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Ask Mark 2 — Squeezing More Some Things from Nothings


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 17, 2019

Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2019

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 1,305

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” in an extended conversation continuing from Ask Mark 1 — Somethin’ About Nothin’: The Nones Ain’t Nothin’.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What words seem to more accurately describe the intended grouping than the Nones?

Mark Gibbs: That depends on what the intended grouping is!

You see, Professor Kosmin wasn’t wrong. ARIS is the American Religious Identification Survey; the whole point of it is which religion you identify with… not what you believe. Kosmin knew exactly what he was talking about: he was talking about people who don’t identify with any religions… he was not talking about nonbelievers; they’re not the same thing.

The problem isn’t the term itself. The widespread misuse and misunderstanding of the term is a symptom of a deeper problem: We’re generally terrible at differentiating between affiliation with a religion, and believing in that religion. That’s always a problem — for example, Islamophobic bigots make a point of not differentiating between believers in extremist Islamic ideologies and literally everybody who calls themselves “Muslim”. But it becomes particularly acute when you start talking about the lack of a religion: are you talking about the lack of affiliation, or the lack of belief? Or both?

If your goal is actually specifically to talk about people who are not affiliated with any religions, then “None” is exactly the right term.


Most people who use the term “None” are not merely interested in affiliation or identification. And that is where the trouble starts. Most people use the term “None” as a synonym for “nonreligious”, or even “atheist”, and that’s how you end up with nonsense like that Atlantic headline, and dangerous misconceptions like those about atheist mental health.

It’s not the term’s fault. Even without the term, most people naïvely assume that the less engaged you are with religions, the more nonreligious you are. I mean, that just sounds tautologically true, right? Unfortunately, as is usually the case where religion and faith is involved, reality is much messier. Since it’s possible to have your own, idiosyncratic religious beliefs, it’s possible to be extremely religious without being affiliated with any religion. And, of course, people can, and do, simply assert that they have nothing to do with any religions despite holding the exact set of beliefs of one. (The inverse is also true: It’s possible — and very common — to be affiliated with a religion, but not actually hold any religious beliefs. We all know people like this; some of us were those people.)

And most of the time, affiliation is useless as a categorization anyway. There’s lots of evidence out there that fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and so on have more in common with each other than they do with the moderate, casual, or progressive members of their own religions. If you tell me that some percentage of Christians hold some awful belief, that’s pretty unhelpful information in practice, because it’s far too broad a brush: “Christians” includes both the extreme social conservative, far-right, isolationist Mormon sects of rural Alberta, and the progressive, left-leaning United Church of Canada churches in suburban Toronto. It’s a given that awful sects will hold awful beliefs! I’d be far more interested in learning how prevalent the awful belief is among casual religious believers — and it doesn’t really matter whether they’re Christian or something else; that would better tell me whether it’s something to be concerned about or not. That would be more useful in assessing whether the problem is only extreme religion, or if even moderate religion is a concern.

So my position, technically, isn’t really: “never use ‘None’”. It’s: “only use ‘None’ where it actually applies”. However, because of all the confusion around the term (and because we almost never mean it in it’s technically correct sense), it’s probably better to just not use it at all. (Though, even that probably won’t help, because people will probably incorrectly interpret any way of saying “unaffiliated” as meaning “lacking belief”.)

But I don’t want to just dodge the question, so let me see if I can actually give an answer….

This is a lot more complicated than you’d think, because you will probably end up not just changing the one term, but changing your whole typology. That’s what Pew had to do last year, when they came up with a new typology to help understand religiosity. They ended up with seven categories, including two “non-religious” categories: one that’s mostly atheists without any supernatural beliefs, and one that’s mostly “spiritual but not religious” types that believes in psychics and crystal energy.

Pew’s new grouping actually illustrates how useless the “None” grouping is (unless all you care about is specifically affiliation, and not beliefs). The “Solidly Secular” are pretty much synonymous with “nonbelievers”… yet 24% of them identify with a religion. The “Nones” include most of the “Solidly Secular” and “Religion Resisters”… but it also includes 30% of the “Spiritually Awake” and 17% of the “Relaxed Religious”, and even 22% of the “Diversely Devout”. So “Nones” doesn’t just include a lot of people who aren’t nonreligious, it also excludes at least a quarter of those who are!

I like the idea of the Pew grouping, though it is very US-centric. It focuses a little too heavily on Christianity, talking about “the Bible” repeatedly in its grouping questions — it asks if you believe specifically in “God as described in the Bible”… well, how are Jews and Muslims supposed to answer that? Heck, what’s a Sikh to do? (I strongly suspect that if Pew asked about belief in God without adding “as described in the Bible”, number of people who answer “yes” in the “Religion Resisters” category would skyrocket.)

I think I would do something very similar to what Pew did, though less US/Christianity-focused; so asking about belief God or a god generally, not specifically “God as described in the Bible”. But I’m not a fan of the name “Solidly Secular”. “Secular” already has too many other meanings, and this is just guaranteed to sow more confusion. For example: technically, devout Catholics who aren’t clergy are secular. But don’t get me started on all the problems with the word “secular”.

I think a better term for that group would be “unbelievers”, because these are people who don’t believe in the tenets of religion — whether they still identify with a religion or not — and also don’t believe in other woo that isn’t normally called “religious”, like psychics and pyramid power. So I think I’d use a more generic variant of Pew’s typology, but with “Solidly Secular” renamed to “[something] Unbelievers”; I’ll leave it up to Pew to come up with a cute alliteration.

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