A new report says 1 in 5 Americans -- about 46 million people -- are among the growing ranks of those who don't identify with any religion, a largely liberal group that supported Barack Obama in 2008 and could make an imprint on the U.S. political landscape for years to come.
Among them are 33 million people who say their religious affiliation is "nothing in particular" and an additional 13 million who consider themselves atheist or agnostic, according to the report released yesterday by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The numbers represent a 5 percentage point increase in Americans who considered themselves unaffiliated from five years ago, and accompany a 5 point decline among those who call themselves Protestant.
According to the report, 48 p ercent of the population calls themselves Protestant. It's the first time they have made up less than 50 percent of Americans.
The report shows that 63 percent of the unaffiliated are Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, and 75 percent voted for Obama in 2008. They largely support legal abortion and same-sex marriage.
The trends are likely to continue for several decades and could lead to greater rifts between the Republican and Democratic parties as well as within them -- with unaffiliated Democrats clashing with religious blacks and Latinos, for example, said John Green, the director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
"Some surveys suggest that among Democratic Party identifiers -- that is people who say they're Democrats -- that the unaffiliated may be becoming the single largest faith-based group or religious group, larger than black Protestants, larger than Roman Catholics," he said. "I think that has very important political implications.
"It may very well be that in the near future, if not this year, that unaffiliated votes will be as important to the Democratic Party coalition as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party coalition."
The Pew report analyzed data from various surveys as well as results of a poll conducted by Pew with PBS' Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly in June and July. The new survey included responses from 958 religiously unaffiliated adults.
It shows that not all of the unaffiliated are nonbelievers -- more than two-thirds (68 percent) say they believe in God, and 21 percent pray every day. Thirty-seven percent call themselves " spiritual" but not religious.
The largest percentages of these unaffiliated Americans are found among the young -- 32 percent are 18 to 29 years old -- and those who don't regularly worship -- 72 percent seldom or never attend religious services.
There is a higher percentage of unaffiliated men (23 percent) than women (17 p ercent) and a higher percentage of whites (20 percent) than blacks (15 percent) and Latinos (16 p ercent).
The trend adds distinctions based on a person's level of religiosity or commitment to a particular faith to the traditional distinctions made between religious groups, Green said. Within religions, there increasingly are those with serious commitments to the religion's traditional views as well as those with more progressive views.
"Some of the religious people in the United States that feel the most pressure right now are religious progressives, because they find themselves caught often between traditionalists and between the unaffiliated," Green said.
"And one result of that pressure might be that some of those people in the middle ... move toward unaffiliation."
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