The group that we call religiously unaffiliated consists of those who identify themselves as atheists, along with those who describe themselves as agnostics. And then the single largest part of the religiously unaffiliated are people who say their religion is just nothing in particular.

And that latter group of people who describe themselves as nothing in particular are not wholly secular. Many of them are believers, even though they're religiously unaffiliated.

CORNISH: And your survey found that in the past five years, the share of people calling themselves unaffiliated actually ticked up from 15 percent to almost 20 percent. But it seemed like there was a generational difference, looking at young people in particular.

SMITH: Yes. Generational replacement is one of the key factors that is behind the continuing growth of the religiously unaffiliated or the religious nones, N-O-N-E-S. Among people under the age of 30, fully one-third are religiously unaffiliated. And that's a rate of disaffiliation that's much higher than is seen among their elders, and it's also a rate of disaffiliation that's much higher than what we've seen even among previous generations of young people. So this really is something new under the sun.

CORNISH: Now, Gregory, the survey also made an attempt to, quote, "help rule out some misconceptions about the unaffiliated." What do you guys think those misconceptions are?

SMITH: Well, there's two misconceptions that people might have about the religiously unaffiliated. It's important to point out that it would be a mistake to think of this group as wholly secular. They are not. It is true that atheists and agnostics are among the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated, but in fact, most religiously unaffiliated people say they believe in God or a universal spirit, for example. And large numbers think of themselves as religious or spiritual people.

It would also be a mistake to conceptualize this group as consisting of religious seekers. In fact, about nine in 10 religiously unaffiliated people tell us that they're not looking for a religion that would be right for them. They seem happy where they are.

CORNISH: Now, people often talk about religion come election time in the U.S. And I'm wondering what the political implications are for this kind of information.

SMITH: Well, the religiously unaffiliated is a strongly democratic group. In each of the last three presidential elections, big majorities have voted for the Democratic candidate. In fact, in 2008, fully three-quarters of religiously unaffiliated voters voted for Barack Obama over John McCain. Now, to put that in perspective, religiously unaffiliated voters in 2008 were as strongly supportive of Barack Obama as white evangelical Protestants were of John McCain. So I think that's an element of the religion and politics connection that's often overlooked.

CORNISH: in the end, Gregory, are we talking about a less religious country, or a breakdown of organized religion?

SMITH: Well, you know, it's really hard to say. You know, there are many measures of religious commitment in American society that are quite stable. The number of people, for example, who say religion is very important in their lives is quite steady. About six in 10 Americans continue to express that point of view. And that's considerably higher than what's observed in many European countries, for example.

And keep in mind that if one-fifth of adults are religiously unaffiliated, the corollary of that is that four-fifths of American adults are religiously affiliated. On the one hand, we have to keep in mind that the U.S. remains a very religious country. On the other hand, there are several measures, including religious affiliation, that suggest some degree of secularization may be underway.

CORNISH: Gregory Smith, thank you.

SMITH: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: That's Gregory Smith. He's coauthor of a survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life. It found that a growing number of Americans do not identify with any religion.

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