As part of one of the biggest religion stories of the past few years, Time Magazine said in March 2012, in an entry titled “The Rise Of The Nones,” that, “The fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. is the category of people who say they have no religious affiliation.” In October 2012, the Pew Research Center indicated that “one-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.”
This trend is important and worth taking seriously. But, precisely because of the importance of this sociological change, it is essential that we use a better term.
The truth is that there are no “nones.” Why? Let’s look at three reasons in particular.
There Are No Nones Because Everyone Believes In Something
The idea that there are people who believe in “nothing” is, to be blunt, nonsense. Let’s take Richard Dawkins for instance. He has stated that on a 1-7 scale, where 7 is absolutely knowing that God does not exist, he is a “6.9.” That is about as close to not believing in God as you can get. No one would think that Dawkins goes to church on Sunday.
But does Dawkins believe in absolutely nothing just because he doesn’t believe in God? I think he might find that to be a bit insulting. After all, consider the mission of his nonprofit, The Richard Dawkins Foundation For Reason and Science: “Our mission is to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and human suffering.”
So does Richard Dawkins think of himself as a “none” or as a “proponent of reason and science”? Is he not affiliated with religion or actively affiliated with reason and science? To call even Richard Dawkins, who is perhaps the best-known atheist in the world, a “none” is to miss the point. (To think Dawkins or atheism represents reason and science is also a problem, but that’s the topic of an entire book).
Further, to call people who are religiously unaffiliated “nones” is to use a negative, even derogatory term, to describe millions of people. And since each of these religiously unaffiliated people has a value system, various beliefs about what is most important, a sense of purpose and meaning, and so on, they are hardly “nones.”
Therefore, the term “nones” is both negative and misleading. Why use it?
The Term “Nones” Confuses Atheists, Agnostics, and Others
When The Pew Forum and Time Magazine lump these diverse groups together they create confusion, not clarity.
For instance, The Pew Forum says,
Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).
Their ranks? Is this an organized army of unbelief? Let’s read the report for a few more paragraphs:
…many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day.
Wait a second. Two-thirds of the nones believe in God? That doesn’t sound like “nones.”
This term creates a bizarre world. In order to use the word “nones” in a consistent manner, The Pew Forum must pretend (and ask us to believe) that the term “religion” only amounts to “religious attendance,” but has nothing to do with “belief in God.” That’s a tremendous mistake.
The fact is that there is actually a substantial difference between atheists, agnostics, and other affiliate groups within the so-called “nones.” Lumping them together minimizes these differences, as if this was a united social group with shared beliefs, values, and behaviors.
But this is not true: there is no social grouping of “nones.” As The Pew Report eventually acknowledges, “In terms of their religious beliefs and practices, the unaffiliated are a diverse group, and far from uniformly secular. Just 5% say they attend worship services on a weekly basis. But one-third of the unaffiliated say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives.”
When people who attend worship services on a weekly basis are classified as part of “the nones,” we have good reason to think this term is somewhat ridiculous.
So, in light of the incredible diversity within this group, the rational choice is to discourage the use of such an inaccurate term.
Because The Word “Religion” Doesn’t Mean Anything Anyways
Perhaps the most devastating critique of The Pew Forum study and other media that use the word ‘nones’ comes from the academic work of William Cavanaugh.
Cavanaugh argues that the idea of “religion” and “religious violence” are dishonest and empirically unsupportable terms used to advance varying causes that need to define “the other.” Here’s what he has to say about the word ‘religion’:
After all, [Charles] Kimball assures us, “Religion is a central feature of human life. We all see many indications of it every day, and we all know it when we see it.” When an academic says such a thing, you should react as you would when a used car salesman says, “Everybody knows this is a good car.” The fact is that we don’t all know it when we see it. A survey of religious studies literature finds totems, witchcraft, the rights of man, Marxism, liberalism, Japanese tea ceremonies, nationalism, sports, free market ideology, and a host of other institutions and practices treated under the rubric “religion.” If one tries to limit the definition of religion to belief in God or gods, then certain belief systems that are usually called “religions” are eliminated, such as Theravada Buddhism and Confucianism. If the definition is expanded to include such belief systems, then all sorts of practices, including many that are usually labeled “secular,” fall under the definition of religion. Many institutions and ideologies that do not explicitly refer to God or gods function in the same way as those that do. The case for nationalism as a religion, for example, has been made repeatedly from Carlton Hayes’s 1960 classic Nationalism: A Religion to more recent works by Peter van der Veer, Talal Asad, Carolyn Marvin, and others. Carolyn Marvin argues that “nationalism is the most powerful religion in the United States.”
What definition did The Pew Forum use to survey ‘nones’? In a footnote, they write, “The term “nones” is often used to describe people who indicate in surveys that they have no religion or do not belong to any particular religion.”
In light of the research which Cavanaugh surveys and synthesizes, one way to look at this survey response is to see that many if not most Americans have been strongly influenced to not think that their nationalism, for instance, is a powerful religious belief. After all, as Cavanaugh asks:
What percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christians would be willing to kill for their Christian faith? What percentage would be willing to kill for their country?
Given the relative size of the U.S. Army compared to, say, the number of armed clergy-militia, it seems clear that far more Americans are willing to kill for their country than they are for their faith. And if the word ‘religion’ is about our ‘ultimate commitments,’ one indication that a person really believes something is that they are willing to kill someone else to defend “the cause.”
Here’s the relevance: what if a decline in church attendance is connected to a rise in militant nationalism? Certainly if, say, some Amish children grow up, head to college, shed their “religion,” and then join the army, a decline in “religion” would be directly connected to a rise in militant nationalism. If we cherry pick our numbers, the total size of the U.S. Armed Forces has slightly increased from 1,384,338 in 2000 to 1,431,403 in May 2011.
Given the extreme elasticity of the term ‘religion,’ we can multiply examples of similarly religious movements: enthusiasm for sports teams, organized atheistic movements, and so on. But, for instance, if there has been an increase in militant nationalists who are willing to kill on behalf of America, has the United States become more or less religious?
Hard to say. It all depends on how you define the term “religion.” Whether America has become more or less “religious” is, in light of the impossibility of defining the word “religion,” a nonsensical question.
This is one more reason to stop using the word “nones.”
Conclusion: Let’s Stop Using The Descriptor “The Nones”
In sum, the term “nones” is negative, misleading, confusing, and incoherent. Of the “nones,” two-thirds believe in God and five percent attend weekly services. The word even perpetuates divisive myths about what “religion” is.
Keep the sociological research coming. Let’s better understand the growth of atheism, Atheism+, humanism, skepticism, naturalism, agnosticism, and so on. Let’s get clarity on the declining participation in Christian worship services. These are significant trends worthy of careful study and ongoing media attention. But for the sake of reason and truth, let’s agree to stop using the word “nones.”