Perhaps the Most Logical Vote is a Write-In

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.

More on this below.

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.

For example:

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.***

There’s A Revolution Going On In Religion. Faith Groups Better Listen Up.”

Church without God.”

Building Better Secularists.”

How The ‘Nones’ Can Find A Sense Of Community Outside Of Religion.”

Millennials and the ‘Nones’: Why 40 Years of Religion in US Elections May Change in 2016.”

When Trolling Religion Becomes Religion; Or, Why it’s All Bertrand Russell’s Fault

In our course on New Atheism this week, we discussed Bertrand Russell, who could likely provide enough philosophical material to span the entirety of a course of his own.  His early twentieth-century arguments establish quite a foundational platform upon which much of modern/contemporary/New Atheism has been built.  So, when it came time to discuss his ‘Atheism,’ which would orbit around a debate on ‘The Existence of God’ between Russell and F.C. Copleston in 1948, we had much to talk about.  For those interested, an audio recording of the debate can be found below.“>

At the time of the debate, and even identified as such, Russell argues from the point of agnosticism, a position of pragmatic and expressed ‘lack of knowledge,’ derived from both the etymological foundation of the term (the alpha privative ‘A’ combined with ‘γνῶσις:’ ‘without knowledge’), as well as that coined by Huxley as a ‘method,’ rather than a ‘creed.’  In the latter, we might benefit from a more direct and primary description.  For example, let us consider the story of how Huxley coined his term, from the man himself:

When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain “gnosis”–had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.


 Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, ‘Try all things, hold fast by that which is good’; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him (Huxley, Agnosticism, 1889).

This, we might concede, is a different sort of position than the more devout Atheism that we find in the arguments of Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens.  In fact, we might even concede that the Atheism we find discursively represented by these four individuals are, themselves, different from one another.  In fact, we might further conclude that, definitively, each of these voices offers a different type of Atheism.  Which would be lexically, and thus contextually, incorrect.  For this reason, when we discuss these individuals in our tutorials, we do so looking less for ways to use these discourses as means to construct a definition.  Instead, we use them to try and understand how each of these individuals discursively contributes to their own interpretation of the larger notion of ‘Atheism,’ from within their own contexts and specialised usages, and in order to shape their own particular identities.  It’s a fine line, but it’s an important one.

Russell eventually shifted his own position from agnostic to Atheist, a shift that provides us with an interesting insight into how the leading argument that inspired this change came to influence a truly interesting type of discursive Atheism.

In 1952 he wrote (though it was not published until later) a short piece titled, “Is There a God,” in which he put forth the following argument:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time (Russell, “Is There a God,” 1952).

This argument pushed Russell from agnostic to Atheist, or, as he himself stated later:

I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely [Bertrand Russell, “Letter to Mr Major,” in Dear Bertrand Russell: A Selection of his Correspondence with the General Public, 1950 – 1968 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969)].


Not only has Russell’s teapot inspired an entire discourse of Atheism, the logic of doing so has equally led to a position with which to structure this discourse, what we might call ‘the argument from fictionalisation.’

First, we see very distinct influences in later arguments, such as Antony Flew’s “Presumption of Atheism:”


What I want to examine is the contention that the debate about the existence of God should properly begin from the presumption of atheism, that the onus of proof must lie upon the theist. […] In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter [Antony Flew, The Presumption of Atheism (London: Elek Books, Ltd., 1976), 13-14].

This, then, seems to infect the arguments made by individuals like Jack David Eller, who argues that Atheism is not only humankind’s inherent position, but that it is our ‘natural’ starting point:


Humans are natural atheists—not in the sense of attacking god(s) but in the sense of lacking god(s).


What would happen if a child were never told a word about any of these religious concepts? It is unlikely that he or she would spontaneously invent his or her own religious concepts, and astronomically unlikely that he or she would reinvent Burmese village Buddhism or Lakota religion or Christianity. No human is born a theist. Humans are born without any god-concepts. Humans are natural atheists.


There are two fates that a natural atheist can follow. If she is never exposed to the idea of god(s), never urged to ‘believe’ in any god(s), she will retain her natural atheism—even if it is tainted with other religious but nontheistic notions. […] But under the pressures of a theistic milieu, the great majority of natural atheists will have their natural atheism replaced with an acquired theism, that is, they will be turned into or converted into theists. Some of these learned-theists will, for various reasons, come to question, ‘doubt,’ and ultimately reject the theism thrust on them and will ‘deconvert’ into ‘recovered atheists’ [Jack David Eller, “Chapter 1: What is Atheism?” in Phil Zuckerman, ed. Atheism and Secularity–Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010), 4-5].

We see this same sort of argumentation in Baggini’s Very Short Introduction on Atheism, albeit told through a humorous metaphor:


However, some people believe that the loch contains a strange creature, known as the Loch Ness Monster. Many claim to have seen it, although no firm evidence of its existence has ever been presented. So far our story is simple fact. Now imagine how the story could develop.


The number of believers in the monster starts to grow. Soon, a word is coined to describe them: they are part-mockingly called ‘Nessies.’ (Many names of religions started as mocking nicknames: Methodist, Quaker, and even Christian all started out this way.) However, the number of Nessies continues to increase and the name ceases to become a joke. Despite the fact that the evidence for the monster’s existence is still lacking, soon being a Nessie is the norm and it is the people previously thought of as normal who are in the minority. They soon get their own name, “Anessies’—those who don’t believe in the monster.


Is it true to say that the beliefs of Anessies are parasitic on those of the Nessies? That can’t be true, because the Anessies’ beliefs predate those of the Nessies. The key point is not of chronology, however.


The key is that the Anessies would believe exactly the same as they do now even is Nessies had never existed. What the rise of the Nessies did was to give a name to a set of beliefs that had always existed but which was considered so unexceptional that it required no special label [Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 8].

Likewise, we might also consider Carl Sagan’s famous construction, the invisible fire-breathing dragon that lives in his garage:


“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”

Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle–but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floates in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so [Carl Sagan, “The Dragon in my Garage” in Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Ballantine, 1996), 171.]

This leads us to a truly intriguing sort of argumentation, an attack on certain ad-hoc hypothesising, and what shall henceforth herein be referred to as ‘Troll Religions.’

Religions constructed for the sole purpose of representing a type of satirical criticism, which have also been defined as ‘Parody Religions’ or ‘Invented Religions’ are beginning to get the academic attention they deserve.  For those truly interested, see the work of Beth Singler (University of Cambridge) and Carole Cusack (University of Sydney).  I shall refer to a certain of these herein as ‘Troll Religions’ in order to demarcate a boundary between those constructed for Atheistic purposes (and thus for reasons of criticism) and those constructed by individuals who identify with these religious constructions for their own personal benefit (inward, rather than outward usage).  As representations of the latter group, consider Jediism or Dudeism.

As representations of the former, we might consider those who worship the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The Invisible Pink Unicorn, a paradoxical goddess that embodies both invisibility and colour, acts, like Russell’s teapot, as a device used to question, as well as discredit, the idea that God maintains the same sort of essence.  The IPU even stands in for God in arguments about the inherent ridiculousness of Theistic belief.  For instance, by replacing the word ‘God’ or ‘Lord’ in Biblical accounts with ‘Invisible Pink Unicorn,’ the sacred nature of these texts transmutes into farce:


I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the [Invisible Pink Unicorn] in the land of the living. Wait for the [Invisible Pink Unicorn]; be strong and take heart and wait for the [Invisible Pink Unicorn]. (Psalm 27:13-14

This, as adherents argue, reveals the nature not only of religious belief, but of the way this sort of belief might misguide individuals into believing nonsensical (and thus, empirically disprovable) ideas.

Originating out of internet discussions (alt.atheism) in the early to mid 1990s, the IPU, as defined by Steve Eley (who refers to himself as the ‘Chief Advocate and Spokesguy’ of the religion itself), exists through the same sort of belief that gives meaning to ‘God’ or other deities:

Invisible Pink Unicorns are beings of great spiritual power. We know this because they are capable of being invisible and pink at the same time. Like all religions, the Faith of the Invisible Pink Unicorns is based upon both logic and faith. We have faith that they are pink; we logically know that they are invisible because we can’t see them (Steve Eley, cited in the Quotable Atheist, ed. by Jack Huberman).          

As a satirical device, the IPU thus equally exists as an Atheist device, a discursive signifier used to establish, argue, and defend an Atheistic position.

In similar fashion, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who’s adherents are called ‘Pastafarians,’ consists of analogous satirical language.  fsp1Perhaps much more ‘religious’ than the religion that orbits around the IPU, the CFSM has come to embody ritual components.  This likely stems from the political basis of its origination.  The creation of Bobby Henderson, the FSM was conceived in order to argue against a decision being considered by the fsp2Kansas State Board of Education concerning the teaching of Intelligent Design as a counter position to biology and physics.  In an ‘open letter‘ to the Board, Henderson made his case for the equal acknowledgement of the FSM’s role in creating the universe.  He later published a sacred text.

The ritual aspects of the church not only involve wedding ceremonies wedding(usually overseen by an individual in Pirate regalia, as Pirates are considered ‘absolutely divine’ and the first ‘Pastafarians’), but religious garments.  The latter consists of colanders, which equally represent the political origins of Henderson’s argument, in that they tend to be worn in order to defend the idea that one religious permission (such as the Muslim Hijab or Jewish Yarmulke) should allow for all religious permissions.  Some examples include:

collander Christopher Schaeffer, newly elected to the Pomfret town Board in New York.

canuelObi Canuel, an ordained minister in the CFSM, who fought to keep his driver’s licence, colander and all.

nikoNiko Alm, an Austrian Atheist who was permitted to wear the colander for his licence.

jessicaJessica Steinhauser, formerly known as the adult film star, Asia Carrera, also wearing the colander.

All these things combined, including the satirical mockery of Christian prayers and invocations (akin to the IPU), blend into a ‘religion for Atheists.’

hail pastaour pasta noodles in the sand

Bertrand Russell’s hand in all of this can be found in the fingerprints we might find smudging the edges of the logical arguments each of these examples provide.  Moreover, each of them contributes an intriguing insight, not just on how we might use them to make sense of the identification going on ‘under the surface,’ but on how they have been influenced by related, but altogether different, sorts of discursive sources.  I might conclude here, then, with the notion that understanding the who, how, and why concerning these discursive examples is inextricably linked to the logical arguments that came before.  This is not, of course, the same as saying Russell’s teapot is the same as the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Invisible Pink Unicorn.  Rather, this is more akin to locating the roots of the former reinforcing the beliefs and practices of the latter.  We might also consider how these representations might equally alter our conceptual understandings about religion and religious identity.  When troll religions become religions, how then might we make sense of these identities when they’re Atheistic, and thus antithetical to our normative ideas about what might constitute ‘religion’ or ‘religious?’