Jan 22, 2013

The "nones" of 87 years ago

Most of the debates about the "nones" have had to do with interpretation. The question is, who are they? The question is, what does it mean?

A question that hasn't been so prominently raised is whether this new thing is really so new.

Charles Richter, of (Ir)religion in America, has turned up some evidence it's not. From the University of Illinois student newspaper in 1926, a letter from a student questioning the interpretations of a survey of university students' religious affiliations. According to the letter, only one student out of more than 10,000 identified as an atheist, but there were more than a few that were religiously unaffiliated.

The letter writer, who signs A.B.C, argues:
Shall we say that only one is an atheist and the rest are religious, but merely indifferent to church attendance, or shall we take into consideration the deadliness of Christian intolerance and admit that some of the 1,828 did not register as atheists for fear of ostracism? I am an atheist, but when I registered I did not admit that fact because I knew the registers would be made public, and some enthusiastic religionist might bring the information to the attention of the Great Christian Majority, to my discomfort.
There's a familiarity of this argument -- atheists need to "come out," and so on. This is a very contemporary debate, happening 87 years ago. While clearly the ranks of the unaffiliated have swelled since the days when less than two percent of university students said they didn't belong to any specific religion, the category of those who don't fit comfortably into a religious demographics survey, it turns out, is not new.

It's just that they didn't have a clever name for it in 1926.