To religious peoples’ chagrin, numerous studies have confirmed that one in five Americans is now “unaffiliated” with a faith. While this certainly doesn’t mean that 20 percent of the U.S. rejects the notion of God outright, those who fall into the category very clearly have no attachment to specific religious systems.

Considering this development — and the notion that these unaffiliated  comprise the fastest growing group in the faith sphere — the
Public Religion Research Institute found something worth noting when it comes to this cohort’s voting patterns. When compared to religious people, unaffiliated Americans, though more likely to support a Democrat this electoral cycle, are actually less likely to exercise their right to vote.

Public Religion Study: Religiously Unaffiliated Less Likely to Vote

President Barack Obama (L) and First Lady Michelle Obama (3rd-R) speak to one of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s (2nd-R) sons as he and his wife Ann Romney watch on October 22, 2012 at the end of the last presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, October 22, 2012. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

PRRI’s “2012 American Values Survey” confirmed the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finding that nearly 20 percent of the nation lacks a religious affiliation. But when it comes to politics, the proportions get interesting.

As for the 2012 presidential campaign, 73 percent of unaffiliated Americans support President Barack Obama’s re-election bid. In contrast, only 22 percent support Republican challenger Mitt Romney. However, it should also be noted that those unattached to a religious tradition are also less likely to claim that they will definitively vote on November 6. While 61 percent say they will head to the polls, 73 percent of religiously-affiliated Americans say the same.

Naturally, this creates questions surrounding why believers are more likely to head out and cast a vote in the coming election. Of course, there are likely a variety of theories. People attached to a religion may feel as though they are a key part in a grander system (i.e. their church). Perhaps this view carries over to the political schema, where they may also see themselves as an important part of the American public — as individuals whose votes matter.

Understanding who comprises this group is, of course, paramount. As it has grown in size, it has also increased in its diversity. In fact, the unaffiliated faith subgroup can be divided into three parts. PRRI explains:

  • Religiously unaffiliated Americans are comprised of three discrete subgroups, which have distinct religious and demographic profiles:
    • “Unattached believers” (23%): describe themselves as religious despite having no formal religious identity, and are more likely than the general population to be black or Hispanic and to have lower levels of educational attainment;
    • “Seculars” (39%): describe themselves as secular or not religious, and roughly mirror the general population in terms of racial composition and levels of educational attainment;
    • “Atheists and agnostics” (36%): identify as atheist or agnostic, and are more likely than the general population to be non-Hispanic white and to have significantly higher levels of educational attainment.

So — contrary to what some may assume, not all of those people in this group consider themselves atheist or agnostic. In fact, a solid proportion of them are sympathetic to faith (or, at the least, not hostile to it). Interestingly, many of these individuals were brought up in faithful households.

“The majority of Americans who are now religiously unaffiliated were raised in a particular faith,” said Daniel Cox, who serves as PRRI Research Director and the co-author of the report. “Their reasons for leaving vary widely, ranging from a rejection of the teachings of their childhood faith or a fading belief in God, to antipathy toward organized religion, to negative personal experiences with religion or life experiences generally.”

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