The religiously unaffiliated make up the fastest-growing group in surveys asking Americans about their religious identity. They describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.”
According to a survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center, this group — commonly known as the “nones” — now constitutes 29% of American adults. That’s up from 23% in 2016 and 19% in 2011.
“If the unaffiliated were a religion, they’d be the largest religious group in the United States,” said Elizabeth Drescher, an adjunct professor at Santa Clara University who wrote a book about the spiritual lives of the nones.
The religiously unaffiliated were once concentrated in urban, coastal areas, but now live across the U.S., representing a diversity of ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds, Drescher said.
Even in their personal philosophies, America’s nones vary widely, according to a recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. For example, 30% say they feel some connection to God or a higher power, and 19% say religion has some importance to them even though they have no religious affiliation.
About 12% describe themselves as religious and spiritual and 28% as spiritual but not religious. More than half describe themselves as neither.
Nearly 60% of the nones say religion was at least somewhat important to their families when they were growing up, according to the AP-NORC poll. It found that 30% of nones meditate and 26% pray privately at least a few times a month, while smaller numbers consult periodically with a religious or spiritual leader.
“There are people who do actually practice, either in a particular faith tradition that we would recognize, or in multiple faith traditions,” Drescher said. “They’re not interested in either membership in those communities formally or in identifying as someone from that religion.”
Over recent years, the prevalence of the nones in the U.S. has been roughly comparable to Western Europe — but overall, Americans remain more religious, with higher rates of daily prayer and belief in God as described in the Bible. According to a 2018 Pew survey, about two-thirds of U.S. Christians prayed daily, compared to 6% in Britain and 9% in Germany
The growth of the nones in the U.S. has come largely at the expense of the Protestant population in the U.S., according to the new Pew survey. It said 40% of U.S. adults are Protestants now, down from 50% a decade ago.
The AP-NORC poll of 1,083 adults was conducted Oct. 21-25 using a sample drawn designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The Pew survey was conducted among 3,937 respondents from May 29 to Aug. 25. It’s margin of error for the full sample of respondents is plus or minus 2.1 percentage points.
Associated Press Writer Mariam Fam contributed to this report.
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