None Means None (Not Atheist, Agnostic, Unbeliever…)

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Religion commentators strain to define a demographic that, by definition, resists definition


I’d feel most comfortable assigning myself to the category of people who prefer not to be assigned to categories,” a fifty-something, Silicon Valley entrepreneur joked when I asked him how he’d describe his religious identification or affiliation. “But I suppose ‘none’ will do.”

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.”

Written By: Elizabeth Drescher
continue to source article at religiondispatches.org

30 COMMENTS

  1. Ok, I can understand the views expressed here. Some people do not want to label themselves for many reasons , its a point of contention ,supposed heritable values dictating a personality construct , pursuance of complete independence. But many psychologists would have something to say about this in the form of concepts such as identity, connection and attachment. From my perspective self expression always wins , I will always express myself because I feel I have to. I do not apologize either. .

  2. I can sort of see where they’re coming from. “Atheist” seems to take a more active role in professing non-belief. I’m sure there are a lot of people who really don’t think about whether or not they’re an atheist or agnostic because they’ve never had a reason to. It simply doesn’t matter in the way declaring a lack of belief in some other mythical thing doesn’t matter. It’s just a default position. It’s only when we’re pushed to fight for rights that we really need to declare atheism, it seems.

    It’d be nice if the state of the world went to a place where “atheist” wasn’t a term needed to describe ourselves anymore, simply because that’s the way things are.

  3.    68% of the Unaffiliated in general believe in God or a Universal Spirit 
    

    There are clearly agnostics in the middle-range of the Dawkins scale, as well as people from lapsed theist backgrounds who still cling to some vague deist “spirit” – probably because of a lack of thinking out a more secular philosophy. Whether the questions were framed to correctly identify percentages, is another matter.

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

    If some agnostics have some vague “god belief”, it seems counter-productive to lump them with atheists, and would gave a better analysis if they were grouped separately.

       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
    

    Non-affiliation to religious groups does not confer immunity to the god-meme, which can be quite persistent.

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

    I would suspect this derives more from theist surveyors viewing non-believers as fringe theists!
    Many theists regard atheism as “denial of their own god”, rather than the more realistic “lack of belief in gods”, with a life-style and thinking independent of the intrusion of god-memes. Questions often reflect this lack of clear understanding, or are actively biased to distort results (as on the thread about the recent Irish figures).

  4. I strongly recommend that question about “belief in God or a Universal Spirit” show a choice as to the answer, or split them into separate questions. I see them as quite different, not suitable for lumping.

  5. Atheist means not theist, end of story.
    If you don’t go to church on sundays and you don’t follow or believe the rules of a religious institution then you are atheist.
    If you are agnostic or none then you are atheist.
    Even if you think some sort of god may have created the universe then you are still atheist (you are deist which is not theist so it is atheist).
    Atheist IS the none option!

  6. In reply to #6 by conmeo:

    Atheist means not theist, end of story.
    If you don’t go to church on sundays and you don’t follow or believe the rules of a religious institution then you are atheist.
    If you are agnostic or none then you are atheist.
    Even if you think some sort of god may have created the universe then you are still atheist (you are deist which is not theist so it is atheist).
    Atheist IS the none option!

    Atheist is A none option. Given incontrovertible proof of a love-demanding all powerful creator, Hitch (and I hope I) would still put two fingers up. Not for him (or me just behind) any “religious identification or affiliation”, thank you very much.

    “None” is sometimes much more about the sheer repugnance of an idea rather than the mere truth of it.

  7. This piece highlights a number of issues but it seems to me that only two need really concern us:

    • Marketing.

    There are an awful lot of people out there who are Nones, but who don’t visit this Site or other sites that discuss humanism, secularism, agnosticism (add your favourite godless ‘ism’ here). We can all guess what that means, where they’re getting their very odd ideas about non-supernatural positions.

    So far I can only think of one strategy: Talk.

    We all need to talk more. We know that we are not alone, we know that others like us still feel isolated and confused. So talk to people.

    It is clear from this piece that the apologists are disembling, they are attempting to ‘interpret’ census and poll data in order to make up comforting stories. Their primary targets for this are politicians, editors and new ‘nones’.

    If we’re not telling people – if we’re not starting conversations, and asking (in the nicest possible way) why someone who claims to be non-religious prays, or what they mean by spirituality, then we don’t get the chance to say why we think differently.

    If, as the CA guy in the OP says, atheism is a label to some people that equates to church membership (!) we should be challenging those views. Education doesn’t just happen.

    • Better Data.

    It is becoming increasingly clear that we need more accurate information from polls. This is clear from the above; inarticulate poll questions give rise to confused participants which returns, at best, ambiguous data.

    We need politicians and poll commissioners to understand that what they need is to understand the real World. Given how good politicians are at kidding themselves, I don’t see an easy way forwards … ?

    Peace.

  8. Nones, I would guess, are fence-sitters who don’t like fences, or, for that matter, sitting. They are believers who can’t be bothered with books or doctrines, most of the time; or they can’t summon up enough energy to tie their mast to a particular boat, such as agnosticism. They are the lazy person’s creed. They think: I believe, if belief means raising the occasional finger only; I don’t believe, if belief requires work.

    I would’ve counted myself as a none, about 11 years ago. September 11 2001, to a large extent, changed that, for me. Today, I’m what the Pope recently called an “intolerant agnostic”, aka a mild atheist. I don’t seek out religious debates, but I don’t shirk from one either; I don’t mind sitting on fences, or getting down from it either.

  9. In Germany I was asked by the equivalent of the IR(finanz amt); what faith I embraced.
    I told them I was a long term disbeliever in supernatural fairies.
    If I had answered that I did believe ;I would have had to pay extra tax(known as Kirchensteuet or church tax)
    Strangely many Germans pay this tax even though they don’t believe because their neighbours get to know.

  10. When I was taken to an Ontario private school to be interviewed for entry (something that was never going to happen as I would never have agreed to go) one of the questions asked on the form I had to complete was Religion.

    I filled it in with Not Applicable, as I felt atheism wasn’t a religion and; therefore, would be an incorrect answer. When they questioned me on it, I told them I was an atheist and that meant the question didn’t apply to me.

    They said N/A would not do and asked for my parents religion. I told them I had no idea. They couldn’t believe it. I continued to inform them I also didn’t enter churches or chapels on any grounds, other than to keep family happy or to admire the architecture as a tourist, and that I wouldn’t be attending morning assembly as it took place in the chapel (my brother informed me as he was a student there, already).

    My mother was proud that I had no issues being me (turns out she had always been an atheist but never saw reason to have to label herself) my stepfather was pissed; it was his idea I go. He got my sister in and my brother but I stayed at home, a thorn in his side.

  11. The ‘nones’ can rightly be lumped in with the atheists. Religions are the institutions which humans have built around their make-believe god(s), and if you don’t subscribe to any of them, you mostly likely live and think more like an atheist than a hardcore believer. There are a lot of wishy-washy, new age spiritualism-leading ‘nones’ out there who are confused, alone, and perhaps scientifically ignorant or indifferent, and we need to direct them to kick-ass atheist sites like this one!

    “All of my beliefs can be proven, can yours?”

    …atheist bus campaign slogan perhaps?

  12. Oh I love semantic hairsplitting!

    Apatheist is more specifically ‘none’ than atheist. There are variations of apatheism where god-belief is contrary to, or absent from, one’s values. There is also the belief that any contemplation of god(s) is a wasteful cognitive error (a sentiment I believe is expressed in the OP).

    Just as there are people who assert atheism is a religion and it is impossible to not have a religion, I’ve seen atheists bicker online that it is impossible to not have an epistemic stance on gods. There really are people so lucky that in their lives it never came up in any substantial way. I’m grateful for this article’s illumination of that.

    Also, not all religions are theistic. Some religions are apatheistic, implicitly atheistic, or explicitly atheistic. The idea that religions are inherently theistic is ethnocentric. Many atheists are devout followers of a religion. The whole topic is mired in inconsistency and ethnocentrism (on both sides), as if Abrahamism were the measure of all things. What the OP puts forward is not only pure and ideal, but also cosmopolitan. It’s not my position (god is impossible) but I admire it.

  13. Surely it is just a matter of good grammar. If I am asked, “Which religion are you affiliated with”, or “Which religion are you”, the correct response (assuming you are an atheist) is None.

    I would not answer atheist, as this would be affirming that I think atheism is a religion or at least a belief, where in fact, it is neither.

    If however I was asked, “do you believe in a god”, I would probably answer, no, I am an atheist, to reaffirm my lack of belief in a god/s.

  14. I don’t like to use the word atheist to describe my non-belief, as it contains the term “theist” that implies a respectable default position for supernatural religious belief.

    Far better to coin a term like, an “adeludist”, for non-supernatural belief. I am sure there are better ones out there too.

  15. I think the next time someone asks me what religion I am, or if I believe in god, I would make them explain the question by asking more questions: “What do you mean religion?”, “What do you mean God”. Make it sound as if it is a totally foreign idea, and that I do not understand the question.

  16. It’s a bit like being asked which football team you support. Somehow answering “None” doesn’t really cover the dislike I have for the game. But it is the technically correct answer.

    Michael

  17. In reply to #23 by mmurray:

    It’s a bit like being asked which football team you support. Somehow answering “None” doesn’t really cover the dislike I have for the game. But it is the technically correct answer.

    Michael

    agreed. maybe the time has come to rethink old questions. there was no doubt a time in living memory when a survey might have opened with the question “which brand of cigarettes do you smoke?”

  18. This argumentum ad populam has illusory substantive power for the religiose and alogical but remains fundamentally irrelevant.

    I suspect the figures reflect a relatively novel societal perception of organised superstition as immoral and divisive rather than a general increase in rationality. It is most likely an emotional stance furthered by reactions to international news about what is asserted by representatives of religious hierarchies.

    Wanting to separate one’s self from the obviously misanthropic and godmatic dictates of all authoritarian sects does not necessarily imply a disassociation from delusional intuitive thinking per se.

  19. “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

    Any answer that isn’t some sort of religion is going to carry a sort of negative connotation in the minds of the religious. This response doesn’t really seem to address that. Agnostic and atheist are well known and much maligned names, but to say atheist in my case doesn’t carry a specific pride because I have no religious affiliation.

    After all, why should I feel proud to acknowledge scientific accomplishment? Philosophical nuance? Logical conclusions? I am content that I stand by the choice to suit my views, and that our methods of getting facts prove those views correct. It wouldn’t be long before someone came up with a negative way of viewing nones, or worse just lumping it in with other forms of non religious affiliation.

    It may sound clever on the surface, but ultimately just seems pointless. As long as the divisive theistic thinking exists, the stigma of being non religious (regardless of what we choose to call ourselves) will remain.

  20. “Atheism” it’s just not an appropriate answer to a question like “What is your religious affiliation” because atheism it is not a religion, nor a system of believes. It is more of an attitude towards the truth and the reality around us. So an answer like “none” would most appropriate for an atheist. So the problem here is the question, not the answer.

  21. In reply to #23 by mmurray:

    It’s a bit like being asked which football team you support. Somehow answering “None” doesn’t really cover the dislike I have for the game. But it is the technically correct answer.

    Michael

    You have to add “I dispise football and everything it stands for” immediately after replying none. Once you’ve done that you can sit back and enjoy the wheels grinding when they try and understand the response.

  22. My problem with these surveys is that that are usually poorly written. At university I once participated in a telephone survey from a campus christian group. They had questions like “How sure are you that God loves you?” and the possible answers were 1) not sure 2) fairly sure and 3) certain. When I told the interviewer that I was very sure that gods are dreamed up by humans it made her aware of other possibilities, maybe for the first time in her life, but she eventually had to shoehorn me into the “not sure” column. All the questions were like that, and they published the biased survey results in an ad in the campus paper. So I wrote a letter to the paper showing how their ill-formed questions twisted my real answers into their bogus results, and the paper published it.

    So there is an answer to bogus questions – don’t put up with them. Find a way to attack the inherent assumptions and ulterior motives of the questions, and find a way to get your answer across. It’s okay to kick the questioner out of their religious stupor.

  23. “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.

    Of course they carry “cultural baggage”! The evangelical hate-preachers have been working at building up this strawman “cultural baggage” for decades or centuries!

    He reports that he prays “sometimes” when he’s faced with a difficult decision or is concerned about a family member or friend.

    If he prays he is deist or theist!
    Questions need to distinguish between “religion” and “organised religion”!

    An atheist would reflect, meditate on, or ponder the issue!

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