The rationale motivating and grounding the panel, “Discussing the ‘Nones’: What They Say about the Category of Religion and American Society”, which was part of the Religion and Popular Culture Group in the American Academy of Religion meeting in Baltimore in November 2013, was to initiate a conversation over and about what the construction of the category “Nones” says (or doesn’t say) about the category of religion and religion in American society.
The label “Nones” typically refers to those who report “no religious affiliation” on surveys, with recent reports emphasizing a growing number of those counted as “None,”—1 in 5 by an October 2012 Pew Forum Report. Here, the Edge‘s own Monica Miller and Steven Ramey reflect on their participation in this panel, which also included Sean McCloud (UNC Charlotte), Chip Callahan (Missouri) and Patricia O’Connell Killen (Gonzaga).
‘None’ of this has to do with Belief?
I jumped on the Nones bandwagon when I landed a new job in a city thought to be “ground zero” for all that is “spiritual but not religious” – a region said to house large numbers of un-churched and de-churched populations – Portland, Oregon. I was so hyped about the public naming and “discovery” of the Nones, that I, along with another colleague, constructed a large scale survey project based on researching the practices and behaviors of Millennial Nones (a project currently being reimagined/restructured). My initial foray into None discourse was motivated by a replacement like logic – similar to some of the thinking that shapes current public discourse on the Nones – that is, if people aren’t making and finding meaning “here” then they must be finding it over “there.” With such thinking in mind, I began to think of hip hop and other forms of popular culture as some of those “there” spaces.
Part of my interest in discussing the Nones and what all of this says about the category of religion entails a curiosity about what we assume certain terms and concepts are classifying and organizing when we talk about those classifications. That is, who we see the None classification describing and what things and practices become a part of such classifications (keeping in mind that we’re talking about a constructed group based on a response to one question about “no” religious affiliation). Interestingly, groups such as Atheists and Humanists among others have been included in that group we now call Nones – despite the fact that although Nones claim no religious affiliation they are said to be “spiritually open” while often still maintaining rather orthodox and traditional theological beliefs such as belief in a higher power.
Another thing that interests me about the public and scholarly conversations over the Nones, which was also discussed during this session, is the slippage between talk of charting changing patterns of religious affiliation/participation (understood as institutional) and ensuing conversations about belief. Few suggest affiliation and belief are synonymous, but many discussing the Nones end up acting like they are the same thing. If some Nones are “non-traditional” about affiliation yet still “traditional” about say something like belief in a higher power – then how do certain groups who claim to be non-theistic see themselves as represented in a group like the Nones (whose identity seemingly comes in and through a measure of non-identity given identity in and through how they choose not to affiliate with religious institutions). Among other things, for the panel discussion I was interested in complicating 1) the erroneous connection often made between religious affiliation and belief and 2) the titillation with and anxiety over narratives of “religious decline” (measured institutionally) which more often than not translates—in the eyes of some—into whether one believes in God or not.
The respondent, Dr. Patricia Killen, sociologist of religion and author of Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone (2004) suggested that individuals more often than not involve themselves in institutional religion (religious affiliation) for three primary reasons: 1) Meaning, 2) Transcendence, and 3) Belonging. I was interested in complicating that assumption by querying what we make about those who might participate in faith institutions for things like social services – as a space that serves as a proxy for the lack of social safety nets.
It occurred to me that much of the conversation phenomenologically assumes fully conscious social actors who are always intentional and aware of why they do what they do – hence why noted shifts in non-affiliation seems to signal something about belief. My hunch is that an obsession with belief, rather than lack of affiliation, drives and motivates much of the conversations about the group we now call the Nones.
Much of the slippery assumptions made when talking about the Nones seem to also be alive and well in the academic study of religion – that something like religion neatly classifies and organizes social life in empirical and self-evident ways – that the category of religion is tightly held together by functioning centers we call God, belief, meaning and so on.
The Strategic Slipperiness of Nones
My interest in the Nones and this panel arose out of my study of religious identification in India and the influence of the British Indian Census on processes of group formation and identification. I argued in the panel that scholarship and media accounts have constructed the Nones as a group, rather than those accounts describing a group that preexisted the accounts of it. As scholars such as Gyanendra Pandey and Kenneth Jones have argued about identifications such as Hindu and Sikh in nineteenth century India, various groups and individuals have adopted the label Nones because it has become useful for them, perhaps reflecting a sense of their construction of themselves as well as a strategic identifier in particular circumstances.
As the discussion in the session highlighted, the strategic uses of the label Nones are broader than I anticipated. Monica referenced a Unitarian Universalist group claiming to represent the Nones at a gathering a week before the panel took place. The irony of individuals identifying with an institution claiming to represent those whose uniting characteristic is the absence of an institutional affiliation apparently was not recognized by the UU members, probably because the meaning of the term Nones is so slippery.
This strategic slipperiness extends further. An atheist inmate, according to a bureaucrat within a state Department of Corrections, has filed a claim for privileges based on the 20% of inmates who are Nones, according to the inmate’s application of the survey data. The claim (as represented by the bureaucrat in the session’s discussion) assumes that all Nones are atheists like the inmate, reflecting the problematic conflation of affiliation with belief that Monica has emphasized. Another audience member referenced various works among evangelicals that address and even encourage the rejection of institutions while encouraging devotion to Jesus (such as Why I Hate Religion and Love Jesus and Love Jesus, Hate Church), which the audience member likened to the Nones. Thus, the category Nones, which arises from scholarly analysis of survey data, becomes a malleable tool that various individuals and groups use to organize the world and to compete for status and access to resources, just as the category religion has been used strategically to promote the interests, often, of those applying the term.
(You can find a recent Edge/HuffPo piece co-authored by Steven and Monica here and the Nones intro that was distributed at the AAR session with more links here.)