How Religious is the US? It Depends Who You Ask.

Depending on pre-filled options provided to respondents on large national surveys, the religious landscape of the United States appears to vary quite dramatically.

For example, the Cooperative Election Study and Pew offer respondents three options to identify as religiously unaffiliated: atheist, agnostic, and simply “nothing in particular.” They also allow respondents to identify as “something else.” The General Social Survey, by contrast, only allows respondents to select “none” if they are not affiliated with a religious tradition and does not contain a “something else” option.

The disparities in religious identification across surveys are large.


In the 2018 GSS, only about 21-23% of white, black, and Hispanic respondents identify as religiously unaffiliated. Conversely, 30-35% of respondents identified as unaffiliated in the 2020 CES.

What are the key takeaways?

Many nominally religious (or “spiritual but not religious”) GSS respondents don’t see themselves as detached from religion as atheists and agnostics; and hence, they feel uncomfortable self-identifying as “none,” the lone unaffiliated option. However, the CES offers these individuals a “way out” in the form of the “nothing in particular” and “something else” options. These options provide the nominally religious a soft landing to disaffiliate from their religion while still allowing respondents to distinguish themselves from atheists an agnostics.

While this will eventually be the subject of its own post, those that identify as “nothing in particular” almost entirely believe in, well, something. According to Pew Research Center, in 2017, 67% of agnostics and 90% of “nothing in particulars” believe either in the God of the Bible or in some sort of higher power/greater spiritual force — compared to only 18% of self-identified atheists.


In sum, never take one survey at face value and always consider how the wording of questions can shape the ways in which participants respond.

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One response to “How Religious is the US? It Depends Who You Ask.”

  1. Enjoyed the charts and explanation how survey wording can influence the results.


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