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


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): The Good Men Project

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/03/15

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.”

With the general conversation on the nature of the terminology within the secular community, Gibbs remarked on the independent research into the demographics of atheism in Canada. He notes several studies and surveys indicate modest trends in the atheist beliefs or characteristics in Canada, as in flavours of atheism within a Canadian conceptual landscape.

On the term the “Nones,” Gibbs stated, “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’?”

He quotes the article, which states:

“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.”

Gibbs notes how the intention was, in fact, positive. However, the term “none” arose out of the mishmash of “none of the above,” as a truncated version of it. The base reasoning was the following: if someone did not have a religious denomination presented, then they would choose “none of the above” or “none.” It started as a joke and then created a life of its own.

“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,” Gibbs explained, “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.”

Gibbs remarked on the definition of religion based on the definition of religion provided by Statistics Canada. In fact, it was used for the 2011 National Housing Survey. As far as Gibbs found through independent research, this was the last time the census asked about religion, where the next time will be 2021. He quotes the documentation’s definition:

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

Gibbs states the definition of religion does not amount to what you believe in particular; however, it does relate the faith one feels a personal connection. Gibbs makes a distinction between the 2011 National Housing Survey and the 2011 census.

As he states, “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.”

Gibbs explains, firmly, a “None” does not equate to an individual without a religion. A “None” is someone who simply does not affiliate with a religion or a religious group – full stop. Gibbs points to the extreme cases, in the extremely religious individuals.

He notes those with extreme religious beliefs become particular. A situation in which the belief system becomes idiosyncratic and weird, no doubt. He described the syncretism within the extreme religious community or the mixing of beliefs of the extant religious traditions. Extremely religious people far more often affirm rather than deny their religiosity than deny it.

Via an example, Gibbs stated, “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.”

Then he noted the ways in which “religion” has become a bad word. It gets lumped with a denial of the natural world discovered through empirical methodologies and scientific tools. Individual may hold to core beliefs of traditional religions while also working to never proclaim identification with the title of a traditional religion. Words matter, but so does the content of beliefs implied by the words.

Gibbs talked about spiritual but not religious or SBNR. however, was unsure as to the StatCan filing of this terminology. Based on a graphic from recent Pew surveys of US adults, most of the “Nones” are within this category:

Gibbs further explained, “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.”

Gibbs, as articulate and intelligent as he is, emphasizes the importance of precision, as he is here, when using the terms. We may slip in the future. However, this can be a note to be mindful of the utilization of the terms “None,” “nonreligious,” and “atheist.” If one mixes these, they make “huge mistakes.”

Gibbs provided a favourite example from The Atlantic: “Atheists Are Sometimes More Religious Than Christians”. The admixture is between atheists and Nones for the entirety of the article. He quotes the article:

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.

In the utility of surveys and censuses, and in the usefulness of classifications of the population for demographic analyses, bad terms can slant the reality shown by the research on the nonreligious. Gibbs continued to emphasise the “None” category as a census and survey category. He lamented the “tragic dearth” of science on nonreligious people, real scientific and social scientific research on secular people. He made a recommendation to see Professor Melanie Brewster’s 2014 talk at Skepticon 7.

In his framing, the current researchers are not appropriately collecting data because the terms are misleading, and so lead to misleading conclusions about the nonreligious.

Gibbs summarized, as follows:

  • 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.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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