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Ask Mark 2 — Squeezing More Some Things from Nothings


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): The Good Men Project

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/03/16

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’.

We started on some definitional issues. Those focused on the proper definitions for terms. Gibbs, astutely, identified the need to target the specific population. That is, the sub-population ones to research, for example.

Gibbs stated, “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.”

Thus, the problem was not the word use, but the misuse and subsequent – or, maybe, presequent – reflected a deep problem in two other words. Two other terms reflecting operations-of-mind. On the one hand, the affiliation with a religion. On the other hand, the belief in a religion. These can overlap in a Venn diagram. However, these do not necessarily have to fit snugly one into the other.

“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’,” Gibbs explained, “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.”

There is a “But…” there, though. The trouble with “None” comes from the synonymous interpretations of “None,” “nonreligious,” “atheist,” and the like. He continues to describe the ways in which reality is a messy affair, apart from the abstract descriptions of terms more interesting in the isolation of a linguistics or a philology class.

To make the point, Gibbs described how the idiosyncrasies of extremist ideological stances or fundamentalist religious views create an interesting situation, as follows: someone holds the same beliefs of a religion and does not claim to follow the faith.

“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,” Gibbs said.

With the percentage of Christians who may hole “some awful belief,” the label “Christians” becomes difficult for proper interpretation and may, in fact, blur the lines of the true diverse categories of Christian believers.

Gibbs stated, “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.”

Gibbs summarized the position for him. He thinks None can be used, but he believes “None”, as a term, should be used in the proper context. A context in which None makes sense or appropriately applies. With the confusion, though, Gibbs argues against the use of the term, as a practical matter.

Even further, the situation becomes more complicated, according to Gibbs. The entire “typology” of the terms will become new, in meaning and addition of words. Apparently, last year, Pew Research worked to came up with a new typology to help understand religiosity.

Gibbs stated seven categories arose with two new non-religious ones. One for the spiritual but not religious and the others for those who do not believer in supernaturalism. Shown in the image below:

Pew’s new religious typology

Gibbs explained, “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!”

Affiliation in Pew’s new religious typology

Gibbs appreciates the Pew a grouping. While, at the same time, the main criticism remains the focus on Christianity and on the United States. The emphasis can skew the outcomes of the research, unfortunately. The questions arise about the nature of terms in relation to other faiths or faith groupings, and adherents.

“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,'” Gibbs concluded, “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.”

Image Credits: Pew Research Center.


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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