The nones on the bus

The nones on the bus December 20, 2012

This week the Pew folks came out with a large Global Religious Landscape report. It’s a super fun read for anybody who follows this site. Yesterday, we looked at one story that came up short when discussing the significance of Christianity’s dominance. In the comments to that piece, reader MJBubba wrote:

Not so fast on those 16% unaffiliated. I heard a radio news broadcast that briefly mentioned this story and, though I don’t recall their actual words, it sounded like the 16 % were all atheists and agnostics. The Pew report says that 62 % of the 16 % are Chinese, and then goes on to say that 44 % of these 700 million Chinese “say they have worshiped at a graveside or tomb in the past year.” It sounds like many of these unaffiliated are either too suspicious to give their affiliation (Falun Gong perhaps, or un-registered Christians or Muslims?), or maybe they practice the “Chinese indigenous spirit religions.” Either way, some media coverage of the 16 % seems to run far further than the Pew report supports.

The “nones” (not to be confused with the “nuns,” as I do literally every time I hear a report about them) are a huge story this year. But when we talk about those who are unaffiliated with any particular confession of faith, we could be talking about everything from hard-core atheists to folks who worshiped at a sacred place in the previous year. How does the coverage handle this?

One of the difficulties in covering this story is that it takes quite a few words to explain what “unaffiliated” means. And “unaffiliated” isn’t the most exciting way to phrase it sometimes. This Reuters report is great. Here’s the top dealing with the issue at hand:

People with no religious affiliation make up the third-largest global group in a new study of the size of the world’s faiths, placing after Christians and Muslims and just before Hindus.

The study, based on extensive data for the year 2010, also showed Islam and Hinduism are the faiths mostly likely to expand in the future while Jews have the weakest growth prospects.

It showed Christianity is the most evenly spread religion, present in all regions of the world, while Hinduism is the least global with 94 percent of its population in one country, India.

Overall, 84 percent of the world’s inhabitants, which it estimated at 6.9 billion, identify with a religion, according to the study entitled “The Global Religious Landscape” issued by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life on Tuesday.

The “unaffiliated” category covers all those who profess no religion, from atheists and agnostics to people with spiritual beliefs but no link to any established faith.  “Many of the religiously unaffiliated do hold religious or spiritual beliefs,” the study stressed.

“Belief in God or a higher power is shared by 7 percent of unaffiliated Chinese adults, 30 percent of unaffiliated French adults and 68 percent of unaffiliated U.S. adults,” it said.

It’s everything you could hope for in a very brief report on this intriguing trend. But we did have a few complaints about the headline, which reads:

“No religion” third world group after Christians, Muslims

What do you think?

Less successful was the New York Times headline:

Study Finds One in 6 Follows No Religion

The story is very short and doesn’t include details about how many of those one in six hold religious beliefs even as they’re unaffiliated. As Peter Manseau put it:

Better headline for this would be “Study Finds 1 in 6 Follows No Religion Exclusively.” Unaffiliated doesn’t mean none.

Even the New York Times headline was better than this one from Religion News Service, which was just flat out false:

Unbelief is now the world’s third-largest ‘religion’

Pew asked about religious affiliation, not belief.

It’s a difficult concept to capture in a headline. I still think “unaffiliated” might be the right term to use, but copy editors might riot rather than use it. What do you think?

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  • Fr. Richard

    Mollie, your headline made me laugh out loud. Thanks for that!

  • Will

    And what about the terce and sext?

    • Jon in the Nati

      This website does need more old-school liturgical jokes. I support this wholeheartedly.

  • Dave

    How about “unchurched?” It’s only two syllables long — like Christian, Muslim and Hindu, its neighbors in the ratings — and doesn’t have the homonym problem in English that “nones” does.

    I host a weekly campus radio show sponsored by my Unitarian Universalist church, and when plans fall through my fallback is to read articles from the UU denominational magazine. These days that means a lot of copy about “nones” which, on the radio, sounds exactly like “nuns,” so I have to jump off-script and explain my terms.

    • Will

      And does “unchurched” include the unsynagogued and untempled and….. I don’t think so.

      • Dave

        Of course! It describes them, not the institutions they don’t attend.

  • Jerry

    Given the range from atheist to those who believe in God and even the Christ but not in the church, I don’t think “unaffiliated” works either. Because that word ignores the atheists. I don’t see an issue with “no religion” or at least I can’t think of anything better than that phrase.

    Also, I agree with your review of the Reuters’ story. I’m glad they included some nationals differences in that report because I think those are meaningful.

  • michael

    This is one of the (many) places where journalism could do with a little more philosophy and a little less empirical social science. It is an interesting philosophical (and theological) question whether it is indeed possible to be ‘unaffiliated’, irrespective of how I may identify myself, since even such a self-identification is a position with respect to the question of God and bears implications for a way of life. To think otherwise, it seems to me, is already to have assumed that reality is theological indifferent, a question begging assumption that is hardly innocent.

    • Is bald a hairstyle? Is bald a hair color? Possibly the position that ‘”unaffiliated” is a position’ is, itself, dependent on theology…

  • Julia

    Will: that was a good one. LOL

    “The “unaffiliated” category covers all those who profess no religion, from atheists and agnostics to people with spiritual beliefs but no link to any established faith. “Many of the religiously unaffiliated do hold religious or spiritual beliefs,” the study stressed.”

    It seems that nowadays “religion” means a certain agenda or program that must be followed. Sometimes it seems to be rather fuzzy what is being conveyed by that word. Among some younger people I have detected that it means having to act in lock-step with authority figures – thus their claiming to be “spiritual” and not “religious”. Methinks people being questioned are answering to differently-percieved inquiries.

  • FW Ken

    Mollie – I get the same Nones/Nun problem every time I hear it. And you (Will, actually) puts me in mind of the Trappist monk who commented once “Who are these monks and why are they having sext in the middle of the day.”

    Journalism…. yes journalism. I just done get problem with “unaffiliated” or “no religious affiliation”. If someone feels a need to differentiate atheists from “spiritual but not religious”, let them run their own survey.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    People who are members of ancient Chinese religions are scarcely “unaffiliated.” It’s a bizarre use of the term.

  • Julia

    What about the New Agers? Where do they fit?

  • FW Ken

    New Agers might be affiliated with a formal group, but they might be floating free.

    Perhaps the proper distinction is “Other” (religious group) and “Atheist/Agnostic/No specific religious belief”.