“Formal” religiosity declining in US, but nonbelief stays level

A new report from the University of California News Center describes data on American religiosity from the “General Social Survey” (GSS), a project that has been following American social attitudes since 1972. The project is in turn run by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) here at the University of Chicago.

You can download the GSS report here, and its title tells the tale: “More Americans have no religious preference.”

There are only a few results of interest, to me at least.  The first is the continuing increase in the percentage of Americans lacking a religious preference.  The question asked by GSS was this: “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?”

As the figure below shows, those answering “no religion” increased steadily from 5% in 1972 to 20% in 2012:

Declining religiosity graph


The lack of preference is, as expected, more prevalent in younger than in older Americans.

One might think that this decline in religious affiliation is mirrored by an decline in religious belief itself, but that’s not the case. The proportion of Americans who believe in God iremains steady, and the percentage of those believing in a “higher power” has actually increased significantly in the last two decades (see table below). Further, atheism and agnosticism (the first two lines in the table) have held steady, with no significant change since 1991:

American beliefs about God

One other salient result: if you ask which faith is losing adherents most quickly, it’s Catholicism.  While the percentage of American Catholics has stayed constant over the last 50 years (about 25%), the report notes that this proportion should be actually be rising. That’s because Catholics hold a “demographic advantage” of higher relative fertility (a kind of natural selection among faiths), and selective immigration to the U.S. from Catholic countries.  Taking this into account, the proportion of Catholics should have risen 11% in the last generation. This tells us what we—and the Vatican—already know: the Catholic church is weakening rapidly.

Oh, and only 1.5% of those surveyed (a random selection of Americans, pretty carefully chosen) were Jewish. That is, there are twice as many outright atheists as religious Jews.

There are more detailed results in the survey, but what I’ve given are probably the things you most want to know.  The data support the idea that although there are more “nones” in America now than in the last generation, these people without religious preference aren’t becoming atheists. Rather, they’re becoming either believers who don’t prefer an established church, or those who express their religiosity as belief in a higher power.

Nevertheless, I see this as the first step to a less religious America—on our inexorable march to the secularism of northern Europe. Before one loses religion, one loses formal religion.

Finally, the increased numbers of “nones” in this survey clearly means that fewer Americans go to church, or even belong to a church, than ever before.  And that’s relevant to the claim that atheists must suggest replacements for religion if we’re going to make any headway in eliminating superstition.  The fact that religious affiliation has been declining for 40 years means that if such “replacements” really are necessary, they don’t involve the social benefits of belonging to or attending church. Rather, they would have to be purely psychological benefits—the solace of believing in a god or “higher power.” And psychological benefits are harder to replace.  Alain de Botton should consider this when he pushes the idea of secular churches, priests, and temples.

h/t: Michael


Hout, M., C. S. Fischer, and M. A. Chaves. 2013. More Americans have no religion. Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, Berkeley, CA. (13 pp.)


  1. Martin
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    While outright atheists are still a small number, it’s reassuring that 20.3% don’t believe in a personal god. That’s encouraging.

  2. gbjames
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    The word “atheist” remains problematic for most people, even for many who are non-believers. At least the small increase of .9% is in the right direction. And the rising “no personal god, but…” category is pretty dramatic. I’d like to think gnu atheist activity was at least partly responsible, but it is hard to know.

  3. Sastra
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    People who believe in a “Higher Power” which is not God are usually very vague about what they mean by that. Could be nature, or gravity… though nature or gravity as a sort of creative force or power, perhaps, mixed in with love and purpose somehow … some way. And oh, yeah — Consciousness. Or not. I don’t know, followed closely by I don’t care.

    As long as they’re not atheists. They don’t want to be like them.

    • Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Yes, IMO it is the wish for eternal life, immortality, that drives people to this category. They certainly should have asked the question, “Do you believe in an eternal afterlife?” as a revealing question.

      Because the Bible and Qur’an have so many discontinuities and unbelievable stories that make so little sense (e.g. Tower of Babel) in an age of space travel and science, few wish to stake an allegiance to these laughable texts. But the claim of eternal, blissful life is difficult to forego.

      In my opinion, the claim to eternal life is the real real motivation as to why people like Francis Collins decide on a philosophical destination and work backward. Their egos cannot abide that, like a blade of grass or a fruit fly, their time on earth is very brief, then gone forever.

    • Posted April 2, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      It’d be interesting to break this down by kind of “higher power”: How many are deists? How many are pan[en]theists? &c. But I’m not sure how many people would know how to categorise themselves… I suspect that many are, “Well, I just feel that there must be something …” (I was there myself, once.)


      • Posted April 2, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        I was there, too, about thirty years ago. I thought there was an non-personal “force” only defined by a “sigma”; that is, the “sum” of all things. A “deist” without a denomination. A very good friend told me he was an atheist, pure, no hedging. That made me re-examine my philosophy. To actually say out loud to myself, “There is no god” actually made me kind of physically shudder. I can see how people cannot easily break free of the mainstream societal belief.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      I think of gravity as a Lowering Power.

      • Posted April 2, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        Gravitons are spin-2 bosons, iirc, so gravity really is a higher power…


        • jimroberts
          Posted April 2, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink


        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted April 2, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

          At least it is twisted. (And indeed, non-linear. Yikes!)

  4. SeanK
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Organized religion is irrelevant in the days of social media. People don’t need to join churches to find psychological benefits when there is so much more to offer online.

    I believe churches and other organized religions once offered the companionship people looked for, but they’re no longer the only option in town – or even the best option for that matter – and these statistics support that.

    • Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      I agree, very true. Where are the Elks Clubs, Shriners, Eastern Star? Those social clubs evaporated in the last fifty years. All media, beyond simple “social media” have eroded the need to get together.

      I had an epiphany years ago while attending a festival at Fort Mason in San Francisco that featured folk dancing. I realized, as the dancing progressed, that you got to hold every opposite-sex person on the dance floor, put your hands in theirs, your arm around their waist (whew, GOOD edit…! I wrote “waste”). What a perfect physical outlet in a small town, if you didn’t get to marry the best-looking mate available…at least you got a smile and warm (if fleeting) interaction with them every Saturday night dance. Close your eyes in bed, and imagine….

      Now, we can travel far and wide, looking for a mate, and social media and media in general points the way to achieve satisfaction in ways that replace the old social methodology.

      • RFW
        Posted April 2, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Permalink


        Where are the Elks Clubs, Shriners, Eastern Star? Those social clubs evaporated in the last fifty years.

        There’re still a few fraternal orders around, but with the possible exception of the Masons, the do-gooder groups (Kiwanis, Rotary) and those that have devolved into drinking clubs (Elks, Moose) their days are numbered. It’s a good question whether the tight grip fundagelical churches is due to their providing a social environment for their members that used to be provided by fraternal orders.

        The old fraternal orders had a lot of gibberish and meaningless ritual and I doubt many members took those too seriously. Much the same is true, I suspect, of fundagelical churches: the members hear fire breathing sermons on Sunday, but lead their lives as though they never had.

        • Posted April 2, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

          And not just fundagelical churches, but also mainline protestant churches; their “faithful” (well, most of them)don’t take doctrine and ritual much more seriously than Kiwanis, Elks,Shriners, or other social clubs.

      • Posted April 2, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

        “…achieve satisfaction…”

        That’s a very nice euphemism you’ve got, there.

        • Posted April 2, 2013 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

          “satisfaction” works a couple of ways, but to be honest, when I used the term here, I was thinking of the book “Satisfaction” by Dr. Gregory Berns. It’s a worthwhile book!

    • Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      It would be interesting to map these religious categories to availability of Internet access/hours spent online.


  5. Ralph Pickering
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Not religious but believing in a higher power is quite OK from my perspective as an atheist. If someone wants to find comfort in the possibility of an afterlife, or the idea that someone greater may actually be looking out for them, that’s fine. More power to them.

    It’s the “my religion has the monopoly on truth” ones that I have a problem with. They’re the ones wanting to change government policy and school curricula. And they’re more often than not the ones impeding human knowledge and social progression. I’m encouraged that they’re on the wane – however slowly.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      I’ve noticed though that the more progressive, liberal religions tend to believe that no one religion has a monopoly on the truth and can claim to understand God better than others — and they also believe that those religions which DO claim to have a monopoly on the truth and understand God better than others are wrong, wrong, wrong, misunderstanding God horribly. God is not like that! They know!

      That’s an interesting trick. I don’t think it works.

      • Vaal
        Posted April 2, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink


        A similar schtick is pulled by many Agnostics. They jump into the fray between the atheist and believer in a revealed religion and purport to be the sensible middle position. “You, Mr. atheist are so arrogant to claim you know God doesn’t exist. And you, Mr. Christian, are so arrogant to claim you know God exists, because, don’t you see, no one can know that God exists!”

        In which case the agnostic is blithely unaware he has declared his own arrogant claim to know the nature of God: that God’s nature is NOT one of being knowable, but of being unknowable to us.

        And the agnostic knows that any possible God is restricted from making Himself known …how…?


        • Posted April 2, 2013 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

          Yes. Those people drive me crazy. They are completely unaware of their own hypocrisy.

      • Posted April 2, 2013 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

        Yes. I work (as an organist) for a progressive “liberal” congregation.

        Intolerance will not be tolerated. They are extremely orthodox about their heterodoxy. Your mind isn’t open until you acknowledge that they’re right.

        The irony is overwhelming.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      Well, there was that New Age lady who sued NASA for crashing a space probe into a comet.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      I’m with you. They have the right to believe any silly thing they want, just as I have the right to try to convince them that they are wrong, by means of reason, logic, and evidence. As long as they aren’t flying planes into buildings, trying to prevent girls from going to school, teaching in science class that the world is 6,000 years old, or establishing an inquisition, er, I think I meant to say theocracy, I can’t complain–I’ve believed my share of silly things in my life, and still may (despite my best efforts).

  6. KP
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    At least among those “nones” that still believe in a “higher power,” their beliefs are not likely to be, in any way, similar to fundamentalist wackaloon Christianity, which is the real source of an evolutionary biologist’s chief woe of creationism.

    • Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      Not happy to let “belief in a higher power” to be an “OK” category, simply because it enables religions such as Islam to be regarded as “OK”. I don’t see any resurgence of Aztec religion. Is the Aztec religion “ok” so long as the human sacrifice victims are willing???

      “She said she wanted her beating heart to be pulled from her breast. It’s what Quetzalcoatl demands!!”

      • KP
        Posted April 2, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I just came back on this thread to clarify that I do agree that the New Agers and the “spiritual but not religious” are still lumped in with the “liberal” Christians and Muslims who enable the fundie wackaloons.

      • KP
        Posted April 2, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        p.s., never said these were “OK.”

        • Posted April 2, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          Sorry, internet brevity at fault. I was incorporating some ideas from a post further up from yours. Did not mean to imply you had said anything about “OK”.


  7. Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    …a big fan of Tom Smith and Ed Laumann at the NORC. I got a tour of the place the last time I was out there (involved in a couple projects with Ed’s group). Extremely impressive operation! Hopefully I get out there sometime soon. I’ll be pestering you, JC, to take us out for Chinese.

    • Matt G
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

      My mom worked for them part-time in the late 70s/early 80s as an interviewer, so they’ve been around at least that long.

  8. Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone else think this is a surge in pop-spiritual devotionalism than it is a surge in secularism or humanism?

  9. bjoernfb
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Apparently the “no religion”-percentage remained rather constant until 1988, and only then it began to rise… does anyone have a clue why this happened?

    • gbjames
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      A reaction to the simultaneous rise of political Christianity? (speaking of the USA)

  10. Muhammad al-Khwarizm
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Glad that some people aren’t pretending “no organized religion” and “no religion” aren’t the same thing.

    • Matt G
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      One foot out the door (hopefully followed by a second…).

  11. Posted April 2, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    As long as North America can culturally avoid the shape-shifting dynamics of white noise, this may be data worth celebrating. However, the crater of theism will surely be filled with the caulking gun of unreason by those who renounce religion without developing critical thinking skills. Likewise, a support system that reinforces the importance of empirical considerations in all public domains is key.

  12. jimroberts
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Northern and western Europe are largely opposed to or indifferent to gods, but religion has not simply been replaced by scepticism or rationalism, but rather by other irrational, pseudoscientific, antiscientific or Luddite superstitions: homeopathy, antivax, cheiropractic, anti-GMO, antinuclear, climate change denial, organic food etc.

    • david
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      Agreed, but what’s even worse is that “respect” for religion has increased dramatically among atheists.

  13. Posted April 2, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Cultural Mormon atheist here, so I’ll share that perspective as it relates to numbers. Twice a year the Mormon leadership holds a worldwide conference for all Mormons. They always tout church growth numbers, which have steadily risen since I was a kid, up to about 14 million now. Only now is it coming out that number is bunk — that number does not include people that have left the church but not taken their names off church rolls, like me. (They don’t make it easy to do). The real number of church-going Mormons is less than half that, a number kept flat not through conversion, but Mormon babies.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Do the numbers include retroactively baptized ancestors of friends and in-laws?

    • Posted April 2, 2013 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

      I also grew up in the LDS church.

      I think quite a lot of denominations do this. I know the Catholic Church does.

  14. Gary W
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    One other salient result: if you ask which faith is losing adherents most quickly, it’s Catholicism.

    Speaking of Catholicism, The New York Times just ran another awful piece by its resident philosopher apologist for religion, Gary Gutting. This time, he tries to defend the idea that Catholicism is an intellectually respectable belief system. Read it and weep.

  15. Myron
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    “I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind.”

    This is meaningless unless “higher power of some kind” is explicitly defined.

  16. david
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I knew things were bad in the US, but only 3% atheists! That’s scary. And, “Higher Power” could mean virtually anything, so that figure gives me no comfort whatsoever.

    Doesn’t all this simply confirm the view that, by themselves, no amount of widely available evidence and rationaly weigthed arguments will ever suffice?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      1) The “Higher Power of some kind” is a statistical construct. If you ask poorly, you will get a poor answer.

      And I note, whether Coyne understands it or not, you get the same high numbers for “spirituality” in Sweden. (Which is perhaps nominally secular, if you either go by state or by polling but not by membership of the old state church.) You can see numbers up to50 % for some warm, fuzzy feeling.

      2) No. Paul and Gregory theory of religiousness shows that it is correlated with degree of social functionality, nothing else.

      Also, there are specific models where religion eventually go extinct if it of less utility socially, say by being the less rational and/or more laughable choice. Such models predicts the statistical behavior of religions in many nations well.

      “The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction.”

      [ http://arxiv.org/pdf/1012.1375v2.pdf ]

    • neil
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      I think the “I don’t know and I don’t think there is anyway to find out” group counts as atheists. I would answer that and I call myself an atheist. So it is 8.7%. Onward and upward.

      PS Living in a democracy, I won’t feel comfortable until the “I know he exists and I have no doubt” category gets below 50%.

  17. Dave
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    I’d really like to know how they do their sampling. 1952 people queried and the inference is for the entire US. If I could do that at my job, I’d be God!!

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      The sampling methods are given in the pdf of the report. I’m not a sociologist, but they look pretty reasonable to me—-they seem to have a sampling method in which every person in the country has the same chance of being sampled, i.e., it’s a random sample. If that’s the case, then you can put error bars around the estimates.

      • Dave
        Posted April 3, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        Agreed, if they can guarantee randomness. Thanks, will have a look at the PDF.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted April 2, 2013 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

      What Jerry says is, of course, correct. Also, a legitimately chosen random sample of 1,952 should give excellent results (by way of comparison, a typical Gallup poll of a binary choice, say Obama vs. Romney, typically samples between 1,000 and 1,100 people, because that sample size in a situation split approximately 50-50 will give you a 95% confidence interval of about plus or minus 3%, which is typically the way those polls are reported). As the accuracy of the inference from a sample increases with the square root of the sample size, doubling the sample size increases the accuracy of the population estimate by approximately a factor of 1.4. So, you wouldn’t be God–you’d be a statistician!

      It’s a common error to think that the size of the sample vis-à-vis the size of the population is more important than the absolute size of the sample. However, a sample of 1,952 chosen randomly from the population of the United States will give you a better population estimate than sample of 100 from a population of 10,000.

      • Dave
        Posted April 3, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        “However, a sample of 1,952 chosen randomly …” Precisely, I wonder how they do that. Do they have a list of everyone in the US? With phone numbers? Do they select addresses? How?

  18. Matt G
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    What I find really scary is that 64% say they “know” god exists. Do they think there is a difference between knowledge and belief? What other things do they claim to know?

  19. Posted April 2, 2013 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    It might be a small change, but I see all the trends as positive movement towards unbelief. I think there will be a critical mass approached slowly, then an inflection, then a flood of atheism once it’s OK to admit you’re a disbliever.

    • darrelle
      Posted April 3, 2013 at 5:49 am | Permalink

      A pattern something like that is likely if for no other reason than generational change.

      • gbjames
        Posted April 3, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

        Huh? Didn’t generations change in the past?

        • darrelle
          Posted April 3, 2013 at 7:25 am | Permalink

          Yes they do appear to have changed in the past. That was my point. Just like many other cultural attitudes, like racism, woman’s rights. Studies that break out the data by age groups typically show the younger generation being more accepting of whatever change is being studied. That it is difficult for people to change long held attitudes is a common speculation as to why that is.

        • vtvita
          Posted April 7, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

          Generational change, indeed.
          The latest poll by Pew Research on Attitudes about Marijuana: (April 4, 2013)
          In favor of legalizing marijuana:
          under age 30, 64% in favor
          age 30 to 49, 55%
          age 50 to 64, 53%
          age 65 to 85, 33%
          over age 85, 14%


  20. Jonathan Dore
    Posted April 3, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    “Before one loses religion, one loses formal religion.” — That’s it exactly, and the growth of the “higher power” believers is the most important result here: my interpretation is that this is a transitional phase for people who have effectively, practically speaking, become non-religious, but who, when asked, can’t yet overcome the conditioning that “I don’t believe in God” means “I am depraved and have no morals”. It’s a stock response from those who are trying to be polite and respectful to believers’ prejudices. As the years pass more and more people will see through that bullshit as the unnecessary smokescreen it is, and will be unembarressed to say to others, and unafraid to admit to themselves, that they don’t actually believe in a higher power of any kind.

    • vtvita
      Posted April 7, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      Jonathan, I like your interpretation—a lot, especially, “the conditioning that “I don’t believe in God” means “I am depraved and have no morals”.
      I would add, they are equally self-conscious of their own image—held by themselves as well as others.

  21. Posted April 3, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    “Atheism and agnosticism (the first two lines in the table) have held steady, with no significant change since 1991”


    A rise from 2.2% of all respondents to 3.1% of all respondents is an increase of 40.9% in the number of self-identifying atheists in this survey.

    A rise from 4.1% of all respondents to 5.6% of all respondents is an increase of 36.6% in the number of self-identifying agnostics in this survey.

    That is a dramatic change, an increase of more than a third.

    For what its worth, in other surveys – for ex. ARIS, which does a much more precise job of framing questions and not using leading language and a much broader sample, and also Pew and Gallup – the increase is even more dramatic.

    On average in recent surveys, while only a few percentage expressly identify as “atheist” or “agnostic”, 10% of Americans say they do not believe in a god or higher power.

    But, even if you just take this survey at face value, to characterize a rise by a third as “held steady” is not valid statistical analysis.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 3, 2013 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps you should read the report before saying what is statistically meaningful or not. The rise from 2.1% to 3.1% is not statistically significant: it’s within the realm of sampling error. Ditto, I think, for the 4.1-5.6%, though I don’t have the report here.

      Valid statistical analysis requires seeing whether a change is statistically significant or not, and these aren’t.

      • Posted April 3, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

        Similar magnitudes increases hold up across multiple surveys using different methodologies with varying margins of error.

        ARIS in particular has zeroed in on “Nones” (and also conducted a lot of cross-tabs within that community, which provides good data about who Nones are within the US population).

        When looking at trends over time, and across multiple surveys, is it really invalid to see an increase here?

        Analysts at Pew and ARIS and Gallup don’t seem to think so, having reported specifically on increases in these two categories.

        • Posted April 3, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

          For example, in “Nones on the Rise”, Pew tracks annual increases from 2007-2012, and labels the aggregate rise 2007-2012 for atheists – 0.8% (from 1.6 to 2.4%) and 1.2% for agnosticts (2.1-3.3%) as “statistically significant”. That’s a total of nearly 6% of the population.

          Similarly, ARIS 2008 found the increase in explicitly self-identifying “atheists” and “agnostics” of 0.9% from 1990-2008 statistically significant.

          More importantly, when asked in ARIS 2008 directly about their belief in God, 12% of Americans gave answers identifying them as atheists or agnostics (double the number willing to use those labels explicitly), and another 12% gave answers identifying them as deists (believing in a noninterventionist higher power or creator).

          I apologize if my initial comment seemed geared at making you wrong. My point is that to report that there has been no rise in nonbelief is not supported by the data.

          And the rise is sharpest among Americans under 30.

          We should be encouraged by this news. It goes beyond simple alienation from religious customs.

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