Aug 15, 2014

The 'nones' paradox

Courtney E. Martin identifies herself as a "none" at the same time that she rejects the label.

Martin says the label applies to her. She is willing to represent the category and even speak as a representative of the label that has been used now for several years to name the religiously unaffiliated. At the same time, she represents the nones by critiquing the category.

"The texture of my spiritual life may not fit into labels that pollsters or politicians understand, but I'm not not religious," she writes in a column for On Being.

This seems to be a key problem with the label. To identify with the label is to reject it; to reject it is, conversely, to identify with it.

The name "none" attempts to name those who are not a part of a group, but in that, it makes them into a group, but a group of those who are not in a group. This is problematic.

Part of the confusion about this demographic -- which was grown dramatically since pollsters began granting it as an option -- is that it's not precisely a demographic. Instead, it's more of an answer given as a dissent from the taxonomy.

"None" does not name those who ascribe to a set of beliefs, nor does it name those who don't believe something. That has been a common mistake. The sudden appearance of this group has been taken, popularly, to be the rapid growth of atheism or unbelief. But that's not what people are saying when they're saying they do not have a religious affiliation.

What they're saying is that they don't fit into any of the categories.

Elizabeth Drescher, who is doing extensive interviews with self-identified nones, explains:
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.
The answer is a rejection of the question, in some sense. It's an insistence on not being part of a category. Yet the answer is taken as an answer and fit into the categories assumed by the question. In Matin's column, one can see the terms of the category, qua category, are accepted, even in the attempt to explicitly reject them.

"They call us the 'nones,'" she writes.

Here she is using the second-person plural. She acknowledges a group that has a name at the same time she raises the question about whether or not that name is really right. Then Martin switches to the singular: "I gotta tell ya, I don’t love the idea of my spiritual life being defined by an absence rather than a presence. Sure, I’m not Catholic, not Buddhist, not Muslim. But I am a lot of things . . . " What follows is biography. Matin defines herself positively by what she did when she was 11. She defines herself by what she cared about as a high school student. She offers a narrative of vignettes of her life. Now there's no group. It's just her.

It is exactly in this move, however, that Martin is a none.

She rejects affiliations. She rejects classification with a group, asserting her individuality even against the plural pronoun that names those who assert their individuality. She also accepts the name and the category, counterintuitively affiliating with the unaffiliated by disaffiliating. It's complicated.

In a way, this is a demographers' version of Russell's Paradox.

Bertrand Russell worked on a philosophy of mathematics that logically grounded math in the theory of sets. Developing these ideas, he discovered a paradoxical case, which now bears his name. In most groupings of mathematical objects that all have the same property, the groupings, or sets, do not include themselves. The set of all squares is not square. The set of all humans is not human. Generally the mathematical object that is a set is not similar to the mathematical objects that make up the set. That's not always the case, though. One can have a set of sets. Those sets can contain themselves: the set of all non-humans is itself non-human, the set of all non-squares is also not a square, and so on.

This raises the question of the case where one has a set of sets that do not contain themselves. Does that set of sets that do not contain themselves contain itself?

If it does, then it does not belong. If it doesn't, then it does.

As Andrew David Irvine and Harry Deutsch write for the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy explain:
If we let φ(x) stand for x ∈ x and let R = {x: ~φ(x)}, then R is the set whose members are exactly those objects that are not members of themselves. 
Is R a member of itself? If it is, then it must satisfy the condition of not being a member of itself and so it is not. If it is not, then it must not satisfy the condition of not being a member of itself, and so it must be a member of itself. Since by classical logic one case or the other must hold -- either R is a member of itself or it is not -- it follows that the theory implies a contradiction.
The paradox is a problem of undecidability. That same undecidability arises when one tries to speak of a group of people who are a group of people who don't belong in groups.

Who belongs to that group? People like Martin, who object that while they're not religious, they're also not not religious.

For Russell, this paradox was taken to be a fundamental problem with this kind of categorization. It seems that many of those called "nones" would support a similar conclusion when it comes to classifications based on religious affiliation. That kind of classification is just flawed.

It's not so easy to just do away with sets, though. There are real limitations to trying to analyze the world by grouping like with like, including the tendency to make basic mistakes about what's "like" among the like and this problem where the commonality is an affirmation of a dissent. But what is the other option? What can you do, besides be careful and pay careful attention?

Thinking through the paradox of the "nones" seems more likely to be helpful in conceiving of the complexity of religious (non)identities than not.