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America Religion Study: Report Finds U.S. Residents Increasingly Turning Away From Religion

03/13/2013 08:53 pm ET | Updated Mar 13, 2013

The Catholic Church may have just elected a new pope, but if a recent study is any indication, fewer Americans than ever may care.

The study, entitled "More Americans Have No Religious Preference" and released by sociologists at U.C. Berkeley and Duke University, found that in 2012, one in five Americans reported no religious affiliation -- an all-time high.

The study notes that the trend of people stating no religious preference has been growing since the General Social Survey began asking about it in the early 1970s, when only five percent of people said they had no religion. However, the irreligious category has expanded rapidly over the past two decades. In 1990, only eight percent of respondents said they were not religious, compared to 20 percent when the study was conducted last year.

While not claiming a religion is an expanding trend across all of the demographics measured in the study, there were some significant differences between groups. Men are less religious than women; whites are less religious than African or Mexican Americans; liberals are less religious than conservatives; people in the West and Northeast are less religious than Southerners or Midwesterners; young people are less religious than older ones.

An indicator of just how quickly religion is declining? While 20 percent of respondents claimed no religion, only eight percent said they were raised without one.

Of all the different denominations, the Catholic Church experienced the greatest exodus. While the overall percentage of people claiming Catholicism stayed about the same, demographic shifts inside the overall American population imply that the number of Catholics should be growing.

The San Francisco Business Times reports on some of the possible reasons for America's shift away from religion:

"Since World War II, the locus of religious authority has shifted from outside authority to the self," said [professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkley Jerome] Baggett.

Religious institutions themselves have lost their legitimacy in the eyes of many Americans due to sexual and financial scandals, or political overreaching "by the so-called Christian right," said Baggett. "Americans have a wariness to institutions in general, but a particular wariness to religious institutions," he said.

Not adhering to a religion is different from atheism, which the study found is still relatively rare in the United States -- only three percent of Americans said they didn't believe in God.

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