Dec 28, 2012

Interrogating the "nones"

One of the big, big stories in the study of religion in the last few years has been the "rise of the nones." The Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life has documented a shift in religious identifications, and popularized the term "none," a new category of religious affiliation, that of disaffiliation.

At least, that's one way to understand what's meant by "none."

The term has begotten lots of confusions, it seems. When I was last in America, and spent a little time in  an evangelical church in Chicago, I was told by both ministers and lay leaders that atheism and agnosticism was sweeping America. These people didn't know the Pew poll, and but they knew the phrase "nones," and they used that phrase to explain what they thought was happening to the culture around them. They were quite surprised when I told them that while there were some atheists among the "nones," more than 90 percent of them actually say they believe in God.

Others have similarly used the term to reach foregone conclusions.

A recent example of this is a piece at Religion Dispatches, where author Elizabeth Drescher suggests a reading list for those "keen to explore what Nones are up to on their own terms." Those terms, as Drescher understands them, are spiritual but not religious.

Talking about the problems with that interoperation of the "nones" started a twitter exchange that became something of an impromptu internet round table interrogating the term, the category, and consequences of various taxonomies in understanding religious and nonreligious groups.

I've storified the twitter discussion below in the hopes that, as Michael J. Altman says, we might use it a place marker to know where to dig.

Starting the conversation is Chris Cotter of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, who is joined by me, Michael J. Altman of Emory University, and Per D. Smith co-chair of the Secularism and Secularity group of the American Academy of Religion.

Update: Elizabeth Drescher says she doesn't mean to lump all the "nones" into the category of spiritual-but-not-religious. She points to other articles, such as here and here, as examples of where she was clearer on this point.