“None” but not “atheist”

“The Rise of the Nones” was one of the big religion stories in the last year. But what if “none” doesn’t mean atheist or agnostic. What if “none” really means “none?”

The “nones” appear to include a large swath of people who simply don’t want to think in terms of “theist-atheist” terms. In a world where “spiritual but not religious” is more and more common, “none but not atheist” makes sense.

Elizabeth Drescher reports about her interviews with “nones” on Religion Dispatches:

For more than a year, I’ve been interviewing self-identified Nones—people who answer “none” when asked with what religion they affiliate or identify—across the United States. Lately, the people I’ve talked with have embraced the designation “None” more pointedly as a label for those straining to resist labels. This has been particularly the case since the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released its “‘Nones’ on the Rise” report in October and the November presidential election brought to the fore the voting patterns of the “religiously unaffiliated”—a designation some Nones also find distasteful because it makes religious participation the basis for identification rather than… rather than what?

“Even ‘agnostic’ or ‘atheist’ carry a lot of cultural baggage that I just don’t want to take on,” explained an undergraduate at a liberal arts college in Ohio who periodically joins fellow students at a Friends meeting across from campus. He reports that he prays “sometimes” when he’s faced with a difficult decision or is concerned about a family member or friend. Still, this student, who was not raised in a religious household, doesn’t think of himself as religious “at all.” When I asked if he would see himself as “spiritual but not religious,” he rolled his eyes and groaned dramatically.

“I don’t want you to be thinking of me in terms of spirituality or religion,” he continued. “Not my religion—if I have one—not your religion. These designations just should not be part of how we relate to each other no matter what we believe.” So, he eventually concluded, “You can go ahead and call me ‘none.’ But only if you know I really mean ‘none’ by that.”

Drescher says that a media used to writing about two-horse races often miss this point. In assuming one side must win against another side a much more complex is overlooked.

it caught my eye when a Religion News Service headline began to propagate at outlets from Sojourners to The Christian Century to the Washington Post: “Unbelief is Now the World’s Third-Largest Religion.” Meanwhile, back at RNS, someone caught the mistake and the headline was amended to “The ‘Nones’ Now Form the World’s Third-Largest Religion” with a correction added: “An earlier version of this article contained an imprecise headline. In short, disaffiliation from a religion does not necessarily equate with atheism or agnosticism. Religion News Service regrets the inaccuracy.” Well, okay. Take a number if you’d like to complain about my own writerly inaccuracies.

But the Pew Forum study on the Global Religious Landscape offered a different, more subtle (and significant) perspective.

The “Rise of the Nones,” which was based on survey of nearly 3,000 Americans and more than 500 follow-up interviews, included questions on beliefs. But in the “Global Religious Landscape” report, belief was not a central focus. The report includes but three sentences on belief in the “Religiously Unaffiliated” section. That is, it offers precious little insight into global patterns of religious belief or unbelief.

The Pew report on the religiously unaffiliated in the United States does focus substantially on belief, offering a number of significant findings among Nones. I’ve discussed some of these previously here and here, but the pervasiveness of the idea that Nones are unbelievers suggests that the major data highlights bear repeating:

68% of the Unaffiliated in general believe in God or a Universal Spirit

Among those who self-identify as Atheist/Agnostic, 38% say they believe in God or a Universal Spirit

Among those who self-identified as “Nothing in Particular”—the majority of Nones (71%) in general—some 81% say they believe in God or a Universal Spirit

Survey says: Nones are by and large not unbelievers. Not atheists. Not secular humanists. Not anti-religious.

“None-ness” may point to a different way that we know the world often defies traditional terms of theist-versus-atheist or religion-versus-religion. What Drescher describes is more like a functional existentialism where people may feel grateful, even connected to each other and creation, and may even ritualize that in some way. There is also a resistance to naming or containing that impulse.

Take the 36-year-old nonprofit director from Chicago who describes herself as “something like an atheist… most days.” She insists that being an unbeliever has no bearing on her almost daily prayer practice:

Do I need to believe in God to say that I pray? No. I just pray. I focus my intention on the gratitude I have for a meal, or a friend, or a member of my family. Maybe it’s instinct or inspiration. Maybe it’s culture. I’m going to try to notice that, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m really praying in a given moment.

Accepting that for people like those I’ve interviewed, “None” means “none”—that Nones have their own stories to tell of belief and unbelief, of ethical or moral practice both grounded in and diverging from religious traditions, and of spiritual experience or the lack thereof that they, at least, see as incompletely articulated within most religious and secular traditions—would seem to be a good place to begin our exploration of the changing contours of religiosity and secularity today.

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