Where Did the Term ‘Nones’ Come From?

The term “None” has come to describe atheists, agnostics, and even those who believe in God without subscribing to a particular religious faith. It’s one of those words we would never use to describe ourselves, but researchers and media types frequently use it to describe us.

Wendy Thomas Russell spoke with Barry Kosmin, the man who coined the term to represent “[t]he irreligious, the unreligious, the anti-religious, and the anti-clerical”:

… As the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and a professor at Trinity College, Kosmin had been helping to conduct the American Religion Identification Survey for nearly three decades. Once they’d evaluated data from the 1990s, Kosmin and his team were determined to name a new category.

“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 Kosmin began calling this group the “nones,” a shortened version for “none of the above” — which is what people often said when asked to name their religion. He never thought the term would stick.

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

Much like the “God Particle,” the accepted meaning of the term has significantly warped from its intended meaning, and it looks like we’re stuck with it for now.

Unless one of you can come up with a better label to describe those of us who don’t believe in God.

I’ll just grab some popcorn while you hash this out…

(Thanks to Richard for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.sunstonescafe.com/ Paul Sunstone

    Interesting bit of trivia. I think any better term than “nones” would still need to satisfy Kosmin’s concern that the term avoid suggesting a norm.

  • qbsmd

    I suspect many of the nones are anti-label, so finding a better label is automatically problematic. Knowing there are many nontheists refuse to call themselves atheists in favor of agnostic, humanist, etc. I would replace the atheist-agnostic-none options with “belief in a god, higher power, or universal spirit but no affiliation with a religious organization” and “no belief in a god, higher power, or universal spirit”. I wouldn’t provide a “don’t know” or a “don’t care” option. I think people who don’t like being called atheists would have a harder time arguing against the definition. I also think this would provide useful information that is currently obscured behind the word “none”

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      Even if options are not “provided”, sociological surveys (and researchers working from them) have to deal with responses that are volunteered.

  • Ian Reide

    I prefer the term “Bright”, but that is me. And yes, I do believe non-religious are actually, in fact, brighter than religious. Don’t like “none”, it implies no ethical or spiritual beliefs, and defines by exclusion rather than inclusion.

    • Revyloution

      I referenced the Brights movement in my reply. The problem I find with the title is that it’s condescending to anyone who isn’t. One part of any movement is to try and convince people to join you, or at least have sympathy for your goals. By elevating yourself above them, it makes it more difficult to get that sympathy.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        More exactly, the term has connotations that members are elevated above the rest of the mass of humanity. This may be attractive to people who like to think of themselves that way, such as those who have relatively high levels of Social Dominance Orientation; not necessarily getting sympathy, but the sympathetic minded.

        The downside, loosely speaking, is that such folk tend to be assholes.

        Insert standard plug for Altemeyer’s intro to the RWA/SDO research literature….

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

      I think the term “Bright” makes one sound like a douchebag but that is just my opinion.

  • David Brown

    Just as many religious groups are broken out in surveys I see no reason why “none” can not be also broken out into atheists, agnostic or humanist.

    • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

      Atheists, agnostics, and humanists aren’t mutually exclusive groups, though. One can be all three.

    • C Peterson

      I don’t recognize any difference between atheists and agnostics, so I just sum their numbers and call them all atheists. Humanists don’t fit in here, however, since humanism isn’t really a “religion”, and you can be a humanist while simultaneously being a member of any religion, or none at all.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        Altemeyer and Hunsberger’s “Atheists” study details some of the empirically measurable differences between Atheists and Agnostics. The term “unbelievers” might be a more semantically exact label for the aggregate group.

        • C Peterson

          Of course there are some measurable differences. “Agnostics” are too intellectually weak or socially cowardly to admit outright that they don’t believe in any gods. But they don’t actually believe in any gods, so they are, in fact, atheists. Subtle philosophical differences are not particularly relevant when that’s the real question we are asking: “How many people don’t believe in deities?”

          • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

            The “intellectually weak” charge doesn’t hold up too well; social data point to the difference being negligible (both statistically, and relative to the internal distributions’ standard deviations) between atheists and agnostics on intelligence and education. The “socially cowardly” one holds a bit better, but is still sloppy. More precisely, agnostics tend marginally more conventionalist, while atheists appear to tend more social dominance oriented — though that last may just be the sort of atheist prone to express it publicly.

            Correlated to the difference in social attitudes are differences in self-identification, behavior, and other beliefs; in turn allowing a category distinction. An inability to maintain the resultant cognitive distinction would appear to be a sign of relative intellectual weakness.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregm766 Gregory Marshall

    I like the term “nones”. It is so contrarian.

  • Tainda


    Commonsenseist? (yes, I made up a word)

  • Revyloution

    It’s a term that works, simply because there is so much controversy over the words atheist, agnostic, and even humanist or freethinker (and don’t make me bring up brights).

    It also includes people who’s beliefs don’t line up with mainstream atheism (what did I just say?). Ok, here is an example: Our local atheist meetup group has this great guy that comes and participates. He thinks all religion is bunk, but he believes in ‘the goddess’ as some sort of non-anthropomorphized benevolent force for good in the universe. And he reads Tarot cards. So, he’s not exactly the Richard Dawkins type, but he counts himself among our number. From personal experience, I think that these types of folks are responsible for a decent chunk of the recent rapid growth of the Nones, as they find they have more in common with the faithless than the faithful.

    • Pagan-atheist

      I love your example. As a spiritual practicing pagan. i too identify with the ‘nones’ far more than i do with religious folks. i identify so much with them that i helped found and am still an exec member of a student atheist group at my university.

  • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

    Does “none” include non-religious theists? If so, then it’s a separate term from “atheist”. If not, then it’s a synonym thereof.

    • C Peterson

      I don’t think there’s any suggestion that “none” is synonymous with “atheist”, although it’s occasionally misunderstood as such (often by atheists!)

      “None” is just that: “none of the above”; i.e. without religious affiliation, which includes atheists as a subset.

      IMO “none” is a perfectly acceptable term, but its use should not encourage researchers to stop counting those who self-identify as atheist/agnostic.

    • Sven2547

      I am confused by the term “non-religious theists”. Theism is still intrinsically religious, is it not? Religion doesn’t need to be organized to still be religion.

      • C Peterson

        I think in most contexts, “religion” is taken to include some sort of body of dogmatic beliefs associated with theism. Theism itself does not necessarily produce dogmatic ideas (weak deism, for instance, is both a form of theism and is arguably non-religious).

        Religion need not be organized- there are plenty of people who adopt New Age philosophies and make up all sorts of silly religious crap on their own, without the need for organization. That makes them religious. I think it is the attached dogma that is important to the concept of religion, not where it comes from.

      • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

        Depends on what your definition of what religion is. Some define it as merely a belief in a supernatural deity, in which case yes you’re right. Other define it as necessarily having a code of ethics, rules, etc. in which case you’re wrong. So… basically, you could be right. :)

      • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

        I think my parents would fall into this category. They definitely are theists, but they are decidedly non-religious. As far as I can tell, they don’t do anything with their supernatural beliefs except think them. It’s difficult to ascertain whether their theism has any measurable impact on their lives.

    • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com/ Matt Eggler

      The term “nones” does indeed include non-religious theists. In fact, the overwhelming majority of “nones” are people who believe in a god or some other supernatural force, they just don’t prescribe to a specific sect or dogma. Atheists and agnostics are the minority even within the “none” category. This is why I have never liked the term. I would prefer two categories that separates atheists from the “religiously unaffiliated” and “spiritual but not religious” crowd.

      • TheBlackCat13

        Do you have specific numbers to back this up? The surveys I have seen show “nonreligious believers” (i.e. non-religious theists) and “nonreligious non-believers” (i.e. atheists and agnostics) as being roughly equal in number or having non-believers even greater.

        For instance the Pew Religious Landscape Survey says that atheists, agnostics, and “secular unaffiliated” make up 10.3% of the population, while “religious unaffiliated” make up 5.8%.

        • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

          If you look through the Pew data, a significant fraction of the “secular unaffiliated” tend to believe in god or some other higher power.

          Of course, so do some fractions of those who call themselves “agnostic” or “atheist”….

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      The term “none” refers to a broader category than Atheists. There’s a couple reports from the Pew Forum and ARIS which discuss the differences.

  • anniewhoo

    How about myth-free?

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

    In the early to mid 1800s, the term “nothingarian” seems to have been in use, and nearly synonymous. I definitely prefer it, for although it’s clear in written communication, talking about the “Nones” risks people being confused whether you’re referring to Catholic-flavor mock-penguins.

    Poking through Google Books also turned up the semi-related “anythingarian”, which appears to have been used to refer to highly non-Sectarian (and possibly relatively unobservant) Christians. These appear to be the next penumbral group outward.

  • Barefoot Bree

    I don’t mind “nones”. It’s a good enough catchall term that also fairly accurately and succinctly describes the category.

    I would like to see it broken down in survey reports: nones overall, non-believers, and non-affiliated believers. Nones, NBs and NABs?

  • Vicki Williams

    I like “free.” For any positive term to become commonly used by the general public, it will need to also be usable as an insult. (Think about the history of the term gay.) Bright is only an insult if you use it sarcastically – in a “they think they are bright” sort of way. “Free” has plenty of positive connotations, but there is also a feeling among some religious that we are too free. It plays on the stereotype that we are atheists so we can sin more; so we can break all the rules without fear of eternal punishment.

  • http://twitter.com/WendyRussell Wendy Thomas Russell

    Thanks, Hemant. Kosmin was really interesting to interview. He talked a lot about how difficult it is to ascertain what people “truly believe.” That a person doesn’t affiliate with one of the major religious groups says precisely nothing about what they do believe. “Nones” is a catch-all, and it catches A LOT. Thanks again!

  • Stephen Cameron

    There’s got to be a joke in there somewhere involving nuns.

  • The word of God

    A better word to describe atheists would be: Sinners, BLASPHEMERS and satanists. I hope you all rot in hell. And for those fellow Christians who believe in God, please visit my page on facebook: People Against Sin and Evil. Gays and mexicans and black people are not allowed on my page please.

    • Beauty in the world

      Wow! Gays, Mexicans, and “blacks” not allowed, I presume this is because of their inherently sinful nature??? I’m glad the world has people like you in it, it reminds me how much beauty there is in the world. You can’t see the beauty without having the ugly to compare it to. Thank you.

    • Edmond

      Can someone help me out here? What are we looking at with this? For kicks, I checked out that Facebook page, including some of the pages that had commented or “liked” on that page. It’s all very hilarious (in a Victoria Jackson way, not a Julia Sweeney way), all the right levels of misspellings and arbitrary hate targets and general cloy, but who is spending their time doing this? A poe? Is it really worth the bother? Could it actually be sincere believers? CAN’T be. Just… look at it. It CAN’T be real. It’s truly bizarre. Is someone really putting THAT much effort into something like this, just for whatever LOW level of jollies they get out of it confusing people (like me)? What segment of the population does THIS represent? Teenagers looking for laughs? Slackers with nothing to do? Someone with a dangerous psychological beef against religion? Should we be concerned?

      • TheBlackCat13

        Anyone who claims to follow “landover baptist church” is a poe, since the church itself is a poe.

        • allein

          Where does he claim that; because I’m missing it…?

          • TheBlackCat13

            It is on his Facebook page. It is pretty far down, you may need ctrl+f to find it

            • allein

              Aha…found it finally. :)

        • Edmond

          Gotcha, thanks. I mean, it figures, but…. sheesh, why do people BOTHER? What an asinine form of self-entertainment.

    • John of Indiana

      Oh, right, we don’t believe in Gawd, so we’re “satanists”… Look, if we don’t believe in Gawd, then it follows that we don’t believe in Jeebus, nor his evil twin Santa… Betty Bowers can explain it to you if you can’t grok it.

  • Brap Gronk


  • http://www.facebook.com/agni.ashwin Agni Ashwin

    There are spiritual nones, and non-spiritual nones (or the “non-nones”).

  • Jerry Lynch

    Wow, can’t believe I am daring to post where people think. As a Christian, this is unchartered territory and pretty scary. What to say? Yes, I wholeheartedly agree might work as a start; people who think shouldn’t get upset at that. But what else? Something smart-sounding. E=MC2. I sense a turning. I may be safe. If I tip-toe through this topic I could be home free. “Nones”? They talk about nothing here? Or being nothing? Check a box that signifies you are not this or that? This is identity? Grouped into shadow or blank? Interesting…

    • TheBlackCat13

      Yes, it must be hard for you to believe there are people in this world who don’t define their identity based on religion.

      There are a lot of other checkboxes on those forms we fill: where we are from, where we work, whether we are married, how many kids we have, what sort of job we do, how old we are.

      But if we check “None” in one particular box suddenly we have no identity at all? Why does our whole life have to revolve around that one box? What about all the other boxes? Why is this one box the only one that matters?

      • John of Indiana

        Must be one of those “Without GAWD I am NOTHING” people…

      • jerry lynch

        Well, I was being humorous, trying to fit into, so cosnpicuously, the pre-conceived ideas you guys have of ALL Christians that the parody might be plain. Guess not. And I thought only Christians were self-righteous.

        • TheBlackCat13

          So in other words you’re just a troll.

          Let me see if I understand your plan exactly right. You come here and post one of the most common anti-atheist arguments, one many of us here have heard hundreds of times before. Further, you intentionally write it to be as similar as possible to people who say it seriously.

          Yet you are shocked, SHOCKED, that we assume you are an honest person and actually believe what you say, just like the latest few hundred people we have heard make this argument in this way.

          Is that about right?

  • John of Indiana

    Wasn’t there a cross-dresser out in San Fran many years ago who used to run for office under the name of Sister Boom-Boom, who listed her occupation on forms as “Nun of the Above”?
    Yeah, I’m a “Nun”…

  • John of Indiana

    Of course, by using the term “none”, I get lumped in with those “spiritual but not religious” and Plastic Medicine Man folks, which inflates the number of “Non Believers” to about 16%, from it’s more articulate 5% or so.

  • pagansister

    NPR was doing a story on this this morning. I think it is to be a week long story.