The LGBT Health & Development Program

Research Blog – “Gaytheists”: The Growth of the Religiously Unaffiliated

Posted on January 14th, 2015 by IMPACT in Featured, Research Blog. No Comments

Written by Taylor Fiscus, IMPACT Intern, and edited by Krystal Madkins, MPH, IMPACT staff.

Since 1990, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has almost doubled, rising from 8 to 15% of the general population [1]. The LGBT community is well represented among this group. According to a recently released report by the Pew Research Center, almost half of LGBT Americans identify as atheist, agnostic, or non-religious [2].

What do these terms mean?

An atheist lacks belief in any god or gods. Another related identity is “agnostic.” An agnostic believes that it’s impossible to say for sure whether a god or gods exist. The phrase “religiously unaffiliated” encompasses both of these identities but also includes people who do not identify with any particular religion but believe in a higher power.

Graph showing growth of the religiously unaffiliatedWhat are the characteristics of the religiously unaffiliated?

Most atheists and agnostics are under the age of 35 (55%) and were male assigned at birth (70% and 75%, respectively) [3]. In general, they also tend to be more liberal, educated, and have a higher income than their religious counterparts [4]. People who do not identify with any particular religion but believe in a higher power make up two-thirds of the religiously unaffiliated [2]. Their demographics are similar to those of atheists and agnostics [2]. In the US, the religiously unaffiliated now outnumber those in non-Christian faiths such as Judaism and Islam [5].

LGBT people are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated.

According to the Pew Research Center, 29% of LGBT people say they have been made to feel unwelcome in a place of worship [2]. For LGBT people who are religious, one-third experience conflict between their beliefs and their sexual orientation or gender identity [2]. It may be unsurprising then that 48 percent of LGBT people say they are religiously unaffiliated, compared with only 20 percent of the general public [2].

However, a recent study indicates that, similar to national trends, religiously unaffiliated LGBT individuals believe in a higher power and consider themselves more spiritual than religious [6]. Despite tensions with organized religion, LGBT individuals demonstrate their commitment to spirituality through private acts such as meditation and prayer [6]. Researchers hypothesize that these practices help LGBT people affirm their sense of self-worth [6].

Is it safe to come out as a “gaytheist”?

There is an increased risk of suicide and internalized homophobia for LGBT youth that leave their religion and have homophobic parents [7]. However, coming out as an atheist or agnostic is generally safer than coming out as LGBT. The FBI reported in 2012 that 0.9% of hate crimes stemmed from anti-atheist/agnostic bias. This is compared to 19.2% from sexual orientation bias.

Future steps

As the number of atheists, agnostics, and religiously unaffiliated grows, it will be useful to have more studies on the intersectionality of religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Much of what is already published tends to focus on differences by birth sex, education, and political affiliation. Additional resources could potentially be developed from future studies to support individuals as they come out as “gaytheist.”

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[1] Kosmin, B.A., Keysar, A., Cragun, R., & Navarro-Rivera, J. (2009). American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population. A Report Based on the American Religious Identification Survey 2008. Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. Retrieved from

[2] Lugo, L., Cooperman, A., Funk, C., Smith, G.A., O’Connell, E., & Stencel, S. (2012). “Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation. Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. Retrieved from

[3] Keysar, A. (2009). Who Are America’s Atheists and Agnostics? Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. Retrieved from

[4] Zuckerman, M., Silberman, J. & Hall, J. (2013). The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17(4): 325-354. doi: 10.1177/1088868313497266.

[5] Lugo, L., Stencel, S., Green, J., Smith, G., Cox, D., Pond, A., …O’Connell, E. (2008). U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Religious Affiliation: Diverse and Dynamic. Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. Retrieved from

[6] Halkitis, P.N., Mattis, J.S., Sahadath, J.K., Massie, D., Ladyzhenskaya, L., Pitrelli, K., …Cowie, S.E. (2009). The Meanings and Manifestations of Religion and Spirituality among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Adults. Journal of Adult Development, 16: 250 – 262. doi: 0.1007/s10804-009-9071-1.

[7] Gibbs, J. & Goldbach, J. (2014). Growing up Queer and religious: A Quantitative study analyzing the relationship between religious identity conflict and suicide in sexual minority youth. Oral presentation at the Social for Social Work and Research Annual Conference, San Antonio, TX. Retrieved from


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