Jan 18, 2013

Understanding the "nones" as a demographic dissent

Some people are very uncomfortable with the category of race. Whether for personal, biographical reasons, they just feel like they don't fit any particular category, or for political or philosophical reasons, they get the US census at the beginning of every decade and balk at the question, What is this person's race?

This reticence, interestingly, does not show up in the final results. The final census doesn't list some small percentage of people as not having a race or as not having answered the question. This is because, as NPR recently reported:
When respondents don't choose a race, the Census Bureau assigns them one, based on the racial makeup of their neighborhood, among other factors. The method leads to a less accurate count.
A similar phenomena has happened with the new studies of religious demographics, where an increasing number of people have refused to answer the question, the now notorious "nones." Analysts have tried to interpret this response in various ways. The fundamental mistake that has been made, as I have argued, is to treat the people who answer the religious affiliation question this way as a unified group of people.

The problem may go deeper than that, though.

My interpretation of this group has been to insist on pluralizing the "nones," and talk about how cultural shifts have allowed for a new variety of ways to position oneself in relationship to religion. I.e., there are more people willing to self-identify as atheists and humanists, but there are also increased numbers of religious people who understand themselves to be religious but who aren't affiliated with any group, there are those who are affiliated but uncomfortable with public identification, the spiritual-but-not-religious, and so on.

When I have done that, though, I was still insisting on reading this group as defined in terms of ways of affiliating and belonging, as essentially being a complicated subset of a category but still, despite the complications, in that category of religious affiliation. Perhaps, though, that is what the "nones" object to.

Another way to understand this group is as objecting to religious classifications. Not strictly religious affiliations, though there's some of that, but to the project, in general, of religious demographics. 

Elizabeth Drescher, who I have criticized on this before, makes this point excellently in a recent piece, "None" means "None". After re-reading her more recent piece, and reflecting back on a point that Michael J. Altman made about the implicit problems of understanding the "nones" in terms of affiliation, I'm having to rethink my approach. It still seems fairly accurate, as far as it goes, but the unwieldy complication of the taxonomies of (dis)affiliation cause me to suspect I'm missing the point when someone says "none."

Drescher reports on one interview with a young "none" that's specifically enlightening in this regard:
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.'
The suggestion, I think, is quite interesting: rather than thinking of this group as religious in a specific way, might we not think of them as simply dissenting from the category?

Perhaps the "nones" aren't mainly to be thought of as religious or non-religious in a new or different way, but as a group that has a problem with the question, in much the same way that some protest self-identifying with a particular race.

Those people aren't themselves a new demographic, but rather are saying that they think the category is a problem.