Calling People “Nones” is a Mistake

Calling People “Nones” is a Mistake February 21, 2013

I’ve heard a lot about “The Nones” lately. No, they’re not crusty ladies in penguin-like habits, tormenting kids with rulers. Basically it’s the new “spiritual but not religious.”

The Pew Center, a major force in the socio-cultural research world, issued a report last fall that found one in five young adults in the U.S. chooses “none of the above” when asked about their religious affiliation or identity. We humans love ourselves a meme, so of course, the “Nones” became a new category of person that hadn’t exactly been labeled as such before.

So what’s the big deal? Who cares if they’re a “none?” For me, it smacks of a dying modernist mindset that simply doesn’t fit anymore. That, and it also imparts a negative connotation on them, as if they lack something everyone else has.

Maybe, but not necessarily.

Back in college, there was a mad dash at the beginning of freshman year to connect new students with fraternities and sororities. Personally, I got several letters inviting me to socials and get-to-know-the-Greeks activities. If you know me, however, you probably won’t be surprised that I passed. Little did I know there was a name for guys like me: GDIs. It stood for “G–Damned Independent.” Even in politics, the very picture of modernism, someone can officially identify as “independent.” So why is it that, when it comes to religion, you can’t be independent, but instead you have to be a “none?”

The United States was built on principles of religious and political liberty, which meant both freedom of choice, as well as freedom from being a part of the system all together. It seems that, while political independence is seen as at least a virtue – or at least as socially benign – there’s still some negative baggage attached to those who seek freedom from religion, and not just freedom of religion.

Calling religious independents “Nones” suggests, like I said above, an absence. But increasingly, there are intentional communities that provide much of what religion has historically offered, but that would not formally be defined as “religious.” For example, what do we call someone who gathers regularly with friends to discuss a book they’re reading (maybe even the Bible), and who also donates to charity and gets involved in causes that matter to them? What if they seek wisdom and guidance through regular prayer or meditation and yet don’t darken the doors of a church? What if they meet in a friend’s home once a week, led by an unpaid but intentionally trained facilitator that walks them through the Bible?

Or what if they do what they can to live their lives more like Jesus, but they’re not particularly concerned about bearing a religious identity?

This isn’t to say there’s not a benefit in being a part of a religious group, but truth be told, there are plenty of “Religious in Name Only” folks among the four out of five surveyed who did claim a religion. By doing so, do they really have anything the independents lack? What if being freed from the institutional trappings of the Church was what some independents needed in order to truly find a meaningful connection with God and/or one another?

Of course there are plenty of folks who simply don’t put that much thought or effort into it. Their response to a survey like the Pew Study is more of a knee-jerk response, and it may be the first time they’ve put any thought into their religious identity or affiliation in a long, long time. But that isn’t necessarily limited to the “Nones.” In fact, there’s a tendency within modern Christianity to think much less about one’s faith after being being baptized, making a statement of faith or even signing a church ledger, especially if the whole process is for that person little more than a Holy Fire Insurance policy.

So what does the fact that one in five young adults are now “Nones” tell us? To me, all it really lets us know is that people care less and less about labels. And yet we go about labeling them, often with monikers like “Nones” that are loaded with negative implications. But we get no closer to really knowing the hearts, minds and spirits of the folks in question, whether they claim a religion or not.

If we have to call them anything, “Independents” seems more fitting But this still tells us little or nothing about ourselves, except that we love labels. But as one who spent a decade of my young adult life among these folks being called “Nones,” it smacks of the same old guard, framing the conversation based on their personal values and experience, which is largely why I became a “None” to begin with.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Charles

    Good point about how we love to label, so we can imagine we know where people are at. I know several quite spiritual “nones”.

  • nanbush


  • ortcutt

    For me, “None” is the best description although I’m happy with “not religious” as well. I have no religion, either in terms of affiliation, belief, or practice. I don’t see describing myself as a None indicates an absence any more than calling myself a “non-smoker” or a “non-bowler” does. Some people have a religious affiliation and some do not. I’m one of the people who chose not to have one, and I’m perfectly happy with that. You could describe me as “independent of religion”, but that isn’t the way that I think about the subject day-to-day.

  • Steve Martin

    We all have faith..put our trust in something…or many things.

    There are no unbelievers, when you boil it down.

    the Old Adam

  • The terms “nones” and “nun” are surely the worst possible choices for the religiously unaffiliated. It is OK in print, but when said, “nones” and “nuns” cannot be differentiated, and “nun” cannot be differentiated from “none” — producing many awkward moments in TV programs etc.

    We recommend “Nota” which can be interpreted:
    – as an acronym None Of The Above
    – as an abbreviation for NOT Affiliated

  • TheodoreSeeber

    It tells me that their parents never figured it out either, and in rejecting all that their parents taught them, they failed to learn to be parents.

    If our civilization itself is going to survive, perhaps we need something more constructive than getting rid of sin and guilt.

  • I totally get what you’re saying, and mostly I approve. “None” is a bit misleading, as though I have no religion at all. My religious beliefs cannot be easily described, but I’m not an atheist.

    On the other hand, I have a certain fondness for the term. At on time, I was a devout Catholic and wanted to become a Franciscan nun. And, now I’m a None. It appeals to my deep love of puns.

  • SamHamilton

    I find the term “none” to be completely unhelpful because it usually includes everyone from people of no religious faith to people who make up their faith as they go along to an orthodox Christian who isn’t affiliated with any denomination. And then we’re told that the “nones” are the future, after all one in five young adults is a none. And it seems like some of the “progressive” Christian websites and blogs I read think this is a great thing. But from a Christian perspective, whether or not it’s a great thing depends on what type of “none” we’re talking about. It’s just a very unhelpful term and I wish Christians who lavish attention and praise on the nones would be more specific about which type of none they’re applauding.

    Oh, and can we stop using that silly picture of the nones that make them look like they’re all hip, white, trendy and beautiful (not an overweight person among them…and there might be a minority in the back somewhere)…right out of an Abercrombie ad…

  • Worthless Beast

    I object to atheists being included in the “Nones” label. It’s misleading. While most athiests will classify themselves as slightly agnostic, most I meet seem to be quick to exclude *my* agnosticism as valid just because it’s tagged onto a “mostly Christian” leaning. Sometimes, it has made individuals more amiable to me, because they can feel like they relate to a “believer who doubts” better than a “believer who believes without question,” but it still stands. (Somehow, if you are a believer who doubts, you aren’t a proper agnostic, but it’s okay for atheists who sometimies wonder to give themselves the label). And “Nones?” That seems uncertain all around. Most people who are willing to peg themselves as “atheist” rather than “agnostic” have enough surety about their lack of belief to do so, and so, I think, fit a category other than “nones” – which seems the more “wishy-washy” label. It seems more of a label befitting “spiritual seekers,” the “hopeful, but doubtful,” and those that just don’t care/are apathetic about questions of meaning and destiny.
    A label like “none” probably fits me better – I’m technically Christian, but I haven’t been to church in years. I consider myself more “spiritually Christian” than “politically Christian” and I bet that confuses the hell out of people. “None” might fit a friend of mine who’s more of an apatheist (claims agnostic but thinks “God sees us as one big reality show”). “None” might have actually fit my father in the years he didn’t attend church and was spending time reading up on a variety of religions and New Age lore. (He’s a Mormon at present, seeing if it lasts).
    And in the end, it’s still like what I suffer during weeks leading up to elections with representatives calling me to woo the “undecided voter.” I’m registered Indpendant – it doesn’t mean I’m undecided! (I’ve been “decided” for the last two major elections, I just feel it a betrayl to my independant spirit to register as anyting but feircely free).
    That could be a good alternate labelf or Nones. “Feircely Free.”