Today an estimated sixteen percent of Americans—or about 49 million American men, women, and children—live without religious affiliation.* As a group, religiously unaffiliated Americans are more numerous than any single religious denomination except Roman Catholics.
They are more numerous than Hispanic Americans or African Americans ... more numerous than the estimated gay and lesbian population … more than seven times as numerous as American Jews … more than fifteen times as numerous as religiously active American Jews.
Not all of the religiously unaffiliated would describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, but recent studies suggest that the actively nonreligious make up about two-thirds of this population, with spiritual seekers and persons between church affiliations making up the rest.
How do we know these things? Recent—and authoritative—data comes from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) and from surveys conducted in association with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. ARIS studies in 1990, 2001, and 2008 documented the doubling of “nones” (people declaring no religious affiliation). Studies by Pew and other researchers have confirmed this pattern and offered more detailed information on the makeup of this fast-growing group. For example, a 1994 Pew-University of Akron study gave us our most detailed portrait of the people who make up the unaffiliated 16 percent. It found that about a third of this group identifies itself using labels like atheist and agnostic. Another third does not use these labels, but when asked about their lifestyle (church attendance, beliefs about life, and the like) is otherwise almost identical with the first group; pollsters call these the hard seculars. Combined, self-identified atheists and agnostics and the hard seculars make up 10.7 percent of the total population, equivalent to two-thirds of the unaffiliated. Spiritual seekers and persons without current church affiliation make up the balance.
Many Americans imagine that they don’t know a single person who lives without religion. Yet if confirmed nonreligious people compose 10.7 percent of the population … and if one American in six has no religious affiliation … how likely does that seem? Or is it more likely that you already know neighbors, friends, colleagues, schoolmates, or family members who live without religion?
* NOTE: According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Popclock, as of February 22, 2011, the U.S. population is 310,868,110. Sixteen percent of this = 49,738,898 religiously unaffiliated Americans of all ages.