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Non-Religious Population
Shows Rapid Growth

BY KIMBERLY WINSTON                                                                                             ©2012 Religion News Service             

The number of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation has hit an all-time high--about one in five American adults -- according to a new study released October 9 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Labeled "nones" because they claim either no religious preference or no religion at all, their ranks have hit 46 million people. Much of the growth is among young people--one in three U.S. adults under 30 are now considered nones.

The report also found that the number of self-described atheists and agnostics has hit a peak -- 13 million people, or 6 percent of the U.S. population. That's a rise of 2 percentage points over five years.

And while the "nones" are growing, Protestantism is on the decline, shrinking from 62 percent of the religiously affiliated in 1972 to 51 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. Catholics held steady, at about one in four Americans.

"These are continuations of longer trends in American religion," said Greg Smith, a lead researcher on the study, as he and colleagues presented the findings to the 63rd annual Religion Newswriters Association conference here. "I think it goes without saying these are pretty significant changes in the American religious landscape."

Still, claiming no religious identity does not mean an absence of religious beliefs, the report found. The majority of "nones"--68 percent, including some who say they are atheists--say they believe in God or some form of higher being. Half say they feel "a deep connection with nature," and 20 percent say they pray every day.

Why do the nones continue to grow? Smith attributes it to the natural replacement of older, more conservative generations with younger, more liberal ones, as well as a worldwide rise in secularism among developed nations.

Another interesting twist to the study's findings is how broad-based they are. "The change is occurring among both men and women, those with college educations and those without, within several income levels and in all regions of the U.S.," said Cary Funk, another of the study's lead researchers. "The growth does tend to be concentrated among whites, with no significant change with blacks and Hispanics."

The survey was conducted by digging deeper into material gathered by Pew and other organizations from 120,000 respondents between 2007 and 2012, and from the General Social Survey, with data dating to 1972.

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