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Ask Mark 1 — Somethin’ About Nothin’: The Nones Ain’t Nothin’


Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Interviewee: Mark Gibbs

Numbering: Issue 2: Here We Go

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: Question Time

Web Domain:

Individual Publication Date: February 12, 2019

Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2019

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 1,797

Keywords: Mark Gibbs, Nones, religion, Scott Douglas Jacobsen.

Mark Gibbs is an independently educated nonbeliever, who has some interesting and precise thoughts about the terminology in the survey data presented to the unbelieving community over the years. Here, in this series, we will explore some of the content, starting with the term “Nones.”

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You have been independently and intermittently researching the different terms and definitions of the formal and informal non-religious for ten years. One particular term does not sit well with you. It does not sit well with others. It is the “Nones”. Why this word?

Mark Gibbs: I can’t honestly claim that what I’ve done could be reasonably called “research”, but having written several times over the years about the demographics of atheism in Canada, and reporting on numerous studies and surveys about Canadian atheists’ beliefs or characteristics, that term is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. As near as I’ve been able to trace its origins, it seems to have literally started out as a joke.

The story I’ve heard is that in 2001, while doing the second American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), Professor Barry Kosmin noted the massive growth in the number of people who did not affiliate with any religion — they’d almost doubled in size since the previous survey from 1990 (8.2% to 14.1%; these are US numbers). He realized there wasn’t really a term for this group — they were the “No religion” category, but what would you call them? “No-religionists”?

“Nonreligious” was a possibility. So was “non-faith” and “non-affiliated.”

But Kosmin rejected all of these. The “non” part bothered him. “Non-affiliated” would be like calling people “non-white,” he said. “We didn’t want to suggest that ‘affiliated’ was the norm, and every one else was an ‘other.’”

“Nomenclature,” he added, “is quite important in these things.”

So he had good intentions, but ultimately he came up with the term “none”: short for “none of the above”. The logic was that if people were presented with a list of religious denominations, those who were not part of any religion would choose “none of the above”.

“It began as a joke,” he said, “but now, like many of these things, it has taken on its own life.”

It’s really important that we clarify what “None” actually means, because there is a lot of confusion about it. “None” does not mean “not religious”, or “having no religion”. “None” means specifically having no religious affiliation. Surveys like ARIS and population censuses usually don’t ask about your beliefs; they usually ask a question that looks something like this: “Which religion or denomination do you identify with?” Note that the question is about affiliation, not belief. StatCan actually spells that out pretty clearly in its definition of religion (this is the definition used for the 2011 National Housing Survey, which was the last time the census* asked about religion; next time will be in 2021):

Religion refers to the person’s self-identification as having a connection or affiliation with any religious denomination, group, body, sect, cult or other religiously defined community or system of belief. Religion is not limited to formal membership in a religious organization or group. Persons without a religious connection or affiliation can self-identify as atheist, agnostic or humanist, or can provide another applicable response

It’s pretty clear that it’s not about what you believe, but rather about what religion/denomination you feel connected to, or affiliated with.

* The 2011 National Housing Survey is technically not the same thing as the 2011 census. In 2010, the Harper government scrapped the mandatory long-form census and replaced it with an optional survey. They justified it as answering calls from a tiny minority of people who objected to the government collecting personal data. The move sparked outcry from just about everyone who cared about social research and evidence-based governance, and, as predicted, was a disaster. The mandatory long-form census was restored by the Trudeau government in time for the 2016 census, but unfortunately we won’t actually get religion data until 2021. Until then, the dodgy 2011 National Housing Survey data is all we have, other than data from the 2001 census.

So a “None” is not someone with no religion. A “None” is someone who doesn’t affiliate with a religion or religious group.

That may sound like nitpicking, but it turns out that there is a huge difference, and it really matters.

For starters, it’s very common for extremely religious people to deny affiliation with all religions and religious groups. There are multiple reasons why that happens:

  • People who are extremely religious can also be extremely picky about their beliefs. Minor theological differences that most people don’t care about become major sticking points (I’m reminded of that classic Emo Philips joke). For example, a person might believe literally every single part of the Catholic dogma except that they reject dyophysitism (Jesus has two natures: divine and human) in favour of miaphysitism (Jesus has one nature that is both divine and human), and feel so strongly about it that it’s enough for them to reject any affiliation with Catholicism.
  • Extremely religious people often craft their own, idiosyncratic religious beliefs, usually by mixing together bits of existing religious traditions (a practice called syncretism). Sometimes that becomes the foundation for a whole new religion, but most of the time it’s just one person’s private faith.
  • It’s also not uncommon for extremely religious people to be in denial that their beliefs are religious. You sometimes hear people insisting that Christianity or Islam is “not a religion; it’s a philosophy”, or “way-of-life”.

Aside from the extremely religious, there’s also a rapidly growing trend of treating “religion” as a dirty word because of its perceived connection to things like denial of science and reality, and intolerance. To avoid that stigma, people will call themselves “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).† It’s not uncommon to find people whose belief systems are exactly in line with most mainline Christian denominations, yet insist that they’re SBNR.

† I’m not entirely clear on how StatCan tallies people who explicitly declare themselves SBNR. I suspect they file them under “no religious affiliation, other”. It’s probably not all that common though; most SBNR people probably just check the “no affiliation” box and leave it at that.

The reason why this matters is because these people who are religious but unaffiliated make up the majority of the “Nones”Here is a graphic showing data from recent Pew surveys of US adults.

The situation may be even more extreme in Canada. A 2014 Angus Reid survey found that a plurality of Canadians are SBNR, and even if you single out the people who reject religion, 41% of those are SBNR.

All this means that if you make the mistake of assuming that “None” means “nonreligious” — or, even worse, “atheist” — you’re going to make some huge mistakes. My favourite example of this is an article from The Atlantic last year with the absurd headline: “Atheists Are Sometimes More Religious Than Christians”. If you actually read the piece, it’s clear that they’re not talking about atheists at all, they’re talking about “Nones”:

Second, the researchers found that American “nones” — those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular — are more religious than European nones. The notion that religiously unaffiliated people can be religious at all may seem contradictory, but if you disaffiliate from organized religion it does not necessarily mean you’ve sworn off belief in God, say, or prayer.

The third finding reported in the study is by far the most striking. As it turns out, “American ‘nones’ are as religious as — or even more religious than — Christians in several European countries, including France, Germany, and the U.K.”

“That was a surprise,” Neha Sahgal, the lead researcher on the study, told me. “That’s the comparison that’s fascinating to me.” She highlighted the fact that whereas only 23 percent of European Christians say they believe in God with absolute certainty, 27 percent of American nones say this.

I need to stress that while the origin of the “None” categorization is censuses and surveys that are just counting people and tallying them up by their religious affiliation, it actually infects science done about the nonreligious. There is a tragic dearth of real science studying the nonreligious to begin with — for details, I recommend checking out Professor Melanie Brewster’s 2014 talk at Skepticon 7 — but a large chunk of the science that is done uses the aforementioned census and survey data in secondary data analyses. In plain English, researchers are not actually doing proper data collection, they’re simply using the data that’s already out there… which often doesn’t do a good job of separating the actual nonbelievers from the merely unaffiliated who are still very religious, when it even bothers to try.

So that’s the situation with the term “None”:

  • It doesn’t mean what most people think it means. It has nothing to do with being nonreligious. It’s only about affiliation; it’s only about identifying with a religion, not believing in that religion’s tenets.
  • The category is actually dominated by the “wrong” people. By “wrong” I mean: not the people “Nones” are generally assumed to be. Most people assume “Nones” are nonreligious. In fact, most “Nones” are very religious, and in some ways even more religious than the average person that affiliates with a mainstream religion.
  • The categorization has already negatively impacted science. In the talk linked above, Professor Brewster explains how lumping atheists in with the “unaffiliated” distorted psychological research for almost two decades, and led to false notions about the mental health and social success of atheists.
  • The categorization has already negatively impacted atheists. Following from the point above, those false notions about the mental health of atheists led to actual discrimination. To this day, you don’t have to look too far to find people repeating myths that “science” has proven that atheists are psychologically unhealthy.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mark.

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