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

“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.”

If Nones don’t want to be labeled beyond their “none-ness,” you wouldn’t guess it through reporting on either the earlier Pew study or a more recent review by Pew researchers of surveys, census records, and population studies aimed at marking out the “Global Religious Landscape.” Both studies showed substantial populations of the religiously unaffiliated—one in five in the United States, one in six globally.

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.

Given this, 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.

Still, the trouble with the piece goes beyond an inaccurate (though indisputably grabby) headline. Reporter Kimberly Winston is careful to point out that the Pew report authors have noted “that [the religiously unaffiliated] are by no means homogeneous.” She goes on to highlight Pew researchers’ noting of pluralities of believers among Nones in China (7%)—where we might reasonably suspect some measure of self-censoring—France (30%), and the United States (68%). This would perhaps invite deeper consideration of the relationship between belief and affiliation in the U.S. and across the globe. Or, maybe, reflection on how patterns of existential belief are changing within and beyond institutional religions. Yet Winston’s go-to source for context on the Pew studies is a University of Tampa sociologist, Ryan Cragun, whose quite respectable academic oeuvre focuses primarily on atheists and the otherwise nonreligious. (And Mormons. Go figure.)

It certainly seems that Cragun’s work would provide helpful insight on the substantial minority of Nones who are unbelievers. Indeed, those RD readers who rightly noted that my recent list of “must-reads on Nones” did not include material on unbelievers per se will find his CV a bibliographical treasure trove. (As an aside, a fuller list of resources on non-believing Nones is in the works.) But it hardly opens up the real diversity of religious, nonreligious, or irreligious perspectives among the religiously unaffiliated.

I’m beginning to wonder if the hold of traditional religion on the American imagination in general and the news media in particular is so great that it is impossible for us not to imagine those without a formal, institutional religious identification or affiliation as necessarily being unbelievers. Certainly, we can see the sensationalism of the original RNS headline as it made its rounds as expressing some level of anxiety that this is the case. But the tenaciousness of this imaginary label seems also to extend to unbelievers themselves, who have often been just as quick as religionists to claim Nones as atheists, secularists, or other varieties of unbelievers despite plentiful demographic and anecdotal evidence to the contrary.

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, for instance, atheist apologist Susan Jacoby is quick to claim Nones as among the “secularly inclined Americans” whose response to tragedies like the Sandy Hook shootings is not anchored “in the idea that dead children are now angels in heaven.” Her generally thoughtful reflection on meaning-making in the face of tragedy offers insight on the importance of valuing the present moment. But she errs in claiming this as an especially secular perspective. The manna God sent the Israelites rotted in a day’s time for considerable symbolic import; and Christians weren’t taught by Jesus to pray only for “daily bread” or for God’s reign of justice and peace “on earth as in heaven” for nothing. Thus, Jacoby is likewise mistaken in assuming that the recent data on the religiously unaffiliated suggests that most Nones see moral efforts to “concentrate on the fate of this world” as primarily secular undertakings, however much it is surely possible to do so without a religiously informed worldview.

At the end of the day, that is, it is no less inappropriate for atheists (or, one atheist, though another one takes the same route through the Pew data here) to suggest that all of the religiously unaffiliated are fellow unbelievers than it is for a religious believer to insist that Nones are “lapsed” or “not yet saved.” Diversifying and deepening the conversation on existential meaning-making in America today—the worthy core of Jacoby’s piece, as I read it—need not proceed by overwriting the perspectives and experiences of others who are quite likely, the available data tells us, to have very different outlooks. It is important, however, that we consider religious and nonreligious experience today in light of an emerging philosophical and practical in-between pointed to by the growth in the number of those who self-identify as religiously unaffiliated.

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.

1 Comment

  •' bizbird6 says:

    You Catholics/Christians keep saying, “Atheist”, but the REALITY is
    MUCH MORE Complex. There are Many kinds of NON BELIEVERS. The
    Important ISSUE is that they DO NOT BELIEVE in Christianity/Catholicism.
    And the details can have a SCORES of VARIATIONS.
    Read below:

    AlterNet/ By Valerie Tarico

    No Religion? 7 Types of Non-Believers

    Religious labels help shore up identity. So what are some of the things non-believers can call themselves?

    June 3, 2012

    Catholic, Born-Again, Reformed, Jew, Muslim, Shiite, Sunni, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist
    . . . . Religions give people labels. The downside can be tribalism,
    an assumption that insiders are better than outsiders, that they merit
    more compassion, integrity and generosity or even that violence toward
    “infidels” is acceptable. But the upside is that religious or spiritual
    labels offer a way of defining who we are. They remind adherents that
    our moral sense and quest for meaning are core parts of what it means to
    be human. They make it easier to convey a subset of our deepest values
    to other people, and even to ourselves.

    For those who have lost their religion or never had one, finding a label can feel important. It
    can be part of a healing process or, alternately, a way of declaring
    resistance to a dominant and oppressive paradigm. Finding the right
    combination of words can be a challenge though. For a label to fit it
    needs to resonate personally and also communicate what you want to say
    to the world. Words have definitions, connotations and history, and how
    people respond to your label will be affected by all three. What does
    it mean? What emotions does it evoke? Who are you identifying as your
    intellectual and spiritual forebears and your community? The
    differences may be subtle but they are important.

    If, one way or another, you’ve left religion behind, and if you’ve
    been unsure what to call yourself, you might try on one of these:

    Atheist. The term atheist can be defined literally as lacking a
    humanoid god concept, but historically it means one of two things.
    Positive atheism asserts that a personal supreme being does not exist.
    Negative atheism simply asserts a lack of belief in such a deity. It
    is possible be a positive atheist about the Christian God, for example,
    while maintaining a stance of negative atheism or even uncertainty on
    the question of a more abstract deity like a “prime mover.” In the
    United States, it is important to know that atheist may be the most
    reviled label for a godless person. Devout believers use it as a slur
    and many assume an atheist has no moral core. Until recently calling
    oneself an atheist was an act of defiance. That appears to be changing.
    With the rise of the “New Atheists” and the recent atheist visibility
    movement, the term is losing its edge.

    2. Anti-theist. When atheist consistently evoked images of Madeline Murray O’Hare, hostility
    toward religion was assumed. Now that it may evoke a white-haired
    grandmother at the Unitarian church or the gay kid on Glee, some people
    want a term that more clearly conveys their opposition to the whole
    religious enterprise. The term anti-theist says, “I think religion is
    harmful.” It also implies some form of activism that goes beyond merely
    advocating church-state separation or science education. Anti-theism
    challenges the legitimacy of faith as a moral authority or way of
    knowing. Anti-theists often work to expose harms caused in the name of
    God like stonings, gay bating, religious child maltreatment, genital
    mutilation, unwanted childbearing or black-collar crime. The New
    Atheist writers including Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins might
    better be described as anti-theists.

    Agnostic. Some atheists think of agnostic as a weenie term, because it
    gets used by people who lack a god-concept but don’t want to offend
    family members or colleagues. Agnostic doesn’t convey the same sense of
    confrontation or defiance that atheist can, and so it gets used as a
    bridge. But in reality, the term agnostic represents a range of
    intellectual positions that have important substance in their own right
    and can be independent of atheism. Strong agnosticism views God’s
    existence as unknowable, permanently and to all people. Weak
    agnosticism can mean simply “I don’t know if there is a God,” or “We
    collectively don’t know if there is a God but we might find out in the
    future.” Alternately, the term agnosticism can be used to describe an
    approach to knowledge, somewhat like skepticism (which comes next in
    this list). Philosopher Thomas Huxley illustrates this position:

    Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous
    application of a single principle… Positively the principle may be
    expressed as ‘in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are
    certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.’

    These three definitions of agnosticism, though different, all focus on what we do or
    can know, rather than on whether God exists. This means it is possible
    to be both atheist and agnostic. Author Phillip Pullman has described
    himself as both.

    The question of what term to use is a difficult one, in strict terms I suppose I’m an agnostic because of course the circle of the things I do know is vastly smaller than the things I don’t
    know about out there in the darkness somewhere maybe there is a God.
    But among all the things I do know in this world I see no evidence of a
    God whatsoever and everybody who claims to know there is a God seems to
    use that as an excuse for exercising power over other people, and
    historically as we know from looking at the history in Europe alone
    that’s involved persecution, massacre, slaughter on an industrial scale,
    it’s a shocking prospect.

    4. Skeptic. Traditionally, skeptic has been used to describe a person who doubts received religious dogmas. However, while agnostic focuses on God questions in particular, the
    term skeptic expresses a broader life approach. Someone who calls him-
    or herself a skeptic has put critical thinking at the heart of the
    matter. Well known skeptics, like Michael Shermer, Penn and Teller, or
    James Randi devote a majority of their effort to debunking
    pseudoscience, alternative medicine, astrology and so forth. They
    broadly challenge the human tendency to believe things on insufficient
    evidence. Australian comic Tim Minchen is an outspoken atheist who
    earns a living in part by poking fun at religion. But his most beloved
    and hilarious beat poem, Storm, smacks down homeopathy and hippy woo.

    Freethinker. Free-thinker is a term that dates to the end of the 17th
    Century, when it was first used in England to describe those who
    opposed the Church and literal belief in the Bible. Freethought is an
    intellectual stance that says that opinions should be based on logic and
    evidence rather than authorities and traditions. Well known
    philosophers including John Locke and Voltaire were called freethinkers
    in their own time, and a magazine, The Freethinker, has been published
    in Britain continuously from 1881 to the present. The term has gotten
    popular recently in part because it is affirmative. Unlike atheism,
    which defines itself in contrast to religion, freethought identifies
    with a proactive process for deciding what is real and important.

    6. Humanist. While terms like atheist or anti-theist focus on
    a lack of god-belief and agnostic, skeptic and freethinker all focus on
    ways of knowing—humanist centers in on a set of ethical values.
    Humanism seeks to promote broad wellbeing by advancing compassion,
    equality, self-determination, and other values that allow individuals to
    flourish and to live in community with each other. These values drive
    not from revelation, but from human experience. As can be seen in two
    manifestos published in 1933 and 1973 respectively, humanist leaders
    don’t shy away from concepts like joy and inner peace that have
    spiritual connotations. In fact, some think that religion itself should
    be reclaimed by those who have moved beyond supernaturalism but
    recognize the benefits of spiritual community and ritual. Harvard
    Chaplain Greg Epstein dreams of incubating a thriving network of secular

    7. Pantheist. As self-described humanists seek to
    reclaim the ethical and communitarian aspects of religion,
    antheistscenter in on the spiritual heart of faith–the experience of
    humility, wonder, and transcendence. They see human beings as one small
    part of a vast natural order, with the Cosmos itself made conscious in
    us. Pantheists reject the idea of a person- god, but believe that the
    holy is made manifest in all that exists. Consequently, they often
    have a strong commitment to
    protecting the sacred web of life in
    which and from which we have our existence. The writings of Carl Sagan
    reflect this sentiment and often are quoted by pantheists, for example
    in a “Symphony of Science” video series which mixes evocative natural
    world images, atonal music, and the voices of leading scientists, and
    has received 30 million views.

    If none of these fit . . . . Keep looking. Many of the American founding fathers were deists who didn’t believe in miracles or special revelation through sacred texts but
    thought that the natural world itself revealed a designer who could be
    discovered through reason and inquiry. Naturalists assume a
    philosophical position that the laws operating within the natural realm
    are the only laws governing the universe and no supernatural realm lies
    beyond. Secularists argue that moral standards and laws should be based
    on whether they do good or harm in this world and that religion should
    be kept out of government. Pastafarians playfully claim to worship the
    Flying Spaghetti Monster, and their religion is a good-humored spoof on
    Abrahamic beliefs and rituals.

    Recently there has been steep
    uptick in people who identify as godless and a parallel uptick in
    atheist and humanist visibility efforts. Many godless people are newly
    out of religion (or newly out of the closet). Despite the best efforts
    of, say, the Humanist Community Project or Foundation Beyond Belief,
    stable communities organized around shared secular values and spiritual
    practices have yet to emerge. That means our labels are largely
    individual and sometimes experimental. We may try one on for size, live
    with it for a while, then try on something else.

    As a movement, sexual and gender minorities have faced a similar challenge. LGB
    started replacing the term “gay community” in the 1980s. It then became
    LGBT, and then LGBTQ (to acknowledge those who were questioning) or
    LGBTI (to include intersex people). In India, an H got
    added to the end for the Hijra subculture. For urban teens, the catch-all termqueer
    has now replaced the cumbersome acronym. Queer embraces the idea that
    sexual and gender identity is biologically and psychologically
    multifaceted. It includes everyone who doesn’t think of themselves as
    straight. Secular rights activists may eventually evolve a similar
    catch all, but in the meantime, organizations that want to be inclusive
    end up with long lists on their ‘About’ pages: atheist, agnostic,
    humanist, freethinker, pantheist, skeptic and more. So, join the
    experiment that picking one that fits and wearing it for a while. Or
    make up your own. I often call myself a “spiritual nontheist.” It’s a
    mouthful, but it forces people to ask, what is that? and then, rather
    than having them make assumptions I get to tell them where I’m at: I
    don’t have any kind of humanoid god concept, and I think that issues of
    morality and meaning are at the very heart of what it means to be
    human. Maybe next year I’ll find something that fits even better.

    Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington and
    the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A
    Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and
    Other Imaginings.” Her articles can be found at


    These details get very IMPORTANT as the numbers of NON BELIEVERS get MORE
    than “7”.


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