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October 19, 2012

Obama has the Ohio atheist vote. Will it grow?

President Barack Obama's multiple references to Planned Parenthood in the second presidential debate showed how keen he is to sway female voters in swing states.

He may have emboldened another demographic in the process, without making an overt appeal. I'm talking about secular Americans. Compared with their religious peers, this bloc of Americans is much more inclined to support women's rights and gender equality. And the number of nonbelieving Americans is rapidly increasing.

A study released last week by the Pew Research Center provides evidence of what many sociologists have observed: The proportion of Americans who say "none" when asked their religion is the highest recorded in such surveys.

The numbers are striking. In 1990, only 8 percent of Americans claimed to have no religion. Today, about 20 percent claim as much. More than one-third of American adults younger than 30 are now religiously unaffiliated, which means that among 20-somethings, secular Americans far outnumber evangelical Christians — a big shift from 25 years ago.

The overwhelming majority of "nones" are content with their lack of religious involvement; 88 percent say they aren't interested in or looking for a religion that might be right for them.

Most religiously unaffiliated Americans aren't atheists or agnostics in orientation, yet a sizable proportion are — somewhere from one-third to one-half. Thus, the rise of the "nones" simultaneously indicates an increase in atheism and agnosticism in America.

There are several noteworthy demographic patterns. Men are more likely to be secular than women, on average. Asian- Americans, Jews and non-Hispanic whites exhibit higher rates of nonbelief than Hispanic and black Americans. The nonreligious are most highly concentrated in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest — Portland, Ore., was recently designated the "least Christian" city in the United States by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

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