Pew survey finds 1 in 5 Americans, mostly Democrats, have no religion

Jennifer White Contributor
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The match for the religious right is rising: the non-religious left.

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, one in five Americans — the largest percentage in history — have no religious affiliation, and 63 percent of those people are registered Democrats. Pew’s data represent a trend from the last five years.

“This study has huge political meaning,” said Daniel Cox, senior researcher at the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).

Among those who are moving away from traditional religious labels — Pew calls them the “nones” — only 26 percent self-identify as Republicans or conservatives.

Pew senior researcher Cary Funk agrees. “The ‘nones’ are progressive,” she said, “especially in regards to social issues.”

Data indicates that this trend has been developing for more than ten years.

A variety of exit polls in 2000 showed that 61 percent of religiously unaffiliated voters chose Al Gore over George W. Bush. In 2008, three-quarters of them voted for Barack Obama over John McCain. In 2008, they were as firmly Democratic as white evangelicals were Republican.

Some experts have argued that the polarization of conservative and liberal politics by religion has fostered the uprising of the non-religious “nones.”

“There is considerable evidence suggesting that the ‘nones’ have actually been caused by politics,” University of Notre Dame professor David Campbell told National Public Radio. “Many people have pulled away from the religious label due to the mingling of religion and conservative politics.”

Although the religiously unaffiliated have grown in number, the group still isn’t wholly secular, Funk added.

The survey, conducted by Pew and the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, found that many of the country’s 46 million religiously unaffiliated adults still see themselves as spiritual. Two-thirds say they do believe in God, more than half feel a connection with nature and the earth, and one in five say they pray every day.

Among those who identify as non-religious, the majority are concentrated among Americans who do not attend a worship service regularly.

“How people talk about their religion is in line with their behavior,” said Funk.

Religiously unaffiliated voters’ absence from churches also creates challenges for politicians hoping to connect with them and solicit their votes.

“The church has always been a way to micro-target voters,” said Daniel Cox of PRRI, “and with many leftists straying from organized religion, it becomes harder to effectively reach them.”

One potential root of the religious “nones” is generational replacement, or the gradual supplanting of older generations with newer ones.

Pew finds that among the youngest Millennials (those age 18-22) fully one-third are religiously unaffiliated, compared with 9 percent of Americans from the Silent Generation just one in twenty World War II-era Greatest Generation members.

Researchers see this religious uncertainty bringing electoral uncertainty in November. In the 2008 election, 16 percent of the unaffiliated demographic voted for Barack Obama, and 12 percent of the religious right voted for John McCain.

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