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Ask Mark 3— Peeves, to Nones, and Back Again: A Tale of Marko Gibbons


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: March 6, 2019

Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2019

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 699

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: If you could redo surveys and analyses of the surveys by Pew Research and others on the non-religious, how would you do it?

Mark Gibbs: Well, doing surveys well is a highly technical art, so I don’t want to come off as an opinionated dummy telling experienced professionals what to do. There’s a very good reason why they keep using affiliation as a metric: it’s so easy and cheap. It’s a single question, it’s easy for survey respondents to understand, and it’s trivial to group data by. It also allows your data to be easily compared with just about every other survey out there.

And, honestly, there are times when affiliation is a useful metric. For example, a survey that finds that a high proportion of people who identify as Catholic hold a disgusting opinion is not useless. It is very effective as a fact to hold in the face of people who continue to identify as Catholic: “How can you still call yourself Catholic when this is what you’re identifying with?”

However… it is true that using affiliation as a metric just doesn’t work for finding out about nonbelievers. And nonbelievers are my people; I want to know more about them. So with respect to the experts, I’ll just brainstorm some possibilities. And I want to stress this is really only aimed at people doing opinion surveys, not actual social scientists. This may already be a solved problem in social science; I don’t keep up with the field closely enough to know.

The first thing I’d like to see is a de-emphasis on affiliation, and more focus on beliefs or intensity of belief. I’d like to see surveys that don’t just ask: “what (religious) team are you on?”

As for how to do that — and let me stress that I’m just totally spit-balling here — the affiliation question might be replaced with a question like:

Which of the following best reflect your beliefs (choose all that apply):

· ☐ I believe that God exists.

· ☐ I believe that there is life after death.

· ☐ I believe in reincarnation.

· ☐ I believe that psychic powers (precognition, telekinesis, remote viewing, etc.) exist.

· ☐ (and so on…)

A modest proposal for a better survey question about religiosity

The exact options would have to be carefully chosen, and ideally standardized. Respondents could then be grouped according to their choices — basically the same thing Pew does with their new typology.

Is that actually practical? You’d have to ask experts in the field. Certainly it would be more complicated (and thus, more expensive) than a simple affiliation/identification test. But I think that’s justifiable given that religion is such a complicated topic. And we really need more research done about actual beliefs — not mere affiliation — not least because you can’t really learn anything about nonbelievers if all you ask is mere affiliation.

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

Gibbs: Thank you for taking an interest in this pet peeve of mine!

License and Copyright


In-Sight Publishing and Question Time by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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