For over four years now, I’ve been living in Edinburgh Scotland, which, as google tells me, is a distance of 5,161 miles, or a cozy 15 hour flight with British Airways, from the town in which I grew up.
One thing that distance has provided is a sense of perspective, particularly of the cultural sort. This has especially been the case thanks to the UK Home Office’s constant reminders.
That being said, I thinks it’s safe to say that I knew I was an American before I came to Britain, just as I knew that though Americans and Britons share a common foundation, they are, in fact, two uniquely different cultural groups.
This month (in the US, at least), Kaya Oakes published her The Nones are Alright: A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between.
To be fair to her text, I’ve yet to read it, and thus cannot pass any judgment on it. Which is not my intention here.
Instead, I’m using her recent publication due to the terminology she has chosen to both use, as well as to which she has devoted her time and skill. Specifically, I’ve cited her text here because of her use of the term: ‘nones.’
In my opinion, this term signifies something of a contentious concept.
First appearing in 1968 in Glenn M. Vernon’s aptly titled: “The Religious ‘Nones:’ A Neglected Category” (Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1968), the term was coined in order to determine a type of ‘independent’ un-affiliation, a category he argued had been highly neglected within the social scientific study of religion.
Comparing the term to one’s political affiliation, he described his association of the category with a type of ‘independence’ as such:
By way of contrast, the social scientist classifies as “independent” those who do not report affiliation with a particular political party. The use of the “independent” label suggests that the lack of political party affiliation does not mean that one is apolitical or has no political convictions. He is still viewed as a political person. Perhaps this is because the act of voting serves as the primary validation of political participation. There is no comparable religious phenomenon, no clearly recognized religious behavior other than membership, attendance, or other identification with a formal religious group. Thus, “none” is used in religious research, designating no religious affiliation, but also adding the gratuitous implication of a nonreligious person.
After his usage, the term was adopted by other sociologists, used in fairly the same way.
- Tamney, Joseph B., Shawn Powell, and Stephen Johnson. “Innovation Theory and Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 28, No. 2, 1989.
- Baker, Joseph O’Brian, and Buster Smith. “The Nones: Social Characteristics of the Religiously Unaffiliated.” Social Forces, Vol. 87, No. 3, 2009.
- Baker, Joseph O’Brian, and Buster Smith. “None Too Simple: Examining Issues of Religious Nonbelief and Nonbelonging in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 48, No. 4, 2009.
While the term’s usage, and thus it’s perpetuation within the discourse on religious affiliation, particularly in the U.S., has proven useful in categorising a large group of individuals who identify within the context of a survey form as ‘un-affiliated,’ there is an underlying issue concerning accuracy that I feel greatly diminishes the value of using this, and similar, relational terms.
This is perhaps best represented by two graphs, the first taken from an article on the results of the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study:
Under the ‘un-affiliated’ section here, we are provided with three options: ‘Atheist,’ ‘Agnostic,’ and ‘Nothing in Particular.’ These three terms encompass the ‘none’ category that, according to their findings, constitutes the ‘second largest’ faith-related group after ‘Christians.’ Which, of course, is a category divided into six options.
The second graph gives us a bit more detail about the ‘nones’ themselves, sourced from an article that provides us a ‘closer look:’
While this article provides an interesting insight into the gender and age differences between those who ticked the ‘un-affiliated’ boxes, the commentary here also provides an intriguing look into the precariousness of the term ‘none’ itself.
As the author of the article (Michael Lipka) states:
Not only are the “nones” growing, but how they describe themselves is changing. Self-declared atheists or agnostics still make up a minority of all religious “nones.”
In addition to atheists and agnostics, another 9% of Americans say their religion is “nothing in particular” and that religion is not important in their lives. At the same time, however, a significant minority of “nones” say that religion plays a role in their lives. Indeed, about 7% of U.S. adults say their religion is “nothing in particular” but also say that religion is “very” or “somewhat” important in their lives, despite their lack of a formal affiliation.
This is the genesis of my issue.
Where we might be talking about the ‘nones’ as an un-affiliated category, we are also talking about individuals who tick the box ‘Atheist,’ ‘agnostic,’ or who identify as individuals for which religion is important or unimportant, leaving a rather large discrepancy about how they actually define themselves, and about the terms they use to do that. Granted, this overt ambiguity does indeed provide for leeway between identities that differentiate from one another, either in small or large ways, it also means that we are left with a very large umbrella under which a great deal of individuals religiously reside.
This is the major problem I see not only in using such ‘relational’ terms, but in this sort of sociological research.
While I do agree that this type of approach provides useful percentage ‘buzz phrases,’ such as “the ‘nones’ are the second higher religious affiliation in the U.S.,” they don’t actually provide us with any value. After all, aside from the fact that the actual number of individuals surveyed in order to create that percentage in no way represents the actual number of U.S. citizens, the terminology, which we’ve chosen, doesn’t actually describe the way people actually define themselves.
Instead, it’s merely a useful buzz phrase.
Of course, one might conversely argue that the alternative leaves us with as many types of identifying terms as there are people who use them.
I accept this.
However, I’d still argue this presents a much more beneficial, if not more fair, means of assessment.
As such, and for the sake of fun argument, here’s a comparison that, I concede, will likely only lead to disappointment.
The use of these types of relational terms is like imagining the early Christians simply decided to call themselves the ‘non-Jews.’ After all, is this not a relational term? Did they not define themselves in relation to their association with the Jews of the time? Sure, they had the term ‘gentile,’ but that essentially meant anyone ‘not Jewish.’ No, they instead defined themselves as ‘Christians,’ as they were followers of ‘Christ.’ Rather than using a relational term, they chose a signifier that described who they were, not who they weren’t.
The term ‘nones,’ and with that any terminology that has adopted the prefix ‘no’ or ‘non,’ thanks in great part by sociologists attempting to embody how individuals define themselves in relation to the religions of others ‘broadly conceived,’ seems like an attempt at defining what we can only presume is a large and growing group of like-minded individuals by simply describing them by what they aren’t. Which, in my opinion, seems incredibly unfair.
After all, I’m not ‘non-British,’ I’m an ‘American.’
To call myself the former is just silly, and, really, doesn’t seem all that useful.
So here’s my suggestion:
Rather than provide an individual a number of boxes to tick which, let’s be honest, is really just us telling that person how they should identify themselves for the sake of useful percentage data (we give them the terms, after all), lets do away with the choices altogether. Or, to borrow from Vernon’s metaphorical association with the ‘politically unaffiliated,’ let’s get rid of the options, and simply supply a ‘write-in’ section. Perhaps something that says:
“In the space provided, please describe how you identify religiously, using the terms you prefer.”
That way, we spend less time finding ways to determine new or emerging categories, and more time actually recording the ways in which people identify themselves in their own words.
More objective, less subjective.
More recording, less dictating.
More listening, less defining.
***I openly admit that I might be wrong about the ‘none’ category, and the relational terms related to it. Thus, here are some interesting articles about the ‘none’ phenomenon, provided here for those who might wish to know more beyond just my opinion.***